Friday 26 February 2010

Conservative plans for planning

The Tories quietly published their Green paper on planning earlier in the week.

On the plus side, more local control over planning ("local decision over local plans") allows local authorities to better match local preferences. On the minus, this creates problems of coordination when costs and benefits are felt beyond local authority boundaries. There are two big areas where these problems arise - infrastructure provision and the overall supply of commercial and residential space.

On infrastructure provision, they plan to scrap the infrastructure planning commission and to go back to ministerial approval albeit with some tinkering aimed at speeding things up. So that's one step back (which may surprise some in light of the claim on an earlier page that: "Given the scale of the problems we face, piecemeal reform of the planning system is simply not an adequate response.")

On the supply of commercial and residential space they are being more radical. Out go top down (regional) regional plans and targets and the huge number of guidance notes; in come presumed consent for "sustainable development" (e.g. projects in line with the local plan and national guidelines) and financial incentives to allow more development.

The later issue will be key because the financial incentives will need to be large enough that local plans actually allow for development (presumed consent won't mean much otherwise). The financial incentive will come through the already announced council tax matching incentive. Given current local government financing arrangements it is not clear that this will be sufficient to encourage much increase in development land.

The other side to this coin is that you need to provide some kind of financial compensation to neighbours directly affected by new development. The green paper envisages this happening through private developers negotiating with neighbours. It will be interesting to see whether these financial incentives are sufficient to offset the greater power that local people will now be given to block new development (through their input in to the local plan).

If either sets of financial incentives (to local authorities or neighbours) turn out to be too small, then it will be important that upward adjustment is quick if these reforms are to seriously address the supply problems that bedevil the current system.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

(A lot) more evidence on New Deal for Communities

The NDC evaluation process launched a plethora of new publications last week. "Neighbourhood projects make a difference" was the spin CLG put on the findings. As with the last NDC report, however, the details don't make for such happy reading. Quite simply, at the individual level, there is very little evidence that NDC is making much of a difference.

Starting with that headline: "After controlling for base characteristics, residents in NDC areas have on average seen statistically greater positive change in relation to their satisfaction with the area compared with comparator residents, (significant at a 0.05 level), when the starting position is not included in the model. This is not, however, the case when a respondent’s initial level of satisfaction is included."

On health:"This lack of marked positive change relative to other benchmarks is perhaps a little disappointing, given that the case study NDC partnerships have devoted considerable effort and resources to improving health outcomes amongst local residents, and these sorts of efforts have been replicated across the NDC Programme."

On education:"The research team found little statistically significant variation in outcomes for the whole cohort between NDC and comparator areas, even after controlling for the differences between these areas and NDC areas." Or put another way: "Educational performance has improved faster than the national average for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and in deprived areas generally, including non-NDC areas. What this means is that for the NDC Programme as a whole, there is no evidence that the presence of the NDC partnerships has made a decisive difference: other disadvantaged areas did broadly just as well." There has been improvement in key stage 3 Science - but when you look across such a huge range of indicators you are going to find some significant differences even when there is no effect.

As I said before, what I take from this is the following: Based on the best evidence that we have available a reasonably well funded ABI has not, on average, improved individual outcomes in targeted areas. You can read the (7) reports yourself for the "wriggle room disclaimers".

Monday 1 February 2010

Green belt

I enjoyed Centre for Cities' comment on the CPRE report on the Green Belt.

CPRE argue that we should do more to maintain and improve existing Green Belt land. Centre for Cities respond that building on a relatively small amount of it could do a lot to help solve housing supply problems (and provide some nice football pitched based statistics to make this point). Unsurprisingly, I am with Centre for Cities on this one.

One, minor disagreement: Centre for Cities suggest "Green belts have largely succeeded in their primary aim, to contain urban sprawl". While that may be true at the level of individual areas there is an argument to be made that looking more widely Green belts encourage leap frog development and longer commutes - i.e. the fast growth of satellite towns simply gives us sprawl by proxy.

Public Sector Wages and the North-South Divide

Alison Wolf, writing in the Sunday Times, makes the case for more spatial variation in pay in the public sector.

Starting from the individual perspective and the principal of equal reward for equal work it makes sense to pay people in high cost of living places more. You might also try to do things about the cost of living - like deliver more housing. But equal reward means compensating for the remaining differences. One complication is that differences in house price rises means that you need to do something to net out capital gains (so it's not house prices per se that matter, but the differences in imputed rents). Of course, if you claim the principle is equal pay for equal work then you are automatically against this kind of variation. But equal pay, as opposed to reward, is a pretty arbitrary objective.

Of course, localising pay is about much more than equalising reward and has big implications for the supply of public services as discussed at length in the full report. It also has implications for wider spatial disparities. However, as I have argued before, it is surprising how little we know about the impact of these. My feeling is that, given the existing evidence, discussion on these issues should focus on the implications for public sector delivery. Controversy enough there without getting in to wider speculation on the North-South divide.