Wednesday 21 December 2011

CLG select committee report on planning:The good, the bad, the ugly

An early Christmas present from the CLG select committee - it's report on the national planning framework. My assessment - part good, part bad, part ugly.

The good(ish):
  • Parts of the NPPF could be clarified, either by making the document longer or cross referencing to other things
  • Importance of local plans and a presumption in favour of sustainable development consistent with the plan (I always assumed that was the intention of the draft)
  • Transition should allow a little more time for LAs to get their act together and current planning guidance to continue to apply until new guidance in place (something we suggested in our recent assessment)
  • Clarify what is meant by affordable housing
  • NPPF is placeless, allow local variation where there is evidence to support this
  • Local authorities to set own targets for brownfield first (again, something we called for in our recent assessment)
The bad:
  • The committee's suggestion that NPPF makes the economic dimension appear predominant. For too long the planning system has essentially ignored the economic dimension. It says a lot that NPPF tries to partially redress this balance and is immediately accused of going too far.

The ugly:

  • The unwritten assumption underlying the select committee report that the problem with the planning system is the process rather than huge constraints imposed on the use of greenfield sites. In keeping with this implicit assumption, the select committee wants to strengthen brownfield targets and reinforce town centre first. These are exactly the policies that tie us to our existing urban footprint and create many of the problems we experience in adjusting to the structural changes occurring in the UK.
  • The continued insistence that constraining us to our existing urban footprint is somehow costless. The committee claims to have 'found no conclusive research, however, that planning policy or guidance is a particular constraint on economic development'. This is misleading because it relies on a very narrow definition of 'economic development' (oh the irony). As SERC has documented, there is evidence that the UK planning system:
    • Increases house prices (with a regressive impact on low to middle income families)
    • Increases housing market volatility
    • Increases office rents
    • Lowers retail productivity
    • Lowers employment in small independent retailers
    • May not properly assess the true social costs of brownfield versus greenfield development.

I certainly accept that this evidence is not 'conclusive', but neither is it irrelevant. Taking proper account of it should be central to striking the right balance between the costs and benefits of our planning system. The fact that the committee chooses to ignore it and focus instead on reforming the NPPF to perpetuate the status quo - at least in terms of outcomes, if not process - is a deeply depressing reminder of just how biased is the debate on the future of our planning system.

Monday 19 December 2011

Business Rate Retention Proposals (the X factor)

The government has published its response to the consultation on allowing Local Authorities to retain some of their business rate growth. CLG's website provides both mind numbing details and a plain English guide. Unless you have a very specific interest in the details of local government finance, I'd recommend a quick read through the latter.

As I wrote in July last year, the key tension here is the tradeoff of equity versus growth: the scheme will give incentives for growth at the cost of some equality in funding across councils. Some aspects of the announcement today (10 year fixed terms for resets, no cap on the amounts that can be retained) favour growth incentives, others (the system of tariffs and top-ups, uprating of baseline by RPI, levys for highly 'geared' councils) favour equity.

Of course, the final balance in terms of the strength of the growth incentive will depend crucially on the share of business rates growth that local authorities are allowed to retain. According to CLG "In addition to retaining the local share of their business rates baseline, councils will also be able to keep the local share (x percent) of all their business rates growth. This means that the more an authority grows its business rates base the better off it will become."

What is X? To be determined in Spring 2012 we are told. So a little longer till we get to figure out how exactly where the balance lies.

Thursday 15 December 2011

City Deals: what next?

Posted by Dr. Max Nathan, SERC and LSE

Last Thursday’s Cabinet Office paper ‘Unlocking Growth in Cities’ got rather swamped by what happened in Brussels the following night. That's a shame. Nick Clegg and Greg Clark laid out some important, potentially profound shifts in the way local and central government work together. This is very clear from the obvious buzz in the room as Ministers delivered their speeches in Leeds, and the flurry of comment since.

