How empowering the community can help us create better places to live

Places can be defined in a lot of different ways: the geographic location, the physical buildings, the people who live there and the relationships that are formed. Central to places should be the people who live and interact there. Putting people, and communities at the heart of placemaking can benefit the physical infrastructure of a place, by identifying what is needed. And allowing residents a say in their local area can also give communities a sense of empowerment and ownership of their place, somewhere they can be proud to call home and somewhere they feel safe, included and valued.

Can places empower people?

In short… YES! Positive places have the power to lift the community up, give them a sense of empowerment, worth and inspiration. But places also have the power to alienate and dis-empower.

Places which are run down, with no or low levels of community engagement can contribute to communities becoming disparate, isolated and can reinforce negative stereotypes, particularly those which relate to poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. Making places that are thriving hubs for communities to be built upon can have a significant impact on the experiences and quality of life for communities living within them. Work being done by organisations like SURF show how important effective regeneration projects can be in revitalising places and the people who live there.

A recent RTPI blog post emphasised the importance of place on helping to reduce the impact of poverty and break some of the more significant socioeconomic barriers marginalised groups within communities can face. It emphasises the importance of place-based urban policy and how core policy features like the planning of a space or the design of a building can actually have a significant impact on the people who interact with that space.

A national standard for community empowerment

As important as the physical space are the people who live and work within it.

In the policy context of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, What Works Scotland, along with others drafted a set of ‘fit for purpose’ national standards for community empowerment, to build on those published in 2005. It was hoped that the new standards would provide clarity and focus on ways to help strengthen and improve participation and engagement at a local level. There are seven standards: Inclusion; Support; Planning; Working Together; Methods; Communication; and Impact.

Identifying and making the most of community assets

Asset based development was originally created as a description of how local residents grow collective efficacy and what they use to do so. It involves paying attention to what is in a local place – not what we think should be there, or what is not there. These ‘assets’ are found within a community and can be physical, such as infrastructure, but can also be the skills and knowledge of local people.

The key concept centres on the fact that everyone has something positive that they can contribute to a community. It follows that, if everyone does or is given the opportunity to contribute positively to their community, then there will be less requirement for spending on services from local government. It can also mean greater accountability at a community level for making changes that actually impact positively and directly on the lives and experiences of people who live and work there. Taking time to identify these assets and feeding this into how places are created can be a key part of ensuring communities feel empowered and valued.

Community anchors are an important tool

Community anchors have been identified as vital in many instances to ensure the continued development and capacity building of communities within a place. Their roles can extend across the community from building capacity and resilience, to supporting local democracy and helping to drive social change within a community. Community anchors play an important role in empowering communities and getting them involved in the design and delivery of services in their area.

A report published by What Works Scotland in 2018 examines the developing roles of community anchors within communities. The report explores the developing discussions between the community sector, public services and policymakers and considers how they might work more closely together to deliver bespoke and localised community driven policies.

Summing up

Empowering communities to feel valued and engaged is a key part of developing places that are inclusive and enjoyable places for people to live. Promoting communities as key agents of change within the areas in which they live not only improves the community, but can also help on an individual level, fostering a sense of pride and value. Creating better places is a key strand to regeneration and planning policy. Putting communities at the heart of creating places will ensure that places not only meet the needs of local people but are inherently connected to them.


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“For many children we are the first point of contact”: supporting children’s mental health in schools

A 2018 evidence review from Public Health England reported that one in 10 young people have some form of diagnosable mental health condition. This, the report suggests, equates to as many as 850,000 children and young people with a diagnosable mental health disorder in the UK. It also reported that half of all mental health problems emerge before the age of 14, and children with persistent mental health problems face unequal chances in life.

Research has also highlighted the impact of “key factors” like poverty and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including emotional trauma, abuse or neglect (which people living in higher areas of deprivation are more likely to experience) on an individual’s chance of developing a mental illness. However, an additional factor often cited in surveys around child mental health and wellbeing is the impact of school, including exam stress, and bullying. Mental ill health has also been found to have an impact on attainment, behaviour and a child’s ability to learn. As a result, teachers are often part of the front line of supporting adults for children who are suffering from mental ill health, with increasing pressure being placed on teachers and schools to identify and signpost children to other services.

