Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy
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I have been in Toronto as part of a second workshop for the Shaping Housing Futures programme. This is a tri-country knowledge exchange activity thinking about how housing challenges in the UK, Australia and Canada can be analysed and understood with a view to developing feasible and credible new housing policies in each housing system. […]

Private Renting Redux

This post follows three different rental market developments in the last few weeks. First of all, I chaired Professor Peter Kemp speaking in a seminar reflecting on Scottish market renting and PRS policy from the remove of England (though he is a former colleague of mine in Glasgow). Peter was joined by an excellent panel of  Rosemary Brotchie, Nick Bailey, Susan Aktemel and Anna Evans. Second, the Scottish Government published online their instructions for landlords and tenants regarding the new private rental tenancy that will come into effect for new tenancies in December 2017. This will assume tenancies are ongoing unless specific mandated conditions for termination are met (and are verifiable). It also creates the right for councils to seek local pressured rent zone status which would allow them to seek caps on annual rent increases (though not on initial contract rents. Third, my new colleague in the Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, Tom Moore, has recently published an (currently) open access paper in the International Journal of Housing Policy contrasting regulation and rental policy for the PRS in each of the UK’s four nations.

Tom’s policy review paper does the interested reader a great service by laying out the background context and policy divergence across the UK in terms of tenure security, regulation and affordability. While all four nations have experienced considerable growth in private renting since devolution, there are both common and distinct trends across the home nations. While traditionally a sector of transition, more people are living longer in the sector and more families and other longer term household structures are opting for the rental market. A key question is the contribution of either lack of choice forcing people into the sector or whether the sector is a destination of choice (perhaps this also suggests the weakness of the use of the word ‘choice’). Tom stresses that not only are tenure rights and regulation very different across the UK (with England as the default most deregulated n most regards), none of the UK nations approach the levels of protection and regulation found across much of the continental Europe.

Moore stresses that to the extent that more low income households are now in the sector, their vulnerability may exacerbate inequalities and disadvantage. Second, he rightly emphasises the importance of greater tenure security in policy discussions as the sector grows in importance. Third, management practices by some landlords remain a cause for concern.

There is much to like in this paper especially the comparative analysis of divergence across the four nations. If I was being picky I would challenge a few points: Scotland does have limited policy control over housing-related aspects of the housing elements of universal credit and discretionary housing payments. They can also top up and create new benefits – but they have to pay for them out of their budget. Second, I think the paper downplays important UK level ‘reforms’ of the sector, particularly via HM Treasury (the Scottish Government chose to follow the 3% uplift in stamp duty via the devolved Land Building Transactions tax).  I am also one of those people sceptical about rent regulation and in particular the ability of people like the rent officer to find a balance between tenant and landlord interests. Scotland’s reforms will be an important natural experiment for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The Glasgow seminar with Peter Kemp was both stimulating and challenging. Peter made many important points. First of all, he noted that there is a definite asymmetry in terms of the new Scottish tenancy in that it is considerably easier for a tenant to leave under the new settlement than it is for a landlord to end a tenancy. Second, he stressed that the likely cap on rent increases is likely to be CPI plus 1% – which, compared to the Scottish average rents as described as ONS is actually quite high (unaffordable areas excepting).

While there was some concern in the seminar about policing the landlord grounds for repossession of property, there is clearly much anticipation about the impact the new tenancies will have for Scottish housing.  There was also a focus on other concerns of the moment like short term tenancies and Air BnB.

For me, Peter’s most insightful comments concern the changes to the tax regime for private landlords. Until listening to Peter I had generally considered these to be a tax grab that was rather unthinking about its housing system consequences (ie reducing the supply of lets just when the rest of the market is difficult to access, possibly pushing rents up). That may be true but I interpreted what Peter said as a sort of blindside attack on individual ‘mum and dad’ landlords in favour of the corporates – not by subsidising them (although there is some of that going on  via guarantees, etc.) but by using the tax system to penalise small landlords. (who make up 90% of the supply side)

How so? First, they do this by charging an 8% surcharge on capital gains tax compared to other assets. Second, there is the 3% surcharge on the tax on buying properties if you are a landlord (which may help potential first time buyers but might just push rents up or broadly discourage investment). Third, mortgage tax relief has been cut to the basic rate (unlike for other forms of investment business loans) and this is also has been turned into a tax credit which essentially means that rather being applied to corporation tax, it is now really a turnover tax and this has the unintended (?) consequence of pushing many small-scale landlords into higher tax bracket. There is concern in the sector that will lead to a large scale departure of small scale landlords. Will this gap be closed by other providers? Will first time buyers fill the gap as properties come onto the market – perhaps to an extent but they still face high deposits even if prices weaken.