As Tim Leunig has explained, Ministers hope that by granting cities more powers urban economic performance will improve. SERC's evidence (here, here and here) tells us that devolution’s direct effects on economic growth aren’t clear-cut. However, the indirect effects are likely to be more important, as new ways of working emerge and local challenges tackled. In theory, that could trickle through to better economic outcomes.

Thus City Deals. The deal-making process has already begun, with the eight core cities submitting draft asks, and an ‘illustrative menu ‘ in the paper showing what’s up for negotiation. Ministers recognise, rightly, that deals should look different in different places: an annex highlights the very different challenges the big conurbations face.

This round of deals is also just the beginning. Further down the line, Ministers are likely to broker further talks with ‘free-standing cities’ such as Derby or Chester.

So how’s it likely to go? Here are three critical points, and some constructive suggestions.

First, this is a long game. If city deals are the real deal, they’re a major shift in centre-local ways of working. In the jargon, they will trigger fundamental changes within Whitehall and local government institutions and institutional cultures, as well as in their working relationships with each other.

These deep shifts will take time to work through. In France – which adopted a big bang approach to devolution – it took 10 years for the system to fully bed down. There’s no reason to suppose England will be any faster.

So it’s essential that Ministers are in this for the long haul. City Deals may be delivering real benefits by 2015, but it’s unlikely they will achieve full potential until some years after.

Second, there are some reservations from cities themselves. To succeed, City Deals need vertical co-ordination (between cities and the centre) and horizontal co-ordination (between Departments). We don’t yet know whether Ministers can deliver the latter. The DPM’s Ministerial working group is broad, but some Departments – notably DWP – are known sceptics on the devolution agenda.

Whitehall capacity is another issue. The Cities Policy Unit is full of very smart people but there are only 15 or so of them. Do they have the capacity to handle the kind of complex, tricksy bargaining / monitoring that’s going to be needed? Greg Clark’s immediate ambition – to have eight city deals locked down by Budget 2012 – certainly looks ambitious (especially if those deals are to be substantive).

Third, there are some worries from the Whitehall side. There’s been some official grumbling about a lack of local ambition in core cities’ draft deals (I suspect city leaders would vigorously dispute this). In part this may reflect tangled local governance. LEPs have emerged as key players in the bargaining process – but of course of they lack a direct democratic mandate. Ministers would like to see big city Mayors in place soon – but by passing up the option of Metro Mayors, the Coalition may have dug a hole for itself. It’s possible none of the planned referenda will pass; alternatively, the Leeds city region might end up with three Mayors – covering Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield.

All of which suggests four pointers for the coming months.

First, as Henry and I have pointed out before, localising economic development requires strong, clear local incentives. Ministers are starting to put some of these in place. That process now needs to accelerate, starting with a decision on Tax Increment Financing and some rapid prototyping on the ground.

Second, some institution-boosting may be needed. City Deals have transformed the position of LEPs. From being close to written off six months ago, LEPs are now at the heart of localism. They now have core funding through the Growing Places fund, most will have EZs and many RGF money. But as expected, a gap is opening up between big city LEPs and the rest. If city deals are to be rolled out beyond the Big Eight, Whitehall will need to think about laying on further resources.

Third, some Deals will work out faster than others. The Government’s ambition to oversee eight front runners at once may need to be revisited in a year or so, with some cities paused and others accelerated. By emphasising the need for cities to ‘show real progress’, Ministers have given useful themselves room for manoeuvre.

Finally, civil servants should get out more. City deals need to accelerate the pace of devolution from its glacial tempo under Gordon Brown. For Whitehall officials, an important part of the process will be building trust and demonstrating empathy – not easy to do from Whitehall, especially now that Government Offices are being wound up. Embedding staff in town halls may sound corny, but it would be instructive for officials to see how cities are run at street level – and to see what their own policies look like from the sharp end.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

The Portas Review

The Portas review has published its 28 recommendations for saving the high street. The report's a mixed bag - some of it innovative, some of it marginal and some of it (a couple of great big sticks aimed at out of town developments) pretty depressing.

