Conventional wisdom on cities. Not.

The subtitle of , by Paul Cheshire, Max Nathan and Henry Overman, is “Challenging conventional policy wisdom.” This surprised me: these are eminent economists and Henry Overman runs the newish government-funded What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, with a specific policy advice remit. In what way are these authors ‘challengers’?

[amazon_image id=”B00XIVBUZC” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Urban Economics and Urban Policy: Challenging Conventional Policy Wisdom by Paul C. Cheshire, Max Nathan, Henry G. Overman (2014) Hardcover[/amazon_image]

Luckily, the final chapter of this excellent book answers that question. The conventional wisdom consists of the kind of “place-based” policies so much loved by local governments over the decades. The book: “Argues that focusing public expenditure on ‘turning around’ the economies of declining places has had little success; and specifically, many policy interventions have had little economic effect.” It argues that the evaluation of disparities between places should anyway take account of cost differences as well as nominal wages, and should consider too non-wage and non-monetary amenities. But in any case, disparities between people are more important than geographic ones – people, not places – although people do sort themselves with similar people into specific locations. Thus the skills of individuals matter – places don’t have skills – so the challenge is attracting and retaining the individuals. Or, conversely, enabling people to move away from declining places.

A separate, powerful strand of argument concerns housing supply and land use in general. The book argues that land-use is an under-appreciated factor in differences in urban performance. This is tied in to the argument that decline must be made possible: “We would argue for a greater focus on encouraging labour market activity and removing barriers to mobility. In practice, this will require a better understanding of the three-way interaction between the benefit system and the housing and labour markets, and the expansion of housing supply and reduction of costs of living in relatively successful places.”

The book does have a brief chapter on the city devolution process under way now in the UK, but it’s fair to say that the authors are unimpressed by the standard range of urban policies – ‘cluster’ policies, infrastructure investment, area-based initiatives and so on. While sharing their sentiment about some of the guff produced about localism (and there’s a lot of it), I think they are too sceptical about the potential. Consider for example the argument made in Chapter 8 that infrastructure investment does not deliver on regional ‘rebalancing’ and could be counterproductive; and look at the map below showing the way the UK’s motorways were planned (discovered courtesy of Tom Cheshire, @chesh):

All motorways lead to London

The railways post-Beeching cuts have the same radial pattern around London, as do the big internet pipes. Is it really any surprise at all that the UK is such an unusually capital city-centric economy?

This is a terrific book that summarises the state of economic knowledge about urban economies but – as it also acknowledges – there is much we don’t understand. Why do some declining places in fact achieve a turnaround? Why do people not leave poor locations even when they apparently can? Why do policy makers insist on trying over and over again things that don’t work? Answers will surely involve neighbouring social sciences as well as economics. The momentum toward city devolution in the UK, limited as it is, mean that these are pressing questions, and a lot of people will be piling in to offer answers. Although I don’t share the policy scepticism to the degree it is expressed here, provides an invaluable foundation for the debate ahead.