Keeping it close to home

I have been interested in the geographic relation of private landlords to their portfolios. Made by possible by a unique spatial analysis of a dataset of registered private rental properties in Scotland, I produced a draft paper on the proximity of landlords to their portfolios and the implications of this for expanding the rented sector. This work in progress was presented at the ENHR conference in Lillehammer, Norway on 26 June 2012.

You can download a copy of the slides here: ENHR Lillehammer Ferrari_lores2

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Housing finance and policy in the UK and US: the same, or different?

As a British academic (and without meaning any disrespect to American colleagues) I usually approach US conferences with some trepidation. For a start, they always seem to start at 7.30 in the morning (ridiculously macho!) with papers talking about British planning issues (and other minority sports) relegated to the early morning graveyard slots. The well attended papers later in the day, talking about US matters, often require a deep background knowledge of the particularities of the American system. One is often left wondering whether there really is a common language between us.

Happily, a recent trip to New York changed my view completely. An excellent conference hosted by the New School fostered some genuinely shared collaborations on matters of housing policy and finance and left me with the impression that, even if the niceties of language and the technicalities of policy are different, the basic struggles and problems facing planners and policymakers in our two countries are remarkably similar. (And they’re also not too far from those experienced in other parts of the world, too, including those parts of Europe that have a very different welfare model to our own.) The common element, of course, is that systems that are broadly capitalist in nature throw up all the same sorts of problem: uneven economic growth, housing market volatility, the plight of the urban poor, gentrification and displacement, etc. How we think about the solutions is where the differences begin to emerge. That said, it’s clear that however we try to cut the cake we’ll end up with the same issue: not enough to go around. This applies equally to the US and the UK, where a million different combinations of land tax, betterment, tax credits, tax increment financing, public-private partnerships, leaseback schemes, welfare conditionality and caps — and complex subsidies and instruments of what a delegate charmingly referred to as “the French vanilla” variety — fail to really make a dent in the intractable housing problems that have beset our nations’ communities in various ways for over a century.

'Hyper-gentrification' in Manhattan's Lower West Side: from zero to six-zeroes in a few years

Without wishing to be overly dramatic, it might boil down to what Anne Shlay considered to be a fundamental problem with the way we conceptualise of the value of housing. Governments traditionally seem to undervalue housing, seeing it often in strictly economic terms. We will not get housing policies and systems that are fair and affordable, meet needs and secure minimum standards of quality, and promote environmental sustainability without investing in housing with the explicit recognition that it is a social good.  The philanthropists of the 19th Century recognised this in their own rather bounded ways (i.e., good housing = productive workforce) and we can apply that logic to recognise housing’s direct and indirect impacts on a variety of other goods including health, education, crime, and transport.

* * *

Robert Moses' fiefdom: Wards Island and the Triborough (Robert F Kennedy) bridge

My visit to New York was the first in about 8 years and I was keen to see how it might have changed. To an outsider such as myself, the first impression was: “not by much”. It’s still the incredibly brash, vibrant, delightfully monumental mess that it ever was. Compared to sqeakily efficient European cities it still seems to have something of the dirty residue of the chronic fiscal problems of the Wagner and Lindsay eras (but in actuality it’s a lot sprucer than that). It’s still largely paying the price of the Moses fiefdom, with its snobby parkways, surgical expressways, totemic bridges, and crushing housing projects. In contrast to the rest of the world, you can even find payphones that work. Bits of the place still truly never sleep.

Not all parts of the West Side Highway bike path are pretty: but it is functional!

But under the skin there are some subtle and not-so-subtle changes. The scars of 9/11 are still there: much of lower Manhattan is still a building site, though with much more optimism than before. But I sensed (perhaps wrongly) that New Yorkers were, sadly, becoming ever so slightly more like Londoners in that they didn’t seem to talk so much to each other on the subway. (They’re still unfailingly friendly and helpful, though, which I think surprises many). But the biggest change I saw (I’m sure there are others!): the invasion of hundreds, thousands of cyclists into the sacred domain of the yellow cab: the fearsome avenues that run for 100s of blocks north and south the length of Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg appears to have pulled off what the grumbling cabbies would have said was impossible: slicing an entire traffic lane out of these arteries and giving them over to bikes, without snarling everything up. This, together with countless other examples of pedestrian and bike friendly infrastructure throughout (including the famous West Side Highway bike path, part of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway) mean that the eternal dominance of the medallion cab now seems less sure. (And a good many of them are now compact hybrids rather than the petrol guzzling boats they’ve had since the days of the checker cabs.)

