Can a city ever be truly ‘carbon neutral’?

Manchester Skyline. Image: Ian Carroll (CC BY 2.0)

This guest blog was written by Joe Blakey, PhD Researcher and Sherilyn MacGregor, Reader in Environmental Politics, at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

Upon becoming Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor, Andy Burnham announced his ambition to make the city-region one of the greenest in Europe. In his Mayor’s manifesto, the former MP and Labour leadership candidate, committed to “a new, accelerated ambition for Greater Manchester on the green economy and carbon neutrality”. If achieved, Manchester would be transformed from one-time poster city for Britain’s dirty past to a decarbonised oasis in the post-industrial north-west of England. What it will take to realise this vision was the topic of a “Green Summit” held in Manchester on March 21.

The summit brought together some of the best minds from Greater Manchester’s universities and businesses, local activists and residents to debate how to “achieve carbon neutrality as early as possible”, ideally by 2050. Leading up to the summit, expert workshops and “listening events” were held across the region, in order to inform a forthcoming Green Charter, the plan for how the city will become “carbon neutral”.

We argue that the concept of “carbon neutrality” is a lofty ambition, but it needs unpacking before anyone gets too excited about its potential. The idea that a zero carbon target is the best driver for creating a city-region and a planet that’s inclusive and liveable for all raises important questions.

Understanding carbon

Carbon neutrality, or “zero-carbon”, is a curious term. NASA remarks that “carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilisations – our homes, our means of transport – are built on carbon”. Even our bodies are 18.5% carbon. Ridding our cities of carbon suddenly seems absurd. Removing the “backbone of our life on Earth” is surely not on Burnham’s eco-agenda. So what does “carbon neutral by 2050” actually mean? Understanding a little about carbon footprinting helps to expose the nuances and silences behind the ambition.

Carbon is emitted at various points within the production, transportation and consumption of goods and services, but establishing responsibility for these emissions depends on your standpoint. Is it the consumer, the manufacturer, the haulage firm, the investor, the source country or the destination country? Our actions and impacts do not respect political boundaries.

Governments typically count carbon emissions following guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Taking a “territorially-based” approach, only the direct carbon emissions (and removals) taking place within a certain city or a country are counted, along with those from the production of the energy consumed. “Carbon” stands for a whole raft of greenhouse gases, including CO₂. This approach underpins declarations of successes and failures worldwide, but it’s just one way to allocate carbon emissions. And herein lies the issue.

An alternative “consumption-based” accounting is more often used by environmental NGOs such as the WWF or some parts of the UK government. This approach counts the total emissions from goods and services (including travel) consumed by a person, city or country, regardless of where they occurred. Under consumption-based accounting, eating an imported steak means factoring in shipping emissions, the plastic used in packaging, and the emissions from the cow itself – all of which take place far outside of the typical “footprint”. One recent analysis found a group of large cities across the world emitted 60% more carbon when considered like this.

But will Greater Manchester, the aspiring “Northern Powerhouse”, really want to include emissions from such key drivers of economic growth? The city-region has a busy airport, for instance, that it might be convenient to exclude under “zero carbon”. Greater Manchester’s ambition may be laudable, but the zero-carbon definition risks side-lining much-needed action in other areas.

There is some degree of hope. Greater Manchester is implementing a new standard which extends the IPCC’s approach, also considering emissions from residents’ travel beyond Greater Manchester and waste disposed of beyond the city-region. This is significantly more ambitious than a territorial-based approach. But, even if “zero-carbon” was defined under this approach, there would still be difficult questions as to what extent aviation emissions would be included – if at all – not to mention other consumption-based emissions, such as those from imported food.

Cleaner, greener, and lower carbon

In any case, the city needs environmental policies beyond the focus on becoming “carbon neutral”. Litter is one of the top resident concerns about environmental quality, for instance, while a recent study by MMU’s Gina Cavan found many people in the city have limited access to green and blue spaces. Research by our colleagues found the greatest level of microplastics ever recorded anywhere on the planet in Manchester’s very own River Tame.

No doubt the mayor and his team will be concerned about these other problems too. But the pollution crises and the lack of access to green spaces are questions of environmental injustice, and their root causes will not necessarily be addressed by carbon neutrality. To avoid obscuring other areas of action, it’s vital that claims about a “carbon neutral” future clearly state what they are referring to.

