The 24-hour city – the Night Tube launches London into an elite group

london tubeBy Heather Cameron

With the long-awaited launch of the night tube service at the weekend, London has joined a growing number of cities across the globe that offer all-night subway services to varying degrees – including New York, Copenhagen, Berlin, Barcelona and Sydney.

More than 100,000 travellers used the service in its first 48 hours, which was hailed as a “great success” by Transport for London (TfL), and many were impressed with the service.

The new service is being phased in, with trains running all night on Fridays and Saturdays, initially on two out of the 11 lines, roughly every 10 minutes.

Demand

According to TfL, demand for such a night-time service has soared in recent years, with passenger numbers having increased by around 70% on Friday and Saturday nights since 2000. And use of the night bus has increased by 173% since 2000, outstripping demand for all other forms of transport across London.

There has been growth in night-time activities across the UK, which have expanded beyond just pubs, clubs and alcohol-related activities. There has been an increase in the number of flexible venues, casinos, all-night cinemas and gyms. The total value of the night-time economy in the UK has been estimated at £66 billion, employing 1.3 million people.

The night tube is also reportedly driving up house prices, as demand for property near the lines running the service is high.

Who benefits?

Independent research into the economic benefits of the night tube conducted in 2014 estimated that it will cut night-time journeys by 20 minutes on average, with some being reduced by almost an hour. It also found that the night tube could support around 2000 permanent jobs and boost the city’s night-time economy by £360 million – although it is expected to take three years to break even. The benefit-to-cost ratio is estimated at 2.7:1 – meaning it will generate £2.70 for every pound spent.

Other unquantifiable benefits were also identified, including improved commuter journeys for night-time workers, potential for longer operating hours for a variety of businesses and reduced congestion.

Late night revellers will no longer have to rush for the last train, cutting short their nights out. The service could also benefit shift workers and those working in the hospitality industry. Figures from TfL show that more than 50% of people using night buses are going to or returning from work.

But while the potential positive impacts have been emphasised, there have also been concerns raised over potential negative impacts.

Concerns

Residents living near the Central line fear their quality of life, as well as the value of their homes, will be affected by the noise generated by trains running every 20 minutes during Friday and Saturday night. And TfL’s own risk assessment has reportedly highlighted similar concerns.

Alcohol-related anti-social behaviour has also long been recognised as a challenge for the night-time economy. A recent report from the London Assembly notes that alcohol features in a higher proportion of crimes in London that occur at night than during the day. Many of these are concentrated in areas with a strong night-time economy.

So it is no surprise that the Mayor has invested £3.4 million in police funding for the night tube. If the launch weekend is anything to go by, however, it would appear that any dramatic increase in crime as a result of the night tube has not materialised.

Final thoughts

It is of course too early to tell whether the night tube will bring the economic and social benefits to the city as predicted. What is clear is that the night tube supports London in its drive to becoming a truly 24-hour city. And it should be encouraging that other 24-hour subways have been successful, such as those serving New York and Berlin.

The success or failure of London’s night tube could also pave the way for other cities thinking of making the move.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on night-time transport infrastructure in global cities.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Hitting the ground walking: how planners can create more walkable cities, one step at a time

chaotic-people-on-charles-bridge-in-prague-picjumbo-com

In recent times, walking has been enlisted as one of the key weapons in the war on inactivity. Planners and policymakers have taken note of evidence highlighting the benefits of walking for health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, local and national governments have taken up the challenge of embedding walking into policy, strategy and guidance. There are now national walking strategies for England, Wales and Scotland, and from Belfast to Bristol local councils have published their own plans to get more people walking.

Travel trends and their costs

During the twentieth century, there was a shift from work involving physical labour to jobs of a more sedentary nature. In addition, the growth of suburbs and rising car ownership has contributed to a decline in people travelling on foot. At the same time, the attractions of television and home computers mean fewer people are spending their leisure time playing sports or taking part in outdoor activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put the consequences of these trends into stark perspective:

“Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.”

  • Worldwide, around two million deaths a year are attributed to physical inactivity.
  • In the UK, physical activity contributes to one in six deaths, and costs £7.4 billion a year to business and wider society. It is the fourth largest cause of disease and disability in the UK.
  • In Scotland, inactivity contributes to over 2,500 deaths each year, costing the NHS £94.1m annually.

