Is there any value in preserving our built heritage?

By Alan Gillies

Concerns that Edinburgh may lose its World Heritage Site (WHS) status hit the headlines in October, as a team from the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, UNESCO’s official adviser on cultural World Heritage Sites, arrived in the Scottish capital for a visit.

Two controversial planning applications for luxury hotels in the city were the focus of attention – the conversion of the former Royal High School (at one time the planned home of the new Scottish Parliament); and the redevelopment of the 1970s St James shopping centre.

The hotel on the St James site, with its ‘spiralling ribbon’ design, was approved by the council’s planning committee in August against the recommendation of council planning officers. The Old Royal High School application is yet to be decided, but is reported to have attracted over 2000 objections via the council’s e-planning portal. Historic Environment Scotland, statutory consultee for planning applications, has also lodged its official objection to the Royal High School scheme.

Although there is uncertainty over whether Edinburgh’s World Heritage status is genuinely under threat, the controversy has highlighted an important issue for planners and city policy makers everywhere. What is the value of conserving the built heritage of a place?

The benefits of World Heritage Site status

In terms of the World Heritage status itself, there are doubts over its benefits for sites like Edinburgh that are already well-known and established tourist destinations. According to Aylin Orbasli, Oxford Brookes University, “This is partly because the heritage tourism map of the UK is already drawn. Bath, Edinburgh, York and Oxford are all popular tourist attractions regardless of whether they are World Heritage Sites or not (Bath and Edinburgh are, York and Oxford are not).

UNESCO itself acknowledges that less well-known UK sites “potentially gain more” than those famous prior to UNESCO designation. As an example of the benefits for smaller sites, it highlights the Cornish Mining WHS, whose annual income has increased by 100% since gaining World Heritage status.

Even for more established sites, UNESCO argues that money invested in conservation by authorities in connection with World Heritage status encourages private sector investment. Using the Edinburgh World Heritage Site as an example, it reports that £414,246 in public grants for building conservation leveraged in additional funding from private sources of over £1.9 million in 2011-12. The most recent figures  for 2013-14 from Edinburgh World Heritage still show that every £1 of public spending leveraged in about £5 from other sources, albeit on a lower level of spend – just under £180,000 in public grants resulting in a total spend of £971,563 on conservation.

Are there drawbacks to WHS status?

A 2010 Oxford Brooked University study of Bath World Heritage Site commented on the planning and development pressures created by the status, including as an example the city’s controversial redevelopment of another 1970s shopping centre (Southgate).

The study found that the city’s WHS status “places additional responsibilities on the local council that are beyond its normal duties”, incurring costs that have to be met by the council itself. It concluded that “Bath does not gain any discernible additional economic benefit from being a WHS”. However the report does suggest that the status had enabled better preservation, stricter development control, attention to detail and investment in the public realm that may not otherwise have been as rigorous.

Wider benefits of the built heritage

Studies of the value of the built heritage more generally have been more consistently positive.

English Heritage’s most recent estimate is that built heritage tourism contributed £5.1bn in the UK in 2011, and that, after including indirect and induced effects, the total economic impacts of built heritage tourism included 393,000 jobs and £14.0bn of economic output.

From a business location perspective, the popularity of historic areas has been highlighted by research for the Heritage Lottery Fund, particularly for those in “the most highly productive parts of the economy” – professional services and the creative and cultural sector. It also found that the ‘heritage premium’ associated with the occupation of these listed buildings (the extra gross value added (GVA) they generate over and above the amount generated by businesses in non-listed buildings) is £13,000 per business per year.

Social and community benefits

There are also non-financial benefits. A study by Newcastle University in 2009 found “the first robust evidence” that living in more historic built environments is linked to a stronger sense of place, and that interest in historic built environments is also linked with higher levels of social capital.

The value people place on historic environments has been further shown in a study by researchers at the LSE, which found that house prices in conservation areas averaged around nine per cent higher than other areas. From a planning perspective, this study was also interesting in that it suggested that conservation areas were actually a popular planning policy both among planners and among the public. Planning officers appreciated the heightened ability to push for high quality new build in designated areas. And, surprisingly, home owners in the conservation areas who had applied for permission were more likely to have positive attitudes toward planning controls than those who had not applied. Perhaps this indicates that the perception of how restrictive planning controls are in conservation areas is not borne out in practice?