Schools, as well as teachers,  are increasingly becoming a focus for the delivery of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in their community. Often schools are at the centre of their local community, so it is logistically convenient to coordinate services there; it can for some be a less intimidating or stigmatising environment than attending a clinic at a GP surgery, for example. School is the primary developmental space that children encounter after their family, and children’s learning and development and their mental health are often interrelated, so it makes sense for teachers to take an interest in terms of attainment and progress in learning. In December 2017, the Department of Health and Department for Education (DfE) published the Green Paper Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision which highlighted the role of schools as key in promoting a positive message about mental health and wellbeing among school age children and young people.

Good work is already being done, but how can we do more?

Research has shown that there is already a lot of good and effective practice being done in schools around children’s mental health. Many schools already work in partnership with local health teams to provide in house CAMHS support in the form of mental health nurses and social workers who are posted on site for children to access. One of the major recommendations in a 2018 Audit Scotland report on child mental health in Scotland was to encourage more of this type of partnership working. The report stressed the importance of joint working between public services if child mental health is to be improved, and where possible to include as wide a spectrum of public services in the delivery of CAMHS support, including criminal justice and housing practitioners, as well as health and social care and education staff.

In some schools senior pupils and designated members of staff are being offered mental health first aid training, and wear lanyards to help students identify them should they ever need to talk to someone. While it is important – particularly for students who participate in mental health first aid programmes – to be made aware of the challenges the role may entail, it can be a rewarding experience for young people to participate in and can also be a vital in-road to support for some students who would otherwise feel uncomfortable talking to a member of staff.

Other programmes like those developed by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, Centre for Mental Health and the ICE PACK and Kitbag tools (which have been used widely in UK schools) look at resilience building  and promoting coping mechanisms among young people, as well as encouraging the creation of trusting relationships which focus on nurturing and normalising mental illness to encourage children and young people to feel comfortable discussing their feelings and thoughts. These programmes also integrate early intervention and prevention approaches, hoping to identify children and young people who are suffering from mental illness as early as possible and signpost them to appropriate support.

The specific role of teachers

Teachers need to remember that they are not health or social care professionals and that – as much as they would like to completely solve all of the problems of their students – they can only do what they can, and that is enough.

It is also very important for teachers to practise what they preach in as much as teacher self-care is as important as signposting children and young people who are struggling with mental health issues. A 2016 survey by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found almost half of teachers had sought help from their doctor for stress-related condition. Teacher stress and burnout and those leaving the profession due to conditions like stress do not help to create an environment that is supportive of good mental health in the classroom. Teacher wellbeing is so important and building their own resilience is one way that teachers can start to embed good mental health in their practice. If you are doing it yourself it will be easier to help and show children how to do it if they come to you for advice!

Teachers simply being there and offering a safe space and first point of contact for many children is important. Listening and signposting can be so valuable for those pupils taking the first step and teachers should not be put off by any personal perception of a lack of expertise in mental health – a small amount of knowledge or understanding of what to do next is more than enough. In some respects, teachers should feel almost privileged that a student has chosen to come to them, someone they feel they can trust and talk to.

A poll conducted as part of a webinar held for educational practitioners found that rather than requiring more information about mental illness, what teachers actually wanted was more practical examples of how to apply support in the classroom and how to embed mental health into their teaching and the learning of their students.

A unique opportunity

Schools and teachers are on the front line of public services and have a unique opportunity through regular contact with children to help to build and promote resilience among pupils, and embedding this within the whole school can be an effective way of ensuring pupils feel the benefit without being singled out. Taking nurturing approaches to learning and teaching, and promoting the creation of trusting relationships is key to some of the already effective practice going on in schools. Sharing the learning and best practice that is already happening will be vital to ensuring that support for children suffering from mental ill health improves and adapts to changing needs in the future.


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The Changing Room Initiative: tackling the stigma of poor mental health in men through sport

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The Changing Room Initiative: tackling the stigma of poor mental health in men through sport

It’s shocking that 12.5% of men in the UK are suffering from one of the common mental health disorders (estimated by The Men’s Health Forum). And men are as much as two and a half times more likely than women to die by suicide each year, with one of the most at-risk groups being men in their 40s to early 50s.

Other key statistics which show the scale of the problem include:

  • three in four deaths by suicide are by men
  • the highest suicide rate in England is among men aged 45 to 49
  • men living in the most deprived areas are ten times more at risk of suicide than those living in the most affluent areas.

Despite this, men are significantly less likely to access mental health services than women. The Mental Health Foundation found that 28% of men had not sought medical help for the last mental health problem they experienced, and 35% of men had waited over two years or have never disclosed a mental health problem to a friend or family member. Another survey, from the Men’s Health Forum, found a majority of men would take time off work to seek medical help for physical symptoms, but less than one in five said they would do the same for anxiety (19%) or feeling low (15%).