This highly dynamic sector is the fulcrum of the housing system and its segments and interdependencies remain comparatively poorly understood and recorded. This has to change. And now social landlords are increasing their interest in and provision of mid-market rent – slightly sub market rents on short tenancies aimed at key workers (though this will also have to change for new tenancies after December in Scotland). How will this new sector niche perform and will it impact on the quality of the traditional private offer (and indeed how will it impact on social tenancies also provided by the same landlord)? Peter made much of the growth of the sector but did point out that it started from an incredibly low base in the 1980s – perhaps is the real international comparison to note-  just how did the UK end up with such an infeasibly small sector, something which of itself creates much deeper inflexibilities in the wider housing system?

 

Good for the Gander? Reflections on the 2017 Housing Studies Association Conference

goose 1 is a goose that for three days strongly defended its space on the main way into the conference on the York Campus at Heslington. It appeared to be protecting its partner and made the odd aggressive shift in direction if any delegate came too near its mate in the undergrowth. I am no David Attenborough but it reminded me of years jogging round Strathclyde Park and carefully avoiding the personal space of gangs of Canadian geese or the attention of fairly abrasive Lanarkshire swans.

The conference this year was themed around precariousness and financialisation and how the housing sector is becoming more unequal, insecure and unstable. Plenary speakers included Oliver Wainwright from the Guardian, Shelagh Grant, CEO of the Housing Forum, Dinah Roake ex of HCA , Paul Quinn from Clarion Housing Group and Bob Colenutt from Oxford Brookes. The final plenary involved David Madden from the LSE and Blase Lambert, CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative housing. The conference dinner also included a memorable talk by the ineffable Ian Cole.

Financialisation and the precariat are well-met topics and they worked well with many of the workshop papers and for once a conference theme seemed to retain purchase across the full event. Not that everyone agreed of course with very different views circulating and also some concern that perspectives were a little too metropolitan and London-focused (something conceded by David Madden co-author of In Defense of Housing). There were also debates about the proactive role of the state in facilitating speculative mega real estate projects and a degree of vagueness about the transmission mechanism that might export people out of unaffordable, overcrowded cities. A key theme throughout was what can be done about these processes – do we despair or are there ways to fight back? There was talk (Madden again) about housing movements but I quite liked Glen Bramley’s discussion point that in fact an important (albeit atomised) housing movement are those older equity-rich often suburban home owners (and sometimes BTL investors) who are such a break on progress with respect to increasing housing supply.

I heard some interesting conceptual papers by David Clapham, Keith Jacobs and Tony Manzi, as well as a good paper using Australian evidence on private landlords from Hal Pawson. Duncan Bowie reprised debates about housing tax reform. I did a paper (co-authored with Duncan Maclennan) on Brexit and housing, the fundamental premise of which can be summarised by we don’t know the rules of the game regarding the rapidly approaching negotiations so we cannot really scale or estimate the impacts. Many economists feel they will be negative depending on the scenarios for how Brexit plays out, but we cannot in turn say much specific about housing impacts other than some likely directions of broad consequences via lost trade and growth, out-migration, risks re European funds and EIB, but much more fundamentally, risks to housing policy arising from possible break-up of the UK itself as a consequence of leaving the EU. More to follow on this I am sure.

The conference has a nice informal and friendly feel to it. This was complemented unexpectedly in a city centre bar by a very impressive four piece jazz band playing standards via an excellent trumpeter. Well done to the organising committee. Roll on 2018.

I missed a fair bit of the conference, in part because unexpectedly, the ESRC decided bring forward  the announcement of the UK housing evidence centre which made Thursday a bit of a social media blur but it is great to finally have it in the public domain.  More on that subject in a later blog.

‘The geese are flying westward’ is a fine song by Bill Fay (check it out) – but I am now heading north on the east coast line, eventually back to base for what I hope will be a quiet weekend.

 

 

 

 

Prevention and Predictive Analytics

 

I was at a What Works Scotland seminar this morning, the latest in our joint events with NHS Health Scotland on the Economics of Prevention. Papers and slides and a summary of discussion groups will be posted at the WWS website. We heard papers from Heather McCauley on the use of predictive analytics in New Zealand, on modelling the burden of disease by Diane Stockton and using agent-based models to consider informal care and obesity by Eric Silverman. They were followed by Ian Marr who summed up, drawing on his first-hand knowledge of social impact bonds and the social impact partnership model he has been developing.

A key aspect of preventative thinking, from Derek Wanless to Campbell Christie and beyond, is the issue of understanding where the most public service spending goes and therefore targeting spending, as far as one can, to those people and needs that will otherwise generate disproportionate public cost e.g. early year intervention to prevent what would otherwise lead to, in high likelihood,  negative future outcomes such as less good education and employment outcomes, poorer health and or episodes involving the justice system. A key issue is also how to manage the disinvestment that goes with a shift to prevention.

