A better place for everyone: how investing in social infrastructure could be the key to levelling up

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Social infrastructure is a broad term which covers a range of services which meet the local and strategic needs of an area. It can defined in many different ways, depending on which reports you read, but definitions often include:

  • physical places, services and spaces like youth services, community health, recreation, green space and sport and education and outreach services;
  • community organisations, such as voluntary groups, charitable groups, neighbourhood fora, local business groups and social enterprises; and
  • the physical and social links between places and people, including digital infrastructure, and walking and cycling infrastructure.

While the definition is broad and sometimes disputed, one thing that is generally agreed on is that social infrastructure is a key part of joining up physical infrastructure with services and communities for the benefit of the people who live and work in an area.  It is important for social cohesion and effective placemaking and for that reason it has been highlighted by many commentators as a key part of the levelling up agenda.

A cornerstone of public life in our towns and cities

Many commentators have emphasised the role of “informal” spaces, libraries, parks, recreational spaces and community hubs as being overlooked and undervalued in the wider discussions of services and provisions within local areas for many years.

It seemed there was a perception that many of the services covered by the collective term “social infrastructure” were considered to be “supplementary” to core services delivered at a local level, like social work, and while the work they did within the community was recognised as positive, often they were first in line for cuts to services.

However, in recent years, the wider intangible value that these spaces and communities which social infrastructure supports has become recognised. Social infrastructure plays a vital role in supporting disadvantaged and marginalised groups within communities, often providing links to key services and support for people who had previously had significant barriers to access. More broadly social infrastructure can help with preventative and early intervention, with policies and investment that can reduce the need for more intensive (and expensive) support later on.

It is now considered common practice that investment should maximise public or ‘social’ value that is investments that deliver the best solutions to support the public good. In practice this means including wider non-financial considerations such as community wellbeing and environmental sustainability when making the business case, and prioritising and planning projects that achieve positive social value outcomes for the public.

Supporting inclusive growth, levelling up and the post pandemic recovery

Having poor social infrastructure has been found to contribute to the lack of inclusive growth and levels of low productivity for left behind communities. Even before the coronavirus pandemic The Inclusive Growth Commission called for investment not just in physical infrastructure in poorer communities but in the social infrastructure which ‘develops the capacities and capabilities of individuals, families and communities to participate more fully in society and economic growth’. The most deprived communities often have the worst social infrastructure, which can exacerbate already deep rooted inequalities around areas like wealth, health and race.

Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society, published in 2018, highlights research that demonstrates how social infrastructure affects our personal and collective wellbeing, leading to safer, healthier, more tolerant and stable communities, and facilitates social capital the connections made between people. As we seek to “level up” those communities left behind, and those most significantly impacted by the pandemic, building these connections and improving social capital will be an important tool to help communities develop.

Research from Frontier Economics, published in June 2021, found that for every £1m invested, there are likely to be economic and fiscal returns worth £3.2m, including a £0.7m boost in employment, training and skills opportunities for local residents. And the Centre for Progressive Policy has illustrated in their recent programme of work that investment in social infrastructure plays a vital role in increasing the ​“health and skill levels of more deprived sections of the population and reducing place-based inequalities in line with the government’s levelling up agenda,” as well as offering good value for money and significant productivity returns.

Final thoughts

High quality and inclusive social infrastructure and its wider role in the creation of socially cohesive and economically vibrant communities is key to a successful levelling up agenda. New investment in social infrastructure will not only help to level Britain up, it will also unlock creativity, innovation and other local resources that can help rebuild the economy and build in local resilience for the future.


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Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

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By James Carson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computer pioneer Alan Turing first considered the notion of ‘thinking machines’ in the 1950s. More than half a century later, advances such as natural language processing and translation, and facial recognition have taken AI out of the computer lab and onto our smartphones. Meanwhile, faster computers and large datasets have enabled machine learning, where a computer imitates the way that humans learn.

AI has already had important impacts on how we live and work: in healthcare, it’s helping to enhance diagnosis of disease; in financial services AI is being deployed to spot trends that can’t be easily picked up by conventional reporting methods; and in education, AI can provide learning, testing and feedback, with benefits both to students and teachers. And now, intelligent automation is being adopted by local government.

AI goes local

A decade of austerity has left local councils struggling to ‘do more with less’. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, but has also accelerated efforts by local government to find digital solutions.

AI offers local authorities the benefits of streamlining routine tasks and processes, freeing up staff to focus on higher value activities which deliver better services and outcomes to citizens. Intelligent automation could also have important economic impacts. IPPR has estimated that AI could save councils up to £6bn in social care costs.