It’s clear, then, that there are strong cultural barriers facing men in relation to mental health diagnosis. Perceived stigma and ideas of masculinity can cause them to avoid seeking help or fail to acknowledge mental health issues.

Changing attitudes in changing rooms

We’ve written previously about the success of Men’s Shed projects in providing a safe, social space for men’s mental health issues to be addressed. We were interested, therefore, to hear about another scheme which is also using a community-based approach to explore men’s health.

The Changing Room Initiative is a two year pilot project which sees the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) Trust and Hibernian (Hibs) football club working in partnership with the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) to engage men in their community around issues of mental health and wellbeing. The project uses football and sport as a tool to encourage men to discuss their mental health and wellbeing and to help direct them to additional support and services within their community.

The initiative is part of a wider program from SAMH which is using sport to improve equality and reduce stigma around mental health. In February 2018, SAMH launched Scotland’s mental health charter for physical activity and sport. Signatories of the charter include Sport Scotland, SPFL Trust, Jog Scotland and Glasgow Life.

In October 2018, following the success of the initial pilot scheme, SAMH announced a second changing room initiative was due to be rolled out at another Edinburgh football club, Heart of Midlothian FC (Hearts).

Using sport to engage and improve mental health

There is a lot of research available which highlights the links between positive mental health and physical activity. Even low-level physical activity has been found to have a positive impact on our mood and general wellbeing. Activities like walking, cycling or gardening have been shown to reduce stress improve self-esteem and have a significant positive impact on depression and anxiety. However, research has also shown that people with mental health issues are also more likely to have poor physical health, and often face additional barriers to participating in sport and becoming active.

The Get Set to Go programme was launched with the support of Sport England and the National Lottery in July 2015 to help people with mental health problems benefit from being physically active. An evaluation of the project published in 2017 showed that physical activity has an important role to play in building resilience, enabling and supporting mental health recovery and tackling stigma and discrimination.

New support networks

There is a continuing push among healthcare and third sector professionals to stress that mental health is just as important as physical health. However, funding for mental health is comparatively low and research shows people are far more willing to acknowledge or accept help for physical illness.

With the roll-out of projects like the Changing Room Initiative to promote mental health in familiar environments, it’s hoped that those struggling with poor mental health will receive the support and treatment they need.


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Tackling health inequalities: what does the data tell us and how can it help?

Health inequalities in Scotland are significant. Every year we hear about how Scotland has some of the biggest gaps in the health and wellbeing of the poorest and richest in society. In some cases, Scotland has the largest gaps in equality in the whole of Europe. And in many instances, they are rising. Scotland also has the lowest life expectancy of all UK countries.

A number of studies and research projects have been commissioned to try to identify the key indicators and factors that are creating and reinforcing these inequalities, and what sorts of interventions would work best to try and reduce or eradicate them altogether. It is hoped that by conducting research, and compiling data, policymakers can use this to identify groups and geographic areas where health inequalities are significant, and to intervene to reduce them, with data to help back up and evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions. In Scotland, work is being done by a number of organisations including the Scottish Government, Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) and Public Health Innovation Network Scotland (PHINS).

What indicators and factors are being measured?

Income inequality has a related impact on health inequalities, and the scale of low pay is significant. The relationship between health inequalities, poverty and household income is one which has been explored at length and is often highlighted as one of the main factors which influences health inequalities. Studies which look at income, and also at relative levels of deprivation can provide useful comparison points, with comparable datasets on employment status and income readily available at a national and local level. Data also considers trends over time, comparing pre- and post-economic crash data, as well as relative earnings and expenditure relative to inflation and the rising cost of living. Other factors include age (those under 25 and earning a lower minimum wage for example) and by gender, with more women in lower paid, lower skilled and part time or insecure work.

How usable is the research being created?

The research which examines health inequalities explores a whole range of interrelated factors, and highlights just how complex the landscape of inequalities is. Creating a clear and holistic picture of all of the factors which contribute to health inequalities is not easy. Many studies, while detailed and effective, are niche, and focus on a very limited number of factors across a limited demographic source. As a result, questions have been raised about the utility of this research and its applicability and scalability at a national level. In an attempt to tackle this, combined data sets are being produced which provide opportunities for comparison across data from a range of studies.