While it was fascinating to hear Eric Silverman tall about these simulation model as safe playgrounds of policy experimentation without consequences (unlike piloting, for instance), I want to talk  primarily about Heather’s exposition of preventative predictive analytics in New Zealand. She told us about the evolution of the programme, how it works and provided detail in terms of policy spheres such as welfare benefits and children in care.

The three big lessons and challenges that arose for me were as follows:

  • Moving government to think and act in terms of the lifetime costs (on an actuarial basis) rather than the annual cash costs of a high need individual, household or client;
  • Using statistical/econometric methods to uncover the probabilities that signify the high need households and individuals – the diagnosis of where lifetime costs are very high and therefore where large potential savings can be made; and
  • Designing the optimal mix of practice and policies that allow case managers to maximise the effectiveness of intensive interventions (what works?).

All three are difficult – the third, perhaps the most challenging. Let’s look at each in a little more detail.

Heather described the need for culture change to take on the lifetime cost approach. She pointed out that New Zealand has a culture of seeking the best possible value for the public dollar and so the shift from short term to a longer, multi-parliamentary term perspective, can be made and perhaps done so more readily than in the UK or Scotland. Many of us might be comfortable with the idea of focusing on the lifetime savings made by preventing someone falling into the negative outcomes suggested above – but it does require current governments spending money now and postponing benefits to future governments.  Heather provided the example of using a helicopter to transfer a spinal injuries patient from an accident site immediately to hospital with potential long term savings in reduced future health care costs. Lifetime benefits considerably outweigh upfront (helicopter usage) costs.

Second, the New Zealand benefit figures suggest that much of their employability spend goes to job seekers who are a small proportion of the total client group compared to the higher and persistent incidence of for example those on disability benefits and lone parent benefits. They cost more in lifetime terms and represent longer term need. Modelling under certain conditions offers, to different degrees in different policy areas, a reasonable basis to diagnose where highest need is concentrated and where benefits might be maximised by effective targeted interventions. But as was stressed in the presentation, these models produce probabilities and associations; they are not causal and indeed there is a fascinating question about understanding why some highly at risk groups remain resiliently unaffected in future years – what can we learn from their resilience?

Heather rightly recognises the suspicions and criticisms open to these sorts of approaches (often relating to big data and predictive algorithms): bias, non-discretionary model creating discriminatory or arbitrary outcomes, perverse incentives, moral hazard and discrimination like cream-skimming of the cheapest easiest candidates in areas like the work programme.  Transparent models (all on line from the New Zealand government) and independent scrutiny of the models, their assumptions and how they work ‘under the hood’, is essential, as is always seeking to improve the model and to reduce negative aspects of models.

Finally, there is the classic what works question – assuming that the modelling has indicated who and where the highest need target group resides, what are the suite of policy tools and interventions that best reduce the lifetime cost and make those savings because negative future outcomes are significantly reduced? How do we assemble good practice, policies, and effective case management in the variety of policy areas likely to be developed? A sector by sector repository and on-going discussion about these tailored responses is essential.

Predictive analytics has well founded criticisms but as in so many areas, this is one where continued independent scrutiny, a commitment to transparency and a willingness to continuously improve modelling, can provide valuable prevention benefits but there I can be no guarantee that this will be so. Furthermore, there is the small question of then designing the appropriate mix of policy responses aimed at those in most need

 

Returning to the Start: Housing and Public Health

 

Housing intervention by the state started with public health challenges. Public health approaches today have much to say about the structural determinants of health inequality, spatial inequities and connections to key sites and drivers of these inequalities. Housing is of course centrally implicated both in terms of physical and mental health, but also in relation to the broader wellbeing of individuals, families and communities. Housing conditions, fuel poverty, unaffordability, all manners of indicators of unmet need are relevant.

The Scottish Public Health Network have just published a new report: Foundations for Well-being: reconnecting public health and housing. A Practical guide to Improving health and reducing inequalities (lead author Emily Tweed). It sets out to be a ‘best practice resource’ to guide the Scottish housing and public health sectors to improve health and reduce inequalities through good housing. It is well worth a look.

The report is a primer that sets out the context facing the different professional communities, provides useful links to data and policy resources and provides recommendations for good practice and development for both. The big health themes touched on by housing include well-being, ageing, inequality and poverty, health and care integration, community empowerment and climate change. What is helpful as an educational and professional resource is that the report provides a basic grounding or primer for either group, sets out a long list of statistics and other policy and practice connections as well as key practice pointers.  There are also useful diagrams and boxed case studies.