When it comes to system and data updating, intelligent automation really comes into its own. From managing council tax payments to issuing parking permits, there are now digital solutions to the many task-driven processes that are such a major part of local government’s work.

Many local councils are also exploring the application of chatbots or virtual assistants. These technologies enable customer services to provide automated, human-like answers to frequently asked questions on subjects as varied as waste management, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. The time and cost savings from this kind of digital solution can be substantial. Newham Council in London deployed a multilingual chatbot to answer residents’ questions. Within six months, the technology had answered 10,000 questions, saved 84 hours of call time and generated cost savings of £40,000.

The challenges of AI in local government: getting it right

Earlier this year, a report from the Oxford Commission on AI and Good Governance identified the major challenges facing local authorities when considering AI.

Inaccurate or incomplete data can delay or derail an AI project, so it’s vital that data quality issues are addressed early on. The report highlighted a project where one local authority explored how predictive analytics might be used to help prioritize inspections of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Predictive analytics involves the use of historic data to predict new instances. But in this case the challenges of cleaning, processing and merging the data proved too intractable to produce successful predictions.

Another important step for local authorities is to clearly define the objectives of an AI project, providing a clear vision of the outcomes, while managing expectations among all affected stakeholders – especially senior managers. The report points to a successful project implemented by Manchester City Council which developed an integrated database that allowed them to automate record searches and build predictive tools. The project had a clearly stated aim of identifying troubled families to participate in the government’s payment-by-results programme. This approach gave the project a specific focus and an easily measurable assessment of success.

It’s also important for local councils and technology suppliers to work together, ensuring that suppliers are aware of local contexts, existing data and processes. At the same time, making full use of in-house expertise can help AI technologies work better in a local government setting. The Oxford Commission report explains that after the disappointing results from the previously mentioned HMOs project, in-house data scientists working in one of the participating local authorities developed their own solution.

Sometimes, councils will discover that AI is a good fit in some parts of their work, but doesn’t work in others. In 2019, Oxford City Council explored whether chatbots could help solve design problems in some of their services. The council found that, while waste and recycling enquiries could be easily handled by a chatbot, the complex nature of the planning service would have made it difficult to remove humans from the conversations taking place in this setting. That said, another council has found it possible to develop a chatbot for its planning applications.

At the same time, digitalisation is compelling councils to adjust to new ways of working, something discussed in a Local Government Association presentation by Aylesbury Vale District Council.

The future of AI in local government

Since we last looked at this subject, local government involvement in AI has increased. But there are still important governance and ethical arrangements to consider so that AI technologies in public services can achieve benefits that citizens can trust.

The Oxford Commission report set out a number of recommendations, including:

  • minimum mandatory data standards and dedicated resources for the maintenance of data quality;
  • minimum mandatory guidance for problem definition and project progress monitoring;
  • dedicated resources to ensure that local authorities can be intelligent consumers and capable developers of AI;
  • a platform to compile all relevant information about information technology projects in local authorities.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, MJ magazine described AI as a ‘game-changer’ for local government. The potential benefits are clear. AI can generate labour and cost savings, but also offers the promise of reducing carbon footprints and optimizing energy usage. But while residents may welcome greater efficiency in their local councils, many will have concerns about data privacy, digital inclusion and trust in the use of public data.

At its best, artificial intelligence will complement the services provided by local authorities, while ensuring that the all-important element of human intelligence remains at the heart of local government.


Further reading: more on digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Rethinking and rebuilding the voluntary sector post-pandemic

By Andrew Hogg

From crisis comes opportunity. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on the voluntary sector, but it has also given us an opportunity to rebuild for the better.

With this in mind, the speakers attending the recent  ‘Rethink Rebuild’ webinar gave their thoughts on how the voluntary sector can move forward to face the challenges and inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 and to create a more equitable society.

COVID-19 has highlighted key systemic inequalities at the heart of our economic system. A recent report from Imperial College London has shown that ethnic minority groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. When age and sociodemographic factors are accounted for, people from these communities are almost twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white peers.

