The case for universal basic services

by Hannah Brunton and Scott Faulds

There are longstanding debates around what should be included in the provision of public services, and this issue was central to the discussion at a recent Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) Seminar (series 16: lecture 2), at which Dr. Anna Coote presented her proposal for ‘Universal Basic Services’ (UBS). The need for public services like healthcare and education is widely recognised, but services such as adult social care, housing and transport remain largely privatised. As poverty, inequality and environmental issues become increasingly prevalent, could UBS be what is needed to transform public service provision to tackle such problems?

What are universal basic services?

The basic premise of UBS is the idea that public services should be improved and expanded to sufficiently cover all of life’s everyday essentials, for everyone who needs them, irrespective of their ability to pay. One of the main principles identified by Dr. Coote was the idea that public service provision should be guided by the shared basic needs which are common to all in society, such as food, shelter, housing, transport, information, education and healthcare. By combining existing resources and taking collective responsibility for meeting these needs, Dr. Coote proposes that UBS would be a sustainable system that would also allow future generations to manage their own continually changing needs.

A core aspect of the proposal is the idea of the “social wage” whereby all members of society receive a ‘virtual income’ via collective public services, topped up by income support for those who need it, to ensure that everyone’s income is sufficient and that everyone is able to afford the essentials that they are expected to pay for themselves.

How would UBS work in practice?

The proposal involves expanding the variety of public services offered, as well as improving those which exist already, such as education and healthcare. Dr. Coote argues that public services should be broadened to include childcare, adult social care, transport, housing, and information services, universally available to all, and free at the point of use.

However, as Dr. Coote acknowledges, this is easier said than done. The implementation of UBS would mean a major transformation of public services and would require a great deal of investment in social infrastructure, as well as the establishment of clear entitlements to ensure everyone has an equal right to access the services they need.

In practice, Dr. Coote proposes a bespoke approach for each area of need, based on case studies from a range of European countries. For example, the proposal recommends a universal childcare scheme based on Norway’s childcare system, and a free bus system based on transport schemes in France and Estonia.

Benefits of UBS

While Dr. Coote acknowledges the potential difficulties in implementing a system like UBS, her talk outlined the broad range of potential benefits which such a system could bring about, in terms of equality, efficiency, solidarity and sustainability. In terms of social and economic inequality, Dr. Coote argues that UBS could tackle this by reducing income equalities by 20%. The proposal also argues that efficiency would be improved, as investment in public services would deliver more social and economic value than the current market system does. Furthermore, Dr. Coote argues, taking collective responsibility, combining resources, and sharing risks would help to build solidarity and empathy. Finally, with regard to sustainability, UBS could help to tackle the climate crisis by reducing carbon emissions and protecting natural resources, while also improving public health and wellbeing and boosting employment.

Universal basic income

Recently, there has been a spate of trials of what is known as universal basic income (UBI), a form of cash payment paid to every citizen regardless of income or employment status. The concepts of UBS and UBI are in some sense relatively similar: both involve providing some form of statutory support to all citizens. However, Dr Coote, argues that the provision of UBS with a sufficient UBI would be fiscally incompatible. Instead, she suggests implementation of UBS in tandem with a generous, guaranteed income protection scheme. This would include:

  • restoring child benefit to 2010 levels in real terms;
  • swapping the tax-free personal allowance for a cash payment for all but the richest;
  • improving social security payments by 5% for all;
  • removing caps and reduceing rates at which benefits are withdrawn.

The combination of this scheme and UBS have been estimated to cost 5.8% of GDP. By comparison, the provision of a sufficient UBI alone would cost between 20% to 30% of GDP. Dr Coote, invokes the work of Luke Martinelli, who concludes: “an affordable UBI would be inadequate, and an adequate UBI would be unaffordable”. In short, Dr Coote, believes that the provision of a sufficient UBI is unaffordable and that the delivery of UBS, whilst not perfect, avoids the ineffective use of huge amounts of public money which could instead be used to improve and expand upon collective public services.

Additionally, Dr Coote, states that even from an ideological standpoint UBS and UBI are incompatible, arguing that UBI is: “an individualistic, monetary intervention that undermines social solidarity and fails to tackle the underlying causes of poverty, unemployment and inequality”.

For example, proponents of UBS argue that providing people in poverty with a UBI to fend for themselves within an inflated housing market is an inefficient use of public money and contend that it would be more effective to provide quality housing. Research conducted by Oxfam has found that the “virtual income” provided by the provision of universal public services helps to reduce income inequality in OECD countries by roughly 20%. Therefore, it could be argued that by deploying UBS, and substantially enlarging the social wage, people will need less disposable income to meet their needs and flourish.

Final thoughts

At its very core, the concept of UBS can be seen as a desire to create more and better collective services, available as a right, rather than by an individual’s ability to pay. Throughout the seminar, Dr Coote was clear in her belief that UBS is not a silver bullet.  Instead it should be viewed as a principled framework that challenges conventional economic thinking and provides a vision of a better future. In short, UBS can be seen as an attempt to reclaim the collective ideal and as a desire to extend the ‘social wage’ to best meet the collective needs of everyone in society.


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Facial recognition systems: ready for prime time?

Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

by Scott Faulds

Across the UK, it is estimated that there are 1.85 million CCTV cameras, approximately one camera for every 36 people.  From shopping centres to railway stations, CCTV cameras have become a normal part of modern life and modern policing, with research from the College of Policing indicating that CCTV modestly reduces overall crime. Currently, most of the cameras utilised within the CCTV system are passive; they act as a deterrent or provide evidence of an individual’s past location or of a crime committed.

However, advances in artificial intelligence have allowed for the development of facial recognition systems which could enable CCTV cameras to proactively identify suspects or active crime in real-time. Currently, the use of facial recognition systems in limited pilots has received a mixed reaction, with the Metropolitan Police arguing that it is their duty to use new technologies to keep people safe. But privacy campaigners argue that the technology possesses a serious threat to civil liberties and are concerned that facial recognition systems contain gender and racial bias.

How does it work?

Facial recognition systems operate in a similar way to how humans recognise faces, through identifying familiar facial characteristics, but on a much larger and data driven way. Whilst there are a variety of different types of facial recognition system, the basic steps are as follows:

An image of a face is captured either within a photograph, video or live footage. The face can be within a crowd and does not necessarily have to be directly facing a camera.

Facial recognition software biometrically scans the face and converts unique facial characteristics (distance between your eyes, distance from forehead to chin etc) into a mathematical formula known as a facial signature.

The facial signature can then be compared to faces stored within a database (such as a police watchlist) or faces previously flagged by the system.

The system then determines if it believes it has identified a match; in most systems the level of confidence required before the system flags a match can be altered.

Facial recognition and the police

Over the past twelve months, the Metropolitan Police and South Wales Police have both operated pilots of facial recognition systems, designed to identify individuals wanted for serious and violent offences. These pilots involved the placement of facial recognition cameras in central areas, such as Westfield Shopping Centre, where large crowds’ faces were scanned and compared to a police watch-list. If the system flags a match, police officers would then ask the potential match to confirm their identify and if the match was correct, they would be detained. Police forces have argued that the public broadly support the deployment of facial recognition and believe that the right balance has been found between keeping the public safe and protecting individual privacy.

The impact of the deployment of facial recognition by the police has been compared by some to the introduction of fingerprint identification. However, it is difficult to determine how successful these pilots have been, as there has been a discrepancy regarding the reporting of the accuracy of these facial recognition systems. According to the Metropolitan Police, 70% of wanted suspects would be identified walking past facial recognition cameras, whilst only one in 1,000 people would generate a false alert, an error rate of 0.1%.  Conversely, independent analysis commissioned by the Metropolitan Police, has found that only eight out of 42 matches were verified as correct, an error rate of 81%.

The massive discrepancy in error rates can be explained by the way in which you asses the accuracy of a facial recognition system. The Metropolitan Police measure accuracy by comparing successful and unsuccessful matches with the total number of faces scanned by the facial recognition system. Independent researchers, on the other hand, asses the accuracy of the flags generated by the facial recognition system. Therefore, it is unclear as to how accurate facial recognition truly is, nevertheless, the Metropolitan Police have now begun to use live facial recognition cameras operationally.

Privacy and bias

Civil liberties groups, such as Liberty and Big Brother Watch, have a raised a variety of concerns regarding the police’s use of facial recognition. These groups argue that the deployment of facial recognition systems presents a clear threat to individual privacy and privacy as a social norm. Although facial recognition systems used by the police are designed to flag those on watch-lists, every single person that comes into the range of a camera will automatically have their face biometrically scanned. In particular, privacy groups have raised concerns about the use of facial recognition systems during political protests, arguing that their use may constitute a threat to the right to freedom of expression and may even represent a breach of human rights law. 

Additionally, concerns have been raised regarding racial and gender bias that have been found to be prevalent in facial recognition systems across the world. A recent evaluative study conducted by the US Government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology on 189 facial recognition algorithms has found that most algorithms exhibit “demographic differentials”. This means that a facial recognition system’s ability to match two images of the same person varies depending on demographic group. This study found that facial recognition systems were less effective at identifying BAME and female faces, this means that these groups are statistically more likely to be falsely flagged and potentially questioned by the police.

Final thoughts

From DNA to fingerprint identification, the police are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to help keep the public safe. In theory, the use of facial recognition is no different, the police argue that the ability to quickly identify a person of interest will make the public safer. However, unlike previous advancements, the effectiveness of facial recognition is largely unproven.

Civil liberties groups are increasingly concerned that facial recognition systems may infringe on the right to privacy and worry that their use will turn the public into walking biometric ID cards. Furthermore, research has indicated that the vast majority of facial recognition systems feature racial and gender bias, this could lead to women and BAME individuals experiencing repeated contact with the police due to false matches.

In summary, facial recognition systems provide the police with a new tool to help keep the public safe. However, in order to be effective and gain the trust of the public, it will be vital for the police to set out the safeguards put in place to prevent privacy violations and the steps taken to ensure that the systems do not feature racial and gender bias.  


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Whither wind power?

The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in the UK’s energy supply. In 2010, almost three quarters of Britain’s electricity was generated by fossil fuels. But in the third quarter of 2019, renewables outpaced coal, oil and gas for the first time since Britain’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882.

As Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK has observed, the transformation of the UK’s electricity supply has been extraordinary:

“We’re in the middle of basically an industrial revolution. If you look back 10 years ago when we thought about renewables, we only thought about them as this kind of niche climate change technology and now they’re the backbone of the energy system.”

More megawatts: the growth of wind power

Increases in turbine capacity, hub height and rotor diameter, and sharp reductions in the costs of constructing and operating wind power facilities have helped to grow the UK’s wind power sector. The current generation of offshore turbines are taller than the London Eye (195m), generating 8-9 megawatts of power. But wind power operators are already planning 300m turbines, with a capacity to generate between 10-15 megawatts. Another innovation has been the development of floating turbines, which can be placed in deeper waters where the wind is stronger and less variable. The world’s first floating wind farm was opened off the coast of Scotland in 2017.

Offshore wind: “a major game changer”

An additional factor driving the growth of wind power is government support. The UK government has provided competitive subsidies to the offshore wind sector, with further help pledged in the 2019 Offshore Wind Sector Deal

The UK is now the world’s biggest offshore wind market. In the past two years, supersize wind farms have opened off the coasts of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Caithness. Another wind farm will become operational in 2020, while work has already started on what will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm, capable of powering 4.5 million homes.

While the UK, along with Germany and Denmark, has been leading the development of offshore wind power, other countries are catching up fast. In 2018, China installed more new offshore wind power schemes than any country in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) offshore wind provides just 0.3% of global power generation. But by 2040 wind could be the single biggest source of power generation in Europe. Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA is in no doubt about the future of onshore wind power, telling the Financial Times last year: “It has the potential to be a major game-changer.”

Onshore wind: a sector becalmed

For onshore wind it’s a different story. In April 2016, the UK government ended new subsidies for onshore wind schemes, pointing to growing public opposition. In addition, changes to planning regulations have made it harder to develop new onshore wind schemes. As a result, new capacity in onshore wind has slowed markedly.

The UK onshore wind sector has argued strongly in favour of lifting the ban on subsidies, pointing to the economic benefits of onshore wind and its capacity to replace lost resources. In January 2019, when Hitachi abandoned plans to build a nuclear plant in Wales, the onshore wind industry highlighted 794 projects that have won planning consent and are ready to build. Industry representatives claim that together these projects would generate two thirds of what the Hitachi plant would have produced.

While onshore development in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has lost pace, continuing support from the Scottish Government for onshore wind power means there is a current pipeline of 26 projects in Scotland.

Elsewhere in the world, onshore wind power is strong in Sweden, Denmark and China, but in Germany there is growing opposition to onshore schemes.

Skills and jobs

In 2019, the UK adopted a net zero carbon emission target, bringing all greenhouse gas emissions — excluding aviation and international shipping — to virtually zero by 2050. Achieving this will require profound changes, not least in terms of power generation. This in turn means recruiting the right people with the right skills.

Last month, a report published by the National Grid forecast that the UK’s energy sector will need to recruit several hundred thousand workers in order to deliver net zero emissions by 2050. The report found that in the north west of England alone, over 60,000 jobs will need to be filled to meet the demands of offshore wind expansion, while the continued growth of on-shore and offshore wind power in Scotland will drive the need for almost 50,000 jobs by 2050.

Final thoughts

Wind power is not without its critics. Some commentators have expressed doubts about its contribution to world energy supply, and warned of its environmental impacts. But it seems that a critical turning point has been reached. Wind now accounts for 20% of UK electricity generation, making it the country’s strongest source of renewable energy.

The trend is set to continue, certainly regarding offshore wind power. And even onshore wind schemes may be set for a comeback, with signs that public support for this cheap and clean form of electricity generation has never been greater.

Spinout success: commercialising academic research

Research and teaching in UK universities is widely recognised to be among the best in the world.  In fact, the University of Oxford has topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 for the fourth year in a row.

However, in November last year, venture capital firm Octopus Ventures published a new measure of UK universities’ success – the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking.

Instead of focusing on traditional measures of success, such as research, teaching and citation impact, Octopus Ventures’ new index measures UK universities’ effectiveness at translating this research into commercial success via the creation of “quality, investor-ready spinout companies”.

The results are a little surprising – with Queen’s University Belfast reaching the top spot, ahead of big players such as the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

In this blog post, we consider these findings in more detail, and discuss the potential to further capitalise on the potential of spinouts in the UK, and the key factors that underpin their success.

A brief history of spinouts

A university spinout has been defined by Octopus Ventures asa registered company set up to exploit intellectual property (IP) that has originated from within a university”.

In other words, it is a company that has been established based on ideas derived from a university’s research.  Often, former or current researchers are directly involved in the management team, and start-up funding is provided by the university (or one of its connected venture funds).

UK universities have been allowed to commercialise the results of their research since the mid-1980s. Between 2003 and 2018, approximately 3000 IP-based spinouts were created by UK universities.

Since 2010, there has been a notable increase in investment into university spinouts – both in terms of the number of deals achieved and the amount of money invested in university spinouts, from both private and public investment sources.

High rates of success

There is good reason for this increased investment – the survival rates of spinouts are high compared to other types of start up enterprise.  Research published in 2018 by law firm Anderson Law found that nine out of ten spinouts survive beyond five years.  By way of comparison, only two out of ten new enterprises survive beyond five years in the wider start-up environment.

Indeed, many spinouts not only survive, but thrive.  The UK has produced a large number of very successful spinouts – for example, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a University of Oxford spin-out company that has gone on to reach a £1.5 billion valuation.  ARM Holdings is another example – a designer of smartphone chips, established by the University of Cambridge, and acquired by Japanese firm Softbank for £24 billion in 2018.

Unrealised opportunities

However, while the UK has seen a number of high profile spinout success stories, Octopus Ventures, argue that there is yet more untapped potential to be realised:

The UK has produced a host of successful university spinouts, but there are many unrealised opportunities that have been left in labs or got lost on their funding journey. These could be worth trillions of pounds to the UK economy.”

This potential is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the unrivalled success of many universities in the United States.  Take, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  MIT has been the genesis for around 26,000 spinout companies, with a combined annual company turnover of US$2 trillion.  This is a huge amount from one university – and is equivalent to around 65% of the UK’s entire annual GDP!  The resultant spinouts have also created in the region of 3.3 million jobs. MIT clearly illustrates the huge potential that exists to capitalise on universities’ research.

Index results

Back in the UK, this massive potential has yet to be realised.  Indeed, one of the key aims of the new Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking is to identify where this potential exists, and which universities are making notable progress towards capitalising on it.

The key data points included are:

  • total funding per university;
  • total spinouts created per university;
  • total disclosures per university;
  • total patents per university;
  • total sales from spinouts per university.

An interesting element of the index is that it is also adjusted to account for the total funding that a university receives.  This means that it is not dominated by Russell Group universities simply on the basis of them receiving the most funding.

Indeed, Queen’s University Belfast was ranked first – putting it ahead of both the University of Cambridge (2nd place) and the University of Oxford (9th place) in terms of its production of spinout companies and successful exits, relative to the total funding received.

Queen’s University Belfast, through QUBIS Ltd, the university’s commercialisation arm, has had a number of spinout successes, including KainosAndor Technology, and Fusion Antibodies, all of which have been listed on the London Stock Exchange.

In Scotland, the highest ranking university was the University of Dundee (6th), which has had a number of successful spinouts, including Platinum Informatics, which specialises in the provision of software to analyse ‘big data’.

What makes a successful spinout company?

As well as identifying the most effective universities in terms of spinouts, the Octopus Ventures report also looks at the shared success factors that have contributed to their effectiveness.

There are three key factors:

  • Funding – Access to early funding is essential to success. Universities that ranked highly in the index were ones that raised funds to help get ideas off the drawing board. As Simon King, a partner in Octopus Ventures states: “Universities that enable early-stage proof of concepts and prototyping by making early-stage funds available, either internally through their own funds or through collaborative schemes with other funds are more successful at creating spinouts.  That’s a key takeaway.”
  • Talent – the issue of talent is considered a ‘consistently challenging’ issue for spinouts.  There is a huge demand for the right skills, and spinouts are often viewed as being high-risk propositions compared to more established enterprises.  Other challenges include a lack of academics’ understanding of the business world, and limited incentives for them to engage in the commercial world in light of the pressure to ‘publish or perish’.
  • Collaboration – As well as university-industry collaboration, collaboration between different universities was a key factor in the creation of successful spinouts. Collaboration helps to increase both scale and capacity, whilst also helping to attract and retain top talent.

Future support for spinouts

Measuring the relative effectiveness of UK universities’ ability to commercialise their research provides a number of signposts for the future in regards to how best to support and further develop this potential.

This is increasingly important given the economic uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the availability of a number of European funding streams once the UK leaves the European Union.

The UK’s Industrial Strategy places a clear emphasis on academic entrepreneurialism as a driver of economic growth.  And in 2018, the UK Government launched the £100m Connecting Capability Fund to support university collaboration in research commercialisation.

Commercialising academic research is far more complex, risky and expensive than establishing a typical start-up.  But their potential contribution to the economy, and wider society, is huge.


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An app a day … how m-health could revolutionise our engagement with the NHS

It seems like almost every day now we see in the news and read in newspapers about the increasing pressures on our NHS, strains on resources and the daily challenges facing already overworked GP staff.

Mobile health applications (m-health apps) are increasingly being integrated into practice and are now being used to perform some tasks which would have traditionally been performed by general practitioners (GPs), such as those involved in promoting health, preventing disease, diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and signposting to other health and support services.

How m-health is transforming patient interactions with the NHS

In 2015 International Longevity Centre research found some distinct demographic divides on health information seeking behaviour. While 50% of those aged 25-34 preferred to receive health information online, only 15% of those aged 65 and over preferred the internet. The internet remained the favourite source of health information for all age groups younger than 55. And while not specifically referring to apps, the fact that many people in this research expressed a preference to seek health information online indicates that there is potential for wider use of effective, and NHS approved health apps.

A report published in 2019 by Reform highlighted the unique opportunity that m-health offered in the treatment and management of mental health conditions. The report found that in the short to medium-term, much of the potential of apps and m-health lies in relieving the pressure on frontline mental health services by giving practitioners more time to spend on direct patient care and providing new ways to deliver low-intensity, ongoing support. In the long-term, the report suggests, data-driven technologies could lead to more preventative and precise care by allowing for new types of data-collection and analysis to enhance understandings of mental health.

M-health, e-health and telecare are also potentially important tools in the delivery of rural care, particularly to those who are elderly or who live in remote parts of the UK. This enables them to submit relevant readings to a GP or hospital consultant without having to travel to see them in person and allowing them to receive updates, information and advice on their condition without having to travel to consult a doctor or nurse face-to-face. However, some have highlighted that this removal of personal contact could leave some patients feeling isolated, unable to ask questions and impact on the likelihood of carrying out treatment, particularly among older people, if they feel it has been prescribed by a “machine” and not a doctor.

Supporting people to take ownership of their own health

Research has suggested that wearable technologies, not just m-health apps, but across-the-board, including devices like “fitbits”, are acting as incentives to help people self-regulate and promote healthier activities such as more walking or drinking more water. One study found that different tracking and monitoring tools that collect and analyse health and wellness data over time can inform consumers of their baseline activity level, encourage personal engagement in health and wellbeing, and ultimately lead to positive behavioural change. Another report from the International Longevity Centre also highlights the potential impact of apps on preventative healthcare; promoting behaviour change and encouraging people to make healthier choices such as stopping smoking or reducing alcohol intake.

Home testing kits for conditions such as bowel cancer and remote sensors to monitor blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetics are also becoming more commonplace as methods to help people take control of monitoring their own health. Roll-outs of blood pressure and heart rhythm monitors enable doctors to see results through an integrated tablet, monitor a patient’s condition remotely, make suggestions on changes to medication or pass comments on to patients directly through an email or integrated chat system, without the patient having to attend a clinic in person.

Individual test kits from private sector firms, including “Monitor My Health” are now also increasingly available for people to purchase. People purchase and complete the kits, which usually include instructions on home blood testing for conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and vitamin D deficiency. The collected samples are then returned via post, analysed in a laboratory and the results communicated to the patient via an app, with no information about the test stored on their personal medical records. While the app results will recommend if a trip to see a GP is necessary, there is no obligation on the part of the company involved or the patient to act on the results if they choose not to. The kits are aimed at “time-poor” people over the age of 16, who want to “take control of their own healthcare”, according to the kit’s creator, but some have suggested that instead of improving the patient journey by making testing more convenient, lack of regulation could dilute the quality of testing Removing the “human element”, they warn, particularly from initial diagnosis consultations, could lead to errors.

But what about privacy?

Patient-driven healthcare which is supported and facilitated by the use of e-health technologies and m-health apps is designed to support an increased level of information flow, transparency, customisation, collaboration and patient choice and responsibility-taking, as well as quantitative, predictive and preventive aspects for each user. However, it’s not all positive, and concerns are already being raised about the collection and storage of data, its use and the security of potentially very sensitive personal data.

Data theft or loss is one of the major security concerns when it comes to using m-health apps. However, another challenge is the unwitting sharing of data by users, which despite GDPR requirements can happen when people accept terms and conditions or cookie notices without fully reading or understanding the consequences for their data. Some apps, for example, collect and anonymise data to feed into further research or analytics about the use of the app or sell it on to third parties for use in advertising.

Final thoughts

The integration of mobile technologies and the internet into medical diagnosis and treatment has significant potential to improve the delivery of health and care across the UK, easing pressure on frontline staff and services and providing more efficient care, particularly for those people who are living with long-term conditions which require monitoring and management.

However, clinicians and researchers have been quick to emphasise that while there are significant benefits to both the doctor and the patient, care must be taken to ensure that the integrity and trust within the doctor-patient relationship is maintained, and that people are not forced into m-health approaches without feeling supported to use the technology properly and manage their conditions effectively. If training, support and confidence of users in the apps is not there, there is the potential for the roll-out of apps to have the opposite effect, and lead to more staff answering questions on using the technology than providing frontline care.


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Is this the future of social housing?

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

Last year, a development of 105 homes on the outskirts of Norwich became the first social housing project to win the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize.

The Goldsmith Street estate was built by London architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council, and is the largest Passivhaus scheme in the UK. Passivhaus is an approach to building that provides a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Goldsmith Street has been carefully thought through, and adjusted to take account of changing economic and environmental circumstances. In 2008, Norwich City Council selected Mikhail Riches to design the estate. The council had intended to sell the site to a local housing provider, but when the financial crash happened, the council decided to develop the site itself.

The architects have striven to ensure that the development acknowledges the historic context of the site:

“The design seeks to re-introduce streets and houses in an area of the city which is otherwise dominated by 20th century blocks of flats… Street widths are intentionally narrow at 14m, emulating the 19th century model.”

The homes themselves have been built to strict Passivhaus standards which include:

  • very high levels of insulation;
  • extremely high performance windows with insulated frames;
  • airtight building fabric;
  • ‘thermal bridge free’ construction;
  • a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Passivhaus standards typically reduce heating energy consumption by up to 90% as compared to traditional housing. For residents in the Goldsmith Street development, heating bills should be about £150 a year.

Eco friendly housing

In recent years, local authorities and housing associations have been responding to the increasing demands for housing stock to have lower maintenance costs, lower energy costs and fewer emissions of carbon and other gases that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The Passivhaus Trust has highlighted a growing number of local councils and housing associations that have been exploring Passivhaus standards as a way of tackling these issues.

One of the most ambitious social housing Passivhaus projects is Agar Grove in the London Borough of Camden. Previously a 1960s estate with an unenviable reputation, Agar Grove has been rebuilt with affordable and energy efficient homes. The first phase, involving 38 social rented homes was completed in 2018, and has already won awards for sustainability and community consultation. Once complete, the 500-home estate will be the largest Passivhaus development in the UK.

Cunningham House, Glasgow: Page\Park Architects

In Glasgow, the city’s first Passivhaus development for social rent was opened by Shettleston Housing Association in September 2019. The project provides nineteen new homes for older people in an innovative design that combines a five storey Passivhaus tower with a converted church building. All of the homes benefit from high levels of thermal insulation to augment the sandstone coat of the existing church structure. The project was named the best affordable housing development at the 2019 Inside Housing Awards.

Meanwhile, the City of York Council has released plans to build more than 600 homes across eight sites over the next five years that will be built to carbon zero standards. The council has pledged that 40% of the homes will be affordable, with 20% retained for social renting. The developments, also designed by Mikhail Riches, will have very high energy efficiency standards that exceed standard Passivhaus levels. It’s predicted that residents’ heating bills could be around £60 a year.

Homes for the future

There is a now a growing sense that housing, as well as consuming great amounts of energy, can also be a positive force for change. Energy efficient homes can make a strong contribution to climate change adaptation measures, can make housing more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and can provide opportunities to improve economic development, quality of life and social equality.

In the past year, with many local councils, combined authorities, devolved administrations and the UK government declaring ‘climate emergencies’, the pressure on housing providers to lead by example has intensified. At the same time, governments are setting out plans to ensure new homes are more energy efficient.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the Future Homes Standard, which includes proposals to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2025. Similarly, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new regulations to ensure all new homes use renewable or low carbon heating from 2024. A 2019 report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended major changes to most homes in the country, including a major programme to improve insulation and heating.

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

The success and widespread publicity enjoyed by the Goldsmith Street project is likely to encourage other local authorities and housing associations to explore the possibilities of Passivhaus. But although the benefits are great, Passivhaus also presents significant challenges for housing providers.

Up-front costs are higher for Passivhaus developments, and there are additional maintenance and replacement costs. The technical requirements are strict, in order to ensure the maximum levels of airtightness and insulation. In addition, there is a shortage of skills needed to achieve the exceptional standards of construction demanded by Passivhaus (Norwich City Council has overcome this by bringing together a network of specialist contractors with the necessary expertise to work on Passivhaus projects).

Despite the challenges, Passivhaus seems to be offering a compelling answer to the significant problems of fuel poverty, climate change and the demand for high quality, affordable housing. As more local authorities and housing associations demonstrate its affordability, Passivhaus is breaking away from its image as a resource for the privileged and moving into the mainstream of social housing.


Further reading: blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on energy efficiency at home

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“We’ve updated our privacy policy”: GDPR two years on

by Scott Faulds

Almost two years ago, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force across the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA), creating what many consider to be the most extensive data protection regulation in the world. The introduction of GDPR facilitated the harmonisation of data privacy laws across Europe and provided citizens with greater control over how their data is used. The regulation sets out the rights of data subjects, the duties of data controllers/processors, the transfer of personal data to third countries, supervisory authorities, cooperation among member states, and remedies, liability or penalties for breach of rights. However, whilst the regulation itself is extensive, questions have been raised regarding the extent to which GDPR has been successful at protecting citizens’ data and privacy.

Breach Notifications and Fines

Critics of GDPR have argued that whilst the regulation has been effective as a breach notification law, it has so far failed to impose impactful fines on companies which have failed to comply with the GDPR. National data protection authorities (such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK) under the GDPR have the ability to impose fines of up to €20m or up to 4% of an organisation’s total global turnover, whichever is higher. Since the introduction of the GDPR, data protection authorities across the EEA have experienced a “massive increase” in reports of data breaches. However, this has yet to translate into substantive financial penalties. For example, Google has been issued a €50m fine, the highest issued so far* by CNIL, the French data protection authority. CNIL found that Google failed to provide sufficient and transparent information that allowed customers to give informed consent to the processing of personal data when creating a Google account during the set-up process of an Android powered device. This is a serious breach of multiple GDPR articles and CNIL argued that the infringements contravene the principles of transparency and informed consent which are at the heart of the GDPR.

*  The confirmation of record fines issued by ICO to British Airways (£183m) and Marriott International (£99m) has been delayed until 31st March 2020.

However, the fine imposed on Google amounts to approximately 0.04% of their total global turnover, which some have argued is simply too small an amount to act as any real deterrent. Therefore, it could be said that while GDPR has been effective in encouraging companies to be transparent when data misuse occurs, national data protection authorities have yet to make use of their ability to impose large financial penalties to act as a deterrent.

In recent months, the German and Dutch data protection authorities have both created frameworks which set out how they intend to calculate GDPR fines. Analysis of their fining structures indicates that both models will operate based on the severity of GDPR violation. However, both structures allow for the data protection authority to impose the maximum fine if the amount is not deemed fitting. The International Association of Privacy Professionals believes this will result in significantly higher and more frequent fines than those issued previously, and has suggested that it is possible that the European Data Protection Board may consider implementing a harmonized fine model across Europe.

Brussels Effect

The effects of the GDPR can be felt beyond Europe, with companies such as Apple and Microsoft committing to extend GDPR protections to their entire customer base, no matter their location.  Even the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, admitted that the introduction of GDPR was necessary due to the scale of data collected by technology companies. The ability of the EU to influence the global regulatory environment has been described by some experts as the “Brussels Effect”. They argue that a combination of the size, importance and regulatory power of the EU market is forcing companies around the world to match EU regulations. Additionally, this effect can be seen to be influencing data protection legislation across the world, with governments in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa and California all introducing updated privacy laws based on the GDPR. As a result, it can be said that the introduction of the GDPR has enabled the EU to play a key role in global discussions regarding privacy and how citizens’ data is used worldwide. 

Brexit

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the GDPR will remain in force until the end of the transition period (31st December 2020), after this point it is the intention of the UK Government to introduce the UK GDPR. However, as the UK will no longer be a member state of the EU, it will require to seek what is known as an “adequacy agreement” with the EU.This allows businesses in the EEA and UK to freely exchange data. The UK government believes that this agreement will be signed during the transition period, as the UK GDPR is not materially different from the EU GDPR. However, it should be noted that the most recent adequacy agreement between the EU and Japan took two years to complete.

Final Thoughts

The introduction of the GDPR almost two years ago has had a variety of impacts on the current discussion surrounding privacy and how best to protect our personal data. Firstly, the GDPR has forced companies to become more transparent when data misuse occurs and gives national data protection authorities the power to scrutinise companies’ approaches to securing personal data. Secondly, the influence of the GDPR has helped to strengthen privacy laws across the world and has forced companies to provide individuals with more control over how their data is used. However, the effectiveness of GDPR is limited due to a lack of common approach regarding fines in relation to GDPR violations. In order to develop fully, it will be important for the European Data Protection Board to provide guidance on how to effectively fine those who breach the GDPR.


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‘Veganuary’ – could a plant-based lifestyle really save the planet?

As we leave behind the indulgences of the festive period, an increasing number of people are signing up to ‘Veganuary’, a campaign encouraging people to try vegan for the month of January and beyond. Already, the campaign has reached its target of 350,000 participants as it continues to grow in popularity; increasing its support every year since its launch in 2014.

Participants sign up for a number of reasons, with major drivers being health, animal welfare and the environment. It’s perhaps no surprise that health is a major driver, given the time of year, but increasingly people are turning away from animal products in a bid to help protect the planet.

Indeed, animal agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and while it hasn’t received the same attention as others such as the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport, it is now receiving increasing media coverage.

Impact of animal agriculture

“The food industry is destroying the living world”. These were the words of environmental journalist George Monbiot, also a supporter of Veganuary, in the recent Channel 4 documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet.

With the increasing population, there has been much discussion in recent years of the effects of urban sprawl and how to tackle this, but Monbiot suggests that attention should be turned to ‘agricultural sprawl’, which he asserts is a much bigger cause of habitat destruction. While ambling through the indisputably scenic Lake District, he describes the landscape as a “sheep-wrecked desert”, which was once home to a rich mosaic of trees, shrubs, plants and animals.

It is also noted that while deforestation in the Amazon is a topic of much current discussion and concern, Britain is actually one of the most deforested landscapes in the world, with agriculture one of the biggest drivers.

The documentary highlights that 51% of land in the UK is currently used for livestock or growing food for livestock, while less than 20% is used for growing cereals, fruit and vegetables for human consumption, and just 10% is used for trees – the one thing that is “essential for both nourishing living systems and preventing climate breakdown”.

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK and 10-12% of emissions globally; the fourth highest GHG emitting sector in the world.

Monbiot makes a radical suggestion that all farming could be eradicated in the future as we look to other sources of food and more sustainable practices. This may be somewhat extreme and undoubtedly something with which the farming community would disagree.

Nevertheless, the extent of the current climate crisis warrants drastic measures and as one of the largest contributors, it would make sense for action to be taken to reduce the impact agriculture currently has.  And it has been argued that a change in diet is the easiest and fastest way to reduce our own personal emissions.

Impact of reduced meat consumption

According to calculations based on the current Veganuary participation figures, 31 days of a vegan diet for 350,000 people would equate to the following savings:

  • 41,200 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere – the same as 450,000 flights from London to Berlin;
  • 160 tonnes of PO43 equivalent (eutrophication) from waterways – the same as preventing 650 tonnes of sewage from entering waterways; and
  • 5 million litres of water, which is enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In addition, it is suggested that 1 million animals could be saved.

Analysis of the Veganuary 2019 campaign results by Kantar suggests that going vegan for January also leads to sustained meat reduction. Drawing on data from January to June 2019, it was found that there was a sustained reduction in consumption which is estimated to have saved approximately 3.6 million animals in Britain alone.

Still just 3% of the population identify as vegan according to Kantar. Nevertheless, those who participated in Veganuary but did not stay vegan beyond January, did maintain reduced consumption levels at least until July, suggesting a long-term impact on consumption habits.

With increasing numbers pledging their support to Veganuary each year and the resulting reductions in sales of red meat, it would seem that reducing meat consumption may well be a way forward.

Indeed, the United Nations (UN) has also emphasised the need for significant changes in global land use, agriculture and human diets. The UN-commissioned special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”. By 2050, it suggests that dietary changes could free several million km2 of land and considerably reduce CO2 emissions.

Final thoughts

The ‘Veganuary effect’ has clearly been significant and one that sees no sign of dissipating any time soon.

Of course, changing diets isn’t the only way to reduce the environmental impact of food production. Reducing food waste and changing farming and land management practices can also help reduce emissions. The IPCC report also calls for an end to deforestation, the planting of new forests and support to small farmers. It does not call for an end to all farming.

So while we wait for the many governments to take meaningful action on climate change, perhaps picking up our knives and forks as the weapon of choice against the climate crisis is an effective way of making a difference now.


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What does Brexit mean for language learning in the UK?

By Hannah Brunton

Concerns about language learning in the UK are nothing new. For the past decade, language learning in the UK has been in continuous decline, with teachers citing increasingly difficult GCSE and A-level exams as a cause of the drop in the number of students studying foreign languages at university level. The number of pupils taking a language at A-level has decreased by a third in the past 10 years, and at university level the number has fallen by half in the same period.

The value of language learning in today’s world is clear. On an individual level, learning a foreign language is known to improve cognitive abilities, social skills and overall literacy, and increase employability. In a global context, languages are vital to a country’s capacity to interact with the wider world and establish cultural and commercial relationships. Back in 2017 it was estimated that the UK was losing out on £4.8bn (3.5% of the GDP) every year as a result of its lack of language skills.

The decrease in language learning in the UK brings with it concerns about the position of the UK in a multilingual world, and its relationships with other countries, and these concerns have been compounded by uncertainty around Brexit, and what leaving the EU will mean for the UK as a globalised society.

The ‘Brexit effect’

The term “Brexit effect” has been coined to describe the impact of the 2016 referendum in a wide variety of contexts, language learning being one of them.

A recent report by the British Council has suggested that Brexit is having a negative impact on language learning in schools, with a shift in attitudes and an increasing number of pupils and their parents feeling that European language skills will be of limited use following the UK’s exit from the EU.

It has also been warned that opportunities for students to interact with foreign culture are becoming much less frequent, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, as school trips abroad and exchange programmes are in decline amid Brexit uncertainty, a problem which is likely to worsen and become more complicated after the UK leaves the EU.

A shortage of language teachers and expertise in schools is another issue which Brexit looks set to exacerbate, particularly as a high proportion of language teachers employed in the UK are EU nationals.

In his 2018 book, ‘Languages after Brexit: how the UK speaks to the world’, Michael Kelly brings together pieces from various specialists in languages and language policy, looking at where the UK currently stands in its language capacity and the issues it is currently facing in this context, and how it might meet its changing language needs in a post-Brexit climate. The book is divided into four parts, looking at:

  • The UK’s place within a world of languages.
  • What the UK needs in terms of languages.
  • Where the UK stands in its language capacity.
  • What can be done to make the UK language ready?

Kelly looks at current attitudes toward foreign languages in the UK, and explains the factors which affect these. According to the 2012 Eurobarometer survey, just 39% of British people felt they could hold a conversation in at least one other language, compared with the European average of 54%, and Kelly suggests, the 2016 referendum result helped to exacerbate the general hostility in the UK towards foreign languages.

Interestingly, Kelly emphasises the fact that the UK is not alone in its difficulties with languages, with many of its significant trade partners having a lower level of capability in English than is often imagined, which adds to concerns around the UK’s capacity to be involved in international conversations.

Which languages to learn?

It is well understood that the demand for European language skills is set to increase, as British companies learn to navigate their relationships with EU customers without being able to rely on employing EU nationals to fulfil their language needs. This of course brings with it employment opportunities for people in the UK, but it is worth asking which languages will be most in demand.

In Languages After Brexit, Kelly suggests that part of the problem in the UK is that there is no clear foreign language which should be learned as a priority (at least not in the way that English is an agreed priority language in many of the countries who trade with the UK).

German Ambassador, Peter Wittig, has suggested that German would be the best choice, as it is the most common first language in Europe and the most in demand among employers. Despite this, only 5% of secondary schools currently offer German, and the number of students learning German is falling fast (along with French).

Spanish remains the most popular, which is no bad thing – a 2013 British Council report (B34855) identified Spanish as the most important language for the UK for the next 20 years, followed by, in order, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. While specific language priorities may change following the UK’s exit from the EU, Kelly argues that developing and broadening the UK’s overall range of language competencies should be the main focus.

The need for a national language strategy

Earlier this year, the UK National Academies published a “call for action”, in which they set out the importance of multilingualism and the areas in which the UK are falling short. They argue that, while it brings unique challenges, Brexit can be seen as a unique opportunity for the UK to refocus its approach to language learning and turn the UK into a ‘linguistic powerhouse’. The report urges Government, businesses and policy-makers to:

  • engage with the coalition of organisations who stand willing to explore the steps needed
  • adopt and implement a national strategy for languages

The strategy, they suggest, would need to span beyond just education, and would require collaboration across sectors and policy areas, and would aim to open up language learning opportunities to all people, at all stages of life.

In the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland, education-specific language strategies have been in place for some time. Scotland’s ‘1+2 Approach’ was launched in 2012 and is hoped to be fully implemented by 2021, and Wales’ ‘Global Futures’ strategy was launched in 2015 and will run until 2020. Therefore, a national strategy would require strategic and effective coordination between all regions of the UK, to develop an effective and united strategy.

At the end of Languages after Brexit, the authors summarise the potential approaches and steps towards implementing a language strategy, and propose a range of specific action within the following nine themes:

  1. Develop a comprehensive strategic plan.
  2. Manage the impact of Brexit.
  3. Improve collaboration across government.
  4. Raise the public profile of languages.
  5. Improve language education.
  6. Improve intercultural and other skills.
  7. Support teachers.
  8. Recognise community languages.
  9. Recognise languages outside the education system.

The potential benefits of such a strategy, as set out in the report, include improved employability, skills and productivity; higher attainment standards across the school curriculum; stronger trade and business links; improved social mobility and cohesion; and improved health and wellbeing.

Pensées finales

In summary, Brexit clearly presents the UK with a long-term challenge when it comes to languages, and existing concerns about the lack of multilingualism in the UK have been compounded by uncertainty brought about by the referendum.

Tackling the UK’s shortfall in multilingualism is likely to take time, however, the potential for a change in this area has been widely recognised, and publications like those discussed here have set out set-out detailed and specific proposals for a new comprehensive strategy, which could prompt practical conversations and help policy-makers find a way forward.