Going through the roof: could building upwards address London’s housing problem?

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The Ter Meulen Building, Rotterdam: 21st century residential apartments built on top of a post-war shopping centre

The housing challenges facing London are well documented::

  • London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, but housebuilding is running at around half that.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, private rents in London rose by an average of 35%.
  • Future projections suggest there will be 9m people in London by 2020, 10m by 2030 and 11m by 2050.

There are now serious concerns that the lack of affordable housing and rising rents risk driving key workers out of London, and may cause businesses to think twice about locating in the capital. But as well as triggering dire warnings about the future of London and the UK economy, the housing crisis has also prompted increasingly creative ideas on how to solve it.

Going up

Last year, Darren Johnson, who represented the Green Party on the Greater London Assembly, proposed five ideas to secure land for affordable homes. One of his proposals was to build additional storeys on top of existing buildings.

Johnson suggested that this approach has many advantages over demolishing existing properties and building new homes, including:

  • a shorter period of disruption for residents;
  • more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding
  • an opportunity to refurbish the existing homes

He offered the example of the Ducane Housing Association in Hammersmith, which built 44 new homes on top of two 1970s buildings. Based on data from London’s Borough Councils, Johnson estimated that almost 50,000 new homes could be built using Ducane’s example.

One potential stumbling block is the difficulty of getting planning permission for intensive construction projects in the heart of active communities. However, in July 2015, the Treasury signalled the government’s intent to end the need to obtain planning permission for upwards extensions in London.

Building on public buildings

Another approach, on similar lines, is the idea of building new homes on top of publically owned buildings. In 2015, WSP professional services consultants conducted a survey to gauge interest in the idea. Among their findings:

  • 61% of respondents supported the idea of allowing private developers to refurbish government buildings, allowing them to make their money back by building additional housing on top of the refurbished building, which they could sell for profit.
  • Over 60% of Londoners would happily live above a library, while 44% would be willing to live above a government administration building, and around a quarter of Londoners would be willing to live above a school or hospital.

The WSP report went on to suggest that developing all available sites by building apartments above all available public buildings in London could provide over 630,000 residential units.

“Of course we acknowledge that not every building will be able to be redeveloped in this way, but even targeting one in every two municipal buildings could go a long way in solving the housing crisis, providing 315,000 homes.”

These homes, the report argued, would be most suitable for key workers employed by these facilities, or by students, older people and young professionals. Some may even house those working in the facilities below.

One landlord is already exploring the idea with several London councils. Apex Housing Group has experience of converting airspace above properties into luxury penthouse apartments. Managing director Arshad Bhatti believes the principle could be applied to affordable homes:

“We are working with a number of local authorities across London and expect airspace development projects will help bridge the gap between demand and supply of new homes in London – crucially with minimum lead times, and offering maximum value for property owners.”

The view from overseas

The idea of building up may be relatively new to London, but other densely populated cities have already been exploring its possibilities.

  • In Rotterdam, developers have been combining ultra-lightweight materials to build apartments on top of a 1940s shopping centre.
  • In New York, a developer is planning to construct a nine-storey condominium on top of apartments dating from the 1950s.
  • In Paris, three prefab dwellings attached to the rooftops of existing buildings were completed in January 2016.

The architects of the Paris project believe it has multiple benefits:

“Building on top of the roofs is not only an ecological and economical solution, it’s working against the urban sprawl that kills the social link. It’s also a contemporary way to discover new perspectives of the city, a new Paris above the horizon.”

But not everyone is happy with the idea. Residents in the existing apartments beneath the proposed New York condominium are concerned that the wear and tear of construction could damage their properties. And they’re also worried about the stability of the columns supporting the new building.

The only way is up?

Clearly, building on existing properties is not without its problems. But as the housing crisis in London intensifies, and spreads to other parts of the UK, it’s an idea that may no longer be regarded as pie in the sky.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

The power of personal budgets

Image by Tristan Martin via Creative Commons

Image by Tristan Martin via Creative Commons

Described by supporters as having revolutionised the way the social care system in England is organised, personal budgets have developed to become the norm in social care commissioning in England.