Kaneez Shaid, Head of Community Engagement at Rethink Mental Illness, highlighted the direct impact the pandemic has had on people with mental health issues, such as the erosion of support frameworks and statutory services, loss of communal spaces and increased demands for accommodation. NPC have linked COVID-19 with a rise in domestic violence cases, with increased demand for services and donations from voluntary sector organisations, alongside a reduction of charity fundraising efforts:

In many communities it has been the not-for-dividends sector that has provided cohesion, that has provided people with food, with economic viability, access to vaccines, and social infrastructure stopping people falling through the net…the question for me becomes how we make this more visible politically. – Lord Victor Adebowale, current Chair of the NHS Confederation

Seth Reynolds, Principal Consultant for Systems Change at NPC, argued that the pandemic has created a ‘liminal space’ wherein we can pause and reflect on the systemic drivers and fundamental patterns of behaviour that created the inequalities the pandemic has laid bare.

This is a chance to fundamentally and systemically change the way our economy works for the better. There is no going back to normal, so how can the sector provide leadership to face the new challenges going forward?

Collaborative and system leadership

A recurring theme during the webinar was the need for a collaborative leadership approach to accommodate systemic change. Lord Adebowale talked about the need for system leadership, the adoption of which would enable voluntary sector organisations to align their missions and operations towards a common goal. This would set sector-wide objectives and generate a cooperative atmosphere whilst facilitating conditions within which others can make progress toward social change. This means leading beyond the boundaries of one’s own organisational needs to achieve aggregate, cross-sector outcomes.

This would involve understanding the interdependence of the voluntary sector, and decision-making that may go against the immediate concerns of the organisation to achieve collective outcomes. It also entails the acceptance of diversity as not only a good in and of itself, but as Lord Adebowale observed, as an “essential, economical, and operational good”, to include a broad remit of local, grassroots organisations.

A collaborative approach to leadership would also make best use of resources and help align funding to where it is needed. Juliet Mountain, the Director of Shaw Trust, argued that a competitive funding environment means that charities tend towards mission drift and invariably must follow the funding, rather than the needs of those who use their services. She argued that shared intelligence, not just of hard data but of expertise, resources, tools, and decision making, would enable lower capacity groups to easily access and understand generated data. This would enable the triangulation of funding and a coordinated decision-making process – what Lord Adebowale called “process matching intention”.

Power with, not power over

Collaborative and system leadership would also entail a shift towards localism – services either co-produced or fully produced by the communities who receive them – and relationships based on trust, power sharing and diversity. Kaneez Shaid talked of devolving hierarchical relationships between charities and local communities and creating new structures of shared power and co-production, such as integrated care systems and place-based activities embedded into local communities. Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds of NPC similarly argued for local partners and grassroots organisations to be embedded into social recovery plans to co-create structures that are built and maintained by the people using them.

Power sharing can go further than this. Even small, day-to-day changes can help to address power imbalances, such as adapting a more inclusive vocabulary when it comes to working partnerships. Both Kaneez Shaid and Juliet Mountain argued that a shift in language can facilitate a more cooperative mindset and be more inclusive of smaller, grassroots organisations. For instance, using ‘participant’ instead of ‘client’ or ‘colleague’ instead of ‘co-worker’ would create a more inclusive taxonomy and equitable relational partnerships. This in turn would engender collective decision-making and create added value for participants.   

Grant-making

One of the few things to directly result from COVID-19 that has been openly welcomed across the voluntary sector is the increased access to unrestricted funding. In November 2020 over 150 funders made a pledge towards flexible grant-making and trust-based relationships with charities.

Many participants in the webinar who shared their opinions in breakout rooms after the talks also agreed that the temporary suspension of funding restrictions and flexible approaches to grant-making during the pandemic had been hugely beneficial and at times necessary to keep smaller charities open.

Flexible grant making could also involve simplifying and standardising application processes, such as what is asked for from the grantee or the technical vocabulary used in the application. This would mean charities would not have to spend more time than necessary filling out forms and could use templates to increase their application output.

However, as Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds noted, to continue to understand the value of flexible funding and to know where future funding should be allocated, proportionate impact measurement is needed. It is important for funders to be able to keep demand light and proportional whilst having access to a funding feedback loop.

Concluding thoughts

This webinar revealed some key sticking points: cross-sector collaboration, system leadership, and the adoption of new models of power sharing that encourage localism, co-production, shared system analysis, and collective decision-making are needed to dynamically respond to funding needs. Similarly, the collective utilization of resources would allow for greater triangulation of funding and level the playing field for smaller, grassroots groups.

Organisations must come back from the pandemic with a renewed emphasis on community engagement, decentralised and devolved forms of organisation, and embrace the mentality of ‘power with, not power over’. Organisational models and processes, such as affiliate frameworks and decentralised partnerships, should be adopted to encourage power-sharing and to create structures with genuine value to the people using them.