The benefits of walking

Efforts encouraging people to become more active have had mixed results, and there is now a recognition that turning the tide of physical activity may take decades to achieve. But there’s also a growing understanding that physical activity that can be built in to everyday life can be as effective as supervised exercise programmes. And, as we reported last week, the health benefits of walking can be demonstrated in unexpected ways, such as the emergence of the Pokémon Go game as an incentive to exercise.

A recent report from the Arup design and engineering firm highlights that walking is good for cities as well as for people. It details more than 50 ways in which the world can benefit from walkable cities, including:

  • Social benefits – health and wellbeing, safety, placemaking, social cohesion and equality.
  • Economic benefits – city attractiveness, urban regeneration, cost savings.
  • Environmental benefits – addressing air and noise pollution, improving liveability and transport efficiency.
  • Political benefits – leadership, urban governance, sustainable development and planning opportunities.

Making walkable places

Another key theme of the Arup report was the importance of planning for pedestrians:

“If we want cities to be more walkable, the way we design cities has to change. Walkable places are more compact, dense with mixed uses. Streets have to be well connected with more shade from sun and rain, green spaces, trees and public spaces. And, we must pay more attention to the quality of public spaces, not just providing quantity of walkable space.” Joanna Rowelle, Director at Arup

The report lists 40 actions that city leaders can consider to inform walking policy, strategy and design. Among the ideas:

  • Temporarily removing cars from a city can transform roads into public spaces, raise awareness around car dependency, reduce air pollution, and reveal the potential opportunities created by having more – and safer – spaces for people.
  • Financial incentives and disincentives, including subsidies and taxes like congestion charges, can be used to encourage behaviour change.
  • Use of shared spaces to create a pedestrian-oriented environment where people are aware of fellow road users.
  • Unused infrastructure – such as New York City’s High Line – offers major opportunities for facilitating safe and attractive pedestrian routes and activity spaces.
  • Urban regeneration creates the opportunity to redevelop small pieces of land into pocket parks or public spaces with a green character.
  • Rivers and waterways can be transformed from barriers into walking and cycling routes by creating green and accommodating waterfronts.

Best foot forward?

Many of the suggestions in the Arup report are not hard to implement, and needn’t be costly. But even when schemes have been enacted, they may face opposition.

Each weekend, for the past seven years, a busy thoroughfare in Bucharest has been cleared to create Via Sport – a safe space for leisure and sport. This summer, the city’s new mayor claimed Via Sport has been causing traffic problems. The scheme has now been closed for the foreseeable future.

Old instincts die hard. Those rethinking patterns and processes of urban design to stimulate walking (and cycling) will face a few bumps in the road. But the potential rewards will be great. As David Sim of Gehl Architects observes:

“The key strategy is about getting people to actually spend time out on the street. They become a part of the space, familiar with their neighbours, and are in tune with city life.”


Our previous blog posts on urban planning for pedestrians and cyclists include:

 

Pokémon Go for health improvements?

poke cropped

by Stacey Dingwall

Due to the number of headlines, stories and anecdotes it’s generated, you would be forgiven for thinking that Pokémon Go had been around for months. In fact, the app only officially launched in the UK on the 14th of July, following its initial rollout a week before in the US, Australia and New Zealand. In amongst reports of players straying onto private property, construction sites and train tracks, as well as criminals and police forces using the game’s lure function to their advantage, have been suggestions that the app has real potential to improve the health and fitness of its players.

Transformed from its 90s incarnation of a trading cards game into a GPS powered app, Pokémon Go nevertheless retains its main aim: gotta catch ‘em all. Pokémon appear to players – trainers as they are known in the game – as they move around their area. Crucially, some Pokémon are only available in certain areas (or continents!), meaning that trainers will not be able to achieve the game’s objective unless they move around further than their immediate location.

Gotta catch the…health benefits?

This is where the potential health benefits lie. The first player to catch them all (or all of those available in his country, at least), Roberto Vazquez told journalists that his quest had led to him walking 165 miles (12-25 per day), losing 25lbs in the process. Plastic surgeons Clinic Compare have even managed to calculate how many Pokémon the average person would have to catch in order to lose weight, by comparing the number of calories burned per hour with the average amount of time it takes players to catch a single Pokémon. For example, according to their estimates, it would take 16.27 days for a 165lb female playing the game for 43 minutes each day to lose 1lb, while jogging at a speed of five miles per hour.