One of the ideas underpinning personal budgets is the development of a new relationship between people who use care services and the organisations who provide them. The new approach was designed to move away from previous prescriptive services towards more bespoke, personalised models of care, where service users are directly involved in planning and deciding what care they receive, and how they receive it.

Within the personal budgets model an allocation of money is given to a specific person from their local authority, following an assessment of need. Money is allocated to the individual, who then works with a professional to work out the most appropriate support. The idea is based on the ideas of transparency, empowerment and personalisation of care.

There are 4 options for service delivery which recipients can chose from to best suit their care needs:

  1. Managed council budgets – where councils arrange the care that is needed following an assessment and an agreed set of outcomes to go alongside a pre-agreed care plan;
  2. Individual service funds – marketed as a more flexible option than local authority led management, this allows recipients to select an alternate organisation to manage an individual’s care budget, and deliver the required services;
  3. Direct payments – this option sees the money paid directly into the account of the person in need of support and allows them to buy care services from an agency or to employ their own carer, or a mixture of both;
  4. Mixed package – a combination of any of the options above, where recipients of support may give some of their budgets to a care provider (either a charity or local authority) but may get a portion of the budget paid directly to them so they can pay, for example, for additional carers to visit during the night.

Seniorin mit Pflegerin

Those in favour of personal budgets point out that the model promotes the personalisation agenda within health and social care in a way that no other policy does. It gives control of spending directly to the person in receipt of the support and has been heralded as a new age for transparency, increasing choice and control, reducing bureaucracy and cutting costs. Personal budgets have also become a key part of the health and social care integration agenda, as well as being highlighted within the recent reform of SEND (special educational needs and disability) care and provision.

Supporters also argue that one of the best and biggest changes between personal budgets and the original direct payment pilots are that personal budgets are designed to produce outcomes, not pay for a service. They are co-produced with the person in receipt of care, as well as professionals from a number of sectors, care providers and family, if appropriate, to ensure that care plans and agreed outcomes are established when the budget is allocated and that the payments achieve those outcomes.

pregnant carer giving pills and medication to her elderly pacient

However, studies have shown that there are big variations in service provision, choice can be limited and poor practice and processes can have a big impact on personal budget delivery and effectiveness. There has also been criticism of the high level of support within government for the model, despite the limited number of pilot roll outs and reviews into outcomes.

In 2016 a National Audit Office report was critical of the way that public services have monitored the impact of personalisation through personal budgets, as very little evaluation of their long term benefits and efficacy have been completed. The report stated that the Department of Health needed to “gain a better understanding of the different ways to commission personalised services for users and how these lead to improvements in user outcomes.” It is clear that there is a lack of evidence as monitoring does not allow service providers to understand how personal budgets improve outcomes.

Critics also argue that personal budgets are ineffective and cannot provide suitable care for everyone in need. They argue that there has never been, and never will be adequate funding to implement personal budgets properly. The principle is only effective, they argue, if there is an unlimited supply of both funds to pay for services and service providers delivering high quality service, which under current conditions of austerity there is not. Supporters counter however, that the concept of “self-directed support” is fundamentally a good one, but admit that poor delivery can deter some people.

Conclusion

Personal budgets can empower people in receipt of care, allowing them to take control of how their care is delivered. This recognition that care should be individualised is a big step forward for people who rely on care services on a daily basis.

However, reduced budgets, inconsistent service provision, and a lack of information for recipients has meant that some people have missed out on the benefits of personal budgets. In practice, services are patchy and evidence of actual benefits, in terms of improved outcomes, is lacking due to the limited number of research studies.

In order to fully realise the power of personal budgets for everyone in receipt of care, the provision, implementation and understanding of the model must be improved. Support for people to help them make the most informed decisions about planning their care packages should also be increased.

Why a holistic approach to public health and social care needs a wider evidence base … and how Social Policy and Practice can help

SPP screenshot2016 has been described as “make or break time for the NHS”, and with pressures on finances increasing, social care and public health are in the spotlight. Around £1 in every £5 of NHS spending is estimated to be the result of ill health attributable to the big five risk factors of smoking, alcohol, poor diet, obesity and inactivity. Investing in prevention, and understanding the complex wider community and social factors that lead to poor health, is therefore important. In cash-strapped local authorities however, investment in preventative projects can be sidelined in the face of tackling acute issues.