Grant-making has trended towards flexible funding and trust-based arrangements, which is undoubtedly a good thing and grant-makers should continue to provide flexible and unrestricted funds. However, suitable impact measurement is needed to properly determine allocation and value, and that those who need funding the most will get it.

Simply put, we cannot go back to normal. The pandemic has exposed the deep systemic vulnerabilities at the heart of our economic model, and the voluntary sector must adapt to address these vulnerabilities and create a more equitable society.


Further reading: more on the voluntary sector on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Revisiting the blue economy – a vital part of the world’s environment

This is the third in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange, revisiting important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. This post covers the blue economy, focusing on why it is so important, the current challenges and what is being done to protect it. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.

As the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’, increasing attention has been paid to the green economy. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out a vital part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why is the blue economy so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held in 2018. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September 2018, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.

What happened next?

Since this blog was first published in 2019, the world has been turned on its head by the global pandemic. But while COVID-19 has stopped many things in their tracks, the climate crisis is not one of them. The IPCC’s latest report has provided new estimates of the chances of exceeding the 1.5°C global warming level, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Of course, like so many others, the pandemic has also severely impacted blue economy sectors, which now need further support. The precise impacts of the disruption on the future of the blue economy remain unclear and it has been argued that building strategies that seek to maintain its potential pre-COVID will be challenging. However, the momentum that was building across the globe in committing to growing the blue economy has not halted.

We have now reached the UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) which provides a common framework to ensure that ocean science can fully support countries to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 14 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy have committed to sustainably manage 100% of the ocean area under their national jurisdiction by 2025.

Despite delays and constraints, progress has been made by the WTO on harmful fisheries subsidies, with the 12th Ministerial Conference now to take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021.

And following the Scottish Government’s commitment to growing the blue economy, it has since committed to developing a blue economy action plan which will take a joined-up strategic approach across the diverse range of Scotland’s established and emerging marine sectors to maximise the opportunities offered by its abundantly rich marine zone. It will also “seek to help marine sectors and coastal communities to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and grow sustainably whilst also supporting a transition through EU Exit.

If anything, the pandemic has succeeded in emphasising the enormity of the climate emergency and the action required to address it. And the world’s oceans still have a vital role to play in this fight.

As we approach COP26, often billed as our ‘last chance’, it is hoped that outcomes will include “greatly enhanced commitments and resources to meet the challenges presented by the ocean-climate nexus”.


Further reading: articles on climate change from
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Rescheduled, delayed, cancelled: the knock on impact of the pandemic on routine health care

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Recently published figures show that waiting times for some non-urgent care across the UK have risen dramatically with the pandemic squeezing the already stretched resources of the NHS. Figures from Public Health Scotland, published in June 2021 found that when comparing to pre-pandemic levels, the waiting list size is 30.3% higher than the 12-month average prior to the onset of the pandemic (Mar 19 – Feb 20), while in England figures published in August 2021 showed NHS waiting lists in England reached a “record” 5.45 million people.

In addition to strains on acute NHS care services on the frontline, there are warnings about the additional public health impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures like screening and routine medical care as well as concerns about a surge in demand when people who have delayed seeking non-urgent diagnosis and treatment return to hospitals.

At the outbreak of the pandemic many hospitals took the decision to delay or stop entirely routine pre-planned surgeries and preventative screening and diagnostics. Some even suspended treatment for more urgent care like cancer treatment on a short-term basis. While many of these services have resumed since the beginning of the pandemic, albeit with a backlog of patients now to be seen, significant strain on the NHS as we come into the winter months because of coronavirus is still anticipated.

In many areas this has led to a backlog of care, both for those patients already in the system awaiting routine surgeries, as well as those who are yet to be diagnosed but would have been through preventative screening programmes run by the NHS.

Delays in healthcare and routine screening

Even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, many NHS hospital trusts were under criticism because of the significant length of waiting times for people who required routine operations. Doctors across the UK are now warning that these delays could be increased further unless the NHS receives additional support to increase capacity across all areas of care not just urgent care in the coming months.

It has been suggested that delays in diagnosis and routine treatments could lead to an increased number of hospitalisations further down the line, requiring higher levels of care, longer lengths of stay, and increased hospital readmissions.

And despite the recent announcement of a new arrangement for health and care funding, commentators are quick to stress that the £1.4bn the new funding programme is expected to generate may not be enough to suitable address all of the concerns across health and social care, which they highlight has been chronically underfunded for a significant number of years, even before the pandemic exposed the frailty of parts of the system.