* * *

Now there's a pessimistic bunch...!

So, back to the conference. I and my fellow panellists were accused (nicely!) by Christine Whitehead of being far too pessimistic about the capacity of our present systems to deal with the housing crisis. George Galsterwrapped things up very nicely by using one of his famous flow charts (with feedback loops!) to demonstrate why we might have reasons for pessimism: there are too many structural determinants and self-reinforcing mechanisms moving in the wrong direction to believe that short term solutions will prove to be an enduring fix. But, despite what Christine says, I am generally an optimist and if there’s one thing that visiting a city like New York — with its endless capacity to adapt and change and yet still stay the same — tells me is that, with luck, something of the human spirit and the ingenuity of humankind will prevail to fix the worst things, even if we do invent some new problems as we go along.

I am indebted to Alex Schwartz of the New School, the Housing Studies Charitable Trust, and the Rockefeller Foundation for organising the conference and inviting me to speak at it.

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Keep Portland Weird…

I’m lucky enough to be spending a some time in Oregon, in the USA’s Pacific Northwest. The Northwest is interesting to planners for a number of reasons. There are big debates about environmental protection versus an economy driven by the exploitation of abundant natural resources. There is, especially in Oregon, a strong system of land use planning. There are examples everywhere of the type of local, community led initiatives that champion ‘sustainability’ of every kind from food production and agriculture, to transport choices. There’s a vibrant arts and cultural industries scene. There’s even a sense that planning looks beyond national borders, as the connections to British Columbia are important. Generally, it’s seen as one of the best places to live in the US.

Keep Portland Weird!

Portland is often regarded as a shining example of how strong land use planning can lead to a more liveable city. It’s true that there’s a pleasant greenness to it all, and cheap and effective public transport, including an extensive light rail system, rather bucks the stereotypical image we have of American cities. The Portlanders that I spoke to seemed proud of the way that their city was different to others (“Keep

Portland's Streetcar

Portland Weird” is a favourite motto…) and, bizarrely, many seemed to have an opinion – and not always negative – about the work of planners! This must be music to the ears of planners in Britain, most of whom seem to spend their lives thinking of ways that they can describe their profession in terms that are, well, socially acceptable to the people they meet.

Others that I spoke to had a more critical take, though. They see the whole ‘Portland thing’ as a bit overblown, an artifice, even, that masks the same deep-rooted problems that you might find in any other medium sized city in the capitalist world. There’s the weak economy, the low income neighbourhoods that are highly segregated and conveniently on the other side of the river, the not-so-good local school system, the funding pressures on local services including the feted light rail, the low birth rates, the poor housing conditions, traffic congestion, and so on.  Even America’s greenest city is predictably ringed by noisy freeways. The long distance railway station, serving a metropolitan area of 3 million people, is about the size of Scarborough’s and probably has about a tenth of the services. (It’s a very quaint chunk of the American railroad’s glorious past, though.)

Ringed by freeways like many other US cities

Last week, I gave a talk at Portland State University on some of my thoughts about the English Housing Market Renewal programme. The US has had, of course, HOPE VI, a programme that lasted twice as long as HMR and spent about $6 billion. But while HOPE VI focused more or less exclusive on public housing estates, HMR was multi tenure in its focus. HUD’s new Choice Neighborhoods programme appears to take on some of the public-private aspects of HMR, even if public housing remains the focus, and it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

This week I’m in Eugene, a small city to the south of the state and home to the University of Oregon. Eugene is an extraordinarily good place for cycling, putting it it up there with places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen on the bike-friendliness scale. The clean, green Oregon image really does seem to be in evidence in Eugene, a walkable city with impeccable participatory planning credentials and a laid-back, politically progressive population. Again, though, places like Eugene are not without their problems. The University dominates things here, including the local economy. ‘Tracktown USA’ — as it’s sometimes called in homage to its impressive athletics pedigree — seems to have problems with education planning (its school choice programmes can generate long commutes for children), a hollowed-out retail core as a result of two giant shopping centres on the periphery, and a local economy that’s dominated by public sector employers.