Carbon neutrality doesn’t cover everything – it might only be concerned with decarbonising energy and in-boundary emissions. If Greater Manchester is serious about becoming greener, cleaner and inclusive, then there needs to be accountability for other perspectives on emissions responsibility, including those associated with consumption and aviation.


Joe Blakey is a PhD Researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester; Sherilyn MacGregor is Reader in Environmental Politics at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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The challenge of engaging with marginalised Traveller, Gypsy and Roma communities

In March 2018, a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report found 13 systematic concerns about Traveller accommodation, suggesting that Traveller communities are subject to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality from local authorities and service providers. You do not have to look far to find more research, from across the whole of the UK, which highlights similar challenges for, and attitudes towards Traveller communities. Attainment, school attendance, unemployment and community cohesion are all shown in research as being consistently lower among Traveller communities.

Research from IRISS shows that Traveller communities are subject to regular racial, social and cultural discrimination and feel isolated within a society that they feel does not respect them in the same way as other minority groups. Some even feel that it is more acceptable to make a derogatory comment about a Traveller than someone who is from another ethnic group.

Commentators repeatedly highlight that there is very little knowledge or understanding of nomadic lifestyles, and that this can contribute to the racism, abuse and stigmatisation of Traveller people. However, some projects are trying to address the view of Traveller communities and improve their treatment and engagement with other members of non-Traveller communities.

An erosion of traditional lifestyles and cultures

A lack of flexibility around housing arrangements means that, to a large extent, Traveller families are often forced to choose between either poor accommodation sites which allow them to maintain their traditional way of living, or giving up this traditional lifestyle (which is not just a way of living, but also an entrenched part of their heritage and culture) to live in mainstream traditional social housing. One major criticism of local authority and central government supported services is that they are very inflexible to nomadic living; health, education, housing and employment support are all usually reliant on a fixed address. As a result, third sector organisations, charities and specific engagement bodies usually end up taking the bulk of the pressure and responsibility for supporting Traveller families, or Travellers are left to fend for themselves. This can lead to them becoming isolated or reluctant to engage.

Those who make attempts to assimilate often do so at the cost of their traditional way of life, with some even commenting that there is a level of cultural erosion and almost cleansing, and that Travellers are being forced to choose between suitable accommodation and living standards, and their heritage and traditions.

Challenges span generations, and create entrenched barriers

Many Traveller families have poor education and health experiences and there are multiple barriers to Traveller families accessing these services. In schools, it has been well documented that Traveller children have lower levels of attendance and attainment, with higher levels of exclusion and a higher incidence of bullying, discrimination and racist abuse while at school.

In social work, Traveller children are more likely to be engaged with a social worker and taken into care. It is clear that professionals working within these environments need to be trained to react and respond to the needs of Traveller children in a culturally sensitive way.

Practitioners need to be sensitive, aware and flexible where possible to accommodate needs, but this is not always the case and it can make Traveller communities reluctant to engage directly with local authorities on issues. However, there is a growing body of research which looks at art and culture-centred practice to try and engage Traveller communities with their wider community, and to enlighten other members of the community in a positive way about Traveller culture.

Could art be the bridge to build understanding between communities?

Many Traveller communities do not readily have access to art and do not participate in “cultural activities” like attending the theatre or museums or using libraries. They also don’t have any relationship to most art produced. There is very little Traveller representation in art, music, theatre or museum exhibitions and it can be the case that Travellers feel art and culture in the mainstream is not representative of them or their culture, which can also hinder them from engaging.

However, using art and art-based interventions can help to break down entrenched stereotypes and can create a level playing field for people to participate and contribute, particularly among children who may not be as effective at communicating using words or language.

Engaging young children (and their families) through play and cultural activities can help break down some of the barriers and mistrust that communities feel towards one another. Community engagement initiatives enhance trust and can improve relations, but this must be done in a sensitive and inclusive manner. Traditional crafts and arts are something that can be shared across the whole community, not just within Traveller communities.

Non-Traveller children also are at a cultural disadvantage from not having Traveller communities portrayed in mainstream cultural activities. Greater representation in art, TV and books would help integration, help to break barriers, reduce stereotypes, increase understanding of a unique culture in Britain and (it is hoped) lead to greater integration and less hate crime.

Art also has the potential to be used as a tool to engage adults within the community. Using art as part of consultation exercises can make the process accessible and can allow people to be involved who may not usually contribute, helping them to feel they have had a say in decisions made within their community. Art can also be a useful strategy in community cohesion and neighbourhood building activities, with people able to express their opinions and fears through other mediums such as painting, drawing or acting – although establishing the initial engagement can be challenging.

