Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bad ideas unlimited

There has been lots of coverage of Policy Exchange's 'Cities Unlimited' report, which in my opinion has given a rather misleading impression of it. Those who haven't read it unfairly caricature it as being about the ridiculous idea that everyone who lives in Northern England should move to London, Oxford or Cambridge.

I have read the report, and it is far, far worse than that summary would suggest. Almost every page contains a different example of staggering and at times awe-inspiring wrongness. Here are just five examples:

Reducing inequality through cough, cough, mumble, mumble

The report analyses the current situation with regard to regeneration as follows:

1. Regeneration spending over the past ten years has 'raised the standards of living compared with what they would have been without them'. Furthermore, the consequence of cutting this spending will be that 'towns that are already slipping gradually further behind the UK average will not simply continue to slip behind at their current rate, but will start to slip behind more rapidly,' as happened in the mid 1990s.


3. Therefore, it is necessary to try a completely different approach.

Worth noting that this is the same technique found in reports by the Taxpayers' Alliance, and that it bears a striking resemblance to the Conservative Party's anti-poverty policies. In all cases, there is a giant leap of logic from 'Labour has spent money which has reduced, but not solved, a problem...cough, cough, mumble, mumble...therefore we shouldn't spend any more money on trying to solve it but should do something different instead'.

Axe the council tax (but only for nimbies)

Moving on, they confront the problem that local people in southern England might be opposed to new houses being built near them. Their solution is to 'stuff their mouths with gold'. Prosperous towns in Southern England would find that the land they owned becoming more valuable if houses were built on it. So the reports' authors propose that councils in these areas should be able to pass this profit on to the community, and use the profits from increasing land value to cut or abolish council tax. And council tax payers living in areas where land value is not so high? Unlucky for them.

Post Offices

But where to build all these houses in London? One example that the report's authors give is that the Post Office could sell all of its sorting offices in London and develop them for housing. The report goes on, 'Mail would then be collected in London, taken to (say) Leicester by train, sorted in Leicester, and returned to London on the first train the following morning for onward delivery.'

Social housing

To ensure some balance in migration to London, '1 in 5 net new houses in growing areas needs to be reserved for social housing tenants from areas whose populations are not increasing.' So, one example they give is that social housing built in Bromley could be reserved to help people from Blackpool move there.

To be fair, this is an idea which would have incredibly entertaining consequences and might be worth giving a go for that reason, even if it would be a total and utter disaster. There is significant resentment about social housing allocations at the moment, even without ring fencing council houses for people who live at least 200 miles away.

Knocking houses together

But I think the most off the wall idea is their alternative to demolish and redeveloping housing in areas where the population is declining. Their idea is that instead the government would buy up houses and sell them at below market rate to the neighbours (with the government keeping a share of the value of the new, larger property). Over time, the neighbours would then make the alterations to merge the two houses into one. A condition of the sale would be that the new owners would not be allowed to sell or let out their new property.


I'd stress that this is not a comprehensive guide to the bad ideas in the report, but merely a representative sample. Any particularly bad ones that I've missed, do highlight in the comments.

UPDATE: More and better analysis from Mrs Blogs in the comments and over here.


At 9:28 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

They also seem to be proposing that at the same time as moving hundreds of thousands of people to London, they move hundreds of thousands of jobs (which were previously located on the industrial land the new houses would be built on) to the North, so that, erm, the jobs still aren't in the same place as the people.

A more challenging proposal might be to try to find good ideas in the report. One such idea is found at the bottom of page 27, where they suggest that big cities work better if there is excellent, subsidised, low-cost transport. Perhaps they should tell Boris Johnson, in case he decides to abolish subsidised bus fares for low-income families.

oh wai

At 12:37 am , Blogger Mrs Blogs said...

Sorry, I haven't read the report. Yet.

Some early reflections:

It is kind of surprising that this made it in to the public domain at all. Would/should someone in the policy research process not have killed this off earlier? -realising how completely barking mad it is. A moment's reflection on 'actual people' would surely have rung alarm bells.

It might make kinda abstract sense in the abstract policy-wonkery world BUT what of the actual human beings this involves, y'know their families, communities, memories etc.

But it is good that it was published. It is like lifting up a rock or piece of wood in the garden.

Or is it? Once an idea is out there and people start thinking, 'hey well maybe this isn't such a completely 'insane' idea'.

Some people have wondered about the economic sense of it ...more people in an area, more demand etc let alone the fractiousness that might ensue from (even more) densely populating an area.

Who are the authors, are they trying to distinguish themselves in some way by being this controversial, and the 'think tank' they belong to? It has certainly garnered a fair deal of attention.

I was in Blackpool yesterday. There has been a massive amount of investment in the seafront. Coming along nicely.