The “Triple I” tool from NHS Health Scotland is designed to help policy designers to create effective interventions to reduce health inequalities. A second edition of the tool is due to be released in 2018/19. Triple I aims to provide national and local decision makers with practical tools and interpreted research findings about investing in interventions to reduce health inequalities in Scotland. It does this by modelling the potential impact of different interventions and policies on overall population health and health inequalities.

 

What can be done to act on the data?

While the research being produced is high quality, and thorough in relation to findings, the real question is what can actually be done with the research, and what steps can policymakers and practitioners take to use the findings to inform their own practice.

There are, researchers suggest, significant opportunities presented by the recent research which has been done on income inequality. In particular, they cite the public sector and public sector pay as a key way to reduce the income, and therefore the inequality gap, particularly among higher earners and those who would be considered “working poor” or “just about managing”. In Scotland, significantly more people are employed in the public sector than in any other part of the UK, and there is, researchers suggest, an opportunity to better align and increase low wages to help to reduce the gap.

The adoption of new initiatives, such as the “housing first model”, which is due to be rolled out in Glasgow to help homeless people break the cycle of homelessness, are also opportunities not only to address inequalities, but to ensure that long term help and support is in place to prevent any relapse into chaotic or risky behaviour. In relation to housing first, the savings on front line services such as emergency admissions to hospital, or contact with the police after committing a crime are significant, and while more in depth research is needed to create a full cost benefit analysis model of the scheme and its effectiveness, early studies show that the impact on health and wellbeing on those who had previously been homeless is huge in terms of reducing inequalities and improving wellbeing. However further data on homelessness in Scotland shows how far we have to go, and that housing first is only one mechanism which can be used to begin this process of reducing inequalities among the most and least deprived communities in Scotland.

Alternatively, some have suggested a more radical overhaul of how we distribute welfare and wealth within the country. Research has been coming thick and fast on the subject of a “citizens basic income”, particularly following the trial which was rolled out in Finland (the findings of which have not yet been published). Research on how this could impact on inequalities is not widespread yet, as pilots have been small scale, However, it is suggested that a total overhaul of welfare, replacing it instead with a citizen’s basic income would be a more effective way to reduce inequalities across the board, including in health.

Summing up

Health inequalities are significant in Scotland. Much of the research focuses on the impact of deprivation, poverty and low income on health inequalities and how, in order to tackle health inequalities in Scotland we must also tackle some of the other significant social problems within our communities, including low income and insecure work, and the impact of homelessness or chaotic lifestyles on health.

Data can be used in a number of ways to help inform policy decisions, some more radical than others. But creating a complete understanding of inequality in Scotland is challenging. It is up to researchers and policymakers to work together to create a better understanding of the conditions and factors which contribute to inequality, and what can be done to help tackle systemic and entrenched inequalities in our communities through policy levers and evidence based policy making.

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Creating caring places: placemaking in our town centres

What do caring places look like? How can planners, developers and project organisers contribute to the discourse around creating caring places? And what responsibility do they have to communities to help develop places that put people at their heart?

They are just some of the questions being increasingly raised by organisations in Scotland, trying to identify if there is a new way to focus on place and wellbeing in Scotland’s towns. Projects such as Carnegie Trust’s Kindness, Scottish Towns partnerships’ Town Centres First, or Architecture and Design Scotland’s Creating Caring Places are all exploring the importance of the quality of a place to the wellbeing of people who live there. But what does this mean for people who actually plan these areas, and what could they consider in the future to help develop more caring places?

The 3 P’s: place, people, practice

Many of the discussions around creating places which foster wellbeing and wellness centre around 3 key concepts:

Place: Understanding place and the impact that it has on wellbeing is a significant part of this agenda. The environment in which people live day-to-day has a significant impact on individuals and can be both a positive or negative influence. It can help to facilitate positive community interaction, creating stronger community ties and helping organisations and people to feel more valued within their community.

In order for places to be caring a number of factors have been identified, and these are common across research done by a number of organisations including Architecture and Design Scotland and the Carnegie Trust. These include: a sense of support (from people); a sense of purpose (stuff to do); a sense of place (familiar surroundings); and a sense of worth (feeling wanted).

People: Loneliness or social isolation has the same impact on health and mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Traditionally, it has often been assumed that older people are most often victims of social isolation (as they are less mobile and less willing or able to participate in community activities). Recently however more research has been produced which highlights the growing isolation of younger people. Understanding the nature of isolation, which impacts across the whole community, can help us to identify effective solutions which benefit and engage multiple groups.

