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Ben Rogers

May 27th, 2021

How to measure good growth: some advice for Sadiq Khan

0 comments | 19 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ben Rogers

May 27th, 2021

How to measure good growth: some advice for Sadiq Khan

0 comments | 19 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sadiq Khan has committed to developing a new measure of good growth in London. Ben Rogers (University of London/ LSE Cities) sets out what the London Mayor will have to do to make sure that it is more than a communications exercise.

With London’s mayoral election behind us, we can now expect Sadiq Khan and his team to turn to their attention to delivering on his electoral platform. If we are honest, Khan’s manifesto was not buzzing with new commitments. For the most part, he ran on a promise to build on existing mayoral policies and priorities – not surprising, perhaps, given that he was the incumbent, has limited powers and even more limited budgets. The pandemic has broken Transport for London funding and he now has a truncated three-year term, because the election was delayed by the pandemic.

But the manifesto did include some new commitments, including one to develop a fresh approach to assessing growth.

Now is also the right time to look afresh at how we measure our success as a city. For years, we’ve measured prosperity — like most cities and countries — in terms of material wealth that is generated by our economic activity. But the strength, sustainability and wellbeing of our economy and society are not currently properly reflected. So I’ll work with others to establish a new measure of wellbeing in London as the core indicator of our city’s success as a place to work and live for all its residents.

Of course, Khan is not the first politician to suggest that the way we think about growth is flawed. For decades, critics have been arguing that we need to find richer, more multi-dimensional frameworks, and their arguments have only got stronger, as the costs – in terms of ecological destruction, inequality and health – of a narrow-minded focus on economic production have mounted.

London is an object lesson in the limits of the orthodox approach. The capital has grown impressively, on GDP, GVA (gross valued added) and job-growth measures, though per capita GVA has stalled over the last decade. But its record on carbon emissions, pollution  and other environmental metrics, poverty, inequality and wellbeing have been much less impressive, as Centre for London’s recent London at a Crossroads report set out.  And the pandemic has exposed big issues with the capital’s resilience. We know that a story that omits these dimensions is deeply misleading.

Yet a critic might well wonder if we really need a new measure to capture this. There are already dozens and dozens of alternative metrics to choose from. The European Union has published a document identifying 14 indicator frameworks well adapted to measuring the sustainability of European cities – and that was 5 years ago. We could now add others to the list, including the Donut City Portraits framework, not to mention metrics more focused on health and wellbeing, poverty and inequality or citizenship and governance.

sadiq khan
Sadiq Khan in Trafalgar Square in December 2020. Photo: Chabad Lubavitch via a CC BY 2.0 licence

Even within the UK there is no shortage of city focused measures. PwC and Demos publish an annual Good Growth for Cities assessment and Centre for Cities a yearly City Metric (albeit with a narrower economic focus). The Centre for Thriving Places in Bristol have developed a couple of city based measures. Turning to London, the Mayor’s Sustainable Development Commission has its own scorecard. Trust for London’s London Poverty Profile covers deprivation. And UCL’s Global Prosperity Institute has worked with citizens in East London to develop a Prosperity Index. One could go on.

The sheer number of these measures begs the question: if they are so powerful, why do we need so many? Why do we have to keep re-inventing them? There are, moreover, some well-established criticisms of public sector measurement and performance frameworks that might explain why none of these ‘good growth’ measures seems to have stuck. To begin with, it’s argued that such frameworks tend to present themselves as objective and authoritative, when they are in fact deeply political – there is no objective way of measuring pollution or inequality, or determining how we should weigh them against each other. And that means they are always contestable.

Critics maintain that metrics that favour ‘softer’ non-numerical measures of development lack rigour, while those that deal in numerical ones are easily dismissed as shallow. And there is a familiar criticism that the use of measurement regimes to assess organisational and individual performance can have distorting and demotivating effects – those working under such regimes too often have to face a choice between doing well on a measure even if that means neglecting other objectives, or failing to hit a target (see Kitchin, Lauriault & McArdle (2015) and Da Cruz (2016) for two helpful discussions).

There is a lot in these arguments, but it’s probably better to take them as cautionary tales than fatal objections. No doubt we have too many feebly conceived, half-baked measurement frameworks, some used principally as branding exercises. And not doubt careful thought has to go into how you develop and use a measurement regime. But there is lot in the old saying ‘What gets measured gets valued’. And public organisations need some sort of framework to guide their work and understand how well they are doing.

In that spirit, here are some rules for the Mayor of London’s proposed new ‘good growth’ metric.

  • Try to make the measure as comprehensive as possible. A framework that is slanted to one aspect of good growth over another is by its nature partial, and won’t serve as a good guide to good growth for a whole capital. Khan’s manifesto half-suggests that is he wants to focus on resident wellbeing, and this is important. But so is London’s performance on climate change, democracy and resilience – and it impact on place and people beyond its borders.
  • Recognise that assessing London’s development is necessarily political – don’t expect everyone to agree with your approach, but be clear on the values that animate your framework and try to take as many people with you as possible. And because it’s political it’s also likely to prove time-limited. The politics will change and the next Mayor will probably want to do something different
  • Make it London specific rather than comparative.  Measurement regimes that compare cities have their uses.  But they can only ever give a very high level and limited picture. Better to develop a measurement framework that reflects London’s particular issues and ambitions, and which is, as far as possible, owned by Londoners.
  • That does not mean, however, that London has nothing to learn from anywhere else. On the contrary, London needs to reach out to cities and organisations that are further along this journey, like Bristol and Amsterdam, and understand their approach, the challenges they faced and how they dealt with them, and what has worked and what has not.
  • Make it democratic. Engaging citizens and civil society in creating and using the framework will help ensure that it is measuring the things that matter and maximise support.
  • And finally, understand that the value of the framework lies in large part in the process of making it – in the conversations its enables, the alliances it builds, the self-reflection it encourages and the sense of direction it can provide for those involved. Yes, the framework can be used to measure progress and hold those with power, including the Mayor, to account. But realistically, that will only be one element of its role, and arguably not the most important.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the COVID-19 blog, nor LSE. It is based on Ben Rogers’ contribution to Getting London Growing Again?, an open seminar hosted by LSE Regional and Urban Planning Studies.

About the author

Ben Rogers

Ben Rogers is Professor of Practice – London at the University of London, and Senior Visiting Fellow at LSE Cities. Twitter @Ben_rog

Posted In: #LSEThinks | The future of cities

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