There is a serious issue to consider here - arguably high streets generate 'externalities' that individual shoppers do not take in to account when making their decisions. Some of these externalities are positive (e.g. the sense of community generated) while some are negative (e.g. extra congestion from having people drive in to the centre of town). Market forces don't deal well with externalities so it's possible that policy makers should intervene. A number of Portas' recommendations - e.g. town teams and business improvement districts - are about managing those externalities.

Part of the problem, of course, is that managing these externalities is difficult. Indeed, high streets are already highly regulated. In fact, the Portas review suggests that in some areas they are over-regulated - hence the call for the removal of unneccesary regulation, for the reform of the use class system (which governs change of use) and for the freeing up of redtape. But at the same time the review also calls for the introduction of a whole lot of new red-tape - betting shops in their own use class, large retailers forced to support local businesses and report on their activities, landlords to have new responsibilities for contract of care, new restrictions on vacant units, banks forced to sell assets, a public register of high street landlords. It's hard to see whether this leaves the high street more or less regulated. I guess one could argue that this would leave the high street better regulated, but you'll have to forgive me some scepticism on this (given the speed with which the report has been pulled together).

Finally, of course, we come to the policy recommendation which is most likely to have real bite - the NPPF to make explicit the presumption in favour of town centre first policy and the need for the secretary of state to sign off all new out-of-town developments. I struggle to express how depressed this makes me, so let me simply repeat my arguments from May this year:

"What worries me, however, is how incredibly one sided debates about this issue have become. Reading much of the commentary you would think that intervening was essentially costless and that everyone agrees out of town shopping and clone towns are bad.

Clearly, however, this is not the case and there will be substantial costs to pay to further support the high street. Supermarkets [and out of town developments more generally] offer cheaper prices, more diversity and convenience. So regulating them further will increase costs of living and reduce choice. Indeed, SERC research estimates that existing planning restrictions may already reduce supermarket productivity by 20%. If saving the high street requires further restrictions these costs will rise. High grocery prices hit the poor harder than the rich so the impact of this may also be regressive. Tax subsidies to support the high street (as proposed by some [including Portas]) are not costless either. What expenditure should we cut (or which taxes raise) to fund this? If the proposal is to somehow pass these costs on to supermarkets then that raises prices with the regressive impact just highlighted.

These costs may be worth paying. But the public debate too often ignores them. I am no media expert, but my major worry is that the commentary around this issue mainly reflects the concerns of the better off who have strong preferences for independent retailers (and disposable income to take advantage of them) . Let's hope the review takes a more balanced approach to identifying the costs and benefits so that we can properly decide whether the latter outweigh the former."

With the report in front of us, it appears that my final piece of optimism was, as usual, misplaced. I am still hopeful, however, that the government will see how massively these two recommendations conflict with their localism agenda. Much better, for many reasons, to allow local authorites to decide on their own priorities for town centres. First, we would get more experimentation and a better idea of what works. Second, we would hopefully find out whether local communities think the costs of these policies (assuming they actually work) are worth paying for the benefits of livelier high streets.

Read more:

Monday 12 December 2011

More housing please

In all the debate around the government's planning reforms, we are in danger of losing sight of the fundamental problem - the current system has failed to deliver enough houses, of the kind people want, in the places where they want to live. Solving this fundamental problem requires us to build more housing. Every other 'radical' solution so far proposed is either insufficiently radical to make much difference (empty homes) or sufficiently radical that it's hard to believe it represents a good solution (empty bedrooms).

For those who would like more detail:


Friday 9 December 2011

Unlocking Growth in Cities

Posted by Tim Leunig (LSE, SERC and CentreForum)

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Minister for Cities Greg Clark today launched the Cabinet Office paper Unlocking growth in cities. This is the evidence base for the proposed city-led transfer of powers from London to England’s largest cities.

Clegg was passionate and Middlesbrough-born Clark as cerebral as an LSE PhD should be. Labour’s Chuka Umanna was supportive, so in short, it will happen.

