Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Rural Living Costs

The Commission for Rural Communities report on rural living costs has received wide coverage today. According to the report you need 10-20% more to afford a minimum standard of living in the countryside.

It's interesting to see where those differences come from. The report assumes that people (non-pensioners) in rural areas have to have at least one car (two if both people are working age). Because the stock of housing is different in rural areas a couple with two children, get a three bedroom semi-detached house (rather than terraced); while a single working age adult gets a two bedroom house (their urban equivalent gets a one bedroom flat). However, the fact that you get a bigger house doesn't enter in to the cost calculation, while the fact that it costs more to heat bigger houses does. Because these places have gardens, rural people need more money to look after those gardens. They also need wellies.

So, if I understand the report correctly, it costs more to have a car, heat a bigger house and look after a garden (including the need for appropriate footwear). For rural people all these things are considered requirements for the minimum standard of living, while for the urban poor they are not.

Not only do I find it odd not to compare like with like, but these kind of calculations also seem to imply there are no amenity values to these things which compensate for the costs. A useful thought experiment - how many urban poor would be willing to give up 10% of their income (around £1,400) to have a car, and a house with a garden? Of course, in reality, they can't do this because it would cost much more to have these things in urban places (particularly the house and garden). Of course, all of this ignores the fact that (some) rural areas deliver other amenity benefits that make people willing to buy expensive houses to benefit from them.

For these reasons, I don't see how these minimum income standards provide an accurate picture about differences in the quality of life between urban and rural poor, even though I am sure they will be interpreted as such.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Local Procurement for Local Authorities?

Someone suggests to me that Local Authorities are increasingly interested in local authority procurement as a way to create or sustain local jobs.

I hope that this isn't true, but worry that it might be. Let me put it bluntly: Local procurement is a pretty silly policy. One LA doing it might have some benefits but at the cost of higher procurement costs (if they could be lowering costs by procuring locally, why aren’t they already doing it?). If many LA's try it, how will that help? LA1 stops buying from firms in LA2 and vice-versa? That would appear to be a recipe for costs up with no obvious benefits (again, assuming that LAs are sourcing for their particular needs at lowest cost currently).

Tit-for-tat protectionism (may have) contributed to prolonging the great depression. With finances tight and the economy struggling, surely not a good moment to start encouraging protectionism at the LA level?

Friday, 12 November 2010

New Homes Bonus

The government has provided more details on the new homes bonus that local councils will get when they allow houses to be built.

I am certain that this is a step in the right direction in trying to counter the considerable disincentives LAs face in agreeing to new homes. It's hard, however, to be optimistic that it will lead to that much more house building. This will depend on whether the incentives are sufficient to offset the reduction in direct government expenditure and the moves to give local communities more say in decisions. On the latter the BBC reports: "Ministers say the number of new homes being built is at its lowest peacetime level for 85 years and it intends to overhaul the planning system to make it easier to get schemes off the ground and to give councils and communities the final say over where developments are sited." I continue to think that these two objectives largely contradictory.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Local growth

The government launched its White Paper on sub-national growth last week. This spells out the government's approach to local growth policy, lists the first local enterprise partnerships (LEP) to get the go ahead and spells out some of the details of the £1.4bn regional growth fund.

There are, unsurprisingly, complaints from LAs whose LEPs proposals have not yet been accepted. These complaints have been reinforced, by some impressive mis-reporting on the consequences of this (LAs outside LEPs can still be part of consortium bidding to the regional growth fund, despite initial press coverage to the contrary). Others complain about the overall amount of money available. Coverage has been largely overshadowed by the continuing row over housing benefit. This is a pity, because the White Paper spells out an interesting shift in the approach to local growth.

The previous government aimed to get poorer places catching up with richer. That is, it argued for making places more similar. This was always going to be very difficult. First, because the market amplifies small differences across places. Second, because different people choose to live in different places (e.g. higher skilled in the South East) and who you are is much more important than where you live in determining well being. Government might be able to overcome these two countervailing forces, but it would require spending so much money that no government could credibly commit to delivering on the objective. Given that the coalition government intends to spend a lot less money it has simply ditched the objective and accepted that places will be different. At the same time it has also recognised that who you are is as much, if not more important than where you live. This realism is encouraging, because it forces policy to consider the best course of action given local circumstances. This requires decisions made by local communities - hence the shift to LEPs from RDAs. For most policy areas this is a shift in the right direction (I still think there are concerns around transport and land use).

The White Paper then turns its focus to regulations (e.g. land use) and removing barriers to work (e.g. disincentives created by the benefits system). I might have quibbles with the details (e.g. I still don't see that the New Homes Bonus will be large enough), but these considerations are fundamentally important and were not well addressed by existing policy. They will also need to take centre stage in a world where the government has decided to spend much less money.

That brings us to the final part of the White Paper and the proposals for the Regional Growth Fund. In short, £1.4bn of money will be allocated to projects on the basis of competitive bids to central government. I can see there are arguments in favour of this mechanism: local areas have incentives to put forward their best projects, government chooses the best of the best; but it does fit uncomfortably with the decentralisation agenda. Personally, at a minimum, I would have liked to see some funds going to LAs to fund LEPs for them to do what they want in the broad area of local development.

Overall then, I think this represents a step in the right direction. Of course, whether the structural changes are enough to offset the large reduction in expenditure remains to be seen. I am, perhaps, less pessimistic than some because I think a lot of the previous "investment" was wasted. Others, I am sure, would strongly disagree with that assessment.