Final thoughts

Art-based practice can be an accessible way to engage and create a dialogue between communities, and help to build a level of trust between Traveller communities and local services. However the activities must be culturally sensitive, and staff within local services must be willing to be flexible and creative with how they engage if they are to create meaningful relationships with Traveller communities.


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A different perspective: supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

“We need to admit that there is no standard brain” Dr Thomas Armstrong

It is estimated that over 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum and awareness of the concept of ‘neurodiversity’ is rising. It recognises that autism, and other conditions that affect how people learn and process information – such as attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia – are a form of neurological difference, rather than being assumed to be a disability.

However, there remains a significant employment gap – where people on the autistic spectrum are often willing and able to work, but struggle to find and maintain employment.

Employment rates for adults with autism are considerably lower than for other groups. For example, only 32% of adults with autism in the UK are in some kind of paid employment. This compares with about 80% for non-disabled people and 47% for disabled people as a whole.

There are also many people on the autistic spectrum who work, but are struggling to maintain employment or to progress their careers due to discrimination, lack of understanding and lack of effective support.

Barriers to employment

Many autistic people are simply brilliant people – highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented, yet unemployed” James Mahoney, Executive Director and Head of Autism at Work for JPMorgan Chase.

A lack of awareness and understanding means that some employers are fearful of the behaviour traits of people with autism, and the effect of these on their business, resources and other employees. Hiring processes, management practices and workspaces also tend to unconsciously favour ‘neurotypical’ employees.

Research has shown that standard recruitment processes are a key barrier to employment for people on the autistic spectrum.  Processes such as writing a CV, completing an application form, attending an interview, or doing a work-place assessment all rely heavily on social and communication skills. It may be difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to respond to open questions, or to abstract, hypothetical situations. They may be prone to conversational tangents, be overly honest about their weaknesses, or have difficulties in understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact.

‘Good communication skills’ and ‘ability to work as part of a team’ are commonly listed as essential criteria in job descriptions – even though in practice, these skills may not be essential to the role. Thus, those on the autistic spectrum may find themselves ‘screened out’ of selection processes.

The workplace itself can also be challenging for people on the autistic spectrum. Office etiquette, social interaction and the sensory environment (such as sounds, lights, smells, interruptions) may present difficulties. People on the autistic spectrum may also suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem, which can impact upon their working lives.

Thinking differently

“Asperger’s syndrome provides a plus – it makes people more creative. People with it are generally hyper-focused, very persistent workaholics who tend to see things from detail to global rather than looking at the bigger picture first and then working backwards, as most people do.”  Professor Michael Fitzgerald, Trinity College Dublin

Despite the challenges that they may face, research has shown that neurodivergent individuals also demonstrate a number of strengths of particular relevance to employment.

People on the autistic spectrum are often good problem solvers and innovative thinkers, with particular strengths in analytical thinking, memory, pattern recognition, and attention to detail. Some often have an exceptional ability to assimilate and retain detailed information, which can result in highly specific interests and technical abilities in specific areas of work.

Likewise, individuals with ADHD can have strong visual spatial reasoning and creative thinking abilities, and can be hyper-focused, passionate and courageous. Indeed, many of the world’s top entrepreneurs – including Sir Richard Branson – have ADHD.

As such, forward-thinking employers are beginning to recognise that they are missing out on a large pool of potential talent. Large-scale corporations like Microsoft, JPMorgan, EY, SAP and Ford have all recently instigated neurodiversity initiatives. There has also been an increase in the number of small companies that employ almost exclusively autistic people – such as IT and compliance consulting business Auticon – and specialist employment agencies – such as Specialisterne – that help match autistic candidates with employers looking for specialist technical skills.

What can employers do?

Traditional workplaces are built to suit “neurotypical” people. However, employees who fall slightly outside the range of what is considered typical often have valuable skills that employers need, such as lateral thinking or innovative problem-solving. It’s necessary to make adjustments for people on an individual basis to ensure they can perform their best in their role.” Ray Coyle, UK CEO of Auticon

There are a number of things that employers can do to help support employees with autism in the workplace. Many of these are low-cost and easy to implement, and have the potential to benefit all employees. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently published guidance for employers on becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ – covering areas such as recruitment, induction, management and provision of on-the-job support for neurodivergent employees.