The report (section 2 and appendices) has a nice discussion of the complex multi-dimensional relationship between housing and health (also see a recent review of housing and health inequalities by NHS Health Scotland ). These dimensions include:

  • Bi-directional – while housing may influence health the opposite is also true with health issues constraining locational choices and housing design as well as impacting on financial constraints and employability.
  • Context-specific – impacts and strength of these connections will vary across different populations (and sub-groups), eras and places.
  • Direct and indirect dimensions – where indirect effects can include for instance burdensome housing costs reducing access to other health-benefitting activities.

As the authors say (p.15): “acknowledging these complexities helps add nuance to our understanding, but does not undermine the central fact that housing can be a powerful determinant of health and wellbeing, and of inequalities in their distribution across the population”.

Section 5 is an excellent compendium of resources for housing and public health. Just one example worth following up – a very useful public health oriented report from Wales on the prevention case for housing investment . The final section looks at opportunities for joint working, initiatives that might be taken to link data in housing and health (potentially very powerful) and specific priorities like the private rented sector and strategic joint planning around for instance health and care integration.

I would not pretend to have any background in public health other than reading about it in a housing context and occasionally debating these causality questions with colleagues. More recently through What Works Scotland and through public health colleagues in the University and beyond I have become more engaged with these important inequalities questions. A report like this one is a great practical way into these questions for researchers, students, practitioners and policy facing professionals alike. Well done.

 

Rent Reform and the Too difficult Box

 

Over the last 20 years, I have worked on at least five discrete projects about rents and rent-setting. This has included studies funded by governments and by individual providers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A feature of this experience has been on the one hand that precious little reform of how rents are set followed on from this work (score zero for ‘impact’), but at the same time, it has been a learning curve. In this post, I want to reflect on these lessons.

First,  we are primarily interested in the pricing of social housing. By that we mean the level of the average rent, the way that rents are distributed around that average reflecting variations in, or differentiating the, quality of the stock, and, how we uprate rents each year. A fourth theme is whether these principles can be established not just for one provider but across a housing system (e.g. all social landlords), be that a local authority, a region or even a country. A fifth theme is whether rents should be consistent across the entire stock or whether pooling would not extend to separate well-defined schemes and new developments? Most of the following discussion assumes complete pooling (e.g. with a premium applied to new build should it be required).

Second, this desire to look at rents may arise because of policy seeking to remove anomalies and put rents on a more coherent basis than current perception or evidence would suggest. It may also arise because of the actions of a single landlord (e.g. taking over another landlord’s stock), it may be due to external policy challenge such as welfare reform or the sense that competitive threat makes its necessary to review the rents. It may also reflect asset management strategies and the use to which rental income is put. There could conceivably also be internal pressures from board members or tenant groups, or indeed staff groups, to address perceived shortcomings. However, we should not underestimate the ability of these groups alongside other stakeholders like lenders or the regulator – to resist or dilute rent reform proposals.

Third, what are the key principles involved? One would be consistency – that rents are differentiated on a rational and credible basis e.g. bigger properties, more space and more amenity command higher rents and do so in a coherent way. A second would be affordability (a thorny issue in its own right) but typically about securing low cost housing for low income households, especially those just above HB ceilings, often in low wage work. A third point would concern viability – does the rent allow development to take place and does it support the ongoing operational delivery of housing services thereafter?

Many readers will recognise longstanding problems of archaic rent structures lost in the mists of time, of anomalies in rent levels comparing similar properties from different landlords and inconsistencies within a given landlord’s portfolio when looking at different areas, vintages of stock and other similar problems. There is also often the sense that rent systems may be past their prime and are slipping into entropic disorder accelerating over time.  These discrepancies can be brought to light particularly during periods of new development, when stock transfers or mergers take place and when the external policy environment sheds perhaps too much light on the way rents are done.

So how to reform? I worked with one landlord who initially wanted to bring the full weight of evidence and analysis through a sophisticated formula rent. The stakeholders I mentioned earlier thought not and subsequently a much simpler model based really only on size and property type became the favoured option. Others lose their zeal for reform when they see that, as in England in the 2000s. shifting to a national formula rent (complete with local average rent convergence across landlords) requires long term adjustment over 10-15 years and also implementing protection measures for those losing out in the form of damping to lessen year-on-year effects. While the English model was relatively complex – such a process of transition and convergence could be devised for much simpler internally consistent models. But a big lesson from the English experience for me has been the unwillingness of Governments to see these sorts of policies through. The simplicity of a national formula rent, for all its problems (e.g. the financial pressure it put on landlords who had to slow down planned rent increase), fell apart after a change of Government and their desire to set off on different paths for non-market housing and required rents for new models. This was then followed up by statutory rent cuts to save on housing benefit – massively expensive for social landlords who in good faith planned reinvestment (as well as  just trying to retain the resource levels of  their landlord operations).