It has also been suggested that the app has the potential to help children meet their recommended physical activity levels, without even realising it. With evidence indicating that children are only almost half as likely to want to play outdoors than their parents did at their age, choosing to stay indoors and watch TV or play video games instead, it could be argued that Pokémon Go presents the perfect opportunity to combine indoor and outdoor play.

What does the evidence say?

It’s important to acknowledge that these examples are either anecdotal or based on averages not actually generated by the app itself. While it’s still too early to collect reliable statistics on the game’s potential health impact, qualified medical professionals have stated their belief that it may be a force for good. In an editorial for the BMJ, Glasgow-based GP Margaret McCartney notes the potential for Pokémon Go and similar apps to “make the streets an active, reclaimed playground”, which she describes as a “tantalising side effect” of an app that is not specifically marketed as having the potential to positively impact on players’ health and wellbeing.

Pokémon Go is not the first entertainment-based game to have caught the eye of professionals and policymakers due to its potential for promoting physical activity. Evaluations of Nintendo Wii Fit, for example, have suggested that regular use has the potential to have a positive impact on different groups of people, including those with MS. Regular use is obviously essential in order to generate reliable evidence of whether or not Pokémon Go can have any genuine impact on health and wellbeing. Although cynics may argue that the app is just another fad that will soon die down, the data suggests it’s here to stay for at least the foreseeable future, with 6.1 million trainers in Britain alone, 87% of which were still playing a week after downloading.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our profile of 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils.

Government as a Platform: a new way of thinking about digital transformation

Multi-coloured blocks on the table, with a green dinosaur

By Steven McGinty

The term ‘Government as a Platform’ (GaaP) was coined by Tim O’Reilly, a technology entrepreneur and advocate.

The Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for UK Government digital transformation, has started to introduce ‘platform thinking’ to government services. However, according to a survey carried out in February, three-quarters of civil servants hadn’t heard of or didn’t understand ‘Government as a Platform’. This may be concerning for government, whose efficiency programme greatly relies on successful digital transformation.

On the blog today, I’m going to reflect on the concept of ‘Government as a Platform’, as well as outlining its adoption in the UK.

The ‘gubbins’ of government

Mark Foden, an organisational change strategist, explains the platform-based view of government in a simple (and humorous) video.

In his view, government has traditionally been made up of independent departments, providing services such as benefits, pensions, and tax. These services use bespoke technology provided by large technology companies, over long contracts.

However, the platform based-view is different. He illustrates this by splitting a government department into three sections:

  • Levers and dials – the part of the service the user interacts with (e.g. websites and mobile apps)
  • ‘Gubbins’ – in simple terms, it’s the common capabilities (e.g. checking identity) and the bespoke services (e.g. calculating tax) that government services need to function
  • Machinery – the fundamentals of technology (e.g. mainframe computers, storage, and databases)

Foden explains that a key element to platform thinking is the ‘gubbins’ section. Advances in technology now make it possible to untangle these ‘gubbins’ government services, without affecting others. In practice, this means that common capabilities used by government, such as making payments or checking identity can be developed and used across departments. Websites can also be shared to create consistency across government digital services – a sort of ‘brand government’. This approach limits the number of bespoke services developed in ‘silos’ (or within departments).

Additionally, having this separation between common capabilities and bespoke services also presents opportunities to involve a greater number of suppliers.

Potentially, this approach could be worth £35 billion in savings across government.

Organising Government as a Platform

Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, suggests three principles to enable Government as a Platform to succeed:

  • gradually moving towards more common capabilities and reducing departmental bespoke services
  • developing common capabilities across the public sector must be a priority for digital transformation
  • optimising the relationship between common capabilities and bespoke services within government departments

The UK approach  

GDS

A widely used definition by the GDS is that digital government should include:

 “a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK was the first attempt to transform how the UK does government. Launching in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone saved more than £60m a year. Early testing also showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK Verify has also been introduced – an identity assurance platform which allows people to prove who they are when using government services. The common service is the first of its kind and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to build new services.

More recently, GOV.UK Notify, a service which sends text messages, emails or letters, has sent notifications to its first users. GOV.UK Pay also just secured compliance with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard.

NHS

Although the GDS have taken the lead on platform thinking, the NHS launched NHS Jobs, a shared recruitment service, in 2003. The service has been remarkably successfully, generating over £1 billion in savings.