They recommend considering alternatives to recruitment interviews that focus on the ability to perform the job role to ensure that organisations are not unintentionally screening out neurodivergent individuals. These may include work trials, work samples, practical assessments, and mini apprenticeships. They also suggest providing candidates with detailed information about what to expect, being clear about the purpose of assessments and being aware of the bias of ‘first impressions’ and the limits of interviews to judge on-the-job performance.

In the workplace, suitable adaptations may include enabling employees who are disturbed by open-plan offices to wear earphones or face a wall, or to work from home where possible. Other adaptations may include the provision of formal or informal coaching or mentoring, regular breaks and access to flexitime, training and support for managers and colleagues, access to quiet spaces, flexibility regarding communication preferences, and clarification of any ‘unwritten’ organisational rules or office etiquette.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response. What is key is that the support provided is both personalised to suit the needs of the individual employee, and sustained over time. It is also important that a culture is fostered where it is easy for employees to disclose their condition, to be open to suggestions for adaptations that suit each individual’s needs, and to raise wider awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among employees.

Neurodiversity smart

Making reasonable adjustments is a cost-effective benefit to society; we also have a moral and ethical duty to act inclusively. We could view the pool of potential employees with neurodiverse conditions as untapped talent, rather than an employment burdenBritish Psychological Society, 2017

The UK government has also committed to halving the disability employment gap by 2020. In order to achieve this, the number of autistic people in employment will have to double. Employers also have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

However, becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ is not just a legal or moral obligation – it is also essential if organisations are to harness the skills of this significant pool of untapped talent.


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 article on ‘Girls with autism‘.

Released with nowhere to go: housing solutions for prisoners

It has been widely argued that securing adequate housing for ex-offenders reduces rates of recidivism. However, it is not uncommon for a person to be released from prison with nowhere to live and there have been criticisms over the statutory support available for prison leavers, and the lack of housing options available on release.

Being homeless on release from prison can lead to a downward spiral, re-offending and more prison time, incurring substantial social and economic costs for all concerned. The annual cost of re-offending to the economy in the UK has been estimated at between £9.5 and £13 billion.

Housing linked to re-offending

Various studies have highlighted the link between housing and recidivism and the importance of housing support for rehabilitation.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) back in 1996 highlighted that ex-prisoners are more likely to re-offend if they do not find satisfactory accommodation on release – two-thirds of ex-prisoners with no satisfactory accommodation re-offended within 12 months of release, while just a quarter of those with good accommodation did so.

The Social Exclusion Unit highlighted in a 2002 study that housing was one of the factors that had a “huge impact” on re-offending and that having stable accommodation reduces the risk of re-offending by a fifth.

A report published in 2012, found that three-fifths (60%) of prisoners believed that having a place to live was important in stopping them from re-offending in the future. It also found that 15% of people in prison were homeless prior to custody. More than three-quarters of prisoners (79%) who reported being homeless before custody were re-convicted in the first year after release, compared with less than half (47%) of those who did not report being homeless before custody.

The Howard League of Penal Reform has highlighted that a third of people leaving prison say they have nowhere to go. If those on remand are included, it is estimated that this could represent up to 50,000 people annually.

Further, the rough sleeping in London report (CHAIN) found that 32% of people seen rough sleeping in 2015/16 had experience of prison, indicating that a significant number hidden homeless are ex-offenders.

Such statistics suggest a clear link between housing and re-offending. It has even been suggested that ex-prisoners have intentionally re-offended to avoid homelessness.

 ‘Inadequate’ housing support

The JRF report found that the general level of housing support received by prisoners was ‘inadequate’.

Worryingly, 15 years after this report, Barnardo’s highlighted the need for improved support for young ex-offenders as it found children as young as 13 were being released from custody without a safe place to live. Barnardo’s argued that supported accommodation on release from custody could produce savings of more than £67,000 per individual over a three-year period.

A review of probation services carried out in 2014 also criticised the system, finding that:

“contact between offenders and offender supervisors or managers varied considerably and even where there was good contact, this had little impact on accommodation and ETE [employment, training and education] outcomes at the point of release, although contacts were more effective post-release. Sentence planning and oversight were weak and resettlement work in prisons was insufficiently informed.”

The Public Accounts Committee has more recently noted that “the offender housing problem is deteriorating”, despite probation reforms. And Crisis has also raised concern about the lack of financial or practical support to find accommodation for those leaving prison.