Prevention and behaviour change are linked

Recent health policy has included an expectation that individuals should take greater responsibility for their own health. But where we are talking about behaviour change, there is no quick fix. Glib use of the term ‘nudge’ to promote change can suggest that laziness is the only issue. However, research such as that by the King’s Fund has highlighted that motivation and confidence are essential if people are to successfully modify their health behaviours.

Practitioners within the field of both public health and social care need help understanding what works – but as two great recent blogs from the Alliance for Useful Evidence noted, change can be achieved in multiple ways and evidence shouldn’t be used to prove a service works but as part of a journey of improvement and learning.

We talk about the “caring professions”, but it seems that it can be difficult to maintain a focus on the ‘person not the patient’ when budgets are being cut. Well-reported issues such as the rise in the use of 15-minute home care appointments are just one symptom of this. More generally, making time to consider alternative approaches or learn from good practice elsewhere can be hard. That is where having access to a trusted database can help.

Trusted source of research and ideas

The Alliance for Useful Evidence, most recently in its practice guide to using research evidence, has highlighted the importance of using trusted sources rather than “haphazard online searches”. One of these resources is Social Policy and Practice, a database which we have contributed to for twelve years.

“SPP is useful for any professional working in the field of social care or social work who can’t get easy access to a university library.” Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016

The partners who contribute to the database – Centre for Policy on Ageing, Idox Information Service, National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC and the Social Care Institute for Excellence – are all committed to sharing their focused collections with the wider world of researchers and to influence policy and practice.

Social Policy and Practice is the UK’s only national social science database embracing social care, social policy, social services, and public policy. It boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature.

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.


Find out more about the development of the Social Policy and Practice database in this article from CILIP Update. Update is the leading publication for the library, information and knowledge management community and they’ve given us permission to share this article.

If you are interested in using the Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database for evidence and research in health and social care, please visit www.spandp.net for more information and to request a free trial.

Read some of our other blogs on evidence use in public policy:

ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.


If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy:

Makerspaces – bringing creativity and innovation to communities

ernycfwp8iBy Donna Gardiner

Makerspaces, hackerspaces, fab labs, hack labs – the variety of terms can seem a little bewildering at first.  Although there may be subtle differences between these, essentially they all share the same key features:

  • the provision of a shared space where people can come together to share skills, ideas and equipment
  • a focus on informal, peer-led, networked ‘learning by doing’
  • an encouraging and inclusive environment, where people of all skill levels are welcome

As well as the names used, makerspaces can also vary widely in terms of their size, the tools offered, and their governance and membership models.

Makerspaces have grown from the increasing popularity of ‘maker culture’ – in which people enjoy designing and creating new objects, as well as tinkering with existing ones.  In the UK, the number of makerspaces is growing rapidly – there are currently around 100 – with at least one in nearly every UK city, and at least two in every UK region.

What sort of activities do they include?

Makerspaces most commonly provide access to machinery like 3D printers, electronics, soldering guns, laser cutters, and sewing machines.

However, other activities that makerspaces may facilitate include:

  • computer programming
  • robotics
  • video production
  • music making
  • print making and photography
  • woodworking and wood carving
  • ceramics and sculpture
  • baking, homebrewing, winemaking, and pickling
  • urban agriculture and composting
  • handmade cosmetics and perfumes
  • hairdressing lessons
  • kit cars, vehicle tuning, electric vehicle conversion

Aside from the physical resources, one of the key benefits of makerspaces is that they attract skilled and enthusiastic people who are happy to share their knowledge with others.

Makerspaces within libraries

The makerspace ethos of providing equal access to knowledge resources is not a new concept; libraries have been doing this for many years!

The increasing popularity of makerspaces has led to many forward thinking libraries establishing makerspaces of their own, particularly in the US.  One of the first to do this was the Fayetteville Free Library in New York – which has three distinct makerspaces – one lab for digital creation, one for physical creation, and a makerspace for children aged 5-8. It also runs a number of different programmes and clubs for both adults and children.