New student rental apartments -- property tax exempt!

Although I’ll be spending most of my time here working on a research collaboration and discussing study-abroad possibilities for planning students, I’ve been lucky enough to have some discussions with local landlords and council staff about housing. Of particular interest to me is the way that Eugene is using something called ‘MUPTE‘ — the Multi Unit Property Tax Exemption — as a way of stimulating large-scale investment in denser housing types. It has had particular impact on the market for private rented housing. Tax incentives of this type, coupled with a strong zoning principle that designates land for multi unit housing, seem to be instrumental in a building boom focused at the provision of apartment complexes, especially for students. While the British system is of course very different, schemes of this type are surely of interest in any context where the growth of institutional investor interest in private rented housing  is the goal.

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Attercliffe – The ‘Lost Gateway’ to Sheffield

Sometimes you don’t plan to get involved in things necessarily, but they take on a life of their own and you get to see some great things happening as a result.  In my last blog entry, I took the opportunity to publicise a low key ‘exhibition’ of students’ work on ideas for the regeneration of Attercliffe.  Thanks to great work by Philip Strafford we got some media interest from the Yorkshire Post and, as a result of that, some folk who’re really involved in the future of Attercliffe (textbooks would call them ‘stakeholders’) kindly gave up their time to come and have a look.

The former Banner's department store on Attercliffe Road

I knew the students had put a lot of work in, but I could not have anticipated the strength of the positive reaction from those that came to see their posters.  To cut a long story short, Steve Birch, a planner from Sheffield City Council and David Slater, chair of the Attercliffe Business Connection, suggested that the posters needed a more public airing in order to raise the profile of Attercliffe and its need for investment – and of course to publicise the Council’s own Attercliffe Action Plan.

And what better place to capture the imagination of the Sheffield public than Sheffield’s brilliant Winter Garden?

From left: Town & Regional Planning students George Breed and Emily Webster, Cllr Harry Harphum, David Slater of Attercliffe Business Connection, Ed Ferrari of Sheffield University. and Mohammed Mahroof of Attercliffe Asian Business Connection

So on Thursday 23 February we set up some of the posters right in the middle of the Winter Garden and spent the whole day talking to a very broad mix of people, all of them united in their concern to see how Attercliffe might change for the better over the coming years. Representatives from the the Council, Attercliffe Busines Connection and Attercliffe Asian Business Connection joined myself and students in loitering with intent all day, talking to intersting passers-by, and even chatting to Rony Robinson on Radio Sheffield about what Attercliffe means to the city. The strategic importance of the area, both historically and now, was one of the recurring themes – the idea that Attercliffe is an incredibly important ‘gateway’ to Sheffield but was suffered a poor reputation. This was highlighted not least by visits from Councillor Harry Harphum, cabinet member for housing and regeneration, and Councillor Shaffaq Mohammed, leader of the the Lib Dem opposition.

It was a great day, and I think members of the public genuinely enjoyed seeing the ‘lost gateway’ of Attercliffe getting the attention it deserves. Hopefully the energies of local businesses, residents, officers and councillors will lead to Attercliffe getting the investment it needs. For me and for the students it was an invaluable lesson in the importance of getting out there – and of the power of the media!


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Attercliffe showcase – Thursday 15 December

Anybody that knows Sheffield knows the neighbourhood of Attercliffe - sometimes for the ‘wrong’ reasons. It’s fair to say that the once-vibrant area has a bit of an air of dilapidation these days, as it has for some time. But it remains one of the most fascinating — and productive — areas of the city. It’s home to a huge diversity of businesses of all types, including some significant national companies who call Attercliffe their headquarters. It’s got some world class sporting and leisure facilities, places to eat, good transportconnections … but is something missing?