Practice: This particularly relates to care within communities. The process of deciding where and how we care for the old or ill is a vital part of how we function as a society. Effective care extends far beyond the physical act of caring for someone, although this is obviously a key element. It also includes creating more and better jobs within the sector, and encouraging people to enter the profession as a worthwhile career choice; shifting the focus from acute to primary care settings and away from hospital-based emergency care; and giving people greater choice about how and where they receive care through increasing and improved personalisation of services.

There is a responsibility on both spatial and community planners to identify need and to create places which facilitate wellness, choice and care at home. This could be through the building of new infrastructure or more effective transport, or it could be through the creating of a community centre which offers recreational classes to someone who would otherwise have no contact with the outside world. Putting place at the centre of discussions provides an opportunity for a community approach to wellbeing, with strategies on placemaking being linked to other approaches such as asset-based, or strengths-based, planning.

Thinking about people like we think about the environment

Even as little as 10 years ago, the prevalence of environmental impact assessments for development projects was limited. Now we take for granted that we measure the impact of a project on the environment. What if we thought about people and in particular the risk of isolation, in the same way during planning processes? What if developers, planners and project organisers considered the “isolation impact” of a project, how it would impact the people of a local area, and whether it would specifically impact one group more than another (either for good or for bad), and reported on the steps they were taking to mitigate any adverse impact?

It is a striking notion, but creating a set of criteria to measure the social impact of developments, may be hugely useful if we are trying to place an increasing emphasis on inclusion and community within our town centres.

In fact, planners are beginning to realise the critical role they play in connecting services to people, and the necessity of understanding which services are needed in an area and how to make them as accessible for the whole community as possible. And while it is down to the community to use the resources they are given by planners to create connections and networks that help to combat things like poor mental health and social isolation, the decisions that planners make about how and where to plan in services and infrastructure can be the difference between someone leading an active and engaged life, and someone living a life where the only human contact they have in a day is a carer.

Planners can and should recognise the significant role they can play in making someone’s life more livable.

Final thoughts

Creating caring places for people to live and grow old in is vital to the success of our communities. Effective and thoughtful decisions on investments such as infrastructure and community planning projects can have a significant positive impact on wellbeing and reduce loneliness not only among older people, but throughout the community.

Increasingly, policy makers in Scotland are being asked to consider the human element of planning in their work. Creating places that allow people to feel safe, valued and happy is key for planners to help bridge the gap between the creation of places, and the wellbeing of people who live in them.


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Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference is a ‘huge success’

SPEL Conference 2018 banner

Last week, we welcomed delegates and speakers to the 2018 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) conference in Edinburgh, sponsored by Terra Firma Chambers.

Delegates and speakers came from organisations across Scotland to discuss and debate the current state and future opportunities for planning and environmental law in Scotland.

Should we just scrap planning altogether?

The conference was kicked off in typically thought provoking style by Greg Lloyd, Professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Professor Lloyd delivered this year’s keynote and took the opportunity to challenge delegates and other speakers to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

The creation of a new way of planning has, Professor Lloyd argued, the potential to better align community needs and other areas of policy like land and taxation, as well as creating opportunities for a more functional system, not as bogged down in process, where communities can come together to help make decisions about planning in their local area.

This “utopian vision of the future of planning” could potentially allow planning to ‘catch up’ with other services given that currently it is a 1950s model which has been shaped and adapted to allow us to “get by” rather than being reformed to suit new and changing planning needs. This new way, he argued, could be achieved if we are bold enough to take the leap away from the constraints and barriers presented by the “old” system.

Community empowerment and community right to buy: what are the implications for planning law?

Mark Lazarowicz and Pippa Robertson from Terra Firma Chambers and Aurora Planning respectively, navigated delegates through the complex waters of community right-to-buy, with Mark setting the scene and outlining some of the key elements to legislation and policy which have helped to shape community empowerment, including discussions around “relevant authorities”; “subjects of transfer”; and the “activation and implementation of community right-to-buy”. Pippa followed this with a discussion around community empowerment in relation to right-to-buy, and how this can be used to bring land back into active use.

The Planning Bill and funding infrastructure

Archie Rintoul, former chief valuer in Scotland, gave what many found to be a frank and insightful discussion of the issues around infrastructure development. Continuing on a similar theme after lunch, Russell Henderson from RPS explored the role of transport policy, and in particular sustainable transport. In both sessions there was further discussion of the importance of facilitating and accommodating new infrastructure, while recognising the growing responsibility to be aware of environmental factors, in part through the development of sustainable development measures for transport.