Makerspaces are also becoming more common within school and academic libraries too.

In the UK, library makerspaces are still in their infancy. However, there are a few notable trailblazers, including:

Wider benefits of Makerspaces

The main reasons people tend to use makerspaces are for socialising, learning and making. However, there is growing interest among researchers in the wider benefits of makerspaces.

Such community benefits include:

  • enabling minorities or underrepresented populations, like women or people with disabilities, to become involved with technology or other fields they may not have previously considered
  • tackling social isolation among older people by providing a means for them to connect with others (similar to Men’s Sheds)
  • providing a ‘space for communities’ and reinforcing the library’s role as a hub of community activity and information
  • crowdsourcing’ community skills and voluntary effort – for example, the E-Nable community where volunteers produce prosthetic limbs for people with disabilities

From an educational perspective, makerspaces in libraries can also help to:

  • build links between libraries, schools, colleges and universities
  • promote STEM education and careers, particularly among underrepresented groups
  • develop students’ critical thinking skills and ability to learn from failure

And for libraries themselves, the provision of makerspaces may help to

  • increase footfall, particularly among young people
  • position the library as a ‘platform’ where it can be used by the community for a range of different things, beyond traditional book lending

There is also potential for makerspaces to be used by local councils to fill empty shops and attract people back to the high street. For example, South London Makerspace recently received funding from the GLA High Street Fund.

Although there are some issues to address, particularly around encouraging users from diverse backgrounds, makerspaces present a fantastic range of opportunities for encouraging creativity and fostering connections in and between communities.


We regularly blog on community issues such as tackling social exclusion. If you enjoyed this article, read our articles on Men’s Sheds and regenerating High Streets.

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Idox congratulates winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2016

winners-and-commended-group-pictureFor the second year, we were proud to support the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. The winners and commended entries were announced on Wednesday at the UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference, held in Cardiff. They represent a showcase of high quality, spatial planning research with clear relevance to policy and practice.

It was pleasing to see the interdisciplinary nature of many of the projects – highlighting the important contribution that the planning profession makes to wider agendas. This year’s competition attracted a record number of entries which were whittled down to a shortlist of 25.

Idox sponsored three of the award categories in 2016 – The Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, the Student Award and the Planning Consultancy Award.

Worthy winners

The Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement went to the Place Alliance – a national movement campaigning for high quality places brought together by University College London. The Place Alliance brings together built environment sector organisations with an interest in place design to build consensus around policy that would lead to high quality places. Organisations involved include the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institute of British Architects, English Heritage and the Prince’s Foundation.

Their work has fed directly into the work of the Select Committee for National Policy on the Built Environment, which called for a fundamental shift to a place-led approach to policy.

In a new category this year, the Planning Consultancy Award went to Ryden (lead consultants) along with WSP and Brodies, who delivered the Planning for Infrastructure Research Report for the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland. The report researched the delivery of infrastructure for development through the planning system.

It was impressive to see the mixed methods used, which included a literature review, an on-line survey of 35 Scottish planning authorities, 38 in-depth consultations and 8 detailed case studies. The report has informed draft planning delivery advice as well as the Independent Review of the Scottish Planning System. The introduction of this award reflects the calibre and rigour of research that is done within the planning consultancy community.

Meanwhile, Adam van Heerden, of the University of Cape Town, won the Student Award for his research engaging with a marginalised group – the ‘Skarrelers’ in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – who survive on the margins of prime urban spaces by either selling or re-using discarded waste material with value.

Strengthening the links between practice and research

Dr Michael Harris, RTPI’s Head of Research, said:

“The winners and highly commended entries have demonstrated how academic researchers can positively reach out to practitioners and policymakers with insights and findings to inform and influence their work. I am pleased these awards have been able to celebrate such impactful, high quality research again this year.”

Andrew Riley, Chief Operating Officer at Idox plc said:

“Idox is proud to be a sponsor once again of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. Those recognised illustrate the best planning research and its relevance to solving the real-world issues that are facing communities in the UK and internationally. On behalf of Idox I would like to extend our congratulations to all the commended entries and winners.”