There’s almost always this idea that ‘something needs to be done’ to the area. (Sheffield City Council have recently produced an action planThe former Banners Department Store, Attercliffe.)  Much of the concerns focus on the High Street, its rather eclectic range of shops, massage parlours and fast-fooderies where the tag ‘independent retailer’ is a fact of life, not some kind of trendy tag of desire. Is salvation to be found in a Sainsbury’s, as some say? Or does Attercliffe’s ‘problems’ stem from the fact that very few people – residents – actually call it home? Are former ‘communities’ like Attercliffe something worth holding on to, or should changing market forces be making all the decisions?

Final year planning students from the Department of Town & Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield will be showcasing some of their ideas about Attercliffe, the challenges it has faced and will face, and what (if anything) might be done about them. Everybody is welcome — and the students have promised to feed and water anybody that comes to see what they’ve put together.

Their showcase will be in the Geography & Planning Building on Winter Street from noon until 3 pm on Thursday 15 December.  It’s building 102 on the Uni’s campus map. (nearest tram: University. Buses: 51 52 95).  Email me if you need any further details. All are welcome.

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The Code for our urban future: back to SimCity!

Over the past couple of weeks, I have managed to catch snippets of the BBC programme The Code. As someone who was interested in maths and physics at school (now mostly forgotten, alas) I found it well worth watching. As an example of how mathematicians and natural scientists are able to get their simple messages across to a mass audience, it was a salutary lesson to us social scientists who are usually more interested in making things sound too complicated; too hard to properly understand.

The first episode I watched used the example of fractal geometry to explain how ‘codes’ can explain seeming randomness in nature. It was compelling, cogent and digestible material for the early evening slot it occupied — a perfect example of how complex science can have a mass impact through careful translation of the key message.

But it rather fell apart, I thought, when the series turned its attention to social and urban systems. It seemed to suggest that the complexities of the urban space economy can be reduced to a set of infinitely scalable constants in the same way that the fractal ‘code’ explains observable patterns in trees and mountains. The answer, according to theoritical physicist Geoffrey West, is apparently 1.15. Double the size of a city and you get a 15% bonus for your efforts: 15% more income; 15% more restaurants to eat in, 15% more trains than you might otherwise feel you’ve got a right to crowd on to.

But thinking about it — or, at least, the way it was explained on TV — it seems really no more than an unconvincing evocation of the social physics of at least 40 years ago. That’s not to say that the models of sort proposed by the likes of Alan Wilson, then and now, are without their uses. They’re not. It’s just that we’ve also found that they don’t account very well for the rather cumbersome tendency for sociospatial relations to morph and confound expectations when we look at them in different ways. Or as that hallowed journal of urban affairs the Daily Mail puts it, ‘no doubt it seems reductionist to reduce the buzz of New York or the sophistication of Paris to a single number.’

That reminded me of one of the reasons why I bought a computer in the first place when I was 17 (remember MS-DOS?). It was to play the computer game SimCity. Despite it being a totally brilliant piece of entertainment, one of the great frustrations about SimCity  was that you couldn’t really get its system of rules and models to satisfactorily emulate urban systems that were faithful to experiences of cities beyond those of the standard North American model, or even of some of the more interesting  (but unmodelled) social and cultural phenomena we might associate with American urban life — the sort of stuff brilliantly depicted in The Wire. It hasn’t stopped people from trying, though. IBM has recently developed something called Systems Dynamics for Smarter Cities — the first customer is Portland, Oregon, apparently — and it promises to ‘support the development of metrics for the Portland Plan, the City’s roadmap for the next 25 years’ (IBM, 2011). Will it work? If we know anything about cities and their complex politics, probably not. But, like The Code, it’ll be interesting to watch.

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‘Excess commuting’ to school

I was fortunate to receive a small research grant from the British Academy to undertake some preliminary work looking at the relationship between residential housing markets and travel to school.

In the course of preparing some of the data for analysis I hope to report on in a forthcoming paper at the UK Planning Research Conference, I began using the network analysis capabilities of a GIS to examine, using anonymous data on postcodes, where children in Sheffield went to school.

Borrowing on the concept of ‘excess commuting’, it was interesting to see how far the actual pattern of school trips in the city deviated from what might be termed the ‘optimal’ pattern of trips that would arise if every pupil went to his or her nearest school. (Of course, this is only an artificial optimality in that it ignores the way that trips to school need to fit into the daily routines of parents, decisions about school ‘quality’, decisions about faith schools, etc.)