Geography is interesting concerning policy trajectories over rents. Alongside the English experience since 2000, Northern Ireland’s social sector appears to have had quite a lot of discretion though in fact almost all social landlords base their rents on some version of sorts of the dominant (Housing Executive) landlord’s rent points policy from the 1980s.  Again, this has gradually become less recognizable over time (and average rents remain lower for Housing Executive properties). In Scotland, on the other hand, despite earlier research studies examining the merits of a more national system of rent-setting, there has been absolutely no interest from those who would champion rent reform. And as a result, Scotland probably has the least coherent and comparable rents in the social sector across the UK. Yet no-one gets that excited about it, other than in terms of the starting rents required for new build, and the impact of LHA caps on rents and rental income received.

So, does viable, affordable and consistent pricing of rents matter? At one level, of course it does. But more broadly, surely it still makes sense for tenants to be able to make rational, informed judgements about price and quality both within a landlord’s stock and between different landlords? Arguably the growth and encroachment of private renting into the non-market housing sphere is another reason for more not less transparency. But if the regulator is tolerably happy with the situation, if tenants are not too despondent about annual rent increase (outside of England), and if providers are up to their necks in operations and crises, unless the policy environment forces it on them – rent reform is not going to be coming anytime soon. Like so many public policy reform questions, the rationality and benefits of rent restructuring are outweighed by their time, resource and political costs (and it is of course a nontrivial process) – but like council tax reform, not making the necessary change will only in due course make things worse.

 

 

Revisiting the Scottish National Performance Framework

 

The purpose of the Scottish Government is to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth’

In 2007 the first minority Scottish National Party Government established the Scotland Performs framework based on a core national purpose (2016 version above), five strategic objectives, a series of (currently) 16 high level national outcomes, and a set of 55 national indicators that operate at high level but can also drill down to clusters of indicators within specific sectors. This approach has been widely acclaimed internationally (it was initially, in part, the product of drawing on a similar model in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States) but has also undoubtedly found sceptics, critics and critical friends.

The Scottish Government is now consulting over the framework, its outcomes and indicators and is undertaking a large-scale stakeholder discussion exercise to support this process . Last week they started with an academic roundtable in Glasgow co-organised by What Works Scotland [link]. The session was held under the Chatham House Rule and involved an historical contextualisation of the origins of the framework, a presentation on the outcomes approach to public policy by Ailsa Cook (shortly to be published by WWS) and a detailed discussion on the structure, format, uses and functions of the framework. Below are my personal reflections on the meeting.

The framework sits at the heart of the so-called Scottish approach to public policy, one that stresses pursuit of agreed high-level outcomes consistent with the national purpose and the application of these objectives down to local level through agreeing objectives with each community planning partnership across the country. It is also about a decisive shift to prevention, stressing partnership working and co-production, community empowerment, inclusion and the breaking up of departments and silos in the way Government is structured and led. The touchstone document for all this is the 2011 Christie Commission on the Reforming of Scotland’s Public Services.

One person commentated that we know, for all the critique that may justifiably exist, that Scotland is ahead of the curve on this accountability-outcomes-performance nexus of public policy. How do we now go forward to better work with the complexity of governance and public service reform rather than adding to it?

A first point that came out of the discussion was an exploration of the implications of the different and not necessarily consistent elements of the national purpose. Economic growth, inclusion and sustainability all feature and may well in normal circumstances represent a series of trade-offs – i.e. increasing one may be at the expense of the others. So, how do you determine the weight to be attached to each element and how does that accord to societal preferences? This quickly moved into a conversation about Kenneth Arrow and social welfare functions in economics and the wider appeal of Sen’s capability approach (which is the underlying normative framework used in much of the work of What Works Scotland).

A second theme was that while there was a perhaps surprising degree of consent around the table for an outcomes-focused approach, recognising that there remains little rigorous evidence at a national level about the impact such an approach has on wellbeing, there was much more concern with the relationship between outcomes and indicators that act as performance proxies. As one commentator noted, there is world of a difference between attributing performance to a conscious service or intervention approach and recognising that it may contribute to it (and that this is located in a credible theory of change).

The critique of performance indicators in general is well known – cream-skimming, parking, only counting ‘what can be counted’, focusing on the indicator rather than the broader outcome or purpose, the scope for a wide range of other perverse incentives that undermine a service or intervention. The meeting also discussed the need for consistently rigorous, generalizable, valid and reliable evidence and operational indicators with which to make meaningful judgements. There is often quite a gap between the outcome statement and the indicators in terms of specificity and measureability.

This would seem to make a case for 1. a greater investment in the evidence and data audit required to build better indicators and 2. a comprehensive attempt to ensure minimum indicator quality. On the latter point, I have always taken the view that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with performance indicators, or with the use of sharper incentives or indeed (as came up in the discussion), the use of payment by results mechanisms – what matters is the appropriateness of their design and the careful assessment of how they are used and concern for unintended consequences.