Heritage and city development

Of course the danger to be avoided is the temptation to regard historic areas as something to be ‘pickled in aspic’. Cities are living, changing places and the aim of designations such as World Heritage Site and conservation area is not to prevent development.

In fact the main objectors to the two planning cases in question in Edinburgh are not against the building of the hotels as such, but are based on certain specific design grounds. In the St James case, objections were over choice of materials and the effect of a height increase on the skyline; and in the case of the Royal High School, Historic Environment Scotland has objected over the scale of the proposed hotel, which would “dominate and overwhelm” the existing building.

Whatever the outcome of the current planning cases in Edinburgh, and the questions over the city’s World Heritage status, the available evidence does indicate that the built heritage provides significant benefits for cities. The challenge for planners is to find the right balance between conserving the historic nature of such sites but at the same time allowing them to continue to develop to meet the needs of current and future generations. As it says in the Scottish Government’s historic environment strategy, the historic environment should be “cared for and protected, enjoyed and enhanced.”


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on planning and development. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

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

Further reading:

Can cities exploit, conserve & promote their historic environment?

Values and benefits of heritage

Our place in time: the historic environment strategy for Scotland

The economic impact of the UK heritage tourism economy

Heritage works: the use of historic buildings in regeneration – a toolkit of good practice

The economics of uniqueness: investing in historic city cores and cultural heritage assets for sustainable development

The costs and benefits of World Heritage Site status in the UK

Dementia’s impact on those who care

Old man

By Alan Gillies

Recent research has suggested that the rate of growth in the prevalence of dementia may be levelling out as the general health of the population increases. While such findings are encouraging, commentators have pointed out that increasing rates of obesity and diabetes, as well as the fact that people are living longer, means they have to be treated with caution.

Whether we face a continuing increase, a stabilisation or a decline in dementia, for those who are affected it will continue to have a devastating impact. And this includes not just the person with dementia, but also their loved ones and those who care for them.

A recent enquiry to our Ask a Researcher service asked for our help on this very question. As a social worker needing to understand the broader impacts of the disease on the family in order to be to provide appropriate help and support, the enquirer came to us looking for the available research evidence on the impacts of dementia on those caring for them. Our researcher was able to provide a comprehensive roundup of the current literature, highlighting the variety of issues facing carers of those with dementia.

Carers’ working lives

Not all the issues covered were ones that might be immediately obvious, like the practicalities of caring and the emotional impact of seeing a loved one affected. For example, one piece of research we were able to flag up examined the impact on carers’ working lives and workplace relationships.

Over half of respondents to a survey (53%) said that their work had been negatively affected due to their caring responsibilities. The survey highlighted the pressure on those in the prime of their working life, most often women, who are combining care for an older relative, often at a distance, with a range of other family responsibilities.

Minority ethnic carers

We also highlighted research on the way dementia can affect different sectors of the population. One recent study we identified, examined how the migration experiences and life histories of Sikhs living in Wolverhampton impacted on their experiences of caring for a family member with dementia and the barriers to accessing services.

It found that, rather than cultural differences, it was migrants’ experiences and perceptions of social exclusion, their perceived and actual social position as migrants, that affected the ways in which they accessed services.

Communicating with family members who have dementia

As well as drawing together a range of research on carers’ experiences and difficulties, we were able to include examples of initiatives, such as Talking Mats, which can help to improve the experience of caring for a loved one with dementia.

Talking Mats are a simple communication tool, developed at the University of Stirling, to help people with communication difficulties to express their views. It uses a simple system of picture symbols that allow people to indicate their feelings about various options relating to a topic.

Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looked at their use for people with dementia and their family carers. It found that, unexpectedly, although the people with dementia and the family carers both felt more involved in discussions using Talking Mats, the increased feeling of involvement was significantly higher for the carers. Carers repeatedly reported feeling ‘listened to’ by the person with dementia and felt that their loved one could actually ‘see’ their point of view. It found that many family carers said they often choose not to say something that is going to inflame a situation, so instead they say nothing at all. Whereas the Talking Mats tool allowed them time and space to have their say, and helped to organise and structure their conversation with the person with dementia for whom they cared.