Mark Thompson suggests this is because of its platform approach. The Department of Health (DoH), working alongside Methods Consulting, convinced over 500 NHS employers to give up their own recruitment services and to make use of this common capability. The website is the biggest single employer recruitment site in Europe, with one unique visit every two seconds. The service has also become a valuable commodity with suppliers willing to provide the service at near cost, and compete on providing innovative services. The creation of this high quality recruitment service has therefore become a spur for innovation – something which is at the heart of Tim O’Reilly’s work on Government as a Platform.

Local government

Adur and Worthing council have recently taken a platform approach to their digital transformation. Paul Brewer, digital lead for the council, notes that it was struggling on several fronts, including IT outages and systems replicating inefficient paper-based processes.

To solve this problem, the council went through a capability mapping exercise. They identified departments which had common functions, such as undertaking case management, taking payments and booking appointments for customers. With this roadmap, they developed a CRM system to manage customer interactions (including social media), and purchased a platform which supports the creation a range of new IT products. The new approach enabled the council’s waste management service to support full mobile and remote working. Within a year, the department saved £20,000 on software and the equivalent of 1.5 staff members.

Interestingly, the council did not built their own platform, on the GDS model. Nor did they purchase an inflexible technology. Instead, they chose a third way by purchasing the building blocks of capability, and controlling where the capability was slotted in.

Final thoughts

The lack of knowledge about Government as a Platform within the civil service is somewhat disheartening. However, the GDS has introduced many new approaches to government and shown practically how they can work. Projects such as GOV.UK and GOV.UK Verify have been well received and countries such as New Zealand have looked towards the UK for their own digital transformation.

In August, the UK was ranked as global leader for e-participation on the United Nations E-Government Survey, ahead of Australia and South Korea.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles. 

Implementation science: why using evidence doesn’t guarantee success

Découverte

Using evidence in policy making is not a new concept. In recent years it has become commonplace across all areas of policy in the UK, with the introduction of the What Works centres being just one example of this. Policy makers also use evidence to defend the rationale of their initiatives and programmes. But a large evidence base does not necessarily guarantee a successful outcome for a programme or initiative. Without an effective implementation strategy, evidence might as well not exist.

Linking evidence use to implementation within policy is one of the key challenges for policy-makers and those on the frontline of service delivery. Implementation science is an emerging discipline which looks at the nature of implementation, and how it can affect the success of a programme or policy.

Introducing the Hexagon Tool

This tool was developed by the National Implementation Research Network. It outlines six broad factors that should be considered to promote effective implementation of programmes. Designed in a US context for application at state and district levels, many of the ideas about what makes for good implementation are relevant more broadly.

  1. Needs (of service user) – consider how well the programme or practice being implemented might meet identified needs.
  2. Fit – with current and pre-existing initiatives, priorities, structures, support, and local community values and context.
  3. Resource availability – for training, staffing, technology supports, data systems, and administration
  4. Evidence – indicating the outcomes that might be expected if the programme practices are implemented well (assessment criteria)
  5. Readiness for replication – including any expert assistance available, the number of existing replications, examples of best practice for observation, and how well the programme is operationalised.
  6. Capacity to implement – as intended, and to sustain and improve implementation over time
The Hexagon Tool How to cite: Blase, K., Kiser, L. and Van Dyke, M (2013) The Hexagon Tool: Exploring context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina.

The Hexagon Tool
Blase, K., Kiser, L. and Van Dyke, M (2013) The Hexagon Tool: Exploring context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina.

In addition to the hexagon, other useful frameworks for implementation exist. Some are more practical and others are more conceptual. These may link to theories underpinning the practice of implementation of programme strategies, or discuss the idea of values within systems.

However, frameworks only provide some of the knowledge and infrastructure for implementation. They do not take account of the skills, abilities, values and existing experience of “implementers”. All of these can have a significant impact on how a programme or strategy is implemented.Solution and business words jigsaw

Systems change and innovation

Implementation science has previously focused on changing the behaviour of individual practitioners. However, unless you change the understanding of the wider structures and systems, and implement whole system change, you won’t achieve practitioner change.

