Supporting perinatal mental health: from peer-support to specialist services

There is a societal expectation that pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby are happy and exciting times.  However, it may come as a surprise to learn that up to 1 in 5 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby (also known as the ‘perinatal period’).

Up to 1 in 10 women may develop postnatal depression, however, there are actually a number of other mental illnesses that can affect women during pregnancy or following birth.  These include:

  • Antenatal depression
  • Perinatal anxiety
  • Perinatal obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Post-partum psychosis

These illnesses can range from mild to severe.  Left untreated, perinatal mental illnesses can have a devastating effect on mental and physical health.  In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for mothers during the first year after pregnancy.

The wider impact on children and families

Perinatal mental illnesses can also impact upon children, partners and significant others.  Research shows links to depression in partners, higher rates of divorces, lower levels of emotional and cognitive development and higher levels of behavioural problems and psychological disorders among children.

As well as the high human cost, there are also a number of economic costs associated with failing to address perinatal mental health needs. Research commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance found that perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carry a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK.

In comparison, it would cost only an extra £280 million a year to bring the whole pathway of perinatal mental health care up to the level and standards recommended in national guidance.

Access to specialist services is a ‘postcode lottery’

The good news is that most mothers who experience mental ill health can and do make a full recovery.

At present, mild to moderate cases of mental ill health in pregnancy and following birth are treated by the GP through anti-depressants, talking therapies and/or support from a community mental health team.  For more complex or serious illnesses, GPs can make a referral to specialist perinatal mental health services for expert advice and support.  This may involve staying in a specialist psychiatric Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) – where mothers and their baby can be admitted together.

However, despite the high prevalence of, and risks associated with, perinatal mental illness, access to specialist perinatal mental health services across the UK is a postcode lottery.

Maps by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance show that women in around half of the UK have no access to specialist perinatal mental health services.  There are currently no MBUs in Wales or Northern Ireland, meaning mothers with more serious or complex mental illnesses often face either being admitted to a MBU far from home, or being admitted to a general psychiatric ward without their babies, in order to receive treatment.

For those with mild to moderate mental illness, waiting times for NHS talking treatments can be many months.  Lack of awareness means that many cases of mild to moderate mental ill health go undiagnosed and untreated.  There is an urgent need for both greater awareness of mental illness and better access to mental health services across the country.

The role of peer-support

In recognition of and response to the need for better access to mental health support for pregnant and new mothers, a number of local ‘grassroots’ peer-support projects have been established by dedicated volunteers and campaigners.

One such project is Blank Canvas.  Blank Canvas is a creative journaling workshop in Lanarkshire, aimed at women during pregnancy or in the first two years since birth, who are experiencing mental health difficulties.

The project was set up earlier this year by midwife Elaine Connell, together with some of her midwife colleagues, who shared her dedication to improving mental health support for women in the perinatal period.

Elaine was keen to start her own peer support group following her own personal and professional experiences of perinatal mental ill health, and was inspired by the success of other projects focusing on art and creativity, such as Maternal Journal.

As Elaine explains:

It is free… …to access, and each attendee is given their own art kit to keep. We have a different theme each week and have guest speakers coming to do sessions also. During the group they can explore new art materials and create reflections in their journal, whilst chatting over some tea and cake. Each session they will take home a prompt card which can inspire their journalling during the week until the group meets next.”

Blank Canvas is free to access and works on a self-referral basis, with advertising mainly through Facebook.  A local shop and community space (Swaddle in Hamilton) donated a venue space, and all other costs (including materials) have been raised by volunteers committed to the project, through fundraisers such as coffee mornings and participation in the Kiltwalk.

Elaine has conducted an evaluation of the first 10-week block and feedback from participants has been extremely positive.  Word about the project has spread and the next block of Blank Canvas – which started on the 18th September – is fully subscribed (with a waiting list).  As Elaine notes, this is fantastic for the project, but highlights the high level of demand that exists for mental health support among new mothers.

The long term plan is to run 6-week blocks frequently throughout the year, moving to separate antenatal and postnatal sessions in 2020.  Elaine also hopes to start up a creative journaling group aimed at fathers too – noting that father’s mental health is often overlooked.

One of the key things Elaine has learned from the creation of Blank Canvas is that there is a lack of support available for people who want to establish their own peer-support groups:

What has been clear when forming the group, is that there is very little support to establish peer support. There are lots of people who want to help others but who won’t because they don’t know where to begin, or how to access funding, or lack of training opportunities.”

Grassroots peer-support groups are an important source of support for mothers in the perinatal period, particularly in cases of mild to moderate mental ill health, where NHS capacity is strained.

