Geography and social justice

May 20, 2010

This is the first of two posts on ‘shrinking cities’, or as civil servants might put it, ‘places with a long history of economic underperformance’. In the UK, this means cities like Hull or Stoke-on-Trent with low average incomes and higher-than-average deprivation rates; abroad, places like Leipzig, Cleveland or Detroit.

The politics of improving life for people in under-performing places is extremely sensitive, as Policy Exchange discovered when they appeared to suggest moving people out of ‘failing’ Northern cities. Recently there’s been more interest, via LSE’s ‘Phoenix Cities’ book, Julien Temple’s ‘Requiem for Detroit?’ and from the Centre for Cities (see Dermot’s helpful summary, and my thoughts from last summer).

Why now? First, during the 2000s a lot of economic development funding went into cities. But this has not always improved residents’ overall welfare. As the business cycle turns, city leaders are looking for new ways forward. Second, there’s now less regeneration money around. Between 2011 and 2015, central government departments like CLG may face 20-25% spending cuts. So Whitehall policymakers are looking hard at if, where and how to spend.

At the recent AAG Conference in Washington DC, Michael Storper offered some helpful thoughts on all of this.

Spatial disparities exist, Storper argues, because there are benefits of clustering economic activity, and these persist over time. Agglomeration economies help explain why cities exist, and why they still matter. Theory and real world experience also suggest that long term convergence is unlikely.

So agglomeration leads to disparities between places. At the same time, increasing returns to skills lead to disparities between people. And because higher-skilled people tend to sort into more successful cities, we often get poorer people concentrated in poorer places.

The question for policymakers is what, if anything, we should do about this? Storper outlines three responses.

We could aim for ‘spatial equity’, compensating people and places who lose out. This feels appealing – but what does it really mean? Is holding successful places back fair to their residents? And how do we actually equalise outcomes? Even the UK’s very centralised public services haven’t got rid of postcode lotteries.

Another view is that we invest in poorer places. This is the traditional regeneration perspective. Structural economic change has long term impacts that markets won’t deal with – physical decay, poverty, crime. And there are efficiency costs to this – not least higher spending on benefits. Area-based policies tackle these externalities, get markets working again and places back on their feet.

This has been pretty much the UK approach for the past two decades. It’s given many cities a public makeover – and has made them nicer places to live. But most evidence suggests that improving places doesn’t easily translate into improving outcomes for people. Trickle-down regeneration works about as well as trickle-down economics.

People can move, and it’s hard to assess area-based initiatives if some recipients leave the area. ‘Regeneration thinking’ also doesn’t say how to balance limited resources between helping poor places recover, and helping growing places do better. CLG’s Regeneration Framework has a go, but isn’t completely convincing.

A third view comes from urban economics, especially Ed Glaeser (and now, Richard Florida). In its simplest form, this says we should focus on people, not places. People are mobile; investing in their mobility and human capital improves their economic prospects. Investing in immobile places does not, especially as convergence is unlikely.

To me, this feels like the right starting point for policy. This view is also increasingly fashionable in UK policy circles, and partly explains the bad press traditional regeneration has been getting. But as Storper points out, it’s more complicated than it looks to implement. There are three big policy points.  

First, it’s not clear everyone is truly ‘mobile’. People are free to move; but less skilled people have less information or resources to migrate between cities. Policy interventions might improve mobility, although we don’t have strong evidence here – increasing choice in the social housing system could help, also expanding housing supply in more successful places. Research and experiments should look to fill this gap.

Second, it implies we maximise economic welfare. But we know people think beyond money. Some local responses to Policy Exchange’s report reveal people happy to live in ‘failing’ Newcastle and Liverpool – because they like being there. At an LSE screening, critics of Julien Temple’s film similarly pointed out that nearly a million people still live in ‘failed’ Detroit.

Urban economists explain this in terms of spatial equilibrium. People sort by economic prospects, and prefer different kinds of communities. Low wages get traded off against low cost of living and/or better amenities. In spatial equilibrium local labour, housing and ‘quality of life’ markets all clear, so that real wages equalise across all places. Ongoing SERC research finds some UK evidence for this.

The spatial equilibrium approach implies we don’t need to worry so much about disparities in nominal income. But in some poorer places, especially given mobility barriers, we may want to adopt measures (better quality housing, tackling crime) which will improve residents’ wider wellbeing – and thus raise real incomes.

Finally, national politics and local delivery are both critical. The UK is generally less tolerant of inequality than the US. Our politics is steeped in notions of fair play and universal standards: we’re a long way from accepting apparently large income disparities on the basis of hard-to-explain equilibrium concepts.

British over-centralisation also makes it politically difficult to do anything about managing decline: London policy apparatchiks seem to be telling other cities what to do (which they are). This is one reason why the Housing Market Renewal programme has often been so painful, why Policy Exchange got in trouble, and why the Coalition’s emphasis on localism is important. In future, devolution and actually doing managed decline need to go hand in hand. I’ll explore these ideas further in the next post, and take a look at some international experiences along the way.

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