Following Russell, Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers outlined the basis for, and the potential implications of, the Landfill Tax Ban, including an exploration of what the Bill may mean for those who work within the waste sector, and the potentially significant environmental impacts that the landfill ban may have when it is introduced in 2021.

The conference also included timely discussion of the progress of the Planning Bill and case law updates from Terra Firma, informing delegates of the latest developments in recent key cases.

Planning’s role in promoting inclusive economic growth

The conference was closed by RSA Scotland’s Lesley Martin who discussed how planning can help to promote inclusive economic growth. She questioned how the implementation and translation of the planning bill into practice will impact on inclusive growth in towns and cities.

Economic growth within places, she argued, can be driven through effective planning, and inclusive planning processes can in turn help to create inclusive economic growth. The planning bill is, she suggested, a symbol and an opportunity to provide an ambitious statement of the potential of wiser policy approaches. Planning is not merely about controlling or enabling development – it is an example of how the way we think and behave more generally impacts on inclusive growth in our towns and cities.

Summing up

This year’s SPEL conference sought to explore some of the wider implications of the Planning Bill for Scottish planning and the environment. By covering a range of topics the conference sought to highlight some of the key challenges and implications that the Bill may pose to the profession and to practice. The speakers were brought together to provide a range of perspectives and to help frame these issues for delegates and raise points for discussion and debate – and there was certainly plenty of that!

We would like to thank our speakers, those who attended and our sponsors, and hope to see you all next year!


We publish Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal every two months. More information on the journal and how to subscribe is available here.

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Build to rent: opening up opportunities for supply in the private rented sector

Anyone with any experience of the private rented sector (PRS) will tell you that it is a complex entity. Disjointed, difficult to regulate and control, but for many, an essential part of the housing market.

Despite the many criticisms often levelled at the private rented sector, demand is high – so high that in many areas it is outstripping supply. If you consider that the market in Scotland alone has grown by over a third since 1999 that will give you an idea of the scale of growth across the whole of the UK.

It has been suggested that this rise in demand for PRS properties has been driven in part by falling numbers of accessible social housing, and increasing numbers of people forced to rent in the private sector as they are unable to afford a deposit for a mortgage. The irony in many instances is that this group – largely segmented in customer profiles as “young professionals”, usually graduates with a reasonable wage – would probably be able to afford repayments on a mortgage but whether for the convenience and flexibility of renting, or lack of ability to save for a deposit (which in many areas of the UK are painfully high) they live in private rent housing.

The growth in the build-to-rent market

One of the emerging markets within the PRS, which has been popular for a few years now in cities in the USA, is the build to rent market and it is being heralded as (part of) the solution to the supply-demand challenge in the UK’s PRS.

Build to rent in principle involves an investor – usually a large multinational like Legal and General or Shell – putting up the money to build a complex, usually of self-contained studio, one or two-bedroom flats (although increasingly the model is being applied to suburban “family” homes too). There is usually also a communal space, where people living in the complex can come to meet one another, or perhaps work if they are able to work flexibly from home. There is also usually a shared kitchen area, as well as facilities like gyms, and even cinemas. These commercial landlords provide attrractive, and based on current models, high-end accommodation which often most suits the needs of the “young professional” market.

A solution to a social as well as a housing conundrum

Those who support the build to rent model within the PRS highlight that it has wider benefits than simply providing more accommodation in an increasingly stretched market. They also stress the benefits of the social aspect it can provide to residents, as well as facilities which enable flexible working and spaces which promote healthy living such as onsite gyms.

However, others criticise the projects on a number of fronts. Some are concerned that the projects could encourage gentrification of an area. With rents often being as much as a small mortgage, they are, critics argue, aimed at a market who are choosing to rent, either while they save for a house, or because the flexibility of renting suits their lifestyle, allowing them to be closer to jobs for example. They stress that those who are already being exploited by the PRS will see little to no benefit from these developments, which could potentially price them out of existing areas.

Supporters counter this by saying that these developments are aimed at a specific area of the market, and that actually introducing more mid-market renting accommodation may free up cheaper accommodation for lower income renters. Critics also question the benefit to the wider housing market, suggesting that while it looks good on the surface, in practice, build to rent is not going to solve the housing crisis.

How do we make it appealing to local authorities?

In Scotland, certainly, build to rent is in its infancy, with no specific build to rent projects in operation currently, although there are a number of planning applications in process, and some retrofitted buildings, previously derelict and remodelled to fit the build to rent spec. Meanwhile, there are a number of projects in the pipeline in England, where the model has already taken off in a number of locations, including London and Manchester.