A reluctance to visit hospitals and use primary care services

Research from the Health Foundation found that there had been a significant reduction in the number of GP consultations since the start of the pandemic which has led to concerns about the care of non-covid patients, patients with long term health conditions and also the potential for delayed diagnosis. Primary care consultations also reduced and have remained low consistently since the beginning of lockdown.

Figures have also shown a reduction in the number of referrals, medical tests, new prescriptions and immunisations. While some of these reductions are the result of advice to delay routine referrals to free up capacity for hospitals to deal with the potentially large number of cases of Covid-19, routine referrals have still not recovered to pre-lockdown levels.

These figures, and other contributions from commentators and researchers suggest that government messages to ‘protect the NHS’ may have had the unintended consequence of discouraging people from seeking urgent medical care when it was required for fear of using services unnecessarily or for fear of contracting the virus when attending hospital or primary care settings.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

A potential future crisis for the NHS

Commentators are now warning that the treatment backlog which has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to diagnostic delays and screening programmes, may lead to a future crisis of care or significant delays in care for people waiting to receive more routine treatment.

Delays in care have not only been reported in cases of physical health. There have also been significant delays in referrals for those seeking treatment for a mental health condition, an area of the NHS which was already facing significant delays in referral and transfer of care even before the pandemic. Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this. People with mental health conditions may have been unable to access appropriate support through primary care pathways, which could potentially impact on their long-term health and care.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the wider social determinants of health such as employment and poverty. Public Health England (PHE) published a monitoring tool which looks at the wider impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on population health, and it is likely that the knock-on impact of the virus could have far reaching consequences for public health in the future as the health implications of lockdown, lack of social interaction and rising unemployment could be significant. 

Where next?

While the NHS delivered some elective treatment during the course of the pandemic, the pressure of caring for large numbers of patients, many of whom were seriously unwell with COVID-19 has led to longer delays for the growing number of patients on waiting lists. Figures also show that access to elective treatment fell further in the most deprived areas of England during 2020. Tackling the backlog, and working towards the “levelling up” agenda to reduce health inequalities, both of which have been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic will be a key component of the work in health and social care over the coming months and years.


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Guest post: Charging ahead – how to make sure the electric vehicle transition is sustainable and just

Without proper planning, an influx of electric vehicles could cause problems for the economy and our energy supply. Joenomias/Pixabay

Rachel Lee, University of Sheffield

Electric vehicles (EVs) are hitting the roads in ever greater numbers. Global EV sales were up by 168% in the first half of 2021 compared to 2020, and are expected to cost the same as – or even less than – combustion (petrol and diesel) cars by 2028 at the latest. Accompanied by proposed government bans on the sale of combustion vehicles in many countries, EVs will be increasingly commonplace over the next decade.

But EV uptake brings its own set of challenges. While the UK’s national energy provider has assured consumers that there is “definitely enough energy” to facilitate mass EV adoption, the problem lies in how to sustainably and cheaply supply cars with power.

Our local networks were not designed to charge millions of cars with energy simultaneously and, as we move towards a zero-carbon electricity system with variable wind and solar generation, the energy may not be there when we need it most.

The key to handling this lies in ensuring EVs are able to affordably charge when there is plenty of wind and sun-driven energy available. Coordinating this requires significant planning and government investment into a smart charging network.

How to charge

When we decide how to charge an EV, a key consideration is the vehicle’s “dwell time” at its charging location.

If the driver is at home for the night or at work for the day – and therefore in no rush to charge – they can use a seven kW charger, a standard home charger in the UK, to charge their car for a week’s driving (about 250km) in an eight hour session. But if the driver decides to charge their car on the same charger while they pop to the supermarket for just 45 minutes, they’ll only get around 30km of extra range: barely enough for a day’s driving.

Dwell times and charging speeds

A chart showing EV dwell times and charging speeds
How long cars parked at different chargers need to power up. Author provided

In the latter situation, a “DC Rapid” charger – which typically provides between 50 to 150kW – is more appropriate. While they are far more expensive – typically at least ten times the cost of a standard home charger – you get what you pay for: using these chargers will provide roughly a week’s driving in just 45 minutes.

The problem with these rapid charges is that, as well as being expensive, they place large demands on electricity infrastructure which could lead to local blackouts. Since, on average, cars spend about 95% of their time parked, you’d ideally want them to be slowly charging from excess renewable energy during that time, with rapid charges reserved for long road trips and occasional emergency charges.

