Monthly Archives: February 2013

Reporting Regeneration: a tale of two cities

In particular, London and Liverpool are both reported on today.
Concerning London, an article by Mark Easton on the BBC website has the headline ‘Why have the white british left London?‘. It is a good example of responsible journalism, looking at demographic changes between the census points in 2001 and 2011 and getting out to find the local stories behind the bare data.
And the back story he reports is of white working class communities which have changed over time, from arriving in the 1920s and 1930s into quality council housing and a job at Ford Dagenham, through to redundancy or retirement and moving out, being replaced by the next arrival communities, many now from the wider EU and from Africa. As he says, a success story of arrival or reception neighbourhoods and upward mobility.
Then Liverpool, which struggles to get a good press at the best of times. This is the full item from today’s Daily Mirror, page 8:

‘Regeneration Houses sell for £1 each
      Houses in a failed regeneration zone have been put up for sale – for just £1 each. But the boarded-up, empty Victorian terraced homes will only be sold to DIY fans or private landlords who vow to bring them up to scratch. The offer comes as Liverpool council has broken off talks with a contractor over a £25 million bid to transform the Granby Triangle area in inner city Kensington. Deputy mayor Paul Brant said: “This allows people excluded from mortgages but with construction skills to play a part in regeneration.”
And if space allowed, the back story here would be how the coalition government abandoned the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder areas mid-programme to twist in the wind. Not so much rebalancing, more like cutting loose. Link:

Bringing Down the Deficit – trying to look beyond the slogans

The Credit Crunch started in February 2007 with reports of new problems in the sub-prime mortgage market in the USA, slowly pricking a wider bubble in innovative investment products which undervalued their high levels of risk of a payments default. This led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 as part of a global banking crisis, which is still unresolved and being called the Second Great Depression.
Yet to listen to many UK politicians and journalists, the recession is all because of “the last Labour government” left a deficit in the public finances by spending too much.
This is a good example of scapegoating. The credit boom up to 2006 meant many people, and especially home owners, experienced rising house values which could be used for new cars, holidays and even second homes abroad. The people spending too much was actually many of us, not the government.
The difficulty faced by governments generally since the banking crisis started is a loss of tax income. At its peak in the UK, nearly 40% of tax income was coming from the de-regulated financial sector. As the crisis developed, tax income fell away dramatically. Government spending on unemployment and similar benefits started to rise, which in normal economics is seen as helpful to the economy, because public spending rises to offset the fall in private sector spending, reducing the downturn and helping recovery: known as the counter-cyclical or automatic stablisers. It is classic Keynesian economics, developed from the lessons learnt after the First Great Depression which governments at the time, especially in the USA, made worse.
And the USA did learn its lessons. Since 2008 the federal government has injected over $1.1 trillion in new capital into the troubled financial sector as well as pushing on infrastructure, health and welfare spending, leading to modest growth and contained levels of unemployment. This was started under Republican President Bush and continued under Democrat President Obama.
But in the UK the coalition government has taken a reverse approach, and with a reverse outcome. The new capital for the troubled banks, starting with Northern Rock and RBS in 2008 remains in place, but instead of being built on it is denigrated as “Labour profligacy”, with infrastructure spending then cut, with health spending being cut in real terms, and with welfare benefits under enormous pressure. The outcome is 2.5 million people unemployed and a fine debate on whether the UK recession will be double-dip or triple-dip.
President Obama spelt it out recently in his State of the Union address to Congress: “You can’t cut your way to prosperity.”
Some people are beginning to say that history will judge Gordon Brown more kindly than the press do now. His role in 2008 in stablising the banking crisis was ahead of all other countries, and has been said to have given the USA authorities the courage to intervene similarly on Wall Street. However, and perhaps unfairly, his time in leadership is judged more broadly on character and not for his decisive economics – the ‘would you have him round for dinner?’ test.
So, rather than give any degrudging credit for work done, rather than learn the lessons from the First Great Depression, and rather than look at ourselves and how we lived in the boom years to ask how sustainable was all that, instead … it must be all the fault of the last Labour government and the mess they left behind.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big To Fail: inside the battle to save Wall Street, (2010), Penguin. New York Times financial journalist – Hank Paulson – Lehman Brothers

Housing Crisis: how much worse can it get?