However, it appears that in many instances, local authorities are cautious, and even at times reluctant to support build to rent projects, in part because of uncertainty about the schemes. In addition, a lack of support for the model, particularly among traditional planners is making them reluctant to bring build to rent projects forward. It is up to those within the sector to persuade sceptical local authorities that build to rent can work in a number of different settings, and does not just suit a young professional market in an inner city (although that is its current demographic target).

The future of build to rent

The housing sector is reliant on all areas of it functioning properly, and this includes the private rented sector. While build to rent is not being proclaimed as a panacea for the housing crisis in the UK, it can for many be a useful option within the PRS. How it will be utilised, and the potential impact on the PRS in the UK remains to be seen.


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Rent pressure zones

In December 2017 the Scottish Government passed legislation (Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016) which introduced a raft of measures relating to the private rented sector in Scotland, hoping to tackle issues such as supply, security and tenant rights. One of the headline policies from this piece of legislation was the introduction of Rent Pressure Zones (RPZ’s). The scheme allows local authorities to apply for areas to be designated as Rent Pressure Zones, limiting the ability of private sector landlords in the area to raise rents above a set level. The idea is to use rent control to ensure the market within a particular area remains stable; demand for social housing should not be put under increasing pressure as a result of tenants being priced out of the private rented sector by rising rents.

What’s happened in Ireland?

In the Republic of Ireland, legislation similar to that of Scotland was enacted in 2016. This included measures to introduce RPZ’s to 21 administrative electoral areas, including Dublin and Cork. In these areas, similarly to the Scottish model, landlords can impose a maximum rent increase on existing tenants, but issues with enforcement have proved challenging.  One of the major challenges local housing charity workers are reporting is the termination of contracts of existing tenants, so that landlords can bring in new tenants who they would then be able to charge more, because they are exempt from the terms of the RPZ’s.

Local authorities making a good case is vital

As was mentioned earlier, the responsibility of applying to have an area designated as a rent pressure zone falls on local authorities. One of the consistent challenges raised by academics, researchers, and those working elsewhere within the sector is the lack of data, or at least the lack of detailed, robust, quality data on which applications to designate an area and RPZ can be based. It has been suggested that in order to better support local authorities to make good applications, (which are likely to be accepted) the quality and accessibility of data available to local authorities must be addressed.

Supporting local authorities to increase supply of affordable housing is also important in high rent areas to allow all areas of the housing market to function effectively. Driving quality and affordability in one sector, it is hoped will drive up quality and standards in others to give people access to affordable quality homes in areas in which they actually want to live.

But will rent controls work?

Research conducted by academics on behalf of Shelter sought to review the use of rent controls across Europe. It shows a number of different models and how they have been adapted to reflect changes in the market. The term ‘rent regulation’ is commonly applied across Europe to refer to measures which seek to limit ‘in-tenancy’ rent increases, whilst leaving the rents for new tenancies free to find their place within the market. The research highlights the differing fortunes of those who have tried to impose rent controls, through RPZs and other means. Some have found it has had the desired impact, ensuring rent rates remain manageable for people living in an area. However, in addition to the Republic of Ireland, others have found challenges with implementation and enforcement.

Final thoughts

It will take time for this policy to bed in in Scotland, and for local authorities, government and the PRS to fully understand the impact it will have. It may mean that additional legislation may need to be introduced as a regulation method, or that landlords on the whole recognise the wider benefits to them and their sector which increased security can bring. However, the way that this element of the legislation was brought in (many think as a knee- jerk reaction to rising rents in Aberdeen which have now collapsed with the fall in oil prices) has meant that it has not been especially well thought out and the practicalities of its implementation on the ground have not been fully considered. Its long-term impact on the PRS, and on rent in areas more generally will be seen in the coming years. The rest of the UK will be watching intently to see how the Scottish project works. Ultimately, it could be replicated, particularly in large urban centres in England, including London, Manchester and Birmingham.


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The private rented sector: meeting demand and improving data

A mixed reception for Labour’s housing green paper

Released with nowhere to go: housing solutions for prisoners

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The private rented sector: meeting demand and improving data

The private rented sector (PRS) has grown recently, to become a more than significant part of the housing market in the UK. A shortfall in social housing availability, and extortionate deposit costs for first time buyers has meant that demand in the private sector has grown exponentially since the 1990s, the sector now taking in clients from across the demographic spectrum.