The dashboard seen from inside an electric car at sunset
The Honda e, a new fully electric car, is an example of EV models hitting the market. EVClicks

In future, cars might also help support their local electricity grid by discharging power at times of high demand when renewable generation is low – a technology known as “vehicle-to-grid”. To enable this technology, communication between chargers and cars needs to be a two-way street, allowing drivers to simultaneously charge up and support the grid.

Energy inequality

Access to power is also a financial issue. For those with off-street parking at home, staying plugged in is easy, but many don’t have that option. That means plugged-in households will have access to low-cost travel, whilst those without home charging will face higher costs due to expensive street charging. In the UK, around 7 million households, many on lower incomes, fall into the latter group.

We must widen access to charging not just to help the grid, but also to reduce social inequity. Street chargers could be automatically assigned to the car owner’s account when they plug in, enabling those without home charging to access a full range of services for the same cost as someone with a home charger.

An electric car charges outside a home
Charger availability for EVs could lead to increased inequality. EVClicks

In the UK, we’d need about 750,000 street chargers to ensure that those without home chargers can charge once a week. If we want to make use of the energy storage in those cars to help balance production and consumption from the grid – and to achieve the UK’s net zero target – I’d estimate we’d need up to 5 million chargers. That would require 500 new street chargers to be installed every day between now and 2050.

Using our cars to help balance our grid will likely be cheaper than energy storage alternatives like pumped-storage hydroelectricity or liquid air storage, since we already have some of the infrastructure we need. But to make this happen, car manufacturers, network operators and energy suppliers – and the UK government – must coordinate to put the right chargers in the right places at the right time.

Rachel Lee, PhD Candidate in Electric Vehicle Usage, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more on sustainable transport from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Celebrating success in planning research: winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021

The winners of the annual Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for research excellence were announced on 8 September at an online ceremony hosted by the RTPI. 

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence celebrate high quality, impactful spatial planning research carried out by chartered members and accredited planning schools from around the world.

For a seventh year, The Idox Knowledge Exchange has been pleased to sponsor three of the Awards categories – the Planning Practitioner Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

The Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence

Hannah Hickman MA, MSc, MPhil, MRTPI, senior research fellow at the University of West England, was announced as the winner of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

Ms Hickman’s research explored the under-researched and poorly-understood area of post-consent – the journey of a development from the point of permission through to delivery and on-going management. In particular it evidenced a worrying decline in design quality occurring at this point. It identified some of the causes, and considered what local authorities might do to address this decline.

In the same category, Professor Jo Williams, of University College London, received a commendation from judges for her book ‘Circular Cities: a revolution in urban sustainability.

Early Career Research

Dr Meadhbh Maguire MRTPI PhD MSc MA, McGill University, School of Urban Planning.

This project considered the use of survey data in planners’ decision making processes. It found that survey methods ae heavily used within planning but are often influenced by political contexts.

Commended: Jianting Zhao, University of Hong Kong.

Planning Practitioner Award

Antony Rifkin BCom MCRP Dip Urban Design MRTPI FRSA, Allies and Morrison

Mr Rifkin’s ‘Complex City: London’s Changing Character’ project made the case for character-based densification and provides recommendations for local authorities and cities attempting to meet growth demands while preserving local character.

Commended: Colin Robinson, Lichfields Planning

Student Award

Nicole Collomb BA (Hons) MSc, University of Brighton, department of architecture and design

Nicole Collomb was handed the Student Award for her research into the effectiveness of green factor policies, in which she identifies a need for robust evidence base for these policies to be successful.

Commended: Samuel ‘Nepo’ Schrade, University of Brighton

Also announced at today’s ceremony were the two recipients of the two £5,000 grants from the Practitioner Research Fund.

The winners of the grants are:

  • Oscar Wong for the project: ‘Strategic legacy planning for mega-events to achieve sustainable development goals: critical lessons learnt from London Olympics 2012 and Rio 2016’
  • Timon Moss for the project: ‘Regional community wealth building in Scotland’.

An exceptionally high standard

Dr Wei Yang FRTPI, RTPI President, said: “After receiving many brilliant entries for this year’s awards, the RTPI is now delighted to announce the stand-out projects across our four categories and recipients of the Practitioner Research Fund.

“I would like to congratulate all the winners and those who were shortlisted. The quality of submissions was exceptionally high this year, and we thank all the entrants for their submissions.

The RTPI is grateful to all applicants for sharing their fresh and innovative work. The awards give us the opportunity to celebrate the best and brightest work in the sector which is vital in driving the profession forward.

I would like to extend our great appreciation to the awards sponsors, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group and Idox Knowledge Exchange.