Attending peer-support groups such as Blank Canvas may also have a preventative effect for mums who attend during pregnancy. Statistically, women who experience antenatal anxiety are more likely to develop postnatal depression, and so early intervention could help to reduce that risk.

Urgent need for better access to specialist services

While these projects have been successful, they are aimed predominantly at women experiencing mild to moderate mental ill health.

For those experiencing more complex or serious mental ill health, there remains an urgent need for better access to specialist treatment and support.  The Maternal Mental Health Alliance ‘Everyone’s Business’ campaign calls for all women throughout the UK who experience perinatal mental ill health to receive the care that they and their families need.  Specifically, it demands that:

  • perinatal mental health care should be clearly set at a national level and complied with
  • specialist perinatal mental health teams meeting national quality standards should be available for women in every area of the UK
  • training in perinatal mental health care should be delivered to all professionals involved in the care of women during pregnancy and the first year after birth

Promising signs of progress

There have been some promising signs of progress.  NHS England recently announced their plans to rollout specialist perinatal community services across the whole of England, including the opening of four new Mother and Baby Units.

And in Scotland, the Scottish Government recently announced the rollout of an initial £1 million for perinatal mental health services, as part of a wider £50 million investment in mental health services.  This initial investment will support a range of areas, including supporting the third sector to provide counselling, befriending and peer support for women and their families.  It will also help provide more consistent access to psychological assessment and treatment, by increasing staffing levels and training at Mother and Baby Units, for women with the most serious illnesses.

The Scottish Government also established a Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Programme Board earlier this year.  The PIMH Programme Board aims to help implement the commitments to improving perinatal and infant mental health set out in the 2018/19 Programme for Government and Better Mental Health in Scotland.

Clare Thomson, Everyone’s Business Co-ordinator for Scotland, says “It’s fantastic to see the evidence-based approach to developing community perinatal mental health services and look forward to hearing about the first steps – particularly in the North of Scotland“.

Perinatal mental health is Everyone’s Business

However, there is still much to do, including ensuring that this funding translates into services on the ground.  Wales and Northern Ireland are still without MBUs and there is a pressing need to raise awareness of and address mental illness among fathers.

The cost to the public sector of perinatal mental health problems is 5 times the cost of improving services.  It clearly makes sense to invest in improving this care – not only from an economic perspective, but to help improve the lives of women, their children and families across the country. And while more funding is essential to achieve this, raising awareness of the importance of perinatal mental health really is ‘everyone’s business’.


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Gardens of the dead: cemeteries as spaces for nature

The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies.Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Adonais (1891)

Percy Shelley’s description of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome perfectly illustrates how the cemetery, often negatively associated with death and decay, can in fact be a place where nature flourishes.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the great work being done to promote and conserve biodiversity in cemeteries, and the wider benefits of this.

Cemeteries as ‘green oases’

The importance of cemeteries as urban green spaces is often overlooked.  Relatively untouched by surrounding urban development, cemeteries often act as green oases, providing a range of important natural habitats for many different – and often rare – plant life and animals.

Indeed, as the 2000-01 Select Committee Report on Cemeteries observes:

Cemeteries support a wide range of habitats, including relict grasslands, heath, ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, hedges, ponds and flushes, as well as more artificial features such as high maintenance lawns, stands of trees, ornamental flower beds, and shrubberies. In addition, buildings, monuments, tombs and headstones, made from a variety of rocks, can provide support for lichens, mosses and ferns, as well as providing geological interest. A large number of rare species of trees, plants, fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals are found in cemeteries. Cemeteries are often designated as local Wildlife Sites, and sometimes as Nature Reserves.

Green space such as that provided by cemeteries, churchyards and other burial sites is important for a number of reasons.

From an environmental perspective, green space can help to address the negative effects of climate change, including the catastrophic decline in the number of insects. And from a human perspective, research has consistently shown the health and wellbeing benefits of access to green space.

Thus, cemeteries have an important role to play in both supporting the environment and promoting the health and wellbeing of local people.

Case study: Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis is an impressive example of a Victorian garden cemetery, designed to be both inspiring and aesthetically pleasing.

Today, it is the second largest greenspace in the centre of Glasgow and provides a diverse range of habitats for wildlife, including sandy slopes, ivy-covered rock, wooded areas and unmown areas of grass and wildflowers.

The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis is a charity staffed entirely by volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the cemetery.

As well important monument conservation and restoration projects, and hosting walking tours to engage and educate the public, they also work to support the cemetery’s role as a space for nature.  One key aspect of this is recording and monitoring the flora and fauna within the cemetery.

Recent surveys have found that the Necropolis supports over 400 species of animals – including a variety of species of birds, bees, butterflies, insects and spiders, as well as deer, foxes, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of other small mammals. Some of these species are particularly rare, including the aptly-named hoverfly, Eumerus funeralis.