Are we really reduced to this, moving whole geographic regions (people with histories and communities and cultures) around like pieces on a chessboard to suit the 'forces of capital'? Or at least the positing of such an idea?

In short, WTF??

At 7:55 am , Blogger Robert said...

For god sake keep it away from New labour and Brown he will think it's a Tory policy.

At 3:01 pm , Anonymous Paul said...

Like Tim F, I don't think the report is wholly without good ideas. On a quick read,I count 5 or 6 ideas/observations, which if taken out of the context of the main wrongness actually make some sense. I couldn;t bring myself to comment on the knocking together of houses, mind.

I'm quite a bit more kindly to it in general - somewhat on the basis that the poor lads are only trying to earn a living - at

At 3:12 pm , Blogger Phil said...

Mrs Blogs: "Are we really reduced to this, moving whole geographic regions (people with histories and communities and cultures) around like pieces on a chessboard to suit the 'forces of capital'"

But that is not suggested. The paper merely says that people should be given the opportunity to migrate within the UK. The proposal is that intramigration should be made easier for people who can earn more money outside their home town.

The "forces of capital'" may encourage migration? Unlike a Stalinist regime, it is about choice. If you think that your life will improve by working elsewhere, the state will make it easier. If you choose to stick, the state will provide funds for urban regeneration. How much more liberal or socialist can you get than that?

"histories and communities and cultures" are not fixed objects, and they survive change. Witness the Welsh speakers in Patagonia, Scots miners in Kent and the omniprescent Irish

At 7:26 am , Blogger Mrs Blogs said...


"The paper merely says that people should be given the opportunity to migrate within the UK."

Last time I looked people in this country were free to come and go as they please.

Indeed, as the report notes many do.

As for making it easier that would seem to be stacking the odds against revival, leading to polarisation as those that are more able to might be tempted leaving behind those who cannot.

I do have to wonder at a report which speaks of people who will be subject to their proposals as "such people".

Where to start on the rest of it!

Like it or not one of the key proposals in the report is "significant population movements"

"There is, however, a very real prospect of encouraging significant numbers of people to move from those towns to London and the
South East."

...and other such quotes from the report.

What of the infrastructure to cope with this increased population flow South. Hospitals, schools, GPs, extra demand on water supplies, the daily commute of all these extra people. None of this seems to be addressed.

Many homes in the south east are already at risk of flooding. Where to put a million more people, let alone deal with the not uncommon objections of local people to increased development in their areas.

The report suggests 'stuffing their mouths with gold' to persuade them. Well, some people value things more than money. I am not advocating nimbyism here it just seems something of a cynical approach.
The money would be better spent developing the local economies of areas in need of regeneration!

Andrew Lewis of 'The Northern Way' said:

"The description of the Northern cities and regions set out by policy exchange is not supported by the evidence. Many have been growing faster than the UK has a whole, creating new jobs, and attracting substantial private sector investment."

Others have questioned measures of growth and success used in the report.

As for the communities I mention of course communities change. But too much too quickly destabilises communities. If people bemoan the demise of the extended family this will do even more to dislocate people from their kin networks unless everyone takes granny with them -of course during this period of relocation there will also be more grannies.

Some people seem quaintly attached to their friends and networks of support in their local communities, however deprived.

The report, though it acknowledges problems such as the extra development necessary not being 'popular' and the destruction of communities due to outward migration but then just glosses over what are major issues with 'but we believe' type statements.

The human angle seems to be underplayed though this is not surprising for economists.

Some of the stuff about using regneration money differently/more locally empowered could be extracted from the document as stand alone proposals. I'm not sure that the great British public would have any greater faith in local councils than central government in spending the money better. With all due respect to local councillors and I know a fair few and they work exceptionally hard, unfortunately many people hold 'all politicians' in equal contempt. However, such a say over the use of the money for local people could tempt a few people to get more interested and involved and perhaps ensure more successful regeneration projects.

The report's own authors admitted that some of the proposals would be interpreted as 'barmy'. Written by a Liberal Democrat and an advisor to a Lib Dem peer both the LibDems and the Conservatives have disowned its conclusions. David Cameron who will most certainly have been briefed as to its fuller contents dismissed it in an interview as "rubbish from beginning to end" though politically he would have to rubbish all of it, acknowledging some of it would have sent an ambiguous message.

But in the end for me its the glibness in the treatment of the relocation issue.

Tim Leuning admitted he had not been to Liverpool nor spoken to any of the City Leaders before writing his report. He apparently told the Liverpool Echo:
“I’m a full-time lecturer. It’s the time. I would love to be able to come and if Liverpool was next to London I’d do it like a shot. But it’s a long way."

For one who seeks to propose policies of 'significant population movements' for others yet can't be arsed to make a simple train journey to do proper field research well that's pretty shabby in my eyes.

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