Bees and butterflies are under threat from urbanisation: here’s how city-dwellers can help

Butterflies and flowers

Image: All-a-flutter. Shutterstock.

This guest blog was written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Bristol.

Pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies, are responsible for the reproduction of many flowering plants and help to produce more than three quarters of the world’s crop species. Globally, the value of the services provided by pollinators is estimated at between US$235 billion and US$577 billion.

It’s alarming, then, that pollinators are under threat from factors including more intense farming, climate change, disease and changing land use, such as urbanisation. Yet recent studies have suggested that urban areas could actually be beneficial, at least for some pollinators, as higher numbers of bee species have been recorded in UK towns and cities, compared with neighbouring farmland.

To find out which parts of towns and cities are better for bees and other pollinators, our research team carried out fieldwork in nine different types of land in four UK cities: Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Edinburgh.

An easy win

Urban areas are a complex mosaic of different land uses and habitats. We surveyed pollinators in allotments (also known as community gardens), cemeteries and churchyards, residential gardens, public parks, other green spaces (such as playing fields), nature reserves, road verges, pavements and man-made surfaces such as car parks or industrial estates.

Our results suggest that allotments are good places for bees and other pollinating insects, and that creating more allotments will benefit the pollinators in towns and cities. Allotments are beneficial for human health and well-being, and also help boost local food production.

In the UK, there are waiting lists for allotments in many areas, so local authorities and urban planners need to recognise that creating more allotment sites is a winning move, which will benefit people, pollinators and sustainable food production.

Good tips for green thumbs

We also recorded high numbers of pollinating insects in gardens. Residential gardens made up between a quarter and a third of the total area of the four cities we sampled, so they’re really a crucial habitat for bees and other pollinators in cities. That’s why urban planners and developers need to create new housing developments with gardens.

But it’s not just the quantity of gardens that matters, it’s the quality, too. And there’s a lot that residents can do to ensure their gardens provide a good environment for pollinators.

Rather than paving, decking and neatly mown lawns, gardeners need to be planting flowers, shrubs and bushes that are good for pollinators. Choose plants that have plenty of pollen and nectar that is accessible to pollinators, and aim to have flowers throughout the year to provide a constant supply of food. Our research suggests that borage and lavender are particularly attractive for pollinators.

Often plants and seeds in garden centres are labelled with pollinator logos to help gardeners choose suitable varieties – although a recent study found that that ornamental plants on sale can contain pesticides that are harmful to pollinators, so gardeners should check this with retailers before buying.

Weeds are important too; our results suggest that dandelions, buttercups and brambles are important flowers for pollinators. So create more space for pollinators by mowing less often to allow flowers to grow, and leaving weedy corners, since undisturbed areas make good nesting sites.

An urban refuge

Parks, road verges and other green spaces make up around a third of cities, however our study found that they contain far fewer pollinators than gardens. Our results suggest that increasing the numbers of flowers in these areas, potentially by mowing less often, could have a real benefit for pollinators (and save money). There are already several initiatives underway to encourage local authorities to mow less often.

Ensuring there are healthy populations of pollinators will benefit the native plants and ecosystems in urban areas, as well as anyone who is growing food in their garden or allotment. Towns and cities could act as important refuges for pollinators in the wider landscape, especially since agricultural areas can be limited in terms of the habitat they provide.

It’s crucial for local authorities, urban planners, gardeners and land managers to do their bit to improve the way towns and cities are managed for pollinators. National pollinator strategies already exist for several countries, and local pollinator strategies and action plans are helping to bring together the key stakeholders in cities. Wider adoption of this type of united approach will help to improve towns and cities for both the people and pollinators that live there.The Conversation


Guest blog written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Treating violence as a disease: can a public health approach succeed?

Knife crime, especially deaths of young people, has been making the headlines in recent weeks. And an approach which has a proven track record in Glasgow is now being adopted by the GLA, MOPAC and the Met police to try to tackle the growing levels of violence being seen on London’s streets. Learning from the experience in Glasgow, the police and other agencies are being encouraged to see violence as a public health issue, related to poverty, wellbeing and social deprivation and which, if identified and tackled early, can be prevented.

Contagion: a new way to think about violence

The Violence Reduction Unit was pioneered by Strathclyde Police (now part of Police Scotland), working with health and social care practitioners. Launched in 2005, the approach aims to make earlier identifications of those at risk of becoming involved in violence, and to take a more holistic view of the reasons for violence of all types. The long-term strategy looked at more social and wellbeing interventions to tackle gang violence in Glasgow, which at the time was among the worst in Europe.

The VRU in Glasgow took its inspiration from a scheme in Chicago, which sought to use a World Health Organisation (WHO) approach to tackling the spread of disease but applied it to communities in the hope of curbing the significant rise in homicides in the city. The approach was three-pronged: interrupt transmission, prevent future spread, and change group norms.

In addition to changing the approach to tackling violent crime, the VRU also used a multi-agency approach, involving social services, health care, housing and employment support, to give people a route out of violence and opportunities to find work or training opportunities. One of the key elements to ensuring the VRU is successful are the relationships these people build with individuals in communities.

Identifying young people at risk

Another important aspect of the VRU strategy is to intervene early to identify children and young people who are at risk of joining gangs or becoming involved in gang violence. Research supporting the creation of the VRU suggested that violence (like a cold) is spread from person to person within a community, that violence typically leads to more violence, and that one of the key identifying factors in someone becoming a perpetrator of violent crime is first being the victim of violent crime themselves.

In order to prevent this, staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.

There is also a broad view of what a culture of violence is. Work in schools focuses strongly on contemporary issues such as sexting, bullying and gender-based violence. It challenges the attitudes and beliefs that underpin such violence, and encourages young people to recognise and reject these.

A new approach to drug abuse too …?

In November 2018, the Scottish Government launched its new drug and alcohol strategy. One of the notable additions to the strategy was the acknowledgement that (like violence) drug abuse and addiction should be seen, not as a crime, but as a public health issue – an illness which people need support and treatment for.

Looking at how drug abuse is tackled within the criminal justice system and the interactions of addicts, policymakers have identified that many have had adverse childhood experiences, are exposed to drugs and/or alcohol at a young age, and are also at significant risk of being unemployed and homeless.

Creating a holistic package of support which seeks to identify those at risk and directs them towards a range of services to tackle not just the addiction but other trauma or socioeconomic barriers earlier, will, in a similar way to the VRU, give people a sense of purpose and value, and help them to see an alternate route that will allow them to contribute positively to society and improve their own outcomes.

A new way to tackle social issues in the UK?

Tackling the spread of violence through communities is not an easy task, nor is breaking the cycle of crime that many find themselves trapped within, often as a result of family allegiances or geographic location. It is often the case that either you participate, or you become the next victim yourself. More and more young people are feeling the need to carry knives for protection, due to the high levels of fear of becoming a victim.

Identifying those young people who are at risk of turning towards a life of violence at the earliest possible stage is difficult, but has been shown to be effective in helping to tackle violent gang-related crime. Although it is not the only tactic available to police, used effectively in conjunction with other outreach programmes it can be an effective tool in preventative policing, helping to keep communities safe.

The outcome in Glasgow has been largely positive, following the roll out of the Violence Reduction Unit programme. Whether this approach has the same success in London, operating on a larger scale, with different economic and social variables, and in a very different budget climate, remains to be seen. In particular it is worth noting that the Glasgow approach recognised there were no quick fixes, and was based on long-term planning covering ten year periods.

It is to be hoped, though, that changing the way we think about violence within communities may offer a route to tackling it.


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Zoning in on air pollution: low emission zones to tackle our dangerously dirty air

Image by Mike Malone

At the start of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution posed the greatest threat to global environmental health in 2019. The UN’s public health agency estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air every day.

Most of the pollutants in our air today come from traffic. Nitrogen dioxide and microscopically small particles emitted by motor vehicles can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, heightening the risks of heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory conditions.

In the UK, poor air quality is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution.

The road to cleaner air

Across Europe, national and local authorities have been responding to the health risks posed by air pollution with measures to tackle emissions from vehicles. Many have introduced low emission zones (also known as clean air zones). These regulate vehicles with higher emissions, banning the most polluting vehicles from entering the zone and requiring them to pay a fee if they enter the area.

In various countries, low emission zones have different rules according to the type of vehicle and whether it meets EU emissions standards. In Germany, for example, there is a national framework of low emission zones affecting all motor vehicles except motorcycles. In Denmark, a similar framework applies to all diesel-powered vehicles above 3.5 tonnes. In Paris, all vehicles entering the low emission zone are required to display a sticker according to their emissions standards. The most heavily polluting vehicles are not allowed in. In addition, any vehicle can be refused entrance to the city centre in response to high levels of pollution on a given day.

A growing number of UK cities, such as Leeds and Birmingham have been working on the introduction of low emission zones, and some have already been implemented in Norwich, Oxford and Brighton.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government plans to create low emissions zones in the country’s four biggest cities by 2020, and the first of these is now up and running in Glasgow. The first phase was launched in January, targeting buses, which are among the most polluting vehicles. Glasgow’s biggest bus operator, First Bus, has purchased 75 new buses fitted with low emissions systems complying with the EU’s Euro VI standards. The scheme will be extended to other vehicles in stages.

London’s LEZ and ULEZ

Since 2003, when the congestion charge was launched, London has taken the lead with measures to tackle what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls the city’s “filthy, toxic air”.

In 2008, London created a low emission zone, and in 2017 a Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) introduced a surcharge for the most polluting vehicles entering central London. But levels of pollution in the capital remain stubbornly high, and so new measures have now been developed.

From 8 April 2019, an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be in place in London, imposing tighter exhaust emission standards. The ULEZ will cost £12.50 for diesel cars manufactured before 2015, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars cars, motorcycles and vans up to 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes will have to pay £100 to enter central London. These charges are on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. Failure to pay the ULEZ will result in fines of £160 upwards.

By 2021, the ULEZ will be extended to the north and south circular roads, taking in more London boroughs, including Brent, Camden, Newham, Haringey and Greenwich. By that time, it’s expected that 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries will be affected per day.

There have been mixed responses to the incoming ULEZ. Health organisations such as the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, have welcomed the measure, and environmental bodies also see the ULEZ as a step in the right direction. Sustrans, the sustainable transport organisation, commended the Mayor for “showing welcome leadership on tackling toxic air pollution.” Friends of the Earth welcomed the expansion of the ULEZ as “a promising step towards clean air in the city centre”, and called for further moves to protect the health of people living in Greater London.

However, motoring organisations voiced their concerns about the new zone. The RAC has argued that expansion of the ULEZ into residential areas will hit those on low income backgrounds hardest:

“…many now face the daunting challenge of having to spend substantial amounts of money on a newer vehicle or face a daily charge of £12.50 to use their vehicles from October 2021.”

The Road Haulage Association has voiced its opposition to the early application of the ULEZ to Heavy Goods Vehicles, claiming that the measure will have limited impact on improving health and air quality in central London.

Final thoughts

Striking a balance between environmental, health and economic pressures was always going to be a challenge. Even in London, which has led the way in tackling poor air quality, longstanding policies aimed at reducing air pollution have failed to bring it below legal levels. The new ULEZ may go some way to doing that, but it might also antagonise drivers faced with ever-rising costs. Cities on the journey to cleaner air are in for a bumpy ride.


Further reading on tackling air pollution

UK slipping to third place in international higher education – are UK universities losing their competitive edge?

Two guys taking a selfie at graduation.

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Professor Simon Marginson published a report that would have worried university chiefs more than a BBC investigation into their eye-watering salaries.

The concern? That UK universities are no longer able to compete with the world’s elite universities and have slipped from second to third in the international higher education rankings.

The Marginson report

For many years, the UK has sat comfortably behind the United States as the second most popular destination for international students.

However, Professor Marginson’s analysis of the data shows that since 2012 there has been moderate growth in the numbers studying at British universities. Interestingly, this is also the year the UK Government cancelled the post-study work visa, which allowed non-EU students to stay and work in the UK for up to two years after graduation, and replaced it with the right to stay for four months after graduation.

In contrast, the research shows Australia has seen a surge of international students studying at their universities, rising from 249,868 in 2012 to 335,512 in 2016. This is still fewer than were studying in the UK in 2015 (430,687). However, Australian government figures show that student numbers increased by 14.7% in 2017, with this high growth continuing into 2018.

And, Professor Marginson predicts that when the full data becomes available the UK will only be slightly ahead of Australia, or that Australia may have already climbed into second place. In either scenario – and with Brexit on the horizon – this news will be undoubtedly worrying for universities, who have a long tradition of welcoming students and academics from across the globe.

Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings

Although UK universities are respected internationally, this is not the first piece of evidence to suggest international students might be tempted elsewhere.

In 2018, the Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings, which scores universities based on the quality of their research and teaching, highlighted that British universities either stayed the same or fell down the international league table. In particular, Durham University has lost its place amongst the top 100 universities in the world, whilst University College London and Imperial College London have dropped down the rankings.

Phil Baty, THE’s editorial director of global rankings, argues that the UK’s elite universities cannot take their international reputation for granted and suggests the findings should “give pause for serious thought as the country seeks to champion its status as ‘global Britain’ in a post-Brexit world.”

The competition

Although recent immigration changes and uncertainty over Brexit present challenges for British universities, the policies adopted by other countries have also impacted on their competitiveness.

In the US, President Barak Obama’s liberal approach to immigration resulted in a 26% increase in international students between 2011-2015 – this is significantly higher than the UK’s 2.6% growth rate for the same period. However, more recently, President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has led to the tightening of the student visa system and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. In turn, the US has experienced a decline in international student numbers, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Canada.

Canadian universities have attempted to capitalise on these political changes by marketing themselves as a more tolerant North American alternative. For example, the University of Montreal has set up a travel fund to help international students attend US conferences, as some may face difficulties entering the country. Policies, such as these, are likely to have led to a 20% increase in international students accepting places in the Autumn of 2017.

In Australia, there has been a dramatic change in direction. In 2009, violence against Indian international students ignited protests in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney. In response, the Australian Government made a significant diplomatic effort to salvage Australia’s reputation as a welcoming place for international students, including by relaxing the regulatory and financial requirements for study.

How can the UK foster competitiveness?

Education Insight founder, Janet Ilieva, suggests that the UK Government should work with higher education institutions to coordinate their international marketing efforts, as well as provide post study work opportunities.

Similarly, Universities UK, have stressed the importance of bringing back work visas for overseas graduates. They highlight that competitors such as the United States and Canada allow students to stay and work for three years after graduating, and four in the case of Australia.

To mitigate against Brexit, the Economist has discovered that some universities are considering setting up a European campus in order to avoid immigration restrictions.

Policy reforms and practical support, such as those highlighted above, would certainly improve British universities’ ability to compete with up-and-coming international student destinations. However, the real question is, is there enough political will to make this happen?


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“The ‘frustrated’ housing aspirations of generation rent”

house prices

A key change in the UK’s housing market over the past twenty years has been the growth of the private rented sector (PRS), with more living in the sector than ever before. This growth has led to the view that there is now a ‘generation rent’ who are priced out of home ownership and stranded in insecure short-term lets for prolonged periods of their lives – fuelling concerns about intergenerational inequality.

At a recent seminar, hosted by the Public Services and Governance research group at the University of Stirling, Dr Kim McKee, a co-investigator for The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Research (CaCHE), presented the key findings from her research on ‘generation rent’ and precarity in the contemporary housing market.

Who are ‘generation rent’?

The UK 2011 Census highlighted that 40% of private renters were young people under the age of 35. With a challenging labour market, rising student debt and welfare reforms, home ownership and social housing is increasingly out of reach for these young people, who end up stuck private renting for much longer than the previous generation.

It was noted by Dr McKee that there is a clear age dimension to the recent shifts in housing tenure, but that the ‘generation rent’ label is more complex than portrayed. Income and family support were emphasised as just as critical in the understanding of young people’s experiences and future plans, as was geography.

Indeed, other research has highlighted that income and family background have a huge impact on young people’s housing market experiences. The Resolution Foundation’s recent report highlights that young people from wealthier families are more likely to become homeowners, suggesting that there are also intra-generational inequalities.

Dr McKee’s study focused on the inequalities facing these young people through qualitative research with 16 young people aged 35 and under living in the PRS in Scotland or England. Those on low incomes were explicitly targeted with the aim of giving them a voice, which was considered to be largely absent in previous research.

Aspirations vs expectations

There was a long-term aspiration for home ownership among the majority of participants, with a smaller number aspiring to social housing. But private renting was seen as the only short-term option as a host of challenges thwart them from realising their ambitions:

  • mortgage finance
  • family support
  • labour markets
  • student debt
  • welfare reform

The fact that housing tenure was highlighted by respondents rather than housing type or location, as previous research has highlighted, suggests there is a general dissatisfaction with living in the PRS. Indeed, it was noted that the PRS was discussed largely negatively, perceived as the ‘tenure of last resort’.

Despite the continued aspirations for home ownership, there was a marked difference between aspirations and expectations. There was a levelling down of expectations to own and a gap emerging between what the young people aspired to as their ideal and what they expected to achieve. A small minority even remarked that a more realistic goal may in fact be improvements in the PRS. The study showed that such expectations were due, mainly, to low earnings and insecure employment, combined with a lack of family financial support.

While the short-term nature of private renting makes it a very flexible rental option, it also makes it insecure and precarious, creating barriers for tenants who want to settle into a home and community. This is particularly worrying for families with children, who can be greatly affected by the upheaval of having to regularly move.

Emotional impacts

The study was particularly interested in the more intangible and emotional impacts on ‘generation rent’ and how the frustrations in realising their aspirations impacted negatively on their wellbeing.

It was stressed that issues in the PRS are having serious negative impacts on the wellbeing of young people – insecure, expensive and poor quality housing are contributing to depression, stress and anxiety. Moreover, for those on the lowest incomes, such issues are even contributing to homelessness.

Not only is mental wellbeing affected but their physical health has also been impacted by poor quality housing. Problems with rodents, damp and mould, broken white goods and poor quality accommodation in general were all reported by participants.

The experiences of the young people in the study were described as a “sad reflection of housing in the UK today” and raises questions over whether the PRS can really meet the needs of low income groups in particular.

Geography matters 

Another key finding was that where people live really matters, not only because of the spatial nature of housing and labour markets, but also as tenancy rights and regulations vary across the UK.

Recent reforms in Scotland have provided tenants with greater security of tenure and more predictable rent increases. England was highlighted as lagging behind the rest of the UK in terms of regulation and tenants’ rights as it lacks any national landlord registration scheme. Letting agent fees in England were also highlighted as a real issue in relation to affordability.

It was suggested that the rest of the UK could learn much from the Scottish experience, although there is a need to go further, particularly in relation to affordability.

Way forward

A key message from the study was that security of tenure really matters for those living in the PRS but reform of the housing system can only go so far. Participants identified more affordable housing, more protection for renters and income inequalities as areas where the government could intervene to improve things.

Based on the findings, six key policy recommendations were made:

  • ensure security of tenure;
  • take action on rents;
  • provide better education for tenants on their rights, and indeed for landlords;
  • provide more affordable housing; and
  • ensure greater understanding of intra-generational inequalities.

If the wider inequalities within society are also addressed, perhaps the PRS could become an aspiration rather than the ‘tenure of last resort’.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous posts on build to rent and meeting demand and improving data in the private rented sector.

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How empowering the community can help us create better places to live

Places can be defined in a lot of different ways: the geographic location, the physical buildings, the people who live there and the relationships that are formed. Central to places should be the people who live and interact there. Putting people, and communities at the heart of placemaking can benefit the physical infrastructure of a place, by identifying what is needed. And allowing residents a say in their local area can also give communities a sense of empowerment and ownership of their place, somewhere they can be proud to call home and somewhere they feel safe, included and valued.

Can places empower people?

In short… YES! Positive places have the power to lift the community up, give them a sense of empowerment, worth and inspiration. But places also have the power to alienate and dis-empower.

Places which are run down, with no or low levels of community engagement can contribute to communities becoming disparate, isolated and can reinforce negative stereotypes, particularly those which relate to poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. Making places that are thriving hubs for communities to be built upon can have a significant impact on the experiences and quality of life for communities living within them. Work being done by organisations like SURF show how important effective regeneration projects can be in revitalising places and the people who live there.

A recent RTPI blog post emphasised the importance of place on helping to reduce the impact of poverty and break some of the more significant socioeconomic barriers marginalised groups within communities can face. It emphasises the importance of place-based urban policy and how core policy features like the planning of a space or the design of a building can actually have a significant impact on the people who interact with that space.

A national standard for community empowerment

As important as the physical space are the people who live and work within it.

In the policy context of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, What Works Scotland, along with others drafted a set of ‘fit for purpose’ national standards for community empowerment, to build on those published in 2005. It was hoped that the new standards would provide clarity and focus on ways to help strengthen and improve participation and engagement at a local level. There are seven standards: Inclusion; Support; Planning; Working Together; Methods; Communication; and Impact.

Identifying and making the most of community assets

Asset based development was originally created as a description of how local residents grow collective efficacy and what they use to do so. It involves paying attention to what is in a local place – not what we think should be there, or what is not there. These ‘assets’ are found within a community and can be physical, such as infrastructure, but can also be the skills and knowledge of local people.

The key concept centres on the fact that everyone has something positive that they can contribute to a community. It follows that, if everyone does or is given the opportunity to contribute positively to their community, then there will be less requirement for spending on services from local government. It can also mean greater accountability at a community level for making changes that actually impact positively and directly on the lives and experiences of people who live and work there. Taking time to identify these assets and feeding this into how places are created can be a key part of ensuring communities feel empowered and valued.

Community anchors are an important tool

Community anchors have been identified as vital in many instances to ensure the continued development and capacity building of communities within a place. Their roles can extend across the community from building capacity and resilience, to supporting local democracy and helping to drive social change within a community. Community anchors play an important role in empowering communities and getting them involved in the design and delivery of services in their area.

A report published by What Works Scotland in 2018 examines the developing roles of community anchors within communities. The report explores the developing discussions between the community sector, public services and policymakers and considers how they might work more closely together to deliver bespoke and localised community driven policies.

Summing up

Empowering communities to feel valued and engaged is a key part of developing places that are inclusive and enjoyable places for people to live. Promoting communities as key agents of change within the areas in which they live not only improves the community, but can also help on an individual level, fostering a sense of pride and value. Creating better places is a key strand to regeneration and planning policy. Putting communities at the heart of creating places will ensure that places not only meet the needs of local people but are inherently connected to them.


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Recycling: is it worth it?

How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer Martyn Wallace spoke to the CIO UK podcast and highlighted that in 2019 local government must take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better outcomes for citizens. He explained:

“I think in the public sector we have to see AI as a way to deliver better outcomes and what I mean by that is giving the bots the grunt work – as one coworker called it, ‘shuffling spreadsheets’ – and then we can release staff to do the more complex, human-touch things.”

To date, very few councils have felt brave enough to invest in AI. However, the mood is slowly starting to change and there are several examples in the UK and abroad that show artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword, but a genuine enabler of change.

In December, Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak announced the first round of winners from a £7.5million digital innovation fund. The 16 winning projects, from 57 councils working in collaborative teams, were awarded grants of up to £100,000 to explore the use of a variety of digital technologies, from Amazon Alexa style virtual assistants to support people living in care, to the use of data analytics to improve education plans for children with special needs.

These projects are still in their infancy, but there are councils who are further along with artificial intelligence, and have already learned lessons and had measurable successes. For instance, Milton Keynes Council have developed a virtual assistant (or chatbot) to help respond to planning-related queries. Although still at the ‘beta’ stage, trials have shown that the virtual assistant is better able to validate major applications, as these are often based on industry standards, rather than household applications, which tend to be more wide-ranging.

Chief planner, Brett Leahy, suggests that introducing AI will help planners focus more on substantive planning issues, such as community engagement, and let AI “take care of the constant flow of queries and questions”.

In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services. Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, reports that the new system is identifying 10 or 20 families a month that might be of future concern. As a result, early intervention measures have already been introduced.

In the US, the University of Chicago’s initiative ‘Data Science for Social Good’ has been using machine learning (a form of AI) to help a variety of social-purpose organisations. This has included helping the City of Rotterdam to understand their rooftop usage – a key step in their goal to address challenges with water storage, green spaces and energy generation. In addition, they’ve also helped the City of Memphis to map properties in need of repair, enabling the city to create more effective economic development initiatives.

Yet, like most new technologies, there has been some resistance to AI. In December 2017, plans by Ofsted to use machine learning tools to identify poorly performing schools were heavily criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers. In their view, Ofsted should move away from a data-led approach to inspection and argued that it was important that the “whole process is transparent and that schools can understand and learn from any assessment.”

Further, hyperbole-filled media reports have led to a general unease that introducing AI could lead to a reduction in the workforce. For example, PwC’s 2018 ‘UK Economic Outlook’ suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although its likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Should local government investment in AI?

In the next few years, it’s important that local government not only considers the clear benefits of AI, but also addresses the public concerns. Many citizens will be in favour of seeing their taxes go further and improvements in local services – but not if this infringes on their privacy or reduces transparency. Pilot projects, therefore, which provide the opportunity to test the latest technologies, work through common concerns, and raise awareness among the public, are the best starting point for local councils looking to move forward with this potentially transformative technology.


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Free for all: fare-free public transport is going places

At the end of 2018, the coalition government in Luxembourg announced plans to abolish charges for anyone using trains, trams and buses. Beginning next spring, public transport across the country will be free for all.  The measure extends an existing scheme allowing those under the age of 20 to travel free on the country’s public transportation network.

One of the driving forces behind the move is tackling air pollution, largely caused by motor vehicles. In the capital city of Luxembourg, traffic congestion is a serious problem, where a study has suggested that drivers in 2016 spent an average of 33 hours in traffic jams. Across Europe, air pollution is estimated to cause half a million premature deaths each year.

Beyond Luxembourg, the idea of fare-free public transport has been gaining ground. In September, Dunkirk became the largest city in Europe to introduce free transit on its entire bus network. And last summer, Estonia extended to the whole country a free public transport scheme that has been operating in the capital, Tallinn, since 2013. There’s also growing interest in developing fare-free transport in Germany and Paris.

Free public transport: the driving factors

While environmental and public health considerations have pushed the idea of free public transport up the political agenda, the measure is also seen as a way of boosting local economies and tackling social exclusion.

Tallinn’s city authorities believe that free public transport is not only good for those on low incomes, but also for persuading the better off to leave their cars at home while enjoying life in the city’s restaurants, cafes and shops. It’s also beneficial for the municipal finances: every time a resident registers for the scheme, a proportion of tax is allocated to the city. According to the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office, “We earned double as much as we have lost since introducing free public transport.”

Putting the brakes on fare-free travel

But free public transport hasn’t worked everywhere, and some schemes have been withdrawn, largely because the costs have been unsustainable.

  • In the 1970s, a free transportation experiment in Rome tried and failed to persuade drivers to exchange their private vehicles for public transport.
  • Forty years after it began, a city centre free bus service in Seattle was dropped as part of a cost-cutting programme in 2012.
  • Also in 2012, Portland’s inner city free public transport system, introduced in 1975, was withdrawn under a package of service cuts.
  • In 2014, spiralling costs forced the Belgian city of Hasselt to abandon a free transport programme that had been in operation since 1997.

Cost is also a factor giving pause for thought to cities considering new free public transport schemes. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is keen on the idea, but needs to take account of the revenue implications. Transport fares account for a third of the city’s transport budget, and universal fare-free travel would open up a funding gap of €3.5 billion a year. For the time being, she has proposed free public transport for children under 11.

Here, there, but not everywhere

The main point of free public transport is to encourage more people to leave their cars at home, resulting in reduced traffic congestion and better air quality. The big challenge is developing a public transport system that goes a long way to matching the flexibility, convenience and door-to-door travel times of private vehicles.

In 2016, a study of the Tallinn scheme found that, while public transport use increased by 14%, car use declined by only 5%. The biggest increase in public transport use came not from drivers, but from pedestrians and cyclists, whose journeys on foot or by bike fell by 35-40%.

Elsewhere, research has suggested that fare-free public transport is more suited to smaller communities than to big cities. A 2012 study of 39 fare-free transit schemes in the United States found that most were successful in attracting greater public transport usage. However, these schemes were mostly in small municipalities, holiday resorts, and university towns.

This research echoed the findings from a previous study, which also argued that eliminating fares for specific groups, such as students and older people, would be more effective than universal free transport in addressing traffic congestion in larger cities.

In the UK, this targeted approach has been adopted for older people, many of whom can travel by bus free of charge. In London, accompanied children under 11 can travel for free on the tube, DLR, Overground and TfL rail services. But, while students and young people can benefit from reduced fare schemes, the UK has not followed the example of the Netherlands, where students can travel on buses and trams for free.

All aboard?

Back in Luxembourg, some believe that fare-free public transport will fail to address the country’s traffic congestion and air pollution problems, and could actually make things worse for commuters. Another blogger has suggested that the scheme will not persuade drivers to leave the car at home:

“An alternative way of levelling the playing field between car driving and public transport without inducing even more people to travel is to increase the petrol tax. Indeed, petrol prices in Luxembourg are markedly lower than in neighbouring Germany, Belgium and France, which may well contribute to Luxembourgers’ reliance on cars.”

Many of those advocating free transport schemes are not setting out a one-size-fits-all approach. As the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office observes, the diversity of schemes in operation should encourage transport authorities to consider what’s right for their localities:

“Municipalities should be brave to use their city as a testing ground to find out what system is realistic for them to implement.”

New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part two)

Dunfermline town centre

This is the second of a two-part blog on high streets and town centres.  In our last post, we highlighted some recent publications that have sought to address the challenges facing our high streets and town centres.

We looked at how towns could work to diversify their retail offer, placing greater focus upon developing experiences and services that are not easily replicated online – such as hair and beauty services, gyms, cinema, restaurants and nightlife.

We also highlighted the benefits of identifying a town centre’s unique selling point (USP), capitalising on the opportunities presented by the widespread growth of technology, and offering various forms of support to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

In this post, we consider how community involvement, good quality inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street can all provide ways to promote and support town centres to better meet the needs of local people in a changing retail and economic environment.

A community-focused high street

The town centre has long been considered the beating heart of a community.  As such, it makes sense that any attempt to revitalise them would have local people at its heart.

In Dunfermline, a pilot placemaking project has made use of innovative, interactive methods of engagement with young people to help plan and deliver town centre improvements.

Young people were asked to assess the quality of the town centre and to identify areas where improvements could be made, using tools such as the Place Standard and the Town Centre Toolkit.

There are lots of other great community-focused town centre initiatives. ‘Can Do Places’ aims to engage the local community in order to bring empty town centre properties back into use in various ways, for example, by providing spaces for budding entrepreneurs or supporting community arts and crafts.

Stalled Spaces Scotland is another noteworthy project – with a focus on greening derelict, under- or unused outdoor areas.  As well as improving the look and feel of a town centre, this scheme also aims to involve the local community and schools in the development and use of the spaces themselves.

A healthy and accessible high street

It goes without saying that if town centres are to attract both people and businesses then they must be both attractive and accessible – easily walkable, safe, and clean.  Indeed, amongst its findings, the High Street 2030 report highlights “calls for improved accessibility that is more environmentally-friendly, new public spaces or areas, centres that better serve older people”.

There has also been considerable discussion around how the design of town centres (and urban areas in general) impact upon various vulnerable groups.  We have blogged on this subject on various occasions, focusing in turn on the creation of places that address the needs of older people, people with dementia, autistic people and children.

There has also been widespread discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of shared space street design – which has been used by many places in the UK in attempt to revitalise their town centre spaces with varying levels of success.

As well as their role in the creation of inclusive, accessible spaces for all, there has been some focus upon the link between high streets and health.

Last year, Public Health England published guidance on the development of ‘healthy high streets’ – high streets that have a positive influence on the health of local people.  It focuses on elements such as air quality, enhanced walkability, the provision of good quality street design, street furniture, and communal spaces. It argues that the development of healthy high streets will support economic growth as well as community cohesion.

It also approaches the subject of diversity on the high street – recommending that there is an adequate number of healthy and affordable food outlets and limiting the number of alcohol, betting and payday loan outlets.

A high street to call home

Another way of bringing people back into the high street is to have them literally live there.

At the end of 2017, the Federation of Master Builders published a report ‘Homes on our high streets’, which argued that “revitalising our high streets through well planned and designed residential units could help rejuvenate smaller town centres”.

For example, Aldershot, as highlighted in the High Streets 2030 report, has been making use of the Housing Infrastructure Fund to promote residential development in the town centre and has undertaken property acquisition in the town centre, most recently acquiring the former Marks & Spencer  store.

Creating additional homes above shops or in former retail units not only helps to make use of vacant properties and regenerate town centres, but may also help to address housing shortages in many areas.

 Looking to the Future

So while 2019 may present high streets and town centres with some of their toughest challenges yet, there is a wealth of research, experiences and innovative ideas on which to draw.  The newly announced Future High Streets Fund will no doubt be of use to help put these ideas into practice.

And perhaps most importantly of all, local people remain enthusiastic about developing their town centres and wish to see them flourish. As the High Streets 2030 project noted:

The workshops and interactions provided real insight into the challenges faced by town centres. That they are worth fighting for was abundantly evident from the enthusiasm of those participating.”


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