Sheffield, in line with most English education authorities, uses a system of catchment areas which notionally assigns children to schools on the basis of home address. There are some flexibilities which mean that catchment areas are not always observed and, indeed, it is the general thrust of policy to increase the choices that parents can make about the children’s schooling.

The choice agenda is a significant project that lies at the heart of political and societal reforms in recent years and in years to come. But it is interesting to observe that in many cases, be it choice in the hospitals we use, the supermarkets we visit, or the schools we might send our children to, there explicit tradeoffs that need to be made, noticeably in terms of travel time and accessibility. Given that there are huge and well founded concerns about the environmental costs of wasteful travel and the economic costs of congestion, the proponents of choice need to be at least cognisant of the travel implications of the agenda they pursue.

A few basic results astounded me.

  • Fewer than half of primary school pupils in Sheffield actually go to the school that is nearest to them (in terms of the transport network).  (Unsurprisingly, pupils that walk or bike to school are more likely to go to the school nearest to them.)
  • Despite higher development densities, those pupils living in so-called ‘city living’ types of neighbourhood are the least likely to go to the nearest school. This might say something about the paucity of schools in general in central areas.
  • In total, Sheffield’s primary school pupils travel around 116,000 kilometres to and from school each day. About 43% of journeys are by private car ; a similar proportion of journeys are walking trips.
  • If all pupils went to their nearest school, the total travel distance would be around 61,000 kilometers.  There is therefore ‘excess commuting’ of around 55,000 kilometres a day – an excess of 90% – in Sheffield. That is only primary school pupils.
  • Taking mode of transport into account and using the emissions estimates provided by the Guardian, the excess commute of primary school children equates to approximately 2,000 kg of additional CO2 emissions in the city each school day.

These are simply some basic facts but the key point is that choice in public services has hidden costs that result from the spatial arrangement of homes, schools and workplaces (urban structure) and the commuting that arrangement gives rise to. It also raises some interesting questions about the housing market. Given the received wisdom (backed up by a few empirical studies) that school quality is capitalised into house prices, what impact will liberalisation of school choice have on housing markets? And if already fewer than half of children go to their nearest school will there be any real effect, and is the current house price premium justified or simply a market response to something imagined? Are the attempts to increase walking and cycling to school through improvements to urban design and urban form and through to engender behavioural change simply going to be ineffective in the face of the brute force of existing relations between home and school?

I hope that through further work I’ll be able to say a bit more about some of these questions. If anything I have realised how important it is to understand the housing market from the perspective of social policy or transport as well as simply thinking about it through the lens of housing and planning policy.

Thanks to Marc Schlossberg and Yizhao Yang for useful discussions to help frame the problem and for help with access to some relevant data. Thanks to Aidan While for pointers on carbon emissions data.



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The impact agenda – 60s style!

When glancing through old journals and books on planning, it never ceases to surprise me how most of the problems we think of as contemporary are, of course, anything but.  That is perhaps as much an indictment of our past abilities to effectively synthesise and disseminate knowledge as it is of our present-day lack of imagination.

A couple of old issues of OAP Journal for the Built Environment recently caught my eye. (It’s amazing what you find behind the furniture in universities…) Both were theme issues of what (I guess) went on to become Built Environment. The first, from February 1972, deals with the tricky subject of urban motorways. In Sheffield, we can probably be glad that ambitious plans for an urban motorway scheme never came to fruition and that, as a result, the city is not nearly as blighted in that regard as Leeds, Glasgow or Newcastle upon Tyne. There was a great deal of insight in 1972 into the problems associated with urban motorways and of the very costly technical fixes that might have been employed to mitigate their environmental and social impacts — fixes, incidentally, that we refused to do but that many European countries appear to have found the money for. But the reason I mention it is that on the same day I was thumbing through this particular issue of OAP (while recalling the guilty pleasures of being driven around the M8 in Glasgow as a child and thinking it was the future…) I received an email from the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland subscription service proudly proclaiming the completion of the M74 motorway through Glasgow’s Southside,  more or less, as I gather, along the lines envisaged for it in the 1960 Highway Plan for Glasgow (see Milligan, 1972). Plans can be a long time in the making! But it does raise the question of whether the world moves on so much as to render those plans looking, well, a bit daft. Or maybe not. Time will tell us whether the economic needs of west central Scotland, as embodied in the clear political drive to finish this road, will be succesfully balanced with the need for the social and environmental regeneration of what is probably the biggest concentration of socioeconomic deprivation in the UK. But if history does tell us anything it is that this new road would not have been built through the leafy West End – nobody’s talking about resurrecting the Great Western Road expressway scheme, presumably because land prices would simply be prohibitive as much as anything else. So is it steely political resolve, or just plain old land economics?