Perhaps this suggests that Government might consider the creation of an independent review group who could support the performance team, comment and propose amendments to the indicators, evidence and data used? Academics and independent researchers could play a potentially valuable role (and the potentially complementary relationship between quantitative measures and qualitative evidence on the ground was stressed by different speakers). This could be an opportunity from the top of Government down to evangelise the use of evidence in accounting for government and public service performance against desired outcomes.

A third element of the story is the fit between local and national level approaches. With single outcome agreements and now with local outcome improvement plans, local community planning partnerships sign up to specific goals which nest into the national performance framework. On the one hand, this provides for a clear place-based representation of these ideas in localities all over Scotland, but it also brings with it the danger of compounding the performance indicator problems and the over-zealous focus on indicators discussed above at the level of the local authority and below.

There were other useful points highlighted. First, make distributional or social justice outcomes and indicators more explicit and more benchmarked consistently with other nations (in the way for instance economic productivity performance is measured against OECD quartile scores). Second, presentationally, the refreshed set of national outcomes  should be discussed and part of the public policy discourse in their own right,. This should be quite distinct to and separated from the mechanism that seeks to use the best practice theory of change and credible analytical evidence (which is valid, reliable and generalisable) by creating high quality indicators of the journey towards the outcomes (and unlike at present – those indicators should nonetheless be mapped on to the outcomes they seek to measure).

At the end of the roundtable I said I thought it had been a valuable exercise on the criteria that I had both learned a lot and we had produced a genuinely multi-disciplinary conversation – economist shall speak unto sociologist, etc. I think the Scottish Government team also felt there was genuine value from the day and I wish their endeavours well.

 

Accountable? Transparent? Budgets and Public Finance in Scotland

 

‘Exceptionally complex and opaque’ and ‘without precedent internationally’. Fraser of Allander Institute on the Fiscal Framework, quoted by the Finance Committee, Scottish Parliament in their 2017-18 draft budget report

I found myself reading the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee’s draft budget report  the other day in part to prepare for teaching on public finances in Scotland. I was struck just how non-transparent the fiscal framework is and how difficult it is to communicate the consequences of the rules of the game in terms of Scottish policy intentions and budgetary implications. It is as if the designers in Holyrood and Westminster were seeking to be rewarded for fiendish inventiveness rather than designing a set of financial rules that were clear, transparent and fostered accountability. In that respect, the Finance Committee’s report is remarkably helpful (along with the recent SPICe briefing on the budget).

I will get into the main points that struck me shortly but it also raised a second related question. In the year of the council elections in Scotland, there is a near equivalent lack of transparency regarding the local government settlement and the consequences for local decisions on tax and spend. This has, if anything, been exacerbated by both the implementation of the recent council tax reforms and the controversy over what the draft budget means for local spending by councils. We need more transparency here too and perhaps a local fiscal framework (something being pursued by the Scottish Greens) that makes explicable and straightforward how local tax and spend works, how it is impacted by Scottish ministers and what decisions mean for tax bills and spending choices.

What is it that makes the new national fiscal framework so difficult and why is it so significant? The devolution of new tax powers reduces the size of the Block grant. Critical to how this will operate is,  how the Block Grant adjusts, which comes down to a series of decisions, firstly, about the baseline reduction that is determined by revenue in the year prior to the devolution of the tax in question. Thereafter, the second critical question is how accurately tax revenues for the now devolved tax are forecast in terms of playing into public spending planning and control decisions and the risks of over-estimation. Third, there is the contentious question of how to uprate the block grant adjustment for the devolved taxes in subsequent years. This concerns the extent to which Scottish tax revenues grow relative to UK tax revenue growth and  (and this is where the controversy exists between the two governments) then how adjusting for relative population growth between Scotland and rUK operates.

These Byzantine and head-hurting rules are incredibly important. If Scotland can grow its tax revenue quicker than rUK, the block grant and the size of the fiscal cake expand. This fundamentally depends on relative tax policy changes, which currently benefit Scotland because we are not raising the threshold for the higher rate of income tax by as much as HM Treasury – and other things equal we should grow tax revenue per head more than rUK. But it is also driven by relative population change, relative economic and productivity growth (and these presently all look less favourable from a Scottish perspective). As the Finance Committee stress, the Scottish Government have taken on considerably more responsibility and the technical requirements for forecasting future tax, economic growth and in specific sectors too (e.g. land and buildings transactions tax depend on housing and commercial property markets) – and they have done so in a period of remarkable uncertainty, austerity and Brexit.

The Scottish Government is presently consulting over the Scotland Performs National Performance Framework. In the light of the above maybe they need to change the absolute or top line purpose of Government to maximising relative tax revenue growth?

One might conceivably say ‘well, these risks are what happens with more responsibility and that is what real devolution is all about’. My view however is that what we might be seeing is actually the outcome of bargaining over an inherently complex system and one that consequently is difficult to predict, manage and base fiscal plans on. I am sure the Scottish Government will step up to the plate – they have to get this right and must invest the necessary resources and capacity in doing so. Specific forecasting expertise by the Scottish Fiscal Commission will also become much more important in the future. Moreover, the plan is that in less than 5 years the whole basis of the fiscal framework will be reviewed and the indexing methods and other fundamentals may well be substantially revised. Let’s hope for less haste and that a simpler and more durable set of negotiated outcomes is the result.

Then there is the controversy over the local government settlement. There are several accounts of what is happening to local government spending, depending on what you compare it against (draft or final budget in 2016-17), how wide you draw local government activity, and, if you do include other elements, that you know what these extras are worth. SPICe estimates that local government spend in 2017-18 may either fall (compared to 2016-17) by 1.6% to 3.2% in real terms, or if you just look at the core grant (including non-domestic rates), it may fall by between 4.5% to 5.8%. However, speaking to the local government committee of the Scottish Parliament, the Cabinet Secretary argued (para 273, Finance Committee Report on the 2017-18 Draft Budget) that ‘when wider spend on local services, including funding for health and social care integration and from council tax reform is considered, there is an increase in expenditure on local services by local authorities of £240 million or 2.3 per cent.

Clear as mud. And then there is the interaction between grant, non domestic rates and council tax – we (i.e. tax paying voting citizens of Scotland) surely need to clearly understand how all this works together so that we can make sense of the financial and service outcome implications of different political platforms? Can we not do better?

 

Evidencing the Scottish Approach to Public Policy

 

Back in August I attended a roundtable hosted by the Carnegie UK Trust and the Alliance for Useful Evidence (AFUE) in Glasgow about the extent to which we can discern a Scottish approach to evidence that would underpin the so-called Scottish approach to public policy. The findings from that event has now been put together in a helpful discussion paper by Pippa Coutts and Jenny Brotchie.

What Works Scotland (WWS) is a multi-disciplinary programme of work carried out by the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, supported by its many partners and funded by ESRC and the Scottish Government. I am part of the WWS team. WWS is fundamentally concerned with the use of evidence to inform and support public service reform in Scotland and different dimensions of the Scottish approach to public policy, as exemplified by whole place based policies at community planning partnership levels (and also disaggregated down to local community or neighbourhood levels).

How might we characterise the Scottish approach to public policy? The discussion paper stresses the combination of the outcomes focus of the National Performance Framework estsblished in 2007, the impact of the Christie Commission and its emphasis on the four pillars of empowering people, shifting to preventative spend, promoting partnership and more efficient public services. The Scottish approach stresses integrated, joined up and cross–sectoral co-produced working. Subsequent developments have included espousing greater government openness, legislating on community empowerment and with further decentralising proposals proposed for the current parliamentary session. The discussion paper describes this approach as emergent and the summary states (p.2): ‘whilst we understand these intentions may not be matched in implementation, we think the Scottish approach offers exciting opportunities’.

The discussion paper goes on to argue that the system or modes of evidence required to support the Scottish approach is not yet in place. What is required is a system-wide production and use of mixed forms of evidence rather than concentrating on specific sectors or programmes. The paper argues that the evidence base for greater collaboration and co-production across the research producer and user community in Scotland needs to be strengthened and needs to better involve citizens in that process. At the same time, evidence, from whatever sources (quantitative or qualitative), should be rigorous and seek to minimise bias. The paper speculates that there are lessons and evidence from participatory research and directly from communities (e.g. undertaking participatory budgeting exercises or other forms of deliberative decision-taking) that could improve policy effectiveness.

What needs to happen? The road map suggested by the Carnegie UK Trust and the AFUE involves first, strengthening the national performance framework and promoting its use coherently at local level. Second, they contend that there should be investment in research on co-production. Third, high quality evidence should be embedded to support decision-makers at all levels. Fourth, there  would be value in brokering and developing boundary-spanning relationships across professional, academic and third sector communities to enable them to better work together. Fifth, there is much to learn from outside of Scotland and also a duty to share the Scottish experience more widely.

The paper is an interesting read and one that cannot be adequately captured in a short blog post. Experience from What Works Scotland (see outputs on our website) leads me to make the following points. First, the game-changer for me is how to embed evidence systematically into working practice at local level in all localities. We know that presently there is considerable variety of experience, capacity, resource and use of evidence. At the same time, second, there is actually something of a crowded landscape of providers of profiles and indicators from national levels to the local and there is clearly much interest in how this could be better co-ordinated and more locally contextualised. Third, the Scottish approach is clearly evolving and parts of it have to be refreshed. The Scottish Government is currently consulting widely over the National Performance Framework including its local dimensions and we in WWS look forward to contributing to that process.