There were five categories at this year’s awards and the full list of winners and highly commended entries reflect the diversity of planning research being conducted in the UK and internationally.


We regularly write on planning issues … follow our blog to get notified by email when we publish a new article.

The Idox Information Service has also introduced an individual membership offer in partnership with RTPI which offers a 30% discount on the normal price. The service brings the latest planning research and commentary direct to your inbox.

Local poverty, national wealth: reflections from the annual SURF conference

The annual SURF conference took place in Edinburgh on the 1st September 2016. The theme for this year’s conference was Local poverty, national wealth: resourcing regeneration. Delegates came from a range of organisations across Scotland, including local authorities, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, COSLA, Creative Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and Transport Scotland. Speakers on the day included director of the Common Weal, Robin McAlpine, Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart MSP, Fiona Duncan from Lloyds TSB Foundation Scotland and Sandra Marshall coordinator and community activist from Leith Hub.

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Image by Rebecca Jackson

Building resilient and equal communities through regeneration

The conference focused on connecting policy, practice and people within communities to promote effective regeneration of spaces to reduce inequality. One of the recurring themes of discussion throughout the day was the localisation of power and services, allowing local communities the ability to plan and decide the best way to regenerate their local area. Other general themes discussed during the day included finance, infrastructure to facilitate regeneration at a local level, and how to create a network of support and integrate professional knowledge to support community regeneration plans. Revisiting a theme from last year’s conference, cooperation with communities rather than imposition of regeneration, formed the backbone of discussion for the day.

Image by Rebecca Jackson

Image by Rebecca Jackson

Economic planning is key to reducing inequality and promoting regeneration

The first session of the day focussed on the policy and economic context around regeneration and reducing inequality. It was suggested in the opening remarks that there needs to be effective development and investment where people live- that poverty and inequality lead to degeneration, and that both must be tackled in order to facilitate effective regeneration of an area. In a way the two are not mutually exclusive: regeneration can help to alleviate poverty and inequality, but in order for regeneration to be as effective as possible, poverty and inequality should be eradicated as far as possible.

As well as this abstract macroeconomic debate delegates and panellists discussed locality based funding, including cooperatives. Panellists suggested that in Scotland the problem is not a lack of money, but a lack of effective distribution of resources. They also discussed how to reduce the gap between the lived experience of communities and what politicians think lived experience is. These insights were put into poignant context by panellist Sandra Marshall, who discussed her own personal struggles, and those of others she has helped in her community of Muirhouse in Edinburgh.

Tackling inequality is high on the agenda of the current Scottish Government, something which was emphasised during the panel session by Kevin Stewart MSP. Working at a community level and having the power to do so was also something which was highlighted as being vital to helping communities affect change through regeneration. Kevin Stewart highlighted the proposed decentralisation bill currently being discussed within the Scottish Parliament, which aims to give greater power to local communities to effect their own change.

pink pig and coins

Resourcing regeneration: the view from funders

There was a general consensus that funding is one of the key enablers, but also one of the biggest barriers to those who want to carry out community regeneration. The ease of access to funders and the ability to identify and engage with them was seen as a big barrier. Longevity of funding was also raised, with most funders donating grants for 3-5 years, despite acknowledging that many projects take longer to come to fruition. The second session of the day invited funders from major Scottish regeneration funding bodies: the Big Lottery Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Resilient Scotland, and the Scottish Government to present themselves and their funding options to delegates. Panellists were able to highlight their major funding schemes, how to apply and allow people the opportunity to chat directly with funders. The panellists also took part in a “funding cafe” exhibition which saw representatives from 20 of the major funding bodies in Scotland host stalls and interact with delegates.

Making connections and sharing learning

During the afternoon session delegates were able to hear about the lessons from SURF’s Alliance for Action collaboration projects. The projects in Govan, Kirkcaldy, Rothesay and Dunoon highlight the work done by SURF and their partners in using regeneration to promote community cohesion and reduce inequality. Discussions focussed on the projects themselves, how they were implemented, the challenges, barriers and differences in each of the projects, particularly in relation to scale, and the impacts and outcomes they produced. They also discussed how the models used in each of the projects are sustainable and transferable, and considered the role of SURF as the intermediary body through which policy and practice can be merged to the benefit of communities.

