Sunday, 18 September 2016

How Jaywick and West Texas tell us the Intergenerational Foundation's research doesn't say what they think it says

The Intergenerational Foundation has done some research - it's pretty good and you can read the full report (pdf) here. The IF look at 'intergenerational segregation' - the extent to which people of different ages tend to concentrate in the same areas. And both the IF and also the media has focused on how the increasing geographical segregation of young and old in England is a consequence of housing problems such as lack of choice and affordability.

Here's the BBC's 'OMG this is terrible' report on the research:

Young families are being "ghettoised" in inner city areas by the housing crisis while older homeowners become isolated in the suburbs, a report says.

The Intergenerational Foundation study says the number of areas dominated by over-50s has risen sevenfold since 1991 as young people move into the cities.

Even within urban areas, older people, children and young adults are living increasingly separate lives, it adds.

I'm sure this pattern will be repeated across other media and will be reflected in reports on similar research in the USA and continental Europe. And the argument that it's all about housing costs will be repeated again and again without question or criticism. Put simply we are more age segregated as a result of older people being unable to move to more 'age appropriate' accommodation because there isn't enough of that housing so young people aren't able to cycle out from the cities into the suburbs. And young people are renting in the city because they can't afford to buy the limited number of houses that come available in those desirable suburbs.

The problem here is that this really doesn't match what the IF's research is saying. Here's a chunk of those findings:

...places with the highest median ages are predominantly in rural parts of the country, particularly around coastal areas, while urban MSOAs stand out for being more youthful.There is also evidence of a north-south divide, as the broader south east surrounding London contains a number of lighter MSOAs – which represent comparatively youthful smaller towns and cities in the region such as Watford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge – whereas the MSOAs which are outside the large northern cities appear to be shaded darker. This pattern supports the finding from previous studies that there is a substantial net inflow of internal migrants who are in their 20s from northern towns and cities to London, while the out-flow of former London residents in their 20s and 30s tends to be to other towns in the south east.

I'm not arguing that there isn't a problem with housing supply (in general or specific to particular needs or demands) but rather that the IF research doesn't really provide an argument supporting the typical description of that housing crisis - young people unable to afford to buy property and, therefore, trapped in rented accommodation. Nor does the work really tell us that these affordability and supply issues are the reasons for England's 'age segregation'.

To understand this, we should note that the highest median ages are 'around coastal areas'. Other than for parts of the South Coast like Brighton and Bournemouth, England's coastal towns are pretty affordable and characterised by high levels of multiple deprivation:

An Essex seaside village is the most deprived neighbourhood in England, according to official statistics.

The community east of Jaywick near Clacton-on-Sea has again topped a list that measured deprivation in 32,844 areas across the country, the government report found.

But all of the local authorities with the highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods are in the north - Middlesbrough, Knowsley, Hull, Liverpool and Manchester.

And of the top 10 neighbourhoods, Blackpool, the ‘Vegas of the North’, has five in the list, and eight in the top 20.

We see this pattern repeated in other seaside towns - Great Yarmouth, Skegness, Bridlington, Minehead - where an ageing population doesn't have the sort of characteristics popularised by those who want to blame all our problems on 'Baby Boomers'.

John Byford, 48, councillor for Skegness South, said: “Opportunities around here are few and far between. There’s no industry. People like it that we don’t have the fast motorways, but that’s also a problem because it means we don’t get the industry.”

The recently released movie 'Hell and High Water' features two brothers robbing banks so they can pay off the debts on their late mother's ranch. Based in West Texas the film is a contemporary Western nodding to the themes and storylines we're so familiar with from the traditional genre. One thing that strikes you watching is the utter, abject poverty of West Texas with shacks and shuttered shops frequented by tired, old people. These are dying communities without young people and kept going only by the fortune of oil and gas, at least until that runs out too.

So where have those young Texans gone? To the cities:

Texas’s spectacular growth is largely a story of its cities—especially of Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. These Big Four metropolitan areas, arranged in a layout known as the “Texas Triangle,” contain two-thirds of the state’s population and an even higher share of its jobs. Nationally, the four metros, which combined make up less than 6 percent of the American population, posted job growth equivalent to 30 percent of the United States’ total since the financial crash in 2007. Within Texas, they’ve accounted for almost 80 percent of the state’s population growth since 2000 and over 75 percent of its job growth. Meantime, a third of Texas counties, mostly rural, have actually been losing population.

Why would you stay in a dusty, isolated West Texas town like Post or Brownfield when there's no work and no prospect of work? Same goes - perhaps a little less starkly - for England. Young people are leaving what might be called secondary communities in the North - places like Oldham and Burnley as well as those coastal towns we've already mentioned. And if you've made up your mind to head elsewhere for work you're going to go where those prospects are best which in England means you head to London. It's this pattern of migration that the IF are picking up in their research not merely the consequences of England's failing planning and housing policies.

And the problem is that, while we can do something to make London less age segregated by housing policies, we'll struggle to respond to the desire of older people to live somewhere slower, quieter and more communal than a great big city. Or for that matter the wish of single, fun-loving young folk to live in big cities with great nightlife and loads of other young people. The problems IF identify are as much a consequence of wealth and choice as they are of sclerotic housing policies.



Curmudgeon said...

Very good analysis. As you say, it's not really anything to do with house prices at all. Indeed the young people are, broadly speaking, flocking to where accommodation prices are highest.

Frances Coppola said...

It's about work, not housing. It always has been. The problem is that people are mobile, but houses are not.

On a larger scale, the same thing is happening in the EU periphery. Whole countries are becoming ghettos of the elderly, sick, disabled and those trapped by low skills and lack of money, while the young and skilled migrate to the core in search of better-paid work. I wrote about this a few years ago. I won't post the links here, but if you want to look the posts up they are called "the creeping desert", and (rather more upbeat) "in the countries of the old". You might also like to look up Paul Krugman's work on social geography. He won a Nobel for it, if I recall correctly.