Our response to the enquiry provided our member with a speedy and concise roundup of the currently available literature on the issues and difficulties facing those who provide vital care for people with dementia.

Our popular Ask a Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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

Place-based approaches to service delivery


Manchester Town Hall: (Photograph, James Carson)

By Alan Gillies

A recent enquirer to our popular Ask a Researcher service sought our help to identify the available research on the concept of place-based or whole-place working.

Place-based approaches have been promoted through, for example, the previous UK government’s whole place community budgets. And in the Scottish context, the 2011 Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services recommended a place-based, or ‘total place’ approach in order to improve local services and break down institutional silos.

In keeping with its focus on localism, the UK government also piloted a neighbourhood-level version – ‘complementary and integral to the concept of Whole Place community budgets’ – and in April 2014 granted an extra £4.3m of investment to ensuring the model reached 100 new local areas through the Our Place programme.

Principles of place-based or whole-place working

The principles underpinning this model of collaborative place leadership have been identified by the Local Government Association as:

  • building services around people and communities;
  • removing barriers to better outcomes and reduced costs through integrated working across agencies;
  • involving the business and voluntary sectors as equal partners;
  • collaborating to put together a workable whole public sector approach, joint responsibility and shared leadership;
  • local innovation and co-design with central government departments;
  • local delivery and investment mechanisms tailored to local needs and circumstances.


The financial savings of such an approach could be significant. In January 2013, a report by Ernst & Young estimated that community budgets in England could deliver a net benefit of between £9.4 and £20.6bn over five years.

In looking at the costs and benefits of the whole place pilots in England in 2013, the NAO warned however that previous attempts such as local-area agreements, multi-area agreements and Total Place “did not lead to widespread or fundamental changes in local public services, or in the relationship between central and local government”.

But as financial pressure on public finances increased, there was even greater incentive than before to assess whether integrated whole-place approaches could help deliver services within increasingly tight budgets. A major driver of the process was therefore to maintain services while making savings.

The potential for place-based or whole-place policies to deliver financial savings does seem to be backed by the available evidence.

However, Localis, as recently as March 2015, has suggested that there is a sense across local government that Whitehall is unwilling to devolve the powers and funds necessary to let whole-place community budgets become a truly successful alternative means of delivering public services. The community budget pilots themselves ‘consistently pointed out that to deliver change on the scale they envisage there has to be change not only at a local level but also in Whitehall.’ (Ernst & Young, 2013)

Current government policy

The current government’s policy of devolution deals with certain areas has been seen as a way of realising the potential of place-based working. The Core Cities Group has called on the government to go further though. It wants the government to undertake a ‘place-based’ comprehensive spending review, looking at the total public resources deployed across a city or city region. It argues that without a similar place-based approach “within Whitehall, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay”, to join up the way different departments work with local agencies and cities, “we will not see the changes people want, need and deserve, in their lives and their cities”.

Local government lessons

In an interesting exercise, the New Local Government Network brought together local government chief executives to explore how place-based, integrated public services could deliver budget reductions and better outcomes for people in a notional ‘Newtown’.

The main learning points identified it its 2014 report were:

  • Working towards outcomes for place requires a different way of thinking and is an incredibly hard thing to do, particularly in relation to prevention, commissioning for outcomes and joining together what different sections of the public sector are doing to deliver outcomes for place.
  • Groups found it tough to move beyond current services and ways of working to develop new approaches to deliver outcomes. Thinking tended to involve ‘less of the same’ or different delivery bodies, rather than whole-scale public service reform.
  • There are a huge number of choices that need to be made and a vast range of stakeholder interactions required, yet few localities have the capacity available to complete this unaided.
  • Few areas have the practical experience to embed customer journey mapping into place based design principles. Perhaps worryingly, the report noted that groups found it difficult to put citizens at the centre of their plans for reform.
  • Despite having ‘red-lines’ of was not possible to change as part of the exercise (e.g. taxation), the groups went outside of these to ask government for additional powers, which suggests that in order to radically change public service in localities, central government reform maybe necessary.

These findings point to some of the challenges that local areas will need to overcome if they want to embrace a place-based approach.

Among the services offered by the Idox Knowledge Exchange, one of the most popular is our Ask a Researcher service.