An article in The Guardian by Polly Townbee is depressingly spot on about the current housing crisis and the even higher levels of homelessness that will occur when the ‘bedroom tax’ kicks in.
Her analysis is that the root cause is based on many years of not constructing enough new houses, but she also notes that currently voters do not see the public sector as being able to fix their housing problems.
We could also add that the UK has shied away from rent controls; even though these controls would limit housing benefit payments without hurting tenants, and would help people on low incomes just above the benefit thresholds. One estimate has nearly 60% of MPs also earning income as private landlords, and its a shame that they don’t have to ethically abstain on any votes to re-instate rent controls in the UK. Link:

Smart Cities – technologies at the service of people

Today’s magazine section of the BBC News website contains a thoughful article on smart cities. Called, ‘How will our future cities look?’ by Jane Wakefield, a BBC technology reporter, she explores the possible limits of technical solutions to social issues. And for my money, anyone who quotes Jane Jacobs approach to social issues within cities, as she does here, is a serious commentator.
While we cannot say that technology has no solutions to deep-seated problems in urban areas – consider the massive social improvements when city engineers pumped clean water into the Victorian slums – there is a sense that sometimes being ‘smart’ just becomes an urban technology arms race.
For example, there are lots of smart technology proposals to better manage urban traffic jams and parking space shortages. But the benefits seem to flow to the richest drivers with the latest gadgets, meanwhile the council is asked to fund sensors at every junction or even every parking space. A root-cause analysis might look instead at methods to dampen long-distance commuting while improving the transport choices and the street environment of poorer inner-city areas through which the commuter highways can gash.
Smart cities will need to use technologies to improve sustainability by reducing demand; whereas only trying to improve supply (of empty roads or whatever) risks becoming a resource-intensive chase towards a mirage. Many of the so-called urban renewals of the 1960s in the USA, and parts of the UK, promised that multi-lane urban highways and motorways would reduce congestion and cause cities to prosper. In fact the opposite occured and the inner areas declined even faster, as Jane Jacobs observed at the time in New York and elsewhere. More recently cities such as Boston have removed or buried those 1960s highways to replace them with linear parks, especially near down town waterfronts.
My sense is that the smartest cities will be those that harness certain technologies that best enable people living in the city to improve its sustainability and quality of life. Clean water was one. Local newspapers are another. Link:

Social Care for Elderly People: the ‘future proofing’ of communities with sustainable Lifetime and HAPPI Homes

I’ve written here previously on some city centre appartment blocks and how they could be more attractive for elderly and retired occupiers. This piece looks at the construction details of houses and flats to better meet the housing and care needs of older people, on the ‘invest capital to save revenue’ model.
In the last week the UK government has announced its plans for funding some social care costs for elderly people, following the Dilnot report, and will set a £75,000 lifetime limit on social care costs from 2017, excluding any board and lodging component costs.
By announcing the limit, the government hopes that people of working age will now save or invest in financial products, similar to pensions, to cover their bills in later life up to the announced limit.
However, there are also some smart decisions people could make when younger which will lower or eliminate some of these costs in retirement. One such smart choice is to help ensure that any social care support in the future is delivered at home (ie in the community) instead of having to sell up and move into a residential or ‘care home’ with the extra costs associated with that upheaval. The means choosing a home if at all possible that has been made ‘future proof’.
First in the 1990s some housing experts together with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Habinteg published a set of 16 design criteria, called Lifetime Homes. It was for new homes and provided a menu of low-cost and no-cost features which meant that the home could be readily adapted in future years to meet the changing needs of the occupants as they grew old, enabled to carry on living in their own home and keeping vital contact with neighbours and friends in their neighbourhood.
There were local examples of good practice prior to Lifetimes Homes, such as un the 1980s the Greater Manchester Housing and Disability Group where Irwell Valley Housing Association played a strong enabling role.
More recently, Age UK with the Town and Country Planning Association plus Habinteg have together taken forward the previous version and in November 2011 published an updated Lifetime Homes Design Guide on the 16 design criteria. This guide includes some basic recommendations such as, have the bathroom door swing outwards, put sockets at a height that people can reach without stretching, and don’t bury services within the wall that separates the bathroom from the nearest bedroom, so that a connecting doorway can be easily fitted later on.
These features follow the principle of Inclusive Design, which asks designers to think of everyone and not just a theoretical ‘average’ user, and to do so without compromising on quality.
Similarly, the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) has since 2009 been promoting the HAPPI Homes – Housing our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation – with material such as 24 case studies from across the UK and wider Europe, and in 2012 reporting to an All Party Parliamentary Group chaired by Lord Best.
The Lifetime Homes standard would save money for occupiers and for local and central government starting now and continuing for years to come.
It is a shame, therefore, that 20 years on from the original publication this approach to inclusive and future-proof homes, so few of its innovations have evidently been adopted and promoted by many mainstream housebuilders and providers. Links:

How a future Airport of a Sustainable City might be: a discussion

I was listening last December to a thoughtful presentation by a senior engineer from the Ove Arup consultancy at the New Economy offices in Manchester speaking about sustainable cities, and afterwards we got talking about what kind of airport a sustainable city would have. Doing some research afterwards, plus some further helpful discussions in the city, it seems to me that not enough has yet been written directly on this topic.
Of course, there is quite a lot said on airport design and operational details, for example, why runways are given catchy names like “26/08 L”. Economists have their data on jobs, business growth, local income and tourism flows. Transport planners have details on promoting good public transport connections. And, some environment campaigners sincerely believe that there is no place for air travel in a sustainable future.
My basic starting point is a belief: that international human and cultural contacts across continents are essential for inculcating peace and reducing xenophobia and racism. Of course, more short-haul travel should be done instead by rail and sea but there is still for me an irreducible social and political need for some air travel; along with the usual economics of trade. We need to remember, globally, that the 20th Century was very violent and deadly; and we need to craft a better future. ‘Imagine all the people living life in peace’ would be just as fitting a message as the ‘Above us only sky’ actual strapline at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. So then, given this belief, can it be sustainably achieved or not?
Firstly, if it can be achieved then it will not be through ‘shallow’ changes such as carbon offsetting or biofuels. These are just comfort blankets, and the more you look into their details the more problems they contain, for example in reducing both biodiversity and the amount of land available for food crops.
Secondly, in sparsely populated areas and spread-out settlements, the carbon footprint of air travel can be less than a network of major roads or rail lines, for example in ‘deep rural’ Australia and Africa. It would be interesting to see which USA city-to-city air routes would be lower carbon overall if replaced by high speed rail. Boston – New York – Washington by rail is already in place. For deep rural operations, propeller-driven small aircraft can be more fuel efficient than jets or helicopters, still travel fast over long distances, and land on a grass strip of less than 400m.
Thirdly, the ‘groundside’ aspects of a sustainable airport would maximise its connections with public transport, including high speed rail (such as is proposed with HS2 and Manchester Airport); and would maximise the energy efficiency of its buildings and processes, such as combined heat and power (CHP) from onsite small power stations. Car parking can be a groundside tension, because it is an income stream for the airport, its tenants and other businesses nearby, yet it is also being discouraged. Interestingly, a study by Manchester Airport showed that there were high proportions of car-to-airport journeys from nearby affluent parts of Cheshire, with public transport users mostly coming from further away as well as from less affluent areas.
Fourthly, and moving airside now: making cement and concrete globally is calculated to be creating more CO2 emissions than is air travel. Therefore there is no intrinsic reason for needing to achieve zero air travel; though of course the failure of international regulation makes tradeoffs between cement and aviation, for example, harder to achieve and impossible currently. The only coherent argument for zero aviation is one which says that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now already so high that there is no acceptable lower limit for CO2 emissions from now on.
Fifthly, also airside: if there is someday soon an internationally agreed quota limit for CO2 emissions from aviation, what might some of its features be like? I would suggest that one key feature would be cooperation replacing competition. Some flights already include code-sharing between different airlines, so that one flight X actually carries passengers who have booked with one of two or more different operators. This could be extended, using smart allocations of aircraft size and crews to flexibly match different demand patterns day by day. The Competition Authorities would have a giddy fit; but someone has to pluck up the courage and tell them they are not always right. Competition is an imperfect science, not a religion. They might just listen to the World Trade Organisation. Next, airports are roughly divided into hubs and feeders. The hubs are more efficient and offer the volumes and range of destinations such that the smart efficiencies above could pay the highest dividends. Frankly, some smaller feeder airports may have to think instead about becoming a better rail connection to their nearest hub, and some larger feeder airports behaving more like hubs, to make the most from the quota of international flying hours available.
Sixthly, the details of what a sustainable city airport would look and feel like in the future would probably depend most on how any quota allocations were cascaded down to individual prospective passengers. For example, would the allocation be based on price alone as now, or by using new personal carbon credits, or mixed with institutional allocations such as to schools and universities, or by cashing in credits gained as a reward for previously having made other journeys by rail or sea?
Does any of this support Boris’s plan for a sixth airport for London? No, the solution to capacity constraints in and around London is for more cooperation to better use what is already there, pending the arrival of international limits.