Alignment within systems, both within organisations in a hierarchical sense, but also across systems in order to create coherence across services, is important. Many service users have experience of receiving support simultaneously from a number of different organisations. Implementation scientists stress that it is important to align funding, outcomes, compliance and overall goals of parallel organisations in order to effectively implement programmes. This can be a major challenge.

One reason why this can be so challenging is the difference in values and experiences of the individual front line workers implementing a new programme on the ground. Teachers have a very different understanding, training and set of experiences relating to children than those of social workers, or those who work in youth criminal justice. The inherent and fundamental philosophical beliefs which drive the practice of different professionals will have an impact on how they implement a programme, regardless of how thorough guidelines are.

This, implementation scientists suggest, needs to be taken account of, and steps taken to try and more closely align the thinking of different professionals and agencies (interagency working) in order to effectively, and coherently implement new programmes.

Evidence is contextual

Implementation science raises some interesting points about how to facilitate change and implement new initiatives. It reminds us that no intervention – no matter how much evidence is produced in support of its effectiveness elsewhere – is guaranteed to be a success. It highlights the often overlooked elements to intervention strategies, such as the need to be context aware, and aware of the values of the people who are implementing the changes, and those affected by the changes.

Finally, it highlights the need to encourage wider structural and systems change, rather than just changing the behaviour of individual practitioners. This is the way to ensure lasting, sustainable and successful implementation of evidence-informed policy interventions and programmes.


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

Are councils embracing an agile future … or is it cost-saving without the transformation?

By Heather Cameron

An increasingly diverse working population means that more people require and expect enhanced flexibility to help them balance their lives at work and at home, manage a range of different caring responsibilities and transition into retirement, for example, by reducing hours or through adaptations to how they work.” (CIPD, 2014)

The needs of the workforce is changing. No longer is nine to five office working the norm as more and more employees expect flexible working environments.

According to the CIPD, these changing needs, combined with the fast pace of economic change, require organisations to adopt more agile working practices. And this applies to both the public and private sectors.

What is agile working?

The concept of agile working refers to a way of working that incorporates time and place flexibility. It enables employees to work where, how and when they choose, subject to business needs, in order to improve work/life balance and maximise productivity. It is a move away from the reliance on the office location towards a culture that incorporates remote working and more dynamic office spaces.

The Agile Future Forum defines agile working practices along four dimensions:

  • Time: when do they work? (e.g. part-time working; staged retirement)
  • Location: where do they work? (e.g. people working across multiple sites)
  • Role: what do they do? (e.g. multi-skilling)
  • Source: who is employed? (e.g. using contractors or temps)

In addition to offering practical solutions to help improve the work-life balance of the workforce, agile working can also provide the opportunity to reduce and control operational costs. One of the biggest costs for any organisation, whether in the private or public sector, is the fixed costs associated with buildings and furniture.

As local government finances continue to be squeezed, councils face an ongoing dilemma of having to try and reduce costs while maintaining service delivery. So perhaps agile working is a way of achieving this.

Cost savings?

 As a recent briefing paper on agile working in the public sector has highlighted, it is no surprise that the public sector estate should be earmarked for cost savings and reform, given its vast scale. The local government estate consists of over 180,000 buildings, with a value of £250 billion and annual running costs of £25 billion.

Council offices are also often housed in old inefficient buildings that are often located in prime real estate sites that could be sold for redevelopment. “They have become valuable assets that are ill-suited to their current purpose.”

And many of these buildings are underutilised. According to the briefing paper, the majority of local government buildings have a desk occupancy rate of 45% and a meeting room occupancy rate of 60% – meaning that there can be as many as 297,000 empty desks on any given day and numerous underutilised meeting and conference rooms.

It is therefore no wonder we have seen a move by councils to introduce agile working in recent years.

Agile working in local government

Earlier this year, it was reported that Angus Council plans to invest £2.2 million in two buildings to promote agile working among its staff. This forms part of the council’s plans to close 32 offices in a bid to save almost £5 million a year from its budget.

Head of technical and property services at Angus said:

“The investment in works and furniture will provide modern office environments to support staff adopting new ways of working aligned with the agile culture, while reducing the council’s existing estate portfolio.”

In 2013 Monmouthshire Council opened a new £6 million headquarters with only 88 desks for 200 staff. The new office was created to help facilitate the council’s agile working policy and reduce costs.

Lambeth Council is moving from 14 operating sites to just 2, with a 10:6 desk ratio. The council’s flexible working strategy aims to help reduce its real estate costs by £4.5 million per year.