The awards would not be possible without our excellent judges, who have volunteered their time to review all of the entries in their categories and we would like to thank you all for your continued support for the research awards.”

John McLaren, Head of Business for Grantfinder and The Knowledge Exchange at Idox said:

“Idox is very pleased to be continuing our relationship with the RTPI and supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for another year”.


Further information about the  2021 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, including the winners, judges and sponsors are available here.

You can also read our guest blog featuring the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which used theatre to engage communities in planning.

Covid-secure workplaces revisited: how businesses can help people get back to work

This is the first in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange. These articles will revisit important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. The first revisited post covers the workplace, and focuses on the ways in which employers can ensure their employees can return to Covid-secure places of work. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.

As well as being a public health emergency, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has had wide-reaching economic implications. It’s something of an understatement to say that it has had dramatic effects on all our working lives.

And while successive lockdowns have helped in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases, business cannot remain on hold forever. Gradually, carefully, workplaces have been reopening, and growing numbers of workers are preparing to return to their jobs in offices, shops, schools and construction sites.

In 2020, a White Paper produced by The Knowledge Exchange explained how the workplace has to change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A redefined workplace

Before the pandemic, the workplace landscape was already changing. But now it is being totally redefined. Organisations of all shapes and sizes, in all sectors, are facing hard decisions. And how to reopen their workplaces, in a way that protects the health and wellbeing of their employees, is a key challenge.

The White Paper focuses on what employers have to consider when thinking about how to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The most important challenges concern:

  • social distancing, including areas where this is more difficult, or not possible;
  • organising the workplace, including the location of desks and the installation of additional features, such as screens and hand-drying facilities;
  • cleaning and sanitising, including what needs cleaning, who will do it and when.

As well as complying with guidance, employers have to make sure their staff are confident in the plans for reopening workplaces. A survey for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in May 2020 showed that almost half (44%) of respondents were concerned about catching COVID-19 at work.

How businesses can prepare for reopening

Every organisation needs to introduce sensible measures to control risks. Therefore, before reopening a workplace, it is vital to conduct a COVID-19 risk assessment, in line with guidance from the Health and Safety Executive.

A risk assessment should:

  • identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus;
  • think about who could be at risk – paying attention to whether the people doing the work, or those they live with, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19;
  • decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed;
  • act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk.

During the risk assessment, it’s essential  to consult with workers and afterwards to share the results. Different industries and sectors may require specific measures. On construction sites, for example, access between different areas may need to be restricted, and high traffic areas may have to be regulated to maintain social distancing. The UK government has published guidance covering a range of different types of work in places such as offices, factories, shops and outdoor working environments.

Actions to make the workplace COVID-secure

The UK government and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved administrations have provided guidance on how to work safely. This gives practical advice on how the guidance can be applied in the workplace.

In planning to reopen their workplaces, every organisation should translate this guidance into the specific actions it needs to take, depending on the nature of their business. At the same time, employers must also ensure that everyone in the workplace continues to be treated equally. Discrimination against anyone because of a protected characteristic, such as age, sex or disability is against the law, and employers also have particular responsibilities concerning disabled workers and new or expectant mothers.

The White Paper contains a checklist of actions which all organisations need to take. These include

  • developing cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures;
  • helping people to work from home;
  • maintaining social distancing;
  • managing transmission risk where social distancing is not possible.

CAFM Explorer: an invaluable support tool for getting back to work

Much of the workload involved in ensuring a safe and effective return to work will be taken on by facilities managers. Keeping workplaces clean, managing shift patterns, ensuring availability of personal protective equipment and creating procedures for inbound and outbound goods are just some of the many considerations to be made.

The White Paper highlights the value of the CAFM Explorer software solution to help organisations manage and consolidate information on the vital elements of a COVID-secure workplace, such as one-way systems, desk spacing, cleaning, staggered hours and hand sanitising stations.

Developed by Idox, a trusted supplier of digital software and services, CAFM Explorer can also trigger work orders as a result of an action – for example, ensuring a desk is cleaned once it has been booked – as well as providing processes to support working at home.

Final thoughts

It is too early to say what lasting effects the coronavirus will have on UK society and business, but it’s likely we will all be living in the shadow of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. It’s essential, therefore, that organisations make themselves aware of the steps necessary for preparing, implementing and managing the Covid-secure workplace.

To receive your free download of the Getting Back to Business White Paper, please visit the CAFM Explorer page or email marketing@idoxgroup.com.