There is also a wide diversity of plant life.  In total, 180 species of flowering plants and trees have been recorded in the Necropolis, and there are also at least 15 species of lichens – including one rare species (Lecania cyrtella).

Other key projects have sought to actively enhance the biodiversity of the cemetery – such as the creation of a wildflower meadow, planted with the help of local school children, and the creation of the ‘Green Man’ – a 3D grass head sculpture, in collaboration with the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow City Council, Dennistoun Community Council, Dennistoun Conservation Society and Foundation Scotland.

There are also plans underway to create a ‘tree map’ for the Necropolis – a visual representation of the different tree species that exist within the cemetery grounds.

Engaging local communities

Across the UK there are a number of examples of other grassroots projects working to promote, conserve and engage local communities in cemeteries’ rich natural heritage.

Some notable examples include:

There have also larger-scale projects and campaigns to promote the role of cemeteries as havens for wildlife.

Caring for God’s Acre is a charity working to “support groups and individuals to investigate, care for, and enjoy burial grounds”.

For a week in June each year, they run a national ‘Love your Burial Ground’ campaign, which encourages people to connect with and celebrate their local churchyards, cemeteries and burial grounds through a variety of local events.

They are also responsible for running the ‘Beautiful Burial Grounds Project’ – a £600,000 Heritage Lottery Fund project that aims to “inspire, engage and support interest groups, communities and individuals to learn about, research and survey the natural, built and social heritage of their local burial grounds”.

The project includes collecting, collating and disseminating data on the importance of burial grounds for biodiversity, providing training events on recording biodiversity and disseminating a variety of resources such as short films, toolkits and pop ups to encourage communities to value their burial grounds as refuges for wildlife.

The Green Flag Award scheme has also been involved in the promotion of cemeteries as spaces for nature.  The scheme “recognises and rewards well managed parks and green spaces” and at present, over 80 cemeteries have received this award, including Tipton Cemetery in Sandwell, and the new Dumbarton Cemetery – the first cemetery in Scotland to be awarded a Green Flag.

Challenges to address

There are of course a number of challenges to be addressed if the full potential of cemeteries as green spaces are to be realised.

Firstly, there is a lack of data on the plant and animal species that exist within cemeteries.  This lack of ecological awareness can mean that sometimes burial ground management and maintenance can be well-intentioned, but inappropriate or damaging.  Thus, projects to record species – such as those conducted by the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis and other cemeteries’ friends groups – are incredibly important.

There is also a need to find an appropriate balance between allowing nature to flourish and ensuring that the cemetery remains accessible.  For example, there have been complaints that long grass around headstones can make it difficult for some people to visit family graves.  The Select Committee Report on Cemeteries notes that: “conservation must not be confused with neglect. A neglected cemetery does not become a haven for flora and fauna.”

Health and safety is another key consideration.  Unstable memorials can cause serious – and sometimes fatal – injuries.  Any project operating within cemeteries needs to be aware of this risk, particularly if it involves children or young people.  The Scottish Government recently published guidance for local authorities on inspecting and making safe memorials and headstones.

Other potential barriers to the use of cemeteries as green spaces include the lack of onsite facilities, such as toilets and bins, physical constraints, such as steep stairs, lack of vehicle access/wheelchair access, and concerns about visitor safety and anti-social behaviour.  These issues, however, are not insurmountable – for example, the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis have recognised these accessibility concerns and raised funds from grant applications to resurface many of the paths on the lower levels of the cemetery to make it easier for people with mobility problems to get around.

‘Living places’ that inspire

It is worth remembering too that cemeteries were set up not just to bury the dead but to stir the Muses among the living.” Fiona Green, a landscape historian, quotes John Strang‘s Necropolis Glasguensis (1831)

Cemeteries are not just for the dead.  They are in many ways ‘living places’ – havens for a range of plant and animal species in the midst of urban housing and development.  They also have an important role to play in the wider community, providing opportunities for local people to connect with and be inspired by nature.

And hopefully, after reading about the many ways in which people across the country are getting involved with nature at their own local burial grounds, you may be similarly inspired.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, take a look at some more posts on the subject of biodiversity:

A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


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A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 1

Traditional Scottish Traveller bow tent at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

This month is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM).

GRTHM aims to celebrate and promote awareness of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) history, culture and heritage, and the positive contribution that GRT groups have made and continue to make to society.  It also seeks to challenge negative stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions associated with GRT groups.

Over the next two blog posts, we will raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today, and highlight some lesser known aspects of GRT culture and heritage.

Gypsies and Travellers are not a homogenous group

One common misconception is that Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are a homogenous group.