City-States: are they on the rise again?

When the two co-CEOs of Goldman Sachs wrote in The Times on Thursday (14 Feb 2013) about why leaving the EU would be bad for business, the case they advanced was really about why leaving would be bad for financial businesses in Canary Wharf and in the square mile in the City of London.
Maybe it even got some right-wing MPs dreaming: if only ‘the City’ could stay in the EU but the rest of the UK could leave…?
And this may yet become the way of things, as I would suggest that city-states are on the rise again, with nation-states having a gently declining influence.
Some history: ‘City-states first appeared in Mesopotamia around 3200-3000 BC, and faded with the unification of the German and Italian city-states in the middle of the eighteenth century.’ (Badcock, 2002 p43). So city-states could be the ‘natural order’ of things.
And cities are rising in political influence again, and this is not just about finding Boris in the papers yet again pleading for more money for London. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the USA has been led politically by many American cities, especially between 2000 and 2008 during the GW Bush presidencies when there was high levels of federal hostility concerning actions for less climate change.
We now have an increasing number of ‘world cities’ including London, Mumbai, New York and Tokyo: cities each of a scale and diversity that exceed that of many countries sitting in the United Nations. In terms of realpolitik these world cities already behave like small-to-medium size countries, even though they cannot sign treaties or raise an army.
However, the question also has to asked for places such as the UK: what is the impact of sharing your country with a world-city? How much does the gravitational pull of London add to or suck away from other UK cities? Some parts of the UK essentially see London as another country, an export market, a place where one hopes to sell products, a place to which people ’emigrate’ to find work, a place that may look to outsource some teleworking locally. Currently there seems room for only one world-city on each continent, so Paris and Berlin never mind a UK city have their work cut out in trying to out-bid London. But Winchester was once a major city, and not so much these days, so long-term change is possible.
In effect London already has powers denied to any other UK city, both hard power in laws such as regulating transport, and soft power in terms of gaining major investments and resources for its grand projets.
City-regions in the UK such as Greater Manchester are exploring how much they can increase their self-control with the new legal arrangement of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the new softer powers within the City Deal agreements with the UK government to better manage some central functions locally.
However, the removal of many millions of pounds from the income of city councils in the UK, with thousands of jobs lost and services cut entirely, could set back the power of city-regions by decades. As President Obama said this week in his State of the Union speech, ‘we cannot cut our way to prosperity’. Exactly. Book:
Blair Badcock (2002), Making Sense of Cities, London: Arnold/Hodder.