In the past few months we’ve answered enquiries ranging from older people’s employment to young people’s housing; from rural inequalities to smart cities; and from early intervention to dispute resolution.

The Ask a Researcher service is available on a pay-per-search basis, or access can be included as part of an Information Service subscription. For more information, please contact us.

Devolved governance – what role for planning?


by Alan Gillies

Last week the RTPI sent us a copy of a collection of papers it had just published, based on a symposium held at UCL in April 2015, on the topic “Critical Perspectives on Devolved Models of Governance”.

The issues covered, devolution, decentralisation, localism, are highly topical and a glance down the list of contributors – all well-known academics and thinkers – convinced me that the collection was worth a close read during my morning and evening commutes. So, a few train journeys later, here’s what I learned from each paper.

‘Critical perspectives on devolved governance – lessons from housing policy in England’

Miguel Coelho, from the Institute for Government, argues that any arrangements for devolved governance need to address housing supply constraints created by failures in the governance of land and construction property rights in England, which tend to favour the interests of current homeowners.

His analysis of the housing supply problem identifies three issues:

  • planning decisions made at local level may not allow for the full range of interests affected, especially in the absence of effective city/regional planning coordination
  • local communities’ attitudes to housebuilding in their area are sensitive to temporary disruption and house price impacts
  • a highly centralised fiscal system gives little power to councils to allow them to avoid/compensate for these problems and facilitate development.

This leads Coelho to the conclusion that proper governance of land and construction is not just about decentralising planning decisions to local level. All interests should be taken into account, not just current local homeowners, so some form of supra-local planning coordination is needed.

‘Assessing the impact of decentralisation’

Professor John Tomaney, from Bartlett School of Planning UCL, considers the benefits of decentralisation, based on a study of international experience.

He suggests that the UK government “has embarked on a radical policy of decentralisation in England, which it calls ‘localism’.” This particular form of decentralisation, different from the kinds tried in other countries, makes it difficult to assess the effects. However, in general Tomaney gives a positive message that high degrees of decentralisation are associated with higher levels of subjective well-being. Interestingly the suggestion seems to be that fiscal decentralisation seems to be more relevant, in this regard, than political decentralisation.

‘Planning, place governance and the challenges of devolution’

Patsy Healey, Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University, emphasises the importance of place and argues that decentralisation needs to connect to what people care about and encourage broadly-based public debate about these concerns.

She argues that over-centralisation represses the capacity for innovation in the planning field and undermines its ability to create and sustain place-focused development strategies.  However she warns that we can’t be naïve about the benefits of localism – decentralisation should not just be handing tasks down to lower levels of government. Wider levels of government are needed to provide oversight and promote strategies and values which affect people’s attachments at a broader scale.

Healey’s hope is for the slow replacement of top-down governance, dominated by experts, with “multiple, non-hierarchical overlapping but interacting forms of ‘network governance’.”

‘Making strategic planning work’

Nicholas Falk, of the Urbed consultancy, stresses that planning is not a science through which problems can be resolved by bringing enough data together. Political choices have to be made, requiring leadership at local, as well as regional and national levels.

Like Tomaney, he looks overseas for lessons, particularly France. He proposes an ‘ABC’ of the requirements for placemaking leadership: Ambition to create better places; Brokerage to put deals together and win support for change; and Continuity, giving enough time to turn vision into reality.

He argues that we need to mobilise private investment behind housebuilding and local infrastructure rather than sustaining inflated house prices. He also makes the point that current regional boundaries are no longer appropriate and that instead we need to empower both city regions and dynamic counties.

The contribution of planning to England’s devolutionary journey

Janice Morphet, Visting Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning, looks at devolution as a process not an event.

She suggests that planning can contribute to devolution in the following ways: 1) it can capture the vision for the whole place; 2) it can set this vision in the context of the nation and its surrounding neighbours. Of course this has to be undertaken with partners and stakeholders in the wider governance framework, but decisions have to be taken by the ‘government of the place’ – which she suggests is likely to be through a combined authority.

Morphet concludes that planning has a major contribution to make, through its map making, visioning and prioritisation in order to develop ‘city and sub-regional hearts’.

‘Place-based leadership and social innovation’

Professor Robin Hambleton, of the University of the West of England, looks at the role leadership has to play in fostering social innovation.

He criticises the over-centralisation of government in Britain and calls devolution deals for selected parts of the country (such as city regions or combined authorities) a ‘devolution deception’ as they are expected to be “mere servants of Whitehall”.

Hambleton sets out three pointers to renewing local democracy:

1) recognise that the current over-centralised system holds back the innovative capacity of the people and set up a constitutional convention to create a new local/central settlement;

2) learn from abroad, where local authorities often have far more political power and responsibility for local taxation, allowing local leaders to respond to local challenges;

3) people living in particular localities need to have much more say in what happens to quality of life in their area, though with limits to tackle issues of self-interest and exclusion.

‘Collaborative innovation: the argument’

Finally Professor Jacob Torfing, of Roskilde University, Denmark, argues for the bringing together of public and private actors in processes of collaborative innovation.

He points out that the idea of co-creation of innovative solutions to policy issues is of growing interest, but argues that a new form of public leadership is needed for it to happen.

Interestingly, Torfing warns that we need to recognise that there is no guarantee that innovation leads to improvement, so the definition of innovation should not include reference to successful outcomes. Drawing on the research literature he points out that of the three types of strategies for developing public policy innovation – authoritative, competitive and collaborative – collaborative is the best for creative problem solving.

He argues that public leaders need to involve the private sector in developing innovative strategies, in order to benefit from this collaborative approach.

Final reflections

The overall messages that can be drawn from the papers include:

  • Over-centralisation limits the ability of local areas to develop their own solutions to local problems, whether in the planning field or other sectors, but simply devolving decisions to the local level is not the answer.
  • Local communities should have a say in decisions that affect the area where they live, and the evidence is that decentralisation is good for well-being, however a broader ‘supra-local’ level of governance is needed.
  • Fiscal devolution gives local and regional bodies the means to implement the solutions they identify
  • Devolution offers a real opportunity for encouraging innovation in developing solutions to policy problems…
  • … but this requires new leadership skills for the public sector to take the risks involved in innovation, and to coordinate the range of interests involved
  • As Torfing describes it, this would mean “a new type of public leadership that is more proactive, horizontal and integrative and that recasts public leaders as conveners, facilitators and catalysts of collaborative innovation”.

You can read the full collection of papers, published by the RTPI, on their website.

The Idox Information Service has introduced an exclusive offer for RTPI members to help them with their evidence needs.

This year Idox is also sponsoring the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, recognising and promoting high quality spatial planning research.

Neighbourhood planning – the current state of play


By Alan Gillies

Following the May 2015 General Election, the only Conservative minister to be replaced in the resulting cabinet reshuffle was Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The appointment in his place of Greg Clark, dubbed “the architect of localism” and the person who “invented neighbourhood planning”, reinforces the government’s commitment to the neighbourhood planning system. Just a few weeks later the Queen’s speech confirmed that there would be legislation with provisions “to simplify and speed up the neighbourhood planning system, to support communities that seek to meet local housing and other development needs through neighbourhood planning”.

The Localism Act 2011

The neighbourhood planning system was introduced by the Localism Act in 2011. At that time Greg Clark was the minster responsible for the legislation’s passage through Parliament. He described it then as “as a powerful option [for communities] to come together and decide, collectively, what their neighbourhood should look like in future; where new shops and offices should go; and which green spaces are most important to the community.” (Clark, 2011)

The Act gives residents and businesses in a neighbourhood the option to do two things: create a neighbourhood development plan for their area; propose that a particular development or sort of development should automatically get planning permission in their area (neighbourhood development order/community right to build order). Neighbourhood plans must be subject to a public consultation period, expert examination and a local referendum. But once passed at referendum, local planning authorities are required to adopt the plan and give it weight, along with the local plan and national planning policy, in determining planning applications.

Progress so far

Earlier this year the government celebrated the milestone of fifty neighbourhood development plans passing the referendum stage. However, the fifty or so plans already approved are just the tip of the iceberg. In total around 1,400 communities are now involved at one stage or another in the formal neighbourhood planning process.  6.1 million people in England live in a designated ‘neighbourhood area’ (i.e. one formally designated as an area to be covered by a neighbourhood plan) – representing around 11% of the population. But, of course, that still means that 89% of the population is not yet involved.

Going forward

Whether this level of activity can be regarded as satisfactory progress and evidence of a real public appetite for neighbourhood planning depends on your point of view. But either way, the neighbourhood planning process represents a new mechanism for involving and empowering more people in the difficult decisions that the planning system has always faced – which can surely only be a good thing for those who become involved. And with the new government reiterating its importance, and a new minister in place who sees it as fundamental to localism, neighbourhood planning is here to stay.

The challenge, and legal requirement, for planners is to provide support to neighbourhoods to become involved.


Clark, Greg. A licence to innovate, IN MJ magazine, 17 Nov 2011, p15


If you are interested in research, opinion and comment on planning, we have launched a special subscription offer to the Idox Information Service for RTPI Members.

As well as access to our database and current awareness service, members receive special briefings on key topics. Recent briefings for members have covered:


We’re recruiting! Trainee Research Officer vacancy


The Knowledge Exchange is currently offering an opportunity for the right person to gain experience in a busy policy research environment.

The Knowledge Exchange, the information and intelligence arm of the Idox Group, delivers an information service to researchers and policy professionals in local authorities, public agencies, government departments, consultants and academic research units throughout the UK.

Working alongside a team of experienced research officers, the post holder will gain experience in taking subject enquiries from member organisations, writing blog posts and briefings on public policy issues, selecting documents for adding to our collection and writing abstracts for inclusion in our weekly current awareness bulletin and a variety of websites.

Based in Glasgow, the post is for one year in the first instance and would be ideal for a new or recent graduate seeking to gain experience. Candidates are invited to submit a CV and covering letter by Friday 19 June 2015.

For further details, contact Alan Gillies, Head of Operations, The Knowledge Exchange

Will voter advice technology affect turnout on 7 May?


Image: Man_vyi via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Licence

By Alan Gillies

In the run up to the last General Election in 2010, there was talk of declining turnouts in elections, disillusionment with politicians and fears that the 2010 turnout could be the lowest ever. But in the end the 2010 turnout (65.1%) was up slightly on both 2005 and the all-time low of 2001 (59.4%).

It will be interesting this year to see whether turnout continues to recover, perhaps to over 70% as suggested by some, or resumes a downward trend since 1950.


The Scottish Independence referendum, which had a turnout of 84.5%, perhaps gives hope that people can still be engaged in politics, when they feel that issues are important to them and affect their lives. The referendum also highlighted the role of social networks, social media and technology in political engagement, particularly for young people.

In November 2014, our blog by James Carson looked at the rise of voter advice applications (VAAs), which pose a series of questions about election issues and uses the results to advise the user on which party is most closely aligned to their views. Since then these applications have proliferated in the UK, as shown by a list on the mySociety blog, which initially (20 March) identified six such apps, and to-date added a further thirteen!

There are concerns about potential negative aspects of such sites, for example that the ‘advice’ generated is dependent on a series of methodological choices made by the creators. But they do seem to engage and encourage people to vote. A study in the Netherlands estimated that that VAA usage accounted for about four per cent of the reported turnout in the election, and that it particularly affected groups typically less likely to vote, such as young voters and those less knowledgeable about politics.

A study of the impact of VAAs on actual voting behaviour indicated that “the patterns of usage and impact appear to cancel each other out, in that those who most frequently use VAAs are least likely to be affected by their vote advice”. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing? Users become engaged in the issues involved, but still make up their own mind.

And engagement in the political process is not just a ‘good thing’ for democracy. For those more interested in the ‘bottom line’, and what politician isn’t in this time of austerity, recent research has suggested that, at the local level at least increased public participation in the process of public decision making increased tax revenues.

Of course many issues affect turnout levels and VAAs can only play a small role. ‘The weather!’ it is often said, is the deciding factor – if it rains turnout will be low, sunshine and it will be high. The current long range forecast for 7 May is fine and 17C in the south of England, heavy showers and 13C in Scotland. But be wary of reading too much into that – evidence suggests that in the UK at least the link between weather and electoral turnout is an urban myth!


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on democracy and voting, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Our recent white paper ‘Democracy and voting: key organisations and individuals‘ is an overview of who is influencing thinking in elections research.

The renaissance of Building Control


Post–recession, the building industry has begun a return to rapid growth against a background of changes in building regulations, continuing technical innovation, and raised standards and expectations for developers. Building Control (the process of ensuring that buildings are safe, healthy and efficient to meet the standards set by the building regulations) is a key component in this resurgence and it’s no surprise that the Local Authority Building Control technical meeting at Nottingham University scheduled for 23 and 24 March has a packed programme and is entirely sold out.

With over 3,000 professionals working in the field and faced with competition from private service providers, Local Authorities are coming together to make infrastructure investments that will improve services and ultimately reduce costs.  A good example is the North Yorkshire Building Control Partnership formed in 2001 and now grown to provide services for five authorities.  Latest figures from NYBCP show savings of over £1m annually through this scalable and flexible shared-service platform.

The programme behind this required vision and commitment to deliver and involved hosting arrangements for a new single system, local network and IT services with support, and data migration from five legacy systems.  A case study published by NYBCP describes the programme in detail.

And the key metrics:

  • £1M reduction in salary costs
  • 55% of all applications are born digital or received digitally
  • Major reduction in processing costs
  • Remote access and remote working for stakeholders and officers
  • Improved customer service delivery as administrators are able to validate and process applications within 3 – 5 minutes

A last word to Les Chapman, NYBCP Head of Building Control, who commented, “By adopting a no compromise approach and having clear goals which have been carefully monitored I am confident that we have improved our service, significantly reduced our costs and we have de-risked the provision and maintenance of our IT systems.”


Local Authority Building Control

NYBCP case study

Gloucester City and Stroud DC business case for Building Control shared-service

Budget 2015 – how does it tackle the housing crisis?


By Alan Gillies

1p off a pint of beer, 2p off cider and whisky, wine duty frozen… “a beer-soaked election budget”, according to the International Business Times. But of course there’s more to the Budget than tax cuts, even in the last Budget before the General Election.

One of the most pressing concerns of many commentators in the build up to the Budget was the housing ‘crisis’, with recent estimates suggesting that 245,000 homes a year need to be built in England alone, whereas only half of that number have been built in recent years.

So what’s been announced in the Budget in response?

The two headline announcements are a new Help to Buy ISA and more housing zones outside London – 20 zones compared to the 10 announced last June. While initial reaction to the Help to Buy ISA appears to be mixed, as it targets demand rather than supply, the new housing zones have been more warmly welcomed.

The government originally announced plans to create 30 housing zones on brownfield sites across the country in order to increase housing supply – 20 in London and 10 elsewhere. Local authorities would bid for investment funding, usually in the form of a loan with an appropriate interest rate applied in accordance with the state aid rules. In addition there is the opportunity to put forward an additional bid for a £5m ‘local development order’ incentive fund, to encourage bids from areas which can provide sites with outline planning permission to speed up the housebuilding process.

The first nine zones in London had already been announced on 20 February, which led to Peabody Housing Association reporting that it had increased the number of homes it plans to build from 700 to 3000 at two sites in Thamesmead. There were however suggestions from the Labour-led Hackney Council that the housing zone model is less appropriate for inner London boroughs because the challenges are more to do with making affordable housing viable than providing infrastructure.

Calls to encourage the release of more public sector land for housing have also been addressed in the Budget with the announcement that the government will implement a new ‘commercially-driven’ approach to land and property asset management across the central government estate. A new central body or bodies will own and manage central government property and land assets, which it is hoped will release land and property for productive use, “including building new homes”.

Further housing measures, already announced just prior to the Budget, included a Housing Finance Institute to address the skills and knowledge gap in delivering local authority housing, as recommended by a recent review of the local authority role in housing supply. Also measures to streamline the sales process for shared ownership properties in outright ownership and a wider review into shared ownership.

According to the Budget document itself, the new housing zones ‘could support up to 45,000 new homes’, so they are not going to solve the housing crisis by themselves. However the government argues that things are starting to move in the right direction, claiming that levels of planning approvals and housing starts are at 7-year highs.

Whether the effect of the housing measures announced in the Budget turn out to be a drop in the ocean or an important impetus to increasing supply to the levels required remains to be seen, with the president of RIBA already suggesting that “Whoever forms the next government must go much further and champion the long-term sustainable supply of high-quality new homes that people want to live in and communities will support”.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing policy and practice, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Building Information Modelling – building a digital Britain?

By Alan Gillies

Business Secretary Vince Cable recently announced the next phase of the government’s Building Information Modelling (BIM) programme, with the publication of Digital Built Britain, its strategic plan for Level 3 BIM. The announcement prompted one architect to respond that “talking about Level 3 BIM when we’re struggling with Level 2 seems bizarre.” Whether bizarre or not, it does demonstrate the government’s commitment to increasing the use of BIM within the built environment sector.

So what is BIM?

Perhaps the most widely used definition of BIM is that originally proposed by Keith Snook, the former Director of Research and Technical at RIBA:

“Building Information Modelling is digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility creating a shared knowledge resource for information about it and forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life cycle, from earliest conception to demolition.”

In other words, BIM is a digital model of a building that captures all the information about a project, from the measurements and costs of materials to how the building elements will work together, and allows it to be shared between different disciplines.

A number of levels of BIM ‘maturity’ are recognised:

Level 0

In its simplest form, level 0 effectively means no collaboration. 2D CAD (computer aided design), with output and distribution via paper or electronic prints, or a mixture of both.

Level 1

Typically comprises a mixture of 3D CAD for concept work, and 2D for drafting of statutory approval documentation and production information. There is no collaboration between different disciplines.

Level 2

Collaborative working – all parties use their own 3D CAD models, but design information is shared through a common file format, such as IFC (Industry Foundation Class) or COBie (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange).

Level 3

Currently seen as the “holy grail” – full collaboration between all disciplines by means of using a single, shared project model which is held in a centralised repository.

BIM is of growing importance to the construction industry, with the UK government’s construction strategy already requiring Level 2, “fully collaborative 3D BIM” as a minimum by 2016 for its own construction procurement, and at the local authority level, the LGA’s construction procurement strategy also recognises BIM as a key factor in modernisation.

BIM and planning

In June 2014, a collection of short essays on digital planning, published by RIBA, included two pieces making recommendations on the role that BIM could play in the planning system. These included calls to

  • “re shape the planning system as a digital building site through which applicants are asked to share their BIM database according to a standard form”; and
  • expand the BIM systems architects currently use for individual buildings and small sites, to regional and city-wide scales at which planners work, thus creating entire ‘urban BIMs’.

Most of the literature and discussion on BIM to date has been from the perspective of public sector construction procurement or the construction industry itself. But whether or not the planning system does become ‘reshaped as a digital building site’, the technology will have an impact for planners as it becomes more widely used.

Singapore has gone further than most other countries. In 2013, as part of its drive to implement the fastest building permitting system in the world, it made BIM e-submissions mandatory for building projects greater than 20,000 square metres, and from this year for all projects greater than 5,000 square metres. In the same year the UK government set up ‘BIM4Regs’ working groups to examine how BIM data could be used in planning and building control submissions, and the RTPI is working to increase planners’ understanding of BIM, for example through its programme of events.

In the social housing sector too, BIM is beginning to make its mark. At the start of this year, Nottingham City Homes, the arms-length management organisation (ALMO) for the city council, announced that it would be using BIM for the construction of a 54-home development. The organisation’s plan is to build up a ‘library’ of potential designs for homes.  Costs are often cited as a barrier to BIM uptake. In this case, the software is said to have cost Nottingham City Homes £5000, but it is hoped that it could reduce upfront design costs by 15%, and potentially increase the speed of developments by 10%.

Here at Idox we have been collecting articles and reports on BIM since 2011, a few of which are listed below.

References and further reading

Digital Built Britain

National construction category strategy for local government

Ready, steady BIM (increasing BIM uptake), IN RIBA Journal, Vol 122 No 1 Jan 2015, pp28-29

Building information modelling adoption: an analysis of the barriers to implementation, IN Journal of Engineering and Architecture, Vol 2 No 1 Mar 2014, pp77-101

Digital planning: ideas to make it happen (RIBA think piece series)

BIM: the inside story 3 years on, IN Building, No 15 17 Apr 2014

NBS national BIM report

Resource efficiency through BIM: a guide for BIM users (Guidance on resource efficient construction)