Community concept word cloud background

Community concept word cloud background

A bold new vision for regeneration in Scotland

The final session of the day put forward some suggestions for the future of regeneration, in particular using regeneration as a tool to reduce inequality within Scotland’s communities. Panellists discussed alternative and innovative funding methods, including co-operative and community ownership models, the decentralisation of power to help improve community decision making and the importance of addressing systematic and structural themes which underpin inequality within our communities and hinders the process of regeneration.

The conference was a day filled with interesting and unique insights into the regeneration agenda and the impact it can have on reducing inequality within communities. It also provided a platform for discussion about the future potential for regeneration projects within communities. Speakers and delegates came from a variety of policy, practice and community backgrounds, which resulted in a wide ranging and thorough discussion about many different aspects of the regeneration agenda within Scotland.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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Bristol is Open: case study of an innovative smart city

By Steven McGinty

In May, ‘Bristol is Open’ was named as a leading smart city, just behind London, in Huawei UK’s Smart Cities Index. In the same month, Bristol is Open was also announced as Smart City Innovator of the Year by TM Forum’s Digital World Awards.

Bristol is Open

The project is a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. Several other partners are involved, including national and European governments and commercial organisations, such as Japanese technology firm NEC. This collaborative project will act as a ‘laboratory’ for research and development initiatives and will help shape the development of smart cities and the ‘internet of things’.

Paul Wilson, Managing Director of Bristol Is Open, explains what’s so innovative about the project:

We use a software-defined network (SDN) to run the city in Bristol and then we apply network functions virtualization (NFV) into that network, which is allowing us to have an elastic and scalable network that we can slice to thousands of different users.”

In simple terms, the city is in the process of creating a world leading digital infrastructure. This includes: 144 core fibres in the ground; a mile-long stretch of wireless connectivity along the harbourside, which will include experimental wireless technology such as 5G mobile broadband; and a selection of internet of things sensors and technologies, including 1,500 lampposts. All of which, will be interconnected and controlled by software.

A key advantage of this new model is the ability to splice up the network for different users. This provides the opportunity for new partners to become involved, including community organisations and small start-up companies. Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Project Lead and Chief Technology Officer at Bristol is Open, also explains that the network is “open, agnostic and programmable”, ready to be adopted for the technologies of the future.

Interestingly, the core fibres were installed in a network of redundant ducts purchased by the council over ten years ago. Previously, they had provided cable television to homes in Bristol in the 1970s.

The Data Dome

Last November, the project launched ‘The Data Dome’ at Bristol’s Planetarium.

The 98-seat Bristol Data Dome is connected to a high-performance computer at the University of Bristol (via a 30Gb/s fibre link). The Data Dome, supported by the network and high-speed computer, provides an opportunity to visualise complex experiments, create virtual reality environments and give audience members their own unique perspective.

The dome has been used to show content from earth sciences, as well as real time sociological mapping in cities. Engineers, at corporate sponsor Rolls Royce, have also used the Dome to visualise engines and to inspire young people about engineering.

‘No grand visions’

In a recent TED talk, Stephen Hilton, Leader of Bristol City Council’s Futures Group, states that ‘he doesn’t like to spout grand visions’.  Instead, he explains that the Bristol is Open team prefers to focus on tangible targets and introduce measures that lay the groundwork for smart cities.

He highlights that the project aims to:

  • reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2020;
  • create 95,000 new jobs, particularly in high growth sectors such as the creative industries and green technology;
  • have Bristol recognised among the top 20 European cities by 2020.

 Smart Cities Index

Huawei’s Smart Cities Index highlights five important themes for creating successful smart city programmes. These include:

  • the importance of leadership and vision
  • a need to focus on local priorities and strengths
  • the importance of engagement with local communities
  • building local partnerships
  • understanding the way in which the data revolution can improve services and boost innovation

Privacy

George Ferguson, former Mayor of Bristol, recognised the challenges surrounding data privacy. He acknowledged that privacy can lead to heated debate and advised that cities should help shape the debate, rather than leave it to technology companies. For him, understanding how citizens want their data to be used is an important part of the Bristol is Open project.