Unlocking growth is concise, readable and contains a high ratio of evidence to blather. The team who wrote it deserve praise.

The startling fact is that only 1 of the 8 largest places outside London has an income above the national average. In Spain it is 2 places, in France 3, in Italy 6 and in Germany 8 out of 8. Noting that cities elsewhere have much more power, the government rightly proposes to extend more powers to our cities.

Whether this will deliver growth is another matter. Unlocking growth also tells us that places with more skills than their national average have higher incomes than their national average, and vice versa. This is true for 28 of the 32 places across Europe listed, including all 8 UK cities. Bristol is the only top-8 city with more graduates than the UK average, and is the only top-8 city with a higher income. Birmingham is poorer than Bristol primarily because people in Birmingham have fewer skills and therefore earn less.

In this context the new cities agenda looks weak. It is sensible to give cities unified capital budgets – how could it not be? But if what really matters is education then this is not a game changer.

Education is already controlled locally. National government is not holding schools back in Manchester and Newcastle, although locally determined pay may allow smaller class sizes in many lower cost regions.

Schools in England’s big cities fail far too often. Across the country 32% of kids whose parents are in the bottom 20% by income get 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths. London does much better, at 44%, with excellent performances in a range of boroughs including Hammersmith, Hackney and Redbridge.

All other big cities do much worse. The equivalent figures are 29% in Liverpool and Manchester, 26% in Sunderland, 24% in Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield and 22% in Newcastle. These figures take into account ethnicity, place of birth and other characteristics. If every Borough in London can beat the national average, these cities have no excuse: they are failing their kids, and destroying their long term economic potential.

If our cities are serious about improving their position they need to concentrate on making sure that they educate their students much more effectively than at present. Skills attract higher value added companies, and provide local residents with more options in downturns. Education is not a perfect answer, but it is the best one we have.

Unlocking Growth in Cities was launched at an IPPR North conference on 8th December at which the author was a speaker. This blog is based on my speech to that conference.

Thursday 8 December 2011

SERC at City Hall

Posted by Dr Max Nathan, SERC and LSE Cities

Earlier in the week I gave evidence to the London Assembly's Economy, Culture and Sport Committee, which was holding a session on the Tech City initiative.

On the panel with me were Eric van der Kleij (Tech City UK), Kulveer Ranger from the Mayor's office, Theo Bertram (Google), Georg Ell (Yammer) and Jeff Lynn (Seedrs).

You can see the whole thing on this 'webcast' (very web 1.0). There's some entertaining political to-and-fro between Ranger and some of the Labour members for the first 20 minutes or so, then a good hour of discussion after that.

A version of this post originally appeared on the squareglasses blog.

Local Government Finance and the Glencore IPO

The FT reports that the Glencore IPO has resulted in an unexpected 'bonanaza' for the small Swiss village that is home to a number of Glencore executives. The payouts to these executives, as a result of the IPO, have been sufficiently large that residents have been able to vote to reduce the local income tax rate.

Contrast this with the UK where, as things currently stand, growing local incomes have essentially no effect on local revenue. Likewise, increasing the number of businesses. For new homes, councils do see some increased revenue from additional council tax (doubled for six years with the New Homes Bonus). The government consultation on business rate retention, which closes soon, is also looking to provide incentives on business rate retention, although it's not yet clear how strong these will be.

I can only assume that the Glencore story makes Local Authorities in the UK (who want greater tax raising powers) green with envy.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

High Speed Rail Delays

The debate on high speed rail rumbles on. The latest round of arguments has been partly inspired by the Transport Secretary's decision to delay a decision until early next year so that she can decide whether to spend an extra £500m on another tunnel under the Chilterns. To put that figure in perspective, note that it's three times the amount announced in the Autumn spending review for local transport projects once again raising the issue of priorities. Another way to think about it is as a 3% increase on the £17bn budget. That makes the already quite weak cost benefit just that little bit worse.