What happened next

When this blog first appeared, in June 2020, lockdown restrictions in the UK were being lifted, and there were signs that more people who had been working remotely were ready to return to their usual places of work. However, in the autumn the emergence of a more infectious strain of the coronavirus – the Delta variant – forced governments to reimpose restrictions. For most of 2021, many people have continued to work from home, although this benefit has not been available to people working in key sectors such as health, public transport and retail.

The development of vaccines to prevent the worst effects of Covid-19 has resulted in governments again relaxing restrictions. Although, the guidance on returning to work from the administrations in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may differ, the increasing numbers of people who are double-vaccinated indicates that by the end of 2021 more people will have returned to their usual place of work, at least for some of the working week.

While some employers are urging their staff to return to the workplace, others are stressing that no pressure is being put on their workers to go back to the office right away. In the United States, some employers may be planning to cut the pay of those who continue to work from home, while others are trying to lure their workers back with incentives. At the same time, as the UK government’s furlough scheme comes to an end, many employers must consider whether they can continue to employ their workers, or make them redundant.

It’s now clear that the Covid-19 virus will be part of our lives in the long term. What’s not yet clear is how we can learn to live and work with it. So, the guidance on returning to the workplace that was highlighted in our original blog post and our White Paper still stands. And the CAFM Explorer solution remains an important tool in ensuring that, when the time is right, people can return to their workplaces safe in the knowledge that they are Covid-secure.


Further reading: articles on employment and the workplace from
The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Guest post: One-minute cities could put the world on your doorstep

Image: Lundberg Design

The concept of a 15-minute city, where everything you need for daily life is within a quarter of an hour walk of your front door, was already giving city planners something to think about before COVID-19 . But as neighbourhoods, and the people living in them, grappled with multiple lockdowns throughout 2020, the idea really gained traction.

Nowhere more so than in Paris, where the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, made it the centrepiece of her successful 2020 re-election campaign. Hidalgo’s aim was to create self-sufficient communities throughout the city, where everything is a short walk or bike ride away.

In Sweden, they are tightening the time frame even further. A one-minute city pilot called Street Moves aims to “reclaim the streets” from cars by creating numerous pop-up public amenities, with the overall intention of giving the public a say in what’s on their doorstep.

It is hoped the government-backed initiative will be picked up by municipalities across the whole country, but can such a hyper-local proposition really work on a national scale?

For Street Moves project manager, Daniel Byström, who works for ArkDes – the architecture and design think-tank leading the project – the pilot is trying to inspire new ways of approaching urban development rather than attempting to offer instant wholesale change.

“The ambition is to get a spread [of streets across Sweden], with different municipalities being able to make their own intervention,” says Byström. “However, I think many of the municipalities in Sweden are not ready to do it themselves, so for me the central part of the project is not the physical outcome by itself, but more to showcase an approach for how we can work with urban planning, urban development and street development.”

Image: StreetMoves / Daniel Byström

Under the plans, a kit of modular wooden street furniture has been designed, which can be slotted into an area the size of a car parking space. These kits have been designed to be flexible depending on the needs of the area – an important point in terms of scaling up the initiative, since it’s not claiming to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather it aims to add genuine value to an area.

Five streets have been piloted since the project’s launch last September, including three in Stockholm and one in both Helsingborg and Gothenburg, with more on the way.

So far, they have created new bench space, picnic tables, planters and e-scooter parking but Byström says this is just the beginning. In the next step, we will look for more sophisticated solutions [based] around smart cities, such as infrastructure for charging electric cars and scooters.”

He says the one-minute city initiative – which has been funded by Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency – is also about giving the public more ownership over their streets, with residents being involved early on in the design process.

This resident involvement is getting positive results so far, with ArkDes claiming that 70% people surveyed about the Stockholm projects were positive. They also saw a 400% increase in the movement of people on the streets around each unit.

When coupled with the aftermath of COVID-19, this offers an exciting proposition to “reactivate” Sweden’s streets and make cities more resilient and adaptable to change, Byström adds.

“One of the things that you can see, for example, with growing digitalisation and people working from everywhere, is open-air shared office space, so it could be anything and that is the beauty of this initiative.”

The flexibility of the scheme could prove crucial when considering if this could be scaled up on a national level. Cities across Sweden will be looking for ways to bounce back in new and innovative ways after the pandemic and this could play an important role in that process. One-minute cities could also prove to be a crucial pillar in the success of Sweden’s goal for 2030 that “every street in Sweden is healthy, sustainable and vibrant.”

Our thanks to RICS for permission to republish this article which first appeared in Modus in July 2021.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on urban areas