It has been argued that the main catalyst for change across councils has been the creation of the government’s One Public Estate initiative, launched in 2013.

Under the initiative, councils in England have freed up land for around 9,000 homes and created 20,000 jobs. It is expected that the councils involved will raise £129 million in capital receipts from land sales and cut running costs by £77 million over 5 years.

Final thoughts

The potential cost savings from agile working would seem undeniable. But does the adoption of agile working in local government represent true transformation?

Of course, it is more difficult to embed a shift in culture change within an organisation than it is to merely convince people that agile working is beneficial. Nevertheless, the success stories from Timewise Councils suggest that transformation is happening.


If you enjoyed reading this post, you might like our previous post on flexible working.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Could electoral reform revitalise democracy? The role of choice and personalisation in voting systems

The EU referendum … the Conservative and Labour Party leadership contests …. ‘voter fatigue’ …. over the last couple of months, politics has been dominating the news.

We’ve written before on this blog about low turnout for elections for the Police and Crime Commissioners, and whether the Swiss style of direct democracy could ever catch on here. What’s clear is that political engagement is lower in the UK than in some other countries. There’s also a breakdown in trust in politicians, often linked back to the reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. And there’s been a dramatic shift in the landscape of party politics and allegiances, as seen in the collapse of Scottish Labour support and the rise of UKIP.

To what extent, though, is the electoral system itself a contributing factor to disengagement? And can electoral reform help reinvigorate democracy?

Multiple voting systems in the UK

Public interest in, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with, voting systems is hard to gauge. In the 2011 UK referendum on changing the voting system for general elections to Alternative Vote, the result was 67.9% against and only 32.1% in favour, on just a 42% turnout. Many people also assume that ‘first past the post’ is still the only electoral system in the UK.

In fact, there are multiple different voting systems within the UK, and people have regularly voted on the same day for elections operating under different systems.

Electoral reform and its impact

A recent event held by the Constitution Unit at UCL explored the character of electoral reforms across Europe and considered the implications within the UK. Reporting back on recently published research focusing on national/state-level electoral systems, Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit, highlighted a number of key findings. Most surprising was that there’s little evidence that electoral reform leads to improved turnout or satisfaction with democracy.

The panel of speakers recognised that discussion of electoral reform can be ‘nerdy’ but it was clear that there are some key questions that tie in to wider debates on citizenship and public engagement:

  • Is voting in elections actually a poor way for the public to express policy preferences?
  • Does highly individualised political consciousness lead to a concern for what candidates can deliver for you personally (or at a local level) rather than big policy issues?
  • Has the collapse of class politics and discrediting of the traditional left resulted in the concept of political identity itself becoming obsolete?
  • And are wider societal shifts — the individual as consumer — responsible for dissatisfaction with processes for political representation?

The importance of choice in democracy

Traditionally, discussion of electoral reform has focused on the distribution of power — the debate between proportional/majoritarian electoral systems. There’s been a shift recently, however, to focusing on the question of the degree to which voters are able to choose among candidates rather than parties.

It seems that as voters disengage with political parties they become more interested in intra-party dimensions. Personalities can become more important than policies.

The shift within wider society to consumerisation is also leading to an inevitable change in people’s views of politics (and politicians). Having a choice between two or three ‘political brands’ (the main parties) doesn’t fit well with the ethos of competition and markets which are now present in other areas of our lives. Voters increasingly expect to be able to influence not just how many seats each party wins, but also who fills those seats. However, the ‘first past the post’ system means that if you support a party, but not your local candidate, you don’t have a means of saying so at the ballot box.

Processes for candidate selection have also been criticised for not doing enough to address the under-representation of certain groups within politics. Last month’s independent Good Parliament report made recommendations for a more representative and inclusive House of Commons. It’s argued that the public perception of parliament as an elite will never change unless candidates reflect the communities they represent.

The Institute for Government also recommended in 2011 that there should be more ‘primary elections’, where candidate selection processes are opened out beyond party members to the wider public. The question of candidate selection (and deselection) is likely to come to the fore again as a result of the current issues within the Labour party, and prominent mayoral elections.

Electoral reform and personalisation is no panacea

Any response to the current disaffection with the political system requires more fundamental reforms to allow the public to engage more fully and thoughtfully in policy debates. We’ve written on this blog about some initiatives which are attempting to do this, such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding regeneration within London and an innovative theatre project which introduces strategic planning to local communities. There’s also great work being done in some areas on participatory budgeting and citizen assemblies.

Small electoral reforms, or changes to institutional arrangements, such as those that followed the MPs’ expenses scandal, can create a ‘good story’ for government in terms of appearing to be modernising, but they rarely stem from strong public demand. It could be time to debunk the “great electoral reform myth” and consider deeper changes to how our public institutions engage with the public.


Panel speakers at the event on 26 July were Dr Alan Renwick, UCL Constitution Unit; Professor Justin Fisher, Brunel University; Darren Hughes, Electoral Reform Society; and Professor Roger Scully, Cardiff University. It was organised by the Constitution Unit at UCL.

The research cited is from the book Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe, by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet.

Introducing 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

Guest blog by April Bowman

Originally from Kansas, USA, April taught elementary school children before coming to Scotland to continue her academic study. She is currently in her final semester of study of the Master’s in Public Policy  programme at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism has been education policy and teaching practice. April joined our Knowledge Exchange team for two weeks in July on a voluntary work experience placement.


What better way for kids to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device? There are some great examples of apps and computer-based programs to help students explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products. I thought it would be useful to to highlight some of these – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look and think about using them in school or at home.

Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

Read some of our other blogs on digital skills:

Members of the Idox Information Service can also read the In Practice research briefing written by April, looking at the teaching of STEM subjects in UK schools for more information on using digital platforms in teaching.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Growing places: community gardens are rising up the policy agenda

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In April, a study by Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) reported a significant increase in community growing between 2010 and 2015. The results of the study found a rise of 79% in the number of sites devoted to community gardens, taking the total to 84, with land coverage rising to 29 hectares.

The increasing popularity of community gardens is also reflected elsewhere in the UK. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) estimates that there are now around 1000 community gardens around the UK.

What are community gardens?

Community gardens are defined by Greenspace Scotland as:

“locally managed pieces of land that are developed in response to and reflect the needs of the communities in which they are based.”

They differ from allotments in that the focus is on communal, rather than individual growing space. Most community gardens concentrate on cultivation of fruit and vegetables, although they may also promote complementary elements, such as recreation, biodiversity and education.

Last year, our Idox Information Service briefing on community growing highlighted a number of these projects, including the Incredible Edible community growing project in West Yorkshire and G3 Growers in Glasgow. Further examples include the Culpeper Community Garden in Islington, north London, and the Grove Community Garden in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in Streatham, south London, a patch of waste ground next to a health centre has been transformed into a community garden by a group of patients with long-term health conditions. The garden is now supplying enough produce to sell fruit and vegetables to patients and visitors at a nearby hospital.

Benefits of Community Gardens

A 2009 report from the FCFCG identified a range of social, economic and environmental benefits stemming from community gardens. These included:

  • social interactions and inclusion
  • healthy eating
  • natural therapy (feelings of relaxation, appreciation, happiness, achievement)
  • skills development, training and development
  • environmental awareness and activities

More recently, a 2015 report on community gardens in Glasgow indicated that participants enjoy physical and mental health benefits, make new friends and develop community empowerment.

In addition, community growth projects have a role to play in the local economy, providing stepping stones to employment and generating income through the sale of fruit and vegetables.

Community gardens: the policy challenges

As the benefits of community gardens have become more apparent, public policymakers have come to view community growing as a vehicle for delivering policy goals in sectors as diverse as health and the environment, business and planning.

In Scotland, a number of community gardens are being supported by funding from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, administered by Keep Scotland Beautiful. Other public funders of community gardens include the Big Lottery Fund and Scottish local authorities.

Earlier this year, research findings highlighted increasing support for community gardens from policymakers in Scotland at national and local levels, and the widening range of funding policy initiatives:

“There is no doubt that national and local government policy agendas are changing in response to the mounting evidence linking urban greenspace with a range of positive health, social, economic and environmental benefits and that increased support will be available for community gardens in Scotland in the future.”

However, the authors also identified a number of challenges facing community growing projects, including planning and legal issues, land availability, funding issues, winning the support of local communities and addressing skills shortages.