Finally, I strongly concur with one of the roundtable participants who stressed (p.13) the importance of learning from failed projects, from what does not work: ‘There’s also something for me about….it’s a kind of form of publication bias, because we only ever hear about the success stories….you don’t send ministers to visit the failed projects’. Indeed.

 

Lessons from German Housing?

 

IPPR has recently been producing a series of reports on housing in Germany asking why can’t the UK follow in its stead and take on some of the apparently desirable features of their housing system. As with other examples of policy transfer, diffusion or mobility, I don’t think it is always as straightforward, though IPPR are demonstrably aware of either the barriers to transfer or that we do need to look closely and critically at the German system as well as positively regarding certain undeniably positive outcomes.

What do IPPR say in their reports? The first one says why is it that Germany builds more homes, has a less volatile housing market and a bigger private rented sector? The second report, out last week, describes renting (i.e. the PRS) as the dominant tenure, more stable and with greater rights than for those in England. Since 1995,  and with much lower levels of volatility, German house prices have risen by 50%; in the UK they have gone up 400%.

IPPR argue that greater levels of housing construction are associated in Germany with a wider range of builders, both SMEs and larger firms. Ostensibly similar (a plan led system like in the UK), Germany seems to do better at converting planning permissions into new supply (i.e. the housing delivery system) but they have also seen a significant reduction in the volume of affordable housing being constructed. Perhaps more significantly, German public authorities are more proactive in the land market assembling sites and delivering infrastructure. Unlike the English, they continue to use planning gain to support the development of affordable housing. The lending environment is  more conservative than the UK and mortgage debt to GDP is considerably lower. While the housing tax regimes are not dissimilar, the German system of capital gains tax encourages long term property holding rather than speculation.

Interestingly, the IPPR conclusions include what they call mis-steps that should be avoided in the UK: first, they argue that a model of long term covenants (20-30 years) has failed to deliver more affordable units and second, they argue that there are higher transactions costs and inflexibilities that may impact negatively on the labour market.

Turning to the second report on private renting, IPPR stress that alongside security of tenure, private rents in Germany are much less likely to be associated with housing stress or very high housing cost to income ratios. Germany has a large supply of rental properties (which helps reduce the impact of longer tenancies on the supply of vacancies and this is supported by rent controls and a further control or brake on rents when properties are re-let. Not surprisingly, in such a different tenure distribution, tenants are also organised politically and have voice in a way that does not exist in the UK. This leads IPPR to recommend for the UK that: government should let LAs construct build-to-let schemes as part of the PRS and also recommends longer tenancies if public subsidy is involved.

The reports are worth reading and make excellent points. However, one must recognise the universal challenges of lesson-learning, transfer and diffusion of policy across national boundaries where market contexts, institutional settings and the evolution of housing systems move differently. Germany has more than half of its households in private renting but the institutional features of the PRS in Germany are quite different, as we have seen, from the deregulated UK. The benefits of the system stability and much more moderate volatility have taken decades to achieve and have had to overcome the challenges of reunification and surplus low demand social housing in the East. They have also enjoyed a comparatively stable policy framework without the catalogue of initiatives and innovations that we suffer from.

Yes, it is true that they do not meet their housing need targets and affordable housing completions are moving in the wrong direction. It may also be the case that the German mortgage market is more conservative and it is undoubtedly true that their rental market (by definition) is less flexible than that of the UK. But this may be an acceptable trade-off in terms of overall housing policy outcomes?

The point about the mortgage market is interesting for other reasons. Recently, in the House of Lords Economics Affairs Committee inquiry into housing, Dame Kate Barker made the point that there is a massive tension between housing-related government departments trying to boost housing supply and home ownership while, at the same time, HM Treasury, the Bank and the financial regulators are re-regulating and constraining mortgage lending.  Acknowledging this difficult trade-off and trying to develop the right balance is a critical requirement for housing policy and the forthcoming White Paper on housing.

I think these reports are a fundamentally good idea because it is by looking at other places in some depth that we shed light on some of the things wrong with our housing system. However, apart from one references to legislating over letting agency fees, I was a little surprised that IPPR did not make more reference to Scotland, given that we have just undergone fundamental reform to our tenancy laws (creating open-ended tenancies and limited specific routes only for eviction) and also proposed rent uplift limitations in pressured market areas. It is Ironic that there appears to be less interest with intra UK policy diffusion. After all while housing policy is diverging rapidly across the UK, it is nonetheless much more similar than comparisons made with Germany. Although it is early days and the law is not yet in force,  considering reform along Scottish lines might be preferable to the IPPR proposals suggested above which are premised on retaining the present tenancy laws and hence privileging, it seems to me, labour market flexibility over housing security.