In fact, GRT is a term which encompasses many distinct ethnic groups with their own cultures, histories and traditions.

This includes Romany Gypsies, who today are generally of English or Welsh heritage.  Gypsies first arrived in Britain in the 16th Century. The term ‘Gypsy’ was coined due to a common misconception that Gypsies originated from Egypt. However, recent DNA studies suggest that they actually originated from the Indian subcontinent.  Some Gypsies may prefer to be known as either English Gypsies or Welsh Gypsies specifically.

Irish Travellers are Travellers with Irish roots, however, a recent DNA study suggests they have been genetically distinct from the settled Irish community for at least 1000 years. Irish Travellers have their own language – Shelta (also known as Cant).

Scottish Gypsies/Travellers are indigenous to Scotland.  Their exact origins are uncertain, but it is thought that they may be descended from the Picts, and/or the scattering of the clans following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  Certainly, Scottish Travellers tend to share many of the same Clan surnames – including Stewart, McMillan, McPhee and McGregor.

Scottish Travellers also have their own language – the Gaelic-based Beurla Reagaird.

European Roma are descended from the same people as British Romany Gypsies, and they are Gypsies/Travellers who have moved to the UK from Central and Eastern Europe more recently.  Some have arrived as refugees and asylum seekers. While they face many of the same issues as Gypsies, Irish and Scottish Travellers, they are also subject to a number of additional challenges.

There are also other groups that are considered ‘cultural’ rather than ‘ethnic’ Travellers.  These include Occupational Travellers such as fairground and circus owners and workers and New Age Travellers – individuals who have chosen a travelling lifestyle for ideological reasons.

Distinct ethnic minorities protected by law

Whilst there are some similarities between GRT groups in terms of lifestyle, economic, family and community norms and values – and certainly in terms of the discrimination and poor outcomes that they experience – there are clear genetic differences between each of the groups.

As such, Gypsies, Irish Travellers and Scottish Travellers are each considered ethnic minorities in their own right and protected as “races” under the Equality Act 2010.  Migrant Roma are protected both by virtue of their ethnicities and their national identities.

However, despite this protection, GRT groups are still subject to high levels of discrimination.

‘The last acceptable form of racism’

Indeed, prejudice and discrimination has affected GRT groups throughout history.

In the 16th century, any person found to be a Gypsy could be subject to imprisonment, execution or banishment.  Even after anti-Gypsy laws were repealed, discrimination continued.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for doctors to refuse to attend to Travellers.  And despite Travellers’ strong Christian beliefs, churches would often refuse to bury their bodies within their grounds.

And today, GRT people have the worst outcomes of any ethnic group across a huge range of areas, including education, health, employment and criminal justice.  They have the poorest health and the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the UK, and are subject to high levels of racism and hate crime.

GRT groups still face barriers to accessing health services.  As part of a mystery shopper exercise by the Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) charity, 50 GP practices were contacted by an individual posing as a patient wishing to register without a fixed address or proof of identity. They found that almost half would not register them, despite NHS guidance to the contrary.

And while racism towards most ethnic groups is now seen as unacceptable and less frequently expressed in public, racism towards GRT groups is still common and often overt – even among those who would otherwise consider themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘forward thinking’.  This had led it to be termed “the last acceptable form of racism”.

The 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that over 30% of people in Scotland would be unhappy with a close relative marrying a Gypsy or Traveller, and 34% felt that Gypsies or Travellers were unsuitable as primary school teachers.

Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults.

Prejudice and discrimination against GRT groups is not limited to the public – there is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.

Even politicians have openly displayed anti-GRT sentiment.  In 2017, the Conservative MP for Moray Douglas Ross, stated that he would impose “tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers” if he were Prime Minster for the day.

His remarks were widely criticised.  Amnesty International’s Scottish director, Naomi McAuliffe, said “When our elected leaders use this sort of blatantly partisan speech, they set a terrible example that only serves to foster further discrimination and prejudice.”.

A lack of sites has led to a ‘housing crisis’

Mr Ross’s remarks reflect another common misconception about GRT communities – that they all live in caravans, purposefully choosing to set up on unauthorised sites.

The truth is that while Gypsies and Travellers have traditionally lived a nomadic life, living in bow tents, wagons – and even caves – over 70% of Gypsies and Travellers no longer live in caravans, having chosen, or being forced for one reason or the other – disability, old age, lack of suitable sites – to move into traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ accommodation.

For those who do still live in caravans, it is widely recognised that they face a ‘housing crisis’ – an urgent shortage of authorised sites to set up on, which threatens their travelling heritage.  It is this shortage that drives much of the use of unauthorised sites.

Of those sites that do exist, quality has been raised as a key issue.  Many sites can lack even the most basic amenities, and some are sited near recycling plants or in other undesirable locations.  Poor conditions and sanitation contributes to poor levels of health, exacerbating existing health inequalities.

Further inequalities

In our next blog post, we will look in more depth at the inequalities that GRT communities face – in health, education and employment.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.


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Engaging the ‘silent majority’ in planning: is digital the answer?

It has long been a concern that traditional planning consultation methods do not adequately capture the views of the majority.

Instead, they tend to be dominated by individuals with certain characteristics – typically older people or retirees, with high disposable income and social capital, and the time and means to attend in person.

This is partially because traditional planning consultation methods, such as public exhibitions, mainly involve individuals physically attending events at pre-specified places and times.

Younger people, students, people with disabilities, and working families with or without children, may find it difficult to attend and engage with such consultation methods.

In addition to this – people are also more likely to engage with the planning system when they are opposed to something.  Research by Shelter found that people opposed to local housebuilding were three times more likely to actively oppose an application than supporters were to actively support it (21% compared to 7%).

However, the majority of people surveyed were actually supportive or neutral regarding local house building.  This means that in many cases, there is a ‘silent majority’ – people whose voices are not being heard by the planning system.

This ‘silent majority’ often includes young people and others who may have the most to gain from new housing, employment and other benefits created by local developments.

In the rest of this blog, we consider the potential of social media and digital apps to make the planning system more accessible, inclusive and representative.

The potential of social media

Social media is everywhere – and as such it has a huge potential to reach and engage people from all walks of life.

Through adverts or posts in relevant groups, information about developments can be shared, with likes and comments providing feedback.  Short questionnaires or polls can also be administered to help gauge public opinion on a range of matters, such as locations, layouts and designs.

At present, social media is not a widely used planning consultation method – however, there is support for it to become so.

In 2016, a YouGov survey explored local councillors’ attitudes towards the use of social media during public consultation.  It found that:

  • 75% of councillors felt that social media was an important or very important engagement tool
  • 74% believed that social media would add value when reviewing planning applications
  • 60% felt that developers should be doing more to engage with local communities through social media
  • 60% believed social media will increase in importance as a public engagement tool over the next three years

It has been argued that social media is a much more relevant way to share information and consult on development proposals, particularly for young people.

It also has the potential to help overcome many of the time and accessibility barriers that prevent people from attending traditional ‘time and place’ consultation events.  And it has an incredible potential reach too – with Facebook having a total of 44 million active users and Twitter 14 million.

There are, however, some concerns – particularly regarding the verification of an individuals’ locality and the public management of negative comments, particularly as users can remain anonymous.  The potential for cyberactivism against a development and the spread of ‘fake news’ are also concerns.  Social media training would no doubt be required for those using social media to consult on developments.

Innovative apps

In addition to social media, digital apps offer an exciting new way for people to engage with the planning system.

Hailed as ‘Tinder’ for urban planning, CitySwipe is a new digital tool being used in Santa Monica’s downtown area to learn citizens’ preferences and concerns about the city’s urban core.  It enables local residents to swipe left or right to indicate their preferences regarding various different urban development scenarios.  For example, users may be asked to choose between different types of outdoor seating.  The app also covers attitudes towards things such as walking, bike lanes, housing and other such areas of interest to urban planners.

If CitySwipe is Tinder, then TrueViewVisuals can be likened to the Augmented Reality (AR) mobile gaming app ‘Pokémon Go’.  AG is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view of both.  TrueViewVisuals makes use of this to enable users to use their mobile device to view proposed developments in existing locations and is thus particularly useful in assessing their potential visual impact.

Bootlegger is a mobile app originally designed to film live music, which is now also being applied to the urban planning context.  It enables users to collaborate and share their footage with others, and edit them into a single video.   In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Bootlegger has been used to enable members of the public to make their own ­films regarding planning proposals and the neighbourhood area and share them with others.

ChangeExplorer uses location data to provide users with ‘push notifications’ when they enter a geographic location that is subject to redevelopment plans.  Users can then view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.  It has been used successfully by North Tyneside Council, where it was found to be “an effective tool in encouraging participants to think about what they would like to change and for them to feel empowered in raising relevant issues”.

Enhance and evolve

These are just a handful of the ways in which technology can be used to engage young people and others within the ‘silent majority’.  It is an area which is developing all of the time – as recent reports by the Scottish Government, Future City Catapult and the RTPI show.

It also comes at a time where there is wider discussion of the need to make planning more inclusive.  In order to do this, it is essential that the views captured by planning consultations truly represent the needs and preferences of all local residents.

Of course, online engagement cannot replace the need for traditional consultation approaches and techniques entirely.  Instead, they should complement one another, offering both an enhancement and an evolution of the current planning system.  And in doing so, the planning system can meet both the needs and expectations of an increasingly digital world.


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Banning fast food outlets near schools: have takeaways had their chips?

A number of organisations – including the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Public Health England and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – have called for the creation of ‘fast food exclusion zones’ – banning fast food outlets from opening within 400m of schools and other places where children congregate.

In this blog post, we consider the arguments in favour of restricting the growth of such fast food outlets near to schools, and whether the evidence supports this.

More children becoming obese, earlier and for longer

The UK is now ranked among the worst in Western Europe for childhood obesity. Not only are more young people overweight or obese, they are also becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.

Indeed, recent statistics show that nearly a quarter of children in England are obese or overweight by the time they start primary school aged five, rising to one third by the time they leave aged 11.

Increased risk of social, psychological and long-term health problems

In addition to the social and psychological problems associated with obesity, obese children are at a greater risk of developing serious diseases, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  They are also 20% more likely to develop cancer as adults than those of a healthy weight.

There is also a financial incentive for addressing obesity in both adults and children – recent estimates suggest that obesity-related conditions cost the NHS around £6.1 billion per year.  The total estimated cost to society is even greater – at least £27 billion per year.

Indeed, the annual spend on the treatment of obesity and diabetes is greater than the amount spent on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined.

Deprived areas have greater levels of both obesity and fast food outlets

There are also strong reasons to address obesity from an equalities angle.

Recent data compiled by Public Health England shows that there is a strong association between area level deprivation and the density of fast food outlets.  Some areas, such as Blackpool, and parts of Manchester and Liverpool, have up to five times more fast food outlets than more affluent areas.

The evidence is generally clear that deprivation is associated with higher levels of overweight and obesity, and lower levels of vegetable consumption.

The evidence suggests that the food environment does influence food choice

During the past 10 years in the UK, there has been a significant increase in the number of fast food outlets, and the consumption of food away from the home has increased by 29%.

Researchers and policymakers have sought to understand whether unhealthy food environments – such as those with a high density of fast food takeaways – may encourage unhealthy food choices, and thus contribute to obesity.

Last year, the Scottish Government published a research paper on the link between the food environment and the planning system.

In relation to the link between the food environment and obesity in general, the report concludes that while the evidence is mixed, “overall the evidence would suggest that increased exposure to outlets selling unhealthy food increases a person’s likelihood of gaining weight”.

In relation to the effect of the food environment around schools on children and young people specifically, the evidence is less clear cut – with some research showing a link to obesity while other research does not.

Interestingly, there was evidence that access to outlets selling healthy food decreased the odds of being overweight or obese.

Research by Brent Council, involving seven secondary schools – four of which were within 400m of a fast food outlet – found that 27% of students said they would not bother going out at lunch if they had to walk more than 8 minutes.

It does seem like common sense – make fast food less readily obtainable and children will be less likely to consume it.

Prof Russell Viner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has said “This food is tasty and cheap – it’s easy to blame the individual, but humans, particularly children, will find it hard to resist tempting food.”

England already making progress, Scotland likely to follow

In England, the National Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) outlines the role that planning can have in reducing obesity by limiting over-concentration of fast food takeaways, particularly around schools.  It also encourages planning authorities to limit takeaways in areas with high levels of obesity, deprivation and general poor health, and in areas with over-concentration and clustering of outlets within a specified area.

Similarly, the Child Obesity Strategy commits to developing resources to support local authorities who want to use their planning powers to restrict fast food takeaways, and providing up to date guidance and training for planning inspectors on the creation of healthy food environments.

A number of councils have already implemented 400m exclusion zones.  Some notable examples include St Helen’s Council, Sandwell Council, Dudley Council, and Milton Keynes.

Sadiq Khan has included proposals for a 400m exclusion zone around schools in the new Draft London Plan, and plans to limit the number of fast food takeaways near schools in Luton were approved in 2018.

At present, there are no powers to restrict fast food outlets on health grounds in Scotland – however, it is likely that this will change in the near future.

As well as the aforementioned research project, last year, the Scottish Government published the consultation, ‘A Healthier Future’, which commits to exploring the opportunity for the planning system to contribute to an improved food environment:

We will research precedent, evidence and good practice on the relationship between the planning system and food environment, including exploring how food outlets in the vicinity of schools can be better controlled, with a view to informing the review of Scottish Planning Policy”.

In the December 2018 issue of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL), Neil Collar of Brodies LLP concludes that:

Taking account of Action 2.12 in ‘A Healthier Future’ and the research project, it seems likely that the draft National Planning Framework, expected to be published by the Scottish Government in 2019, will contain policies to control hot food takeaways and the food environment around schools. An evidence base to justify controls in local areas will be important”.

Creating a robust evidence base is crucial

Children have a right to grow up in an environment that supports them to attain the highest possible standard of health – and the planning system has a key role to play in facilitating this.

Of course, the planning system cannot address obesity on its own, and the causes of obesity are far wider and more complex than just the food environment.

Other approaches are also being put in place – including supporting food outlets to provide smaller portions and healthier options – some of which have been very successful already.

The creation of a robust evidence base upon which to make informed decisions regarding the location of fast food takeaways and the creation of healthy environments is essential.

There are already a number of useful datasets available for local authorities to use, including the Food environment assessment tool (Feat) and guidance on the creation of healthy food environments.

As more local authorities make use of their powers to restrict fast food outlets, it will be interesting to see whether more evidence emerges of the link between fast food and childhood obesity. We at the Information Service will, of course, be watching this with interest.


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

Dunfermline town centre

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

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

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

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

A community-focused high street

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

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

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

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

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

A healthy and accessible high street

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

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

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

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

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

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

A high street to call home

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

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

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

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

 Looking to the Future

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

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

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


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

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

One thing is certain. The high street landscape has now irrevocably changed and there is no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.”

This was the conclusion of the Grimsey Review in 2013.  Five years on and the challenges facing the high street remain – now with the added economic complexities presented by Brexit.

Yet there remains optimism.  In the last year, a number of reviews have been published, illustrating how we can bring town centres and high streets back to life.

In summer last year, an update to the Grimsey Review was published. Its title – ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’ – is something of a call to arms.

It sets out 25 recommendations to help support the high street to transform “into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition (USP)”.

In November, Lichfields also published a number of recommendations for high streets, based on their own research.  Their conclusions echo that of Grimsey: “Town centres and operators within them should embrace online, promote themselves better and develop their own unique selling point(s). They must broaden their offer and attract new anchors and other uses, which make them more family friendly, and improve the overall ‘experience’ for visitors”.  It also highlights a number of examples of innovative practice.

In addition to these, at the end of December, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, and a related report by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) – ‘High Streets 2030’.

The IPM report gathered the opinions of local people, including young people, about their town centre, what they would like to see developed, and the related challenges that they perceive.

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at some of these reports’ key recommendations, and highlight some innovative examples of good practice.

A diverse high street

A recent tweet by Fountain Bookstore in the U.S. highlighted the difficulties presented by ‘showrooming’ – where people visit high street stores to view items which they subsequently purchase online, often only for a marginally cheaper price.  The tweet went viral and sparked much debate.

However, realistically, online shopping is not going away – and in recognition of this, it has been widely recommended that high streets should diversify their offer, placing greater focus on services and experiences that cannot be replicated online – including food and drink uses, and leisure facilities, such as cinemas and gyms.

There does appear to be some evidence of this happening in practice – barbershops and beauty salons were ranked first and second respectively in terms of their number of net retail openings in 2017.  And Fountain Bookstore may be pleased to learn that there has been a small increase in the numbers of indepedent booksellers in towns across the UK.

A unique high street

Another key recommendation is for town centres to identify their own unique selling points (USPs).

Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a fantastic example of a town that has developed a USP in order to regenerate the community.  In 1998, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national book town, and it has since become home to a wide range of book-related businesses, including both new and used booksellers, and an annual book festival that attracts many people to the town.

Other towns have sought to capitalise on their heritage to bring people back to the town centre – such as through the relatively new Heritage Action Zones programme and the £55 million fund announced in the 2018 budgetfor heritage-based regeneration, restoring historic high streets to boost retail and bring properties back into use as homes, offices and cultural venues”.

A digital high street

While the ubiquitous growth of technology has presented high streets with some of its key challenges – in the form of online shopping and showrooming – it also presents a number of opportunities.

As well as making the most of click and collect services, many town centres may also be able to capitalise on the ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon – where online retailers open physical stores in order to provide their customers with an enhanced experience, such as being able to trial goods before purchasing.

Grimsey 2 also outlines a number of other ways in which high streets can capitalise on technology – from providing free wifi and spaces for freelancers to work/come together, to becoming involved in digital marketing campaigns and gathering/using local datasets.

In Scotland, a number of ‘Digital Town’ pilots have been set up with a view to improving the high street’s digital infrastructure and skills, and supporting high streets to take advantage of these in order to boost tourism and local economies. Related guidance on the development of ‘Digital Towns’ has also been produced.

A well-supported high street

There is also a range of innovative supports for high streets – some more traditional, like business improvement districts, and others more unconventional – such as the growth of popup shops and other supports for local entrepreneurs.  We have discussed the many benefits of markets for town centres in a previous blog post. There have also been various awards and awareness-raising campaigns, such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street.

Another approach is to use the planning system.  One particularly innovative example of is that of the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first Simplifed Planning Zone (SPZ) focusing on town centres.  It was set up in 2015 and built on the success of Glasgow’s award-winning Hillington Park SPZ.

The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle. According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Renfrewshire Council have published a ‘how to’ guide detailing their experience.

To be continued…

These are but a few of the many innovative ideas and experiences that have helped town centres across the country.

In our next post, we will continue this theme and outline some additional ways that town centres can help to address their challenges and increase footfall – through community involvement, good quality, inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street.


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Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


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Making the planning system more customer-friendly

By Donna Gardiner

Local authority planning departments are more often associated with bureaucracy than with delivering good quality customer service.

However, as the current reform of the planning system in Scotland puts the need to develop a modern, efficient service in the spotlight, thoughts have turned to how planning authorities can focus on the human side of delivering a good quality planning service.

Last month (August 2018), the Scottish Government published a report on customer service in the planning system.  It examined different approaches to customer service across a range of private and public sector organisations in Scotland, with a view to identifying the lessons from these that could be applied to the planning system. Although focused on Scotland, the lessons are transferable elsewhere.

A number of challenges

The research found that while planning authorities in Scotland viewed high quality customer service as highly important, they faced a number of challenges to delivering this in practice.

Limited staff and financial resources are a key constraint affecting planning authorities’ ability to deliver high quality customer service.  For example, customer expectations of the frequency and responsiveness of communication are often higher than what can reasonably be delivered.

There are also issues of inconsistency of service, both within and between local authorities in Scotland.  This is due in part to different interpretations of specific legislation, as well as different levels of investment in, and commitment to, customer service within individual planning authorities.

The risk of individuals confounding ‘customer service’ and ‘outcomes’ – where the planning decision reached affects the individual’s perception of the quality of service they have received – is another key challenge when measuring the customer experience.

Current approaches

Each year, planning authorities in Scotland must prepare an annual Planning Performance Framework (PPF) report, which details their performance over the previous year.

At present, the PPF has no specific measure of customer service delivery.  Instead, planning authorities must submit a ‘narrative commentary’ of their customer service performance, along with relevant case studies that demonstrate their actions.

This means that individual planning authorities decide how best to gather information about their own customer service performance.  Some of the key methods used include:

  • Customer charters – which communicate customer service commitments to customers and employees
  • Customer satisfaction surveys – mainly online, however, some were still postal
  • Forums – the use of customer forums or focus groups to engage with customers
  • Complaint handling procedures – published details of organisational systems, protocols and SLAs for registering and responding to complaints
  • Customer service standard accreditation – g. Customer Service Excellence (CSE), Investors in People (IiP), ISO9001, Customer Satisfaction Measurement Tool (CSMT) etc.

So what can be done? The benefits of e-planning

The report identified a number of ways in which customer service within the planning system could be improved.

First was the need to achieve a greater consistency of processes, enforcement and quality of service across Scotland.  Clearer national guidance on implementing legislation would go some way to achieve this. Establishing a national survey of customer service in the planning system is also a priority. Lessons could be learned from the building standards system, which currently incorporates a Key Performance Outcome relating to improving the customer experience.

Planning authorities also overwhelmingly believed that e-planning had improved customer service.  The benefits included:

  • more efficient information flows
  • better prioritisation of work
  • reduced printing costs
  • greater transparency
  • easier access to information by the public

What is clear is that the move to e-planning is bringing a ‘culture change’. By speeding up the planning process and making more efficient use of resources, e-planning frees up both time and money to be spent elsewhere in the planning process.  As one planning authority notes:

“It’s about how you work with the customer to bring them on the e-planning journey with you and change their mindset. In the long run the customer benefits because it speeds up the service.”

As technology and customer expectations evolve it will be important that e-planning solutions reflect this in the future.

Future directions

Good quality customer service helps to make the planning system easier to understand and processes more accessible and usable.  This in turn opens up the system to those who might otherwise feel that it is too complex or time consuming to participate.  This may be of particular importance when encouraging young people to become involved in consultations.

Improving customer service within the planning system is not something that is just ‘nice to have’. Planning has changed significantly over the years – and with change comes the need for reliable, cost-effective processes to drive end-to-end efficiency.


For 30 years, Idox has been supporting the work of local government planning departments. iApply, a planning application submission portal launched by the Idox Group in 2015, offers local authorities the opportunity to benefit from an out-of-the-box end-to-end digital solution that makes submitting planning, building and licence applications simple for customers and cost effective for the authority.