Destructive as though urban motorways are, they have probably proven to be less controversial in hindsight than the topic dealt with in January 1972’s edition of OAP: slum clearance — another urban problem that refuses to go away. The Housing Market Renewal scheme in England is the most recent incarnation of a longstanding desire to modernise and improve housing areas comprehensively. That programme (recently canned by Housing Minister Grant Shapps halfway through) attracted a lot of criticism. It’s no secret that I have written in broadly supportive terms about the programme because I understood it to be responding to a long term structural issue of economic decline and change in some very depressed areas — a response to the inevitable failures of leaving neighbourhood to the vagaries of the market. As someone convinced by the theoretical attractions of demand side economic policy it seemed logical to me that housing policy should work much more closely with local economic matters, in a much more strategic way. Against that backdrop, the heritage arguments of the likes of SAVE Britiain’s Heritage seemed just about as unfeeling towards local needs as did the bulldozer’s circling round Ringo Starr’s childhood home. What does Liverpool need in the long run? Jobs and a sustainable housing market, or a few more quaint crumbling terraces so beloved of the Islington set (but with about a third of the square footage as those in N1)? That said, I am concerned that the HMR programme had lots of flaws and, at times, was badly executed (if strategically sound). And of course it had very real impacts on local residents who were forced to sell up and move on, just as for those living in the path of the M74 that will soon glide Lanarkshire commuters to their destination 10 minutes quicker, or for those living in Ashopton who had to make way for the needs of thirsty Sheffielders. The social justice issues are of course enormous, but we’re all complicit in them to some degree whenever we get in our cars or even just turn on our taps.

So why did I find the OAP article so interesting? Well, it seems that the overt defence for the massive upheaval of slum clearance back in the 60s was as much about dealing with “the throes of a massive economic reconstruction” (Amos, 1972) as it was about getting people out of “intolerable housing conditions” (ibid.). So, even HMR, with its new twist on housing through economic rescaling, was not a new idea in that sense.

Amos, F. J. C. (1972) ‘Reply to Alan Stones’, OAP Journal for the Built Environment, 35 (2), p. 110.
Milligan, J. (1972) ‘Something the matter with Glasgow’, OAP Journal for the Built Environment, 35 (1), pp. 18-24.
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Index of Deprivation 2010: Continuous multivariate mapping

There has been quite a bit of recent activity around the release of the 2010 Indices of Deprivation (for England) as we all try to get to grips with what it says about the state of neighbourhood and communities throughout the country. (My colleague Alasdair Rae has posted a load of fascinating stuff on his blog.) A lot is, of course, at stake because the IMD (as it’s known) inevitably winds up being used in all sorts of ways, including as a basis for prioritisation of policy and funding attention.

But it has its limitations, like anything that essentially aims to reduce complex social phenomena and constructions into a score or rank.  We’re all tempted, as well, to use the IMD to look at trends and to compare places over time — despite the warnings that that is not what the IMD was designed for, or even suitable for.  One of the good things about the more recent editions of the IMD is that it includes much more up to date information on a variety of different indicators, grouped into reasonably useful ‘domains’. Getting at the individual scores for these domains means we can begin to do more with the data as a snapshot (and resist the temptation to just look at the overall score and how it has changed over time).

As someone interested in GIS and mapping techniques I’ve always been attracted to the small-area data contained in the IMD. Yet, the number of different variables it contains can sometimes frustrate the possibilities of looking at subtle differences in the qualitative nature of deprivation between places without recourse to more complex statistical techniques (which become less immediate and less intuitive).

