Friday, 26 September 2008

Does restricting big-boxes help independent retailers?

It seems obvious that restricting out-of-town big boxes should help central city retailers. So planning guidance that restricts their entry not only protects the green belt but also helps revitalise town centres. And it should also help independent retailers to boot. Right?

As is so often the case, unfortunately, life is not that simple. A fascinating new paper by Raffaella Sadun suggests that in England, restricting out-of-town big boxes can actually hurt independent retailers. Why? Because big chains appear to have substituted out-of-town boxes for smaller stores in city centres that more directly compete with those independent retailers.

Of course, this can't tell us about the overall effects on town centre vitality or on the environment. But it does remind us that the law of unintended consequences means that there is a crucial role for careful research in evaluating these effects. SERC researchers are intending to look at some of these issues in the near future. It will be interesting to see what we find.

Friday, 19 September 2008

House building (again)

A few weeks back, I wrote about the fact that the most recent housebuilding figures didn't bode well for long term affordability. David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation is set to talk about this today - he suggests that the government target of three million new homes in England by 2020 is "almost impossible" to meet. To help, they want more spending by government and faster planning decisions.

Its difficult to see how either of either of these measures can make a significant difference. £400m pounds from CLG will help pay for 5,500 homes over the next 18 months. Mr Orr is predicting a shortfall of 1.4m homes ...

Faster planning will help to some extent, but not if planners still end up saying no to housing. As I've discussed elsewhere, addressing such anti-house building sentiment will require more imaginative ways to ensure that communities are actually willing to accept new housing.

[PS: The post that I just referred to was concerned with rural housing. One of the issues that always crops up there is the "problem" of second homes. So, I was interested to see that CLG's latest report on Housing in England (published yesterday) had some figures on this. In the last decade, the number of second homes increased by roughly 40,000 to 241,000. While this might cause a problem for a small number of selected rural communities, its hard to see this as a major issue for housing affordability in the UK as a whole.]

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Early intervention

I have just returned from paternity leave, so should declare a personal interest in the issue of early years intervention - the subject of a joint Smith Institute / Centre for Social Justice report published yesterday.

While there are clearly many strong arguments to be made for early years intervention, there is however one conclusion, highlighted by the press release, that I find difficult to square with research literature. This is the idea that "a child stands a better chance in life if he or she comes from a bad family in a good neighbourhood than a good family in a bad neighbourhood".

As Paul Cheshire, Steve Gibbons and Ian Gordon discuss in a recent SERC policy paper "there is little evidence of material effects from local social mix on [life chances] at least for the disadvantaged groups which are the major focus of this concern". If such effects are detected their influence is usually swamped by those of individual and family characteristics so it seems highly unlikely that the influence of a 'bad' neighbourhood could outweigh that of a 'good' family.

This matters because it means that the policy response needs to be targeted to help particular families rather than particular neighbourhoods. And one would imagine that how to go about the former is a much more politically contentious issue than tackling the latter.