Current action and the Homelessness Reduction Act

Most prisons have a housing and resettlement service called ‘through the gate’, introduced by the government in 2015. However, early reports on these services have not been hopeful, described as “having a negligible impact on reducing prisoner re-offending rates, two years after its introduction.”

Local authorities also have a statutory duty to assist homeless and vulnerable ex-offenders in some circumstances, and if not entitled to social housing, they must provide advice to ex-offenders at risk of homelessness. This duty has been strengthened by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in England, which has just come into force. The Act puts an obligation on prison or probation services to notify a local authority if they believe a person to be at risk of homelessness.

Crisis has described the Act as “the most significant change to the homelessness legislation in 40 years”.

In Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service and partners launched the Sustainable Housing on Release for Everyone (SHORE) standards in December 2017. These standards represent a good example of preventative measures, which aim ‘to ensure that the housing needs of individuals in prison are handled at an early stage, in a consistent way across Scotland, regardless of where they come from, their housing status and how long they have been in prison or young offenders’ institution’.

Will it make a difference?

It is too early to tell whether these actions will have the desired impact but here’s hoping they will be more effective than previous reforms. It has been suggested that such provisions will go some way to help create the culture change needed but that it is not enough.

The evidence points to the need for greater collaboration and partnership working across all sectors.

With the shortage in housing, austerity, and increasing numbers of homeless people among the whole population, it will certainly be no mean feat.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

“This garden has been almost medicinal to me”: community gardens are cultivating the land and empowering communities

In 2016, we reported on the renaissance of community growing projects across Scotland. Since then, interest and participation in community gardens has continued to grow. London, Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow have seen urban food growing projects expand and flourish. Elsewhere, cities such as Detroit, Copenhagen, Sydney and Barcelona have experienced their own community garden revolutions.

Increasing concerns about the origins of food, and moves towards healthier eating have been the driving forces behind the development of community growing projects. But this trend has as much to do with connecting communities and empowering individuals as it has with growing fresh and healthy food. Two recent studies have highlighted the many benefits of community growing projects.

Community growing: a tale of two cities

Glasgow

Earlier this year, an article in Work, Employment and Society focused on the work being done in community gardens in Glasgow. The authors selected 16 gardens across the city to explore the potential of community growing projects for generating new forms of social relations around work.

Apart from the food produced by the gardens, the study identified further benefits arising from these projects, including:

  • Recovery of derelict space for community use and recovering places for local people
  • Improving recreational, occupational, employment and training opportunities
  • Providing therapeutic spaces to recover from the stresses of daily life
  • Recognition and celebration of different food cultures
  • Connecting with nature
  • Engaging with other stakeholders, such as local authorities and NHS bodies

The authors of the study also identified tensions that can arise between community gardening groups, with their “progressive sense of collective space” and local authorities’ “commercialized property-based narrative”.

However, the study concluded that “…community growing projects lead to important forms of social empowerment for individuals, while at the same time helping to re-energise communities in some of the city’s most deprived areas.”

 Edinburgh

The findings from the Glasgow research were echoed in a further study focusing on Scotland’s capital city. Edinburgh now has more than 50 community gardens which have been developed by grassroots groups, community organisations, the NHS and third sector charities.

The research, published in January, was conducted in three community gardens in East Edinburgh:

As in Glasgow, the authors found that community gardens are not only places for cultivation of the land, but can also address wider social issues, such as social bonding, skills development and health. One Lochend participant highlighted the health-giving properties of community gardens:

“A big part of what motivates the garden is mental health. It is nice for people to get out of their houses and spend time in the garden, working on something. It is quite mindful to get out and be productive…this garden has been almost medicinal to me.”

There were also strong feelings among the Edinburgh community garden participants about the connections between the right to grow food and the right to reclaim unused or waste common land. The study’s authors noted that community gardens are often seen by councils and governments as barriers to developing housing and market revenue. The common feeling in community gardening projects is that, given the chance, they can put the land to better use.

Climate Challenge Fund

Our 2014 blog post raised questions about the challenges facing community gardens, such as planning and legal issues, land availability, funding, winning the support of local communities and addressing skills shortages. Two years on, those challenges remain.

However, there have also been positive developments that should help to advance the cause of community growing projects.

Since 2008, the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund has been providing support to communities. Examples include South Seeds, a community-led organisation in the south of Glasgow which has obtained funding for a community garden located on a disused tennis court, and Tayport Community Garden, where experienced gardeners provide support to people growing their own food. At the inaugural CCF Awards in 2017, Tayport Community Garden won the Food Category Award.