However, this may not satisfy those concerned about lampposts with “acoustic detection sensors” capable of recording noise levels, possibly speech.

Final thoughts

Bristol’s commitment to becoming a truly smart city has led to its award winning status. In the future, it will be interesting to see if it’s ambitious, yet pragmatic, approach will help to address some of the city’s key challenges, such as reducing carbon emissions. More importantly, it will be interesting to see whether the lessons learnt in Bristol, will be introduced in other cities, and whether we move away from the idea of smart cities to a ‘smart nation.’


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From failure to improvement: how public services can turn themselves around

Abhacken

A new report on the instructive role of failure has been published this summer by the Institute for Government.

Failing Well describes the experiences of four previously failing public services organisations which managed to turn their services around.

Introducing the report, the authors highlight what failure means for public services.

“Failure matters because failure happens. The constellation of organisations that constitute public services in the UK is inherently complex and therefore at permanent risk of failure. This risk, while longstanding, is particularly acute at present. Service providers remain under pressure to cut costs and reconfigure the way services are delivered.”

In addition, structural changes to the ways services are being delivered – a push towards more decentralised and autonomous models of public services – can heighten the risk of failure.

And the authors note that the impacts of failure in the context of public services can be serious:

  • unacceptable standards of service provision
  • harm to service users
  • disruption to service provision
  • discontinuation of the service entirely

Doncaster Council

Four case studies in the report illustrate the different ways in which identified failings in a public sector organisation can lead to changes for the better.

In 2010, a corporate governance inspection by the Audit Commission reported that Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council:

“does not do enough to meet the needs of its most vulnerable people, does not safeguard children, and has not been good at helping vulnerable people find a home.”

In short, the commission described Doncaster Council as “a well-known failure”.

In the light of this damning assessment, the Communities Secretary appointed a new chief executive and a team of commissioners to oversee a turnaround at the council. As Failing Well’s authors note, the move by central government to impose its will on local government in direct opposition to democratically elected councillors was an extraordinary step. One of the lessons from Doncaster’s case is that earlier forms of support may prevent such interventions before a public service reaches the point of serious failure.

The report goes on to describe the improvement plan for Doncaster Council agreed by the new commissioners, covering areas such as corporate issues, health and caring. At the same time, the commissioners sought to repair breakdowns in personal relationships at the council that were partly responsible for the problems in running the organisation. By 2014, confidence in the governance of Doncaster Council was restored, and the commissioners were withdrawn ahead of schedule.

West Sussex Children’s Services

Another case study in Failing Well describes the traumatic impact a poor Ofsted assessment had on West Sussex County Council’s Children’s Services, particularly concerning recruitment and retention. But the labelling of failure also proved to be pivotal in bringing problems into the open and stimulating action.  Children’s Services presented its own improvement plan, with progress measured by the council’s Improvement Board. Subsequent Ofsted assessments demonstrated that the journey from failure to improvement was under way.

Lessons from failure

The case studies from Doncaster and West Sussex, along with those from a school and an NHS foundation trust, highlight the different pressures faced by a range of public service organisations. But the authors found some common lessons emerging from these different stories:

  • Peer-to-peer support provides opportunities for earlier intervention – but it needs a trigger.
  • Interventions may not need to remain in place until the turnaround is complete.
  • Insularity is often a characteristic of failing organisations.
  • Responses to failure can be over-reliant on structural reforms.
  • Creating an open, no-blame culture helps to protect against future risk of failure.
  • There is scope for more sector-wide learning from failure.
  • Failure can appear to get worse before it gets better.
  • Turnarounds should set the foundation for long-term improvement, as well as dealing with immediate problems.

The authors warn against an over-reliance on blame, suggesting that this can forestall attempts to understand why failure arose. And they conclude that cultural reform is key to responding to failure:

“In all of the case studies, turnarounds were to some extent predicated on the adoption of new cultures and ways of working…Open, blame-free cultures, where staff are actively encouraged to flag risks or concerns about standards of provision, allow organisations to prevent further failure and encourage reflection when failure does occur.”


Previous blog posts on the the subject of public sector services include: