Monday, 20 June 2011

Up with escalators

Dave Hill has an interesting post about the potential impact of the Olympics on the prospects for regeneration in Newham. Here he quotes Sir Robin Wales, mayor of Newham:
But the problem was not only about getting local people into new local jobs. It was also about getting them to remain local people afterwards. Sir Robin spoke of population churn, which his borough has a lot of: "The people moving into Newham are poorer than the people moving out. They come into Newham, they get work, they get jobs and then they move out of the area, and another group of people come in, who are poorer."
You can understand why some people, especially local politicans, look at this and see a problem. Any static snapshot of Newham will reveal a lot of poverty and a lot people struggling to get on. But by Sir Robin's own account, over time a good deal of them do get on, and many eventually move out. They are replaced by more poor people, and the process repeats. The snapshot may not change, but what it doesn't show is that living in Newham seems to give many people on very low incomes a place from which to improve their lives, in a way that ostensibly more 'successful' London boroughs like, say, Richmond or Kingston don't.

So maybe somewhere like Newham actually performs a very valuable function in terms of poverty reduction, acting as what's called an 'escalator' area enabling people to get up and perhaps get out (see here for some research on escalator areas as compared to other types). But people who get 'up and out' by definition won't be around to express their gratitude. Local politicians know that if they can improve the local economy and local amenities to the extent that more current residents are happy to stay, there will probably be a positive political payoff, as well as an area that looks and feels better. It's difficult to disagree with that vision, but I worry that if everyone pursues it there may eventually be no escalator areas left in London.

In summary, I think there are two problems here. One is a simple problem of statics versus dynamics: a place that looks poor may really be doing a very good job of helping people improve their lot, while a place that looks nice and successful might only be good for those who are already wealthy. The second problem is that our institutions seem to provide more incentives to pursue success in relatively static terms, putting the interests of current residents above potential future residents. There's a lot to be said for the interests of current residents, obviously, but they're not the whole show.

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