Community Empowerment Act

In 2015, the Scottish Parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act, which aims to help communities to do more for themselves and have more say in decisions that affect them.

The Act includes a section requiring every Scottish local authority to publish a food growing strategy to identify land that may be used for individual or community growing, and to describe how the authority intends to increase provision for community growing, especially in disadvantaged areas.

A number of councils have already made a start on their food growing strategies, including Clackmannanshire, East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Growing forward

Across Scotland – and beyond – communities are demonstrating the enormous potential of collaborative growing projects. As the Glasgow study authors conclude: “…community gardens grow much more than food, they grow community.”

Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Idox sponsors RTPI Awards for Research Excellence in 2018

Idox is pleased once again to be supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for 2018.

The awards recognise and promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools, and planning consultancies, in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and internationally.

The 2018 Awards are now open for entries and will close on Friday 18th May.

About the Awards

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are intended to:

  • recognise the best spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools;
  • highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice;
  • recognise the valuable contribution of planning consultancies to planning research; and
  • promote planning research generally.

The five award categories are:

  • Academic Award
  • Early Career Researcher Award
  • Student Award
  • Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement
  • Planning Consultancy Award

Idox: supporting the planning profession

As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions to local authorities, Idox actively engages with issues affecting the planning profession. And here at the Idox Information Service, we see our core mission as improving decision making in public policy by improving access to research and evidence.

This is the fourth time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence.

“Idox is proud, once again, to be a sponsor of the RTPI’s Awards for Research Excellence. The awards have gone from strength to strength and highlight how, now more than ever, research has a vital role in providing the insights that are needed to create successful, sustainable places.”

Previous winners

The winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement Award was Dr Paul Cowie from Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Paul went on to write a guest blog post for us describing his innovative project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

Last year the award-winning research covered a diverse range of topics from a study in London’s Tech City looking at the spatial conditions that mediate and support the operation of digital industries in inner-city locations, to research into commuter flows in the United States to aid identification of large-scale “megaregions”. Meanwhile, Lichfields won the Planning Consultancy Award for a study analysing the lead-in times, planning period and delivery phases of large-scale housing sites.


In 2018, Idox is pleased once again to be sponsoring the Student, Wider Engagement and Planning Consultancy awards.

Further details on the five award categories, application guidance and entry forms, are available from the RTPI here. The closing date for applications to the awards is Friday 18 May 2018.

A Scottish National Investment Bank: the solution to growing Scotland’s economy?

By Steven McGinty

On 28 February, the Scottish Government’s ambition to establish a Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB) moved one step closer, following the publication of an implementation plan.

Welcoming the plan, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (who announced the policy last September) set out why she believed the time was right for a Scottish National investment bank. She explained:

“To realise our ambitions for Scotland’s economy, innovative companies need access to strategic, patient finance to grow and thrive, while the business environment must encourage our young people to be the entrepreneurs of the future.”

What does the plan say?

The plan – developed by Benny Higgins, CEO of Tesco Bank – provides recommendations for the governance, operating model, and financing of the new bank. It proposes that the new financial institution should:

  • be publicly-owned and focused on creating inclusive growth
  • operate in an ethical and transparent way
  • be supported by £2 billion of capital over the first 10 years
  • work with private investors, not crowd them out
  • help creative new markets for private investment
  • provide investment for smaller and larger projects
  • become self-sufficient in the long-term, including raising its own capital to fund investments

Why a publicly owned bank?

The idea has circulated in British politics for a number of years, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis. In 2010, Lord Mandelson – then Secretary of State – seemed keen on the idea, even going so far as having fact finding lunches with representatives from the KfW banking group, Germany’s state-owned bank. In 2017, the UK Labour party manifesto included a proposal to establish a National Investment Bank and a network of regional development banks.

In Scotland, environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth have been working with New Economics Foundation and Common Weal to build a case for a national investment bank. In their 2016 report ‘Banking for the Common Good’, the group argued that the UK banking system is not fit for purpose, highlighting that over two million people in the UK don’t have a bank account and that 1,500 communities have no access to banking services. They also noted that small businesses struggled to access finance, particularly in Scotland.

