Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Microsolutions to megaproblems

December 9, 2015

I have a chapter in this nice new Policy Press book, After Urban Regeneration, expertly edited by Dave O’Brien and Peter Matthews.

Here’s the intro [pdf].

The book takes a critical look at urban policy in the UK, particularly in the post-crash period, and explores the way thinking  about regeneration has changed under austerity, and under localism.

It tests the idea that we’re now in a ‘post-regeneration’ era; it also takes a close look at the way communities and ideas of ‘community’ have been used to design, deliver and justify programmes on the ground.

My chapter covers the recent history of UK economic regeneration, sets out what we can expect programmes to achieve given the mega-trends shaping urban economies and communities, and also explores how the ‘what works’ agenda can help, both in developing the evidence base and in hands-on policy design. Cities and communities have been in tough times for years now, but I try to find some grounds for cautious optimism.


The editors put together a strong and diverse team: we have excellent contributions from Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Antonia Layard, Kate Pahl, Liz Richardson and Chris Speed, as well as my Birmingham colleagues Catherine Durose and Phil Jones.

You can get the paperback here, or the hardback for a terrifying cost.

Estate renewal and neighbourhood regeneration

March 8, 2015

(c) Max Nathan 2012

At the end of January the What Works Centre on Local Economic Growth, where I’m a Deputy Director, released its review of estate renewal programmes. For many of those who’ve worked in regeneration policy, and (like me) want such programmes to succeed, the results were deeply disappointing.

The team found that

1/ Estate renewal programmes do a good job of improving housing, public space and physical amenities.

2/ Estate renewal programmes lead to increases in property and land prices and rents, although not necessarily for nearby properties that do not directly benefit from improvements.

3/ Programmes tend to have a limited impact on the local economy in terms of improving income or employment.

4/ Programmes tend to have a limited impact on the local area in terms of reducing crime, improving health, wellbeing or education.

Worse, we found no evaluations that were able to unpick effects on existing residents, as opposed to people moving into an area. This matters, because it means that – for example – area-level improvements in employment rates might simply be driven be people moving into the area, rather than real improvements in life chances for people already living there.


A few thoughts on this.

First, as Ruth Lupton points out, we have to be careful to assess such programmes on what they set out to achieve. The main aim of estate renewal is usually to improve the quality of housing supply, the built environment and other local amenities. The review shows programmes are pretty good at achieving these. An important result.

Where such programmes score less well is on broader objectives. New Labour broadened estate renewal into a wider ‘neighbourhood renewal’ agenda – programmes like the New Deal for Communities included economic as well as social goals. The review included a number of independent and officially-commissioned NDC evaluations, and the results on these wider goals are not great. As John Haughton suggests, this is consistent with a larger body of evidence on ‘people’ vs ‘place’ interventions, and where views cut across the political spectrum.

It’s worth thinking a moment about why this might be. Urban economies are complex, and adjustment is hard to predict, sometimes chaotic. There’s clearly space for for neighbourhood regeneration programmes to try and deal with co-ordination problems, provide public goods, and try to mitigate some of the problems facing people in deprived areas.

On the other hand, these programmes are microsolutions for megaproblems: the economic elements of NDC are trying to roll back huge structural trends that two decades of national intervention under Labour more or less failed to shift. I’ve got a chapter coming out in this book, edited by Dave O’Brien and Peter Matthews, which talks more about these ‘regeneration expectations’.

Second, as John also says, it is important to understand in more detail *why* some estate renewal programmes have not delivered on their objectives. John suggests a few reasons: lack of community ownership, a lack of learning culture in the ‘estate renewal industry’, and shifting / conflicting central government priorities (a point also made by Ruth and others).

To dig into this, we need better quality impact evaluations (the What Works team used just 21 out of over 1,000 candidate studies). We also need to look through the complementary literature on programme process, implementation and management. The Centre has now started to do this – across a range of policy areas – and will be reporting back in the coming months.

Third, we need to set our expectations for such policies in the future. As a whole, regeneration programmes involve an implicit contract with communities, as Lee Pugalis and David McGuinness argue, and there remains a strong equity case for such initiatives. However, effective urban and neighbourhood policy is hard to design: neighbourhoods and cities are complex systems, which adjust in messy and uneven fashion. This creates space for policymakers – dealing with market and co-ordination failures – but also implies that impacts are likely to be incremental at best. That means presenting a realistic positive case for regeneration and estate renewal, rather than asserting economic transformations that stand little chance of coming about.

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.

Charter Cities

February 5, 2010

To Prospect last Monday morning for a breakfast seminar with economists Paul Romer and Paul Collier. We were there to discuss Romer’s idea of ‘charter cities’: a new form of aid in which a poor country invites a rich country to set up a city-size development zone, which it runs according to rich-country rules.

This might sound slightly eccentric – what’s wrong with just giving money? But both Romer and charter cities are worth taking seriously. In the 1990s, Romer was one of the originators of endogenous growth theory, which is now the basic framework for thinking about how economies evolve. He’d spent the past week in Davos, pushing the charter cities idea around. And during breakfast Paul Collier, one of the best development economists in the world, also gave it a qualified thumbs up.

Romer’s basic idea is simple. Strong rules and institutions help economic growth; so do cities. The world is urbanising: but in the global south, most people are packed into chaotic cities, often in slum neighbourhoods, which lack good governance and basic infrastructure. So poor countries need to set up new, city-size special economic zones with robust rules and institutions. Charter cities would allow partner countries to come in and run these cities for the common good, in theory accelerating economic growth and providing the basic housing and infrstructure citizens in poor countries need.

Collier gave the idea cautious support, although he warned it was ‘three leaps in one’ – running against development orthodoxy, and not easy to implement. Most people will live in cities in the future. In the south, coastal megacities will thrive because they have both scale and physical access to the global economy. Equally, good governance is critical to long term growth. There is already an international market in rules: in African partner countries, China typically uses dispute resolution agreements that refer to English law.

Much of the discussion focused on politics, and the need to set rules and local buy-in. I made three more urban points. First, if successful charter cities are coastal (like Hong Kong or Shenzhen Special Economic Zone), what can landlocked countries do? Romer suggested that a third country could as a ‘host’ – which works in theory but makes implementation very complex.

Second, would extending existing cities be a better solution? We know that agglomeration economies are basically non-linear. So if we accelerate the growth of successful cities, we get bigger economic returns than growing new ones from scratch. Romer thought both options would work: Lagos is currently masterplanning a new city alongside the existing one, potentially doubling its population.

Third, how long would it take for new cities to grow? Brasilia was founded in the mid-Sixties and is still under-developed, with big tracts of empty space. There was some discussion about this: Paul Collier pointing to very rapid urbanisation in the UK and US during the late 19th century.

I left feeling at least partly convinced the charter cities idea could work. Chinese cities like Shenzhen or (in theory) Dongtan show what might be achieved within a single country with top-down (and non-democratic) government. However, in the rest of the world implementation is probably going to be a lot messier, and the results less clear cut. However, it’s probably worth a shot. As Haiti begins post-earthquake reconstruction, Dominican Republic (or French)-sponsored charter cities might be a useful tool in the box.

%d bloggers like this: