Tag Archives: England

Why are English local authorities behaving like property companies?

By Brett Christophers, Uppsala University

Flickr user Balmain

In March 2019, Harrogate Borough Council in North Yorkshire launched an independent, arms-length housing company called Bracewell Homes to focus on ‘the purchase, development, sale and leasing of dwellings, as a commercial venture for the borough’. The same month, at the other end of the country, but in an equally leafy milieu, West Berkshire Council announced that it had spent £60 million of a planned total new investment of £100 million in commercial property, not for the purpose of delivering council services but rather to be let to tenants; the properties it had purchased included offices, a warehouse and two supermarkets, the latter located, ironically enough, in North Yorkshire.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007–08, a string of English local authorities (‘councils’) have pursued similar initiatives: over a third are believed to have invested in commercial property to earn rental income, and nearly half are estimated to have established a private housing company.

These ventures have elicited a barrage of criticism. Councils, it is said, should not be behaving like property companies – investment in commercial property is a risky business at the best of times, and if councils are going to build residential property then it should only be social housing on a not-for-profit basis.

The initiatives in question are the focus of my new Transactions article, which is targeted toward a general audience as well as a scholarly one. It tries to do four main things.

The first is to paint an overview picture of these initiatives. Drawing on a range of secondary sources, the article discusses how prevalent they are, the regulatory context within which they have evolved, and the different approaches used by different local authorities.

The second contribution of the article is to conceptualise the initiatives in terms of what has come to be termed the ‘financialisation’ of urban development, namely a set of processes whereby financial actors, markets and/or logics come to play an increasingly important role in the development of the urban built environment. Insofar as English local authorities have been establishing housing companies and investing in shopping centres and the like with a view specifically to earning financial returns, they can be said to be financialising both residential and commercial property.

The article’s third aim is to explain. It is to ask why local authorities are pursuing these initiatives. While there are numerous factors in play, I argue that the most important is a set of profoundly significant recent transformations in what I term local authorities’ financial ‘conjuncture’ – the nexus of circumstances and forces bearing directly on their financial wherewithal.

I highlight three such transformations: the post-financial crisis devolution of austerity from central to local government, which has seen the latter bear the brunt of public-sector funding cuts; the largely unsuccessful reform of local authority housing finance in 2012; and a progressive cheapening of council borrowing capacity, also occurring in the wake of the financial crisis.

These transformations have not so much caused local authorities’ new commercial and residential property ventures as encouraged and enabled them. They have impacted local authorities in such a way as to make those initiatives considerably more appealing and arguably, in some cases, even necessary. They have, in short, pre-disposed councils to act as they have done.

In the light of this explanatory argument the article asks, fourth and finally, whether the criticism that has greeted councils’ new property initiatives is justified and fair. My answer is that it may not be, or at least not entirely. While local authorities would not need to pursue such ventures in an ideal world – one where they were amply funded to provide the services that local communities require of them – that is not the world in which they currently find themselves. For councils desperate to maintain social care, homelessness and other key front-line services in the face of savage cuts in funding from central government, commercial and residential property ventures appear to be – and indeed, may well be – the least worst option, a more sustainable and strategic approach than say liquidating remaining assets or raising council tax.

If we are to criticise these ventures, our criticism is perhaps better targeted not at local authorities themselves, but at the central government that is primarily responsible for shaping councils’ constrained financial conjuncture and that, in the process, has motivated them to behave like property companies rather than the service-focused community caretakers that the public expects them to be.

About the Author: Brett Christophers is Professor at Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University

References

Christophers, B. Putting financialisation in its financial context: Transformations in local government‐led urban development in post‐financial crisis England. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2019; 00: 1– 16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12305

Building eco-homes for every body

By Amita Bhakta (Loughborough University) and Jenny Pickerill (University of Sheffield) 

Hockerton Housing Project

Hockerton Housing Project, Nottinghamshire, UK. Photo Credit: Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0

At the end of November 2015 Paris will be host to COP21 where leaders gather yet again to debate and discuss ways forward to tackle the multitude of climate challenges we face. COP21, or the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, will seek to find a renewed international agreement to limiting global warming to below a 2oC rise. The Guardian this week emphasised that despite the efforts being made by 140 nations around the world to reduce emissions, average temperatures are likely to rise to 2.7oC and lead to rising sea levels, floods, drought, and the extinction of species.

In response to such challenges, communities with eco-friendly housing, low running costs and shared facilities are being built across the world. These homes seek to minimise waste and use of resources, whilst promoting the use of renewable energy. Such eco-communities are part of a grassroots movement bringing people of diverse backgrounds together to live low impact lifestyles.

But at the same time with a continually ageing population, we must also consider our future selves, and how our needs will shift alongside these environmental challenges. Inaccessibility for disabled people has long been discussed as an endemic issue which typifies the British housing stock (see, for instance Imrie 2006, Hemingway, 2011).

Yet, what remains clear is that whilst eco-housing is being built as a part of the responses to environmental challenges, it is not being developed to be inclusive of all needs and abilities. In our recent article in The Geographical Journal (Bhakta and Pickerill 2015) we discuss how despite a growing recognition of the necessity to build for diverse abilities, with a need to understand the complexity of disability and the consequences of this for engaging with the built environment, eco-communities have failed to provide physical accessibility for disabled people. Such failure has arisen from not just barriers to implementing accessible features in homes (such as high perceived costs, changes in regulations over time and a notable prioritisation of being ecological over being accessible), but also the ignorance of bodily differences, manifested through barriers in both eco-homes and their surrounding community environments. As such, lessons from the past on inaccessibility in British housing have not been drawn upon in new eco-house construction.

Our paper uses the example of eco-communities to illustrate that disabled people are in effect excluded physically and socially from ecological lifestyles and practices. And so, begs the question: is inclusivity on the agenda at the COP21 summit? Where does disability ‘fit’ in sustainable practice more broadly? Through bringing attention back to the (disabled) body, our article provides a reminder that whilst we strive to mitigate the effects of climate change we still remain part of the future. In seeking to make space for differences such as disability, in a future older population, our research highlights the need to consider how to not only sustain our planet, but also to sustain our individual selves and bodies as well.

About the authors: 

Amita Bhakta is a PhD candidate within the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) at Loughborough University. Jenny Pickerill is Professor of Environmental Geography at the University of Sheffield.

References

books_icon Bhakta, A. and Pickerill, J. (2015), Making space for disability in eco-homes and eco-communities. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12157

60-world2 The Guardian 2015 Climate pledges by 140 countries will limit global warming – but not enough 

Badgers and bovine tuberculosis: how geographical research can help

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

If I mention bovine tuberculosis (bTB), I imagine that a badger, not a cow, would come to mind for many people. British news has recently reported a push for culling these mammals and calls from others for vaccination, with the intention of curbing the spread of bTB. Some famous faces have also engaged in the anti-culling debate (e.g. see ‘Stop the Cull’). There are strong views on both sides because of the damage that bTB can do to cattle herds and farmers’ livelihoods. All parties, of course, want to see a decrease in bTB cases; it is just the preferred means that differ. Here, I outline the debate and move on to discuss how geographical research can help.

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons

First, why are badgers getting all of the press? Badgers, along with a number of other mammals, are capable of contracting bTB and spreading it to cattle, the result of which can be devastating because cows that test positive are compulsorily slaughtered. Badgers, perhaps justifiably (they can and do infect cows with bTB), perhaps not (reported infection rates vary but can be very low), are often referred to as a natural ‘reservoir’ of the disease and there is now a strong association between badgers and bTB in cattle. The Government has approved badger culls in England, whilst the Welsh Assembly has favoured a vaccination programme. .

The BBC recently reported on the decision for future culls in England to not be independently monitored as they have been previously. Naturally, this has been heavily criticised and it is disturbing considering the outcome of last year’s pilot culls. However, to many, culling generally seems to not be a sensible or sustainable solution, not least because of the high uncertainty surrounding badger numbers and the associated need for highly costly surveys to decrease this uncertainty and reduce the risk of causing local extinctions, costs which potentially make the whole process financially impracticable (Donnelly & Woodroffe, 2012). Most importantly, such local extinctions would be a tremendous natural loss to an area.

Culls in England were criticised by a Welsh Minister earlier this year who referred to ‘promising’ results from the vaccination efforts in Wales. It has been shown that only a minority (even with varying figures) of badgers actually carry bTB (see The Wildlife Trusts infographic and references therein), meaning that many uninfected, healthy badgers are likely to be killed during a cull. Unlike with vaccinations, culling can also cause badger populations to spread unpredictably (known as perturbation), making control of any infected badgers not killed during the cull more difficult, thus potentially increasing the likelihood of the disease spreading.

Nationally, the Wildlife Trusts are leading the way with badger vaccination efforts and no Wildlife Trust allows culling on its land. Given that badgers live for 3–5 years, it is estimated that herd immunity could be achieved within 5 years (see bottom) as infected animals die over time and the proportion of vaccinated animals increases. How to target vaccination efforts, though? This is where geographers can help.

A recent article in Area (Etherington et al., 2014) recognises the importance of landscape isolation and connectivity, alongside data on badger presence and abundance, in mapping the spatial variation in bTB. Such knowledge is potentially very valuable for bTB management strategies. Indeed, understanding badgers’ local or landscape scale population dynamics and their isolation or connectivity within that broader landscape could allow for more effective vaccine distribution within an area surrounding a farm, for example. Namely, if a population is likely to be connected to certain other populations and a certain farm, it follows that these populations should be vaccinated in parallel. That is of course a simplification of reality, but an enhanced understanding of such dynamics will hopefully be able to contribute to bTB management.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that bTB in badgers represents a small, albeit significant, part of the overall bTB crisis. Overall, it seems to me that targeted vaccination of badger populations in combination with enhanced biosecurity (I have not discussed this here but it is a significant part of the solution; e.g. ‘badger proofing’), is clearly a superior solution to culling when it comes to achieving long-term reductions in bTB. Such an approach also ensures the survival and welfare of the badgers that so many people deeply care about.

(For another Geography Directions blog post on bovine tuberculosis, see ‘Badgers, borderlands and security‘ (by Helen Pallett), which discusses the inherent complexities of disease in nature.)

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books_icon Donnelly, C. A. & Woodroffe, R. (2012). Epidemiology: Reduce uncertainty in UK badger culling. Nature 485, p. 582.

books_icon Etherington, T. R., Trewby, I. D., Wilson, G. J. & McDonald, R. A. (2014). Expert opinion-based relative landscape isolation maps for badgers across England and WalesArea 46, 50-58.

Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Content Alert: Volume 37, Issue 1 (January 2012)

The latest issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break to view the full table of contents.

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People Power; Shaping England’s Nature

By Paulette Cully

With the aim of being the greenest Government ever, the present incumbents have made the delivery of a Natural Environment White Paper a top priority, which they hope to publish in spring 2011. In preparation for this the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published the “Shaping England’s Nature” discussion document in July this year.  Its aims are to encourage debate over how we can best protect and improve our natural environment. The article highlights our multifaceted regard of the environment. On the one hand the environment has great personal importance to individuals who enjoy it thorough it’s “green spaces, countryside, wildlife, rivers and seas” and “the quality of life in all of our communities”; whilst on the other hand the natural environment “underpins our economic prosperity, our food security, our health, our ability to adapt to a changing climate and to reduce the greenhouse gases which cause this change”. However, in the past the two sides have been in conflict, rather than being mutually inter-reliant  they have been regarded as competing choices. The consultation document gives us the opportunity to be the generation which puts this right, so that rather than limiting damage to the environment we can enhance it. DEFRA points out, that a vibrant natural environment is necessary for economic recovery and sustainable growth.

For a valuable insight into present day environmental policy making, its’ regional variations and the value of people power, Kate Muir et al have written a fascinating article in Area, “Shades of green in local authority policy-making: a regional case study”.  The authors show that there are clear intra-regional environmental policy dissimilarities in both level and form.  The paper also suggests that in part these differences may stem from the presence of environmental policy “champions” in positions of power and influence and environmental pressure groups who are able to communicate environmental agendas to local policy makers; thus demonstrating the importance of our say in environmental matters.

With that in mind, download the DEFRA consultation document to read their proposals; now is the time to have your say in the future of our environment.

 Click here to download the discussion document and have your say online 

 Click here to read the Muir et al article, (2000), Shades of Green in local authority policy-making: a regional case study, Area, Volume 32, Issue 4, Pages 369-382