The plan has also been influenced by the work of University College London professor Marian Mazzucato – a member of the Scottish Government’s council of economic advisers. At the launch, she explained:

Innovation requires patient strategic finance, and there is simply not much of that in the UK. Yet around the world state investment banks are taking centre stage in providing such finance for key social and environmental challenges of the 21st century.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) have also published research on the rationale for publicly owned banks. This includes work by Nobel Prize winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz, who suggests state banks can help overcome market failures by promoting investments which lead to important social benefits. In addition, the report notes that state banks have the ability to invest resources in strategically important areas which the private sector has been unwilling to invest in. Providing this capital can be crucial for developing innovative technologies, helping them to emerge as profitable industries, and eventually creating economic growth.

Opposition to a Scottish National Investment Bank

In the Scottish Parliament, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, claimed that the bank was just a re-announcement of previous policies, highlighting that there is already a Scottish Investment Bank, which sits within Scottish Enterprise.

However, this was robustly refuted by the First Minister, who argued that the new Scottish National Investment Bank was on a different scale and of a different nature to previous programmes.

National investment banks in practice

Germany – Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW)

The KfW is owned jointly by the German government (80%) and German states (20%). The bank raises about €60-70 billion each year through issuing bonds and due to its’ public status is able to provide loans at better rates than commercial banks. It has interests in a wide range of areas, from funding small and medium sized enterprises looking to export abroad, to cities looking to invest in new road infrastructure.

The bank has won a number of awards including ‘World’s Safest Bank 2016’ and ‘Best Responsible Investor 2016’.

Nordic Investment Bank (NIB)

The NIB was formed in the mid-1970s by five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. By 2015 the bank had grown to include three new members: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Based in Helsinki, its mission is to create a ‘prosperous and competitive Nordic-Baltic region’. This is achieved through funding projects that improve infrastructure, increase market efficiency, and support the development of new technologies.

In 2016, €3,373 million was disbursed in loans, with the largest share of lending going to local governments to fund wastewater systems, electricity transmission, and heat generation projects.

Final thoughts

Since the 2008 financial collapse, a number of political leaders have supported a national investment bank. However, what really matters is that any new bank – whether public or shareholder owned – is able to meet key economic goals, including increasing finance for small and medium sized businesses and supporting the technologies of the future.


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Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

School children raising hands. View from behind.

We looked at the issue of social mobility and education last October, highlighting that although there has been continued investment by successive governments, the rate of progress is slow:

“it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.”

Since then, it seems the situation surrounding social mobility has become even more precarious.

Key priority?

The issue of social mobility is an historic one and it is claimed to be a key priority for the current government, which is working towards addressing the issue through education via its recently published national plan and the work of the Opportunity Areas programme.

However, in December all four board members of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) resigned over the government’s lack of progress on social justice, and in January, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who played a key role in both the Opportunity Areas programme and social mobility action plan, also resigned.

The resignation letter of the Chair of the SMC, Alan Milburn, praised Justine Greening for having “shown a deep commitment to the issue”, but noted that “it has become obvious the government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support.”

The last publication of the SMC, published in November, highlighted the existence of “a stark social mobility postcode lottery” in Britain and substantial inequalities in educational attainment linked to social disadvantage and place. The derailment of the SMC and subsequent loss of an education secretary openly committed to the issue, can therefore only be cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the government continues to stress its ambition of ‘no community left behind’, with a continued focus on initiatives such as Opportunity Areas.

Opportunity Areas

Opportunity Areas are part of the government’s national plan for dealing with social mobility through education.

The programme targets £72 million of funding at 12 areas identified as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility. The first six areas were announced in October 2016, with a further six announced in January 2017. The aim is to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

The 12 areas will also have priority access to other government support including the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund worth £75 million, focused on supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging areas to develop. And a new £3.5 million programme will support the creation of a research school for each opportunity area.

While the programme has been welcomed by many, it has also been criticised.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has recognised it as a ‘good start’, but highlights that there are numerous other areas across the country that are not covered by the programme where social mobility is stagnating or even getting worse. It also suggests that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

Concerns have also been raised over challenges facing the programme, which included capacity, including the risk of overloading the system.

Other concerns that have been recently cited have included school funding cuts, which could effectively cancel out the programme’s funding for some, and the criteria used to select areas, which could be an issue while there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between social mobility and disadvantage.

Education Datalab has argued that targeting through geography alone is inadequate and that both area-based and individual focused policies are needed.

Way forward

Much of the commentary on the social mobility issue has hinted at the need for a national, rather than or in addition to  a local focus. Indeed, the SMC recognised the need for a more wide-ranging government response in its assessment of policies on social mobility published last year.

And in its new report out last week, the Education Select Committee called for greater powers and resources for the SMC to enable it to tackle social injustices effectively. It also suggests, based on evidence from the former members of the SMC, that the government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre to ensure all departments are aiming in the same direction.

The government’s plan for addressing social mobility through education clearly acknowledges the scale of the challenge:

“this plan is only an important step in a long-term process to improve social mobility and spread equality of opportunity… To achieve this will take time, it will take an incredible amount of determination and focus, and it will take an unprecedented partnership. But, together, it is possible.”

But if the government fails to adopt a more wide-ranging response to promoting social mobility, as so many have advocated, perhaps it will take even longer to achieve than previously estimated.


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Youth participation and citizenship: hearing young people’s voices in North Ayrshire

2018 is the year of young people in Scotland. The idea is to inspire Scotland through its young people, celebrating their achievements, valuing their contribution to communities and creating new opportunities for them to take the lead.

Research published by the Scottish Government in 2018, Young people’s participation in decision making in Scotland: attitudes and perceptions showed that while many thought “adults” were good at listening to their views, many other barriers to having their views and opinions heard existed for young people. One of the main challenges was a feeling that young people’s views are discarded because “‘it doesn’t fit with what they (adults) want to hear”.

Hearing young people’s voices

The North Ayrshire Youth Participation and Citizenship strategy is a “unique and transferable” youth-friendly children’s rights engagement process, which informs local policy, corporate priorities and strengthens the voices of young people in local communities.

The framework “values and respects” youth participation as fundamental in the ongoing work to enable all aspects of community life to prosper. The programme of youth engagement undertaken at North Ayrshire saw them awarded a COSLA Gold award in a ceremony at the end of 2017.

The Youth Participation and Citizenship strategy sets out how young people across North Ayrshire can play an active role in their schools and communities. The framework encourages and supports the engagement and participation of young people across a range of areas including:

  • YouthBank YouthBank Scotland is a grant making and empowerment initiative run by young people for young people. It builds on young people’s skills and experiences to enable them to give cash for action, funding young people’s ideas for the benefit of the wider community.
  • Participatory budgeting initiatives  where young people can help to decide on funding applications for local projects.
  • Local participation initiatives – including Youth Forums, Pupil Councils, North Ayrshire Youth Council, Youth Groups, Eco Committees, Sports Leadership and Peer Education schemes.
  • National participation initiatives  the Scottish Youth Parliament, British Youth Council and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) National Youth Council.

In December 2017, North Ayrshire launched its Year of Young People 2018 plan. Activities include ‘Joint Cabinet Live’ which will bring together young people from all over North Ayrshire via a live video link, to interact with the Council’s Cabinet Members on the issues faced by young people living in the area.

Co-production and giving young people a choice

There is a strong focus on co-production, facilitating decisions to be made with, not to young people. There is also an understanding that engaging young people in all aspects of community life, both at a social and an administrative level can have positive consequences for the whole community, not just for the young people who participate.

The council engages with young people to ensure that they know their voices are heard and that council policy reflects their needs and aspirations for the future. It builds the skills and confidence of young people who have the opportunity to participate and can strengthen community engagement and cohesion as more people become involved.

As part of the North Ayrshire participatory budgeting initiative, funding was allocated to youth projects across North Ayrshire, and young people given the opportunity to vote for where they thought the money should be spent. Each young Scot in North Ayrshire, was able to vote for three projects they thought would most benefit from receiving funding (projects varied depending on which North Ayrshire locality they lived in, but were all organised either by or for the benefit of young people in the region). They were able to vote in school, as well as in colleges, local youth clubs, or from home using their Young Scot card number to go online and register their choices. The results were announced on 9 February 2018 and saw funding allocated according to the votes of young people, with almost 7000 young people taking part, almost 50% of those eligible.

Award winning approach

In 2017, the North Ayrshire youth services team were awarded the COSLA gold award for their efforts. The award recognised the work of  the Youth Services team in creating a culture of participation, which allows young people to have a real impact in shaping the services the Council delivers. For example, the Council operates a joint Youth Cabinet, which allows young people to work alongside Elected Members and be directly involved in the decision-making process.

North Ayrshire’s engagement approach has been seen as a blueprint for engagement across the community within towns and cities across Scotland. Three months into the “Year of Young People”, other local authorities are being encouraged to follow suit and rethink how they engage and use the voices and opinions of young people within their communities to support inclusive decision making.

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