Tackling these issues, the authors argued, will need support at local and national levels, but they went on to highlight problems encountered by community gardens in Scotland when applying for grant funding:

“…because the policies relevant to community gardens span such a wide range of concerns across a variety of sectors (including health, land use, social regeneration and the environment) and because funding tends to be located within individual sectors, they often feel pressured to fit in with social policy agendas and associated grant funding criteria which are not entirely suited to their original aims or the needs of their users in order to be eligible for grant money.”

As an example of this, one of the research participants recalled a local health group meeting where the direction of their community garden was pushed from a “therapeutic mental health benefit” agenda to a “back to work” agenda in order to fit in with a recent policy change.

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Looking ahead

It’s likely that prevailing policy will continue to affect the way community growing projects organise and develop. In 2015, the Scottish Parliament approved the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, which includes provisions giving communities the right to take over land in urban and rural areas, enabling, for example, the transformation of waste ground into community garden. And in its 2016 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National Party pledged to work through the Community Empowerment Act to increase access to land for food growing purposes to develop allotments and community gardens.

If community gardens are to grow further, it appears that organisers will have to explore inventive ways of navigating a complex funding landscape, while satisfying the objectives of policymakers at national and local levels.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may be interested in some of our other posts on community development:

The Govanhill Baths: a successful example of community-led regeneration

SURF Awards winners: success stories in Scottish regeneration

The potential of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill to strengthen community planning

Scottish planning reform: new opportunities or more of the same?

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We’re pleased to announce that this year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on Thursday 29 September in Edinburgh, and we already have a great lineup of speakers confirmed.

This event marks 25 years since the first SPEL conference and Idox is proud that it remains the flagship conference in this area, reflecting our commitment to supporting knowledge sharing and excellence within the built environment professions.

The last 12 months have witnessed many developments which impact on the planning system and the conference will provide a space for the planning and environmental law community to discuss and debate these.

Key topics

The major policy development is that we are currently awaiting a White Paper later this year from the Scottish Government in response to the Independent Planning Review report. The Government has already set out some immediate actions and longer-term work plans to be undertaken to create an “ambitious but practical programme of planning reform”.

However this agenda develops, it’s clear that the challenges facing the economy and communities remain – in the words of Kevin Stewart, Minister for Local Government and Housing, this means “supporting economic growth and house-building, whilst protecting and enhancing the quality of life of all our communities.” The SPEL Conference will be addressing these key issues of infrastructure development and housing supply.

Meanwhile the recent confusing messages from the UK Government on the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station have underlined the importance (and controversy) of energy security. The conference will include a discussion of the environmental, economic and moral consequences of Scotland’s energy choices.

The need for continued modernisation and efficiencies will be addressed in a session looking at leadership and smart resourcing. Research from the RTPI at the end of last year found that there’s been nearly a 20% reduction in planning department staff in Scotland since 2010. Gross expenditure in planning authorities has also dropped by £40 million between 2010/11 and 2015/16. Despite these pressures, councils have continued to deliver quality services but there is a very real risk around loss of skills.

As usual we’ll also be reflecting on recent case law and considering how it relates to daily practice. The conference is an excellent opportunity for solicitors and planners to refresh their knowledge of recent changes in planning and environmental law, as well as providing time for quality networking.

Conference programme

The programme features a broad range of speakers, bringing perspectives from the private sector, local government planning, academia and central government to bear on the issues.

Confirmed key speakers include:

  • Tammy Adams, Head of Planning, Homes for Scotland
  • Denis Garrity, Advocate, Terra Firma Chambers
  • John Hamilton, CEO, Winchburgh Developments Ltd
  • Greg Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Urban  Planning, Ulster University
  • Rebecca Lunn, Professor and Head of CGEEG, University of Strathclyde
  • Ross Martin, Chief Executive, Scottish Council for Development and Industry
  • Craig McLaren, Director of Scotland and Ireland, RTPI
  • John McNairney, Chief Planner, Scottish Government
  • Stephen O’Rourke, Advocate, Terra Firma Chambers
  • Sara Thiam, Director, Institution of Civil Engineers

We’re also delighted that James Findlay, QC, will be chairing the conference for us.

If you’re interested in planning or environmental law in Scotland then SPEL Conference 2016 is the perfect chance to hear about the latest developments and network with others.


The 2016 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on 29 September at the COSLA Conference Centre, Edinburgh.

The full conference programme and booking form are available here.

The conference is supported by Terra Firma Chambers.