So using multivariate mapping techniques offers some way forward. The attached example, which I’ve called a ‘continuous multivariate map’, was produced by separating three of the IMD’s domain scores (income, living environment, crime) into different colours in the RGB (red-green-blue) colour model. Each place is therefore given an overall colour that is dependent on the mixing of the three colours (or the three domain scores). All three domains are equally weighted. A place that is ‘red’, for example, is deprived mainly in terms of income but not the other two domains.  Places coloured white score highly on all three domains. Darker colours score lower and are comparatively less deprived. And so on.

IMD example South YorkshireThe results are mildly interesting because they show how the mix of facets of deprivation can vary within a city. The example map shows Sheffield, a notoriously divided city in social and economic terms. The affluent west end comes out quite clearly as not being particular deprived – if it is, it is in terms of the living environment of those suburbs closer to the main employers (universities and hospitals). A band of blue, again near to the universities, shows neighbourhoods where poor living environment and problems with crime appear to coexist, but where in general low incomes are not so much of a problem. Contrast this with the east end of the city where higher levels of deprivation manifest themselves in quite different ways.  The north-eastern suburbs score highly on all three domains. Some of the south-eastern suburbs, which have quite attractive built environments and generous built-form standards, are nevertheless afflicted by high crime and low incomes.

Of course none of this is more than an interesting exercise in visualisation. It tells us nothing about the complex links between these domains, nor of causality. But moving away from a “one number” approach to measuring and visualising deprivation can only be a good thing.

The original inspiration for this type of map came from Stan Openshaw’s Census Users’ Handbook, 1995, Geoinformation International, Cambridge. See in particular Danny Dorling’s chapter, ‘Visualising the 1991 Census’.

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Despite the downturn, the housing market gap grows: we need a new approach

I was recently involved in a short project for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looking at the issue of housing market volatility in the UK, but from the perspective of local areas. Inevitaby, the report doesn’t actually tackle what hardcore economists would term as volatility (i.e., the standard deviation of housing price change) but looks at how different areas and types of area in the UK fared in crude housing market terms.

Two simple messages stood out for me.

The first is that the most recent boom-bust cycle in the UK’s housing market — which was the longest in recent history — allowed the opening up of very significant disparities between different parts of the country. There is some support for the notion of a ‘ripple’ effect, led by London and the south east of England, but by the time its benefits were reaching other parts of the country, the good times came to an end. Housing market volatility (or, at the very least, patterns of house price change) is now a very different experience depending on where you live, in what type of housing, in what sort of neighbourhood, etc. This is in contrast to the previous (shorter) cycles which tended to work in unison across the country (see graphic).

The second important point is that all of this spatial variation seems to closely track a slew of demand side indicators related to household wealth; local economic change; migration; and so forth. This calls into question the rather blunt supply-side instruments we have tended to use to try to control volatility in the housing market. Where we have intervened in the housing market it has often been on the supply side: growth targets, speeding up the planning system, designing new types of ‘intermediate’ tenures. All important, perhaps, but pointless unless we also address the fundamental underlying causes of changes in the demand for housing. 

It reminds me of something that David Webster wrote back in 1998 in a conference paper looking at the issue of low demand for housing in the north of England. He said that, “the emphasis should generally be on rebuilding the blue collar employment base of low income neighbourhoods in the cities and coalfields” (Webster, 1998, p. 47). Whether this is realistic or not – or what constitutes ‘blue collar’ now – is of course open to debate, but I think that Webster was right in saying that we need to give the demand side – at the local level – much more consideration when we think about trying to sort out the problems of the housing market.

The full report and a summary can be downloaded from the JRF’s website. An article based on this research was published in a special supplement to the New Statesman, available here.


Webster, D. (1998) ‘Employment Change, Housing Abandonment and Sustainable Development: Structural Processes and Structural Issues’, in S.Lowe, S.Spencer & P.Keenan (eds.), Housing Abandonment in Britain: Studies in the causes and effects of low demand housing, pp.47-60, Centre for Housing Policy, University of York, ISBN 1 874797 87 0.

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