At the same time as the tunnel decision was announced, a new report suggested that ministers will be left with an £8.5bn black hole if they go ahead with the route. I haven't had time to read the report itself and it was commissioned by 17 councils along the route, so comes with a health warning. According to the Telegraph the report reveals 'that the benefits of the scheme to the taxpayer could be as little as half the costs'. This seems an odd point to emphasise, because the fact that the costs exceed revenues has been known for a long time (for example, in March 2010, I noted 'the second certainty is that any new route will not be commercially viable and will need large government subsidies'). It's also the case that lots of government expenditure fails this test because it's standard to take in to account the benefits to tax payers as well as the revenues that go to the exchequer. The fact that total benefits are likely to exceed costs is not in (that much) doubt for HS2. The point is that these total benefits don't add up to much compared to other things the government could spend money on.

The other point central point raised by the report directly addresses the issue of total benefits and concerns the government's projections about the level of demand. Figuring out the level of demand involves making predictions about growth and predictions about how quickly rail demand will increase as the economy grows. The first of these numbers is certainly open to debate (DfT claims that the figures it uses - the 'elasticity' - are conservative; this is certainly not an opinion shared by all experts in this area). You would imagine that the second number - the growth rate of the economy over the period - might also usefully be revisited (given the Autumn statement last week) but I haven't yet seen anyone do this.

The growth rate in passenger numbers matters because HS2 makes journeys faster and relieves capacity constraints on the existing network. The benefits from higher speed depend on the number of passengers that will use the service, if you project smaller numbers you get smaller benefits. The capacity constraint depends on how fast passenger numbers grow relative to capacity. Figures released this week have thrown some doubts on that problem as well, suggesting that peak time trains are only a little over half full. Again, these figures come from opponents so are subject to the usual health warning but they do raise the issue of whether other options (e.g. pricing structures, existing capacity) could be used to deal with this problem. In addition, in the Eddington study there were capacity constraints all over the transport network (road and rail) by 2025 so the case for HS2 is not unique in that sense. Finally, note that the easing of capacity constraints is also well captured in the traditional cost benefit analysis (providing that passenger numbers aren't over estimated) and as I have said before that case looks weak relative to alternative transport investments.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Is the New Homes Bonus Working? (Part 2)

DCLG have just announced that this year's New Homes Bonus payment will be £430m. As DCLG point out 'this is more than double the first year's payment'.

At first, this sounds like great news, until you remember that the bonus is paid for 6 years on any new build, so this year's figures include the second year of payments for last year's house building. According to DCLG: "This year's larger payment includes £210 million for new and empty homes delivered in 2010 -11, a second instalment of almost £200 million for homes built in 2009 -10, and the first premium for affordable homes totalling £20 million"

A better comparison comes from looking at the actual housing numbers. The first year's payments were for a 150,000 increase in the effective housing stock. This year's are for a 159,000 increase in the effective housing stock.

Several things help put those numbers in to perspective. First, as I have discussed before last year's increase of 150,000 in effective housing stock included the worst net addition figures for the last 5 years. So the 159,000 increase this year makes for the second worst figures in six years. Second, the NHB was announced sufficiently late last year that it was hard to imagine that it would have had much impact on the numbers to October 2010. One way to view the 159,000 number therefore is that the NHB resulted in 9,000 additional completions (because this was the first year that it had bite on decisions). That doesn't sound like very many. Two caveats. One is that starts might be a better measure for tracking the impact of NHB than completions (because its those decisions that will have been made since the NHB was introduced). But according to DCLG: "Annual housing starts reached 96,070 in the 12 months to September 2011, down by 7 per cent compared with the 12 months to September 2010". The other far more significant factor is, of course, the dire economic situation. If we could net out the effect of that, the impact would look better than 9,000 additional completions, although it's hard to figure out how much better. [If anyone has seen an attempt to do that I would be very happy for any pointers.]

In short, it remains difficult to tell how much impact NHB is having on the willingness of local communites to allow more building.