But research has shown the demand for private rent housing is not just about finance. Increasingly, many young professionals actively choose to live in the private rented sector because they like the flexibility and locational benefits of private rents. Renting privately can mean they are able to move freely for jobs without being constrained by a mortgage, and live in city centre locations, with short commutes and close proximity to amenities like shops, restaurants, gyms and cinemas.

Despite the growing “young professional” market, the sector also (in some areas) has something of an image problem. Characterised by rogue landlords charging extortionate rents for poor quality homes, with the ability to remove tenants without reason or much notice. This negative aspect, which centres on the issue of tenant rights and security within the private sector, is something which has been discussed widely at a number of events recently, for example, at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) event we attended in Glasgow last month. It is also something which last year the Scottish Government legislated to try and mitigate.

Ensuring quality in a place people can call home

One of the other major issues that is often highlighted with PRS is the need for a minimum quality standard, bringing private lets into line with the minimum standards (supposedly) adhered to in social housing. The legislation and policing of this element of the PRS is proving more complicated to navigate, although it is something which is being discussed within the Scottish Government.

There is also the growing issue of the short-term rented sector. You cannot have failed to notice, whether you work in housing or not, the rise of sites like AirBnB and HomeAway which allow individuals to list entire properties or spare rooms out on a short-term basis. Concerns as to the growth of this market have been raised the world over. The major issues are the impact on permanent residents, who can find having new neighbours each week disconcerting, and on the local housing market more generally, as the rise of short term lets then reduces the pool available for longer term private lets. Cities like Barcelona are, however, beginning to look at how regulation and use of permits can address the negative impacts, and are being watched the world over to see if their actions will work.

How can we meet demand?

It is often said that housing is a complex flux of different sub-sectors, and that, more often than not, one cannot function effectively without the other. The PRS, the housing market and social housing are all reliant on each other to help control demand and prices and ensure that everyone, regardless of circumstance, has somewhere that they can call home.

One of the major issues with meeting demand is space and land to build; another is funding and another is understanding exactly who needs homes, and what type of homes they need. In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.

Understanding these trends will be key to meeting demand. In order to do this the data on housing, particularly within the private rented sector needs to improve. Research from the Urban Big Data Centre and CaCHE found that data is lacking, and that we need to improve it if we are to improve the PRS more generally.

A recent evaluation by the Welsh Government of Rent Smart Wales found that Rent Smart Wales and its database of registered landlords has provided good quality information and guidance to local authorities and landlords, as well as driving up standards within the PRS in Wales. Learning from how data collected on the Rent Smart Wales database can be maximised to provide an accessible source of information on the PRS in Wales is very important going forward, and this is something we are seeing increasingly across the sector – the desire for more data, to help those within the sector make better decisions.

What next?

A report released by LSE in June 2018 found that while the PRS has grown significantly, projections suggest that it will start to level out, and reach a state of stasis, or even decline in the coming years. Other reports have contradicted this, however, stating that unless there is an intervention or significant change in house prices, more people than ever will be forced to live within the PRS.

What does seem to be agreed upon is that better data and understanding of the sector and how to manage it is necessary and that ultimately, standards will improve across the board, with or without government intervention, but the way we view private rented sector accommodation will also change.

PRS properties will not only be buy-to-let houses, converted into HMOs, or tiny bedsits where 5 people share 2 rooms. Instead the market for sectors like build-to-rent are growing, and changing the expectations of the new generation of renters about what to expect from PRS accommodation.

In the future the ambition is for high quality, stability and housing which is suitable for a range of different tenants and their needs from young professionals and families with children, right through to older people living in retirement villages managed by a corporate landlord. It is hoped this will help stabilise rents and improve standards across the board, creating affordable places that people can plan to live in long term, with security and quality at their heart.


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Multiplying excellence: maths schools in the UK

In a report published for National Numeracy Day, it was revealed that innumeracy and poor numeracy skills costs the UK economy over £20bn. And despite there being no scientific research to support the idea of a ‘maths person’, more than three-quarters of children at secondary school surveyed ahead of National Numeracy Day believe that some people are naturally able to do maths better than others. Combatting these challenges by improving attainment and study of maths past GCSE (and STEM subjects more widely) has been a target for the UK government for some years, with the current government highlighting it as a specific objective in order to fulfil the aims of the Industrial Strategy.

The challenge of innumeracy

Public perceptions of maths are poor. Research suggests that it is far more socially acceptable for an adult to say “oh I can’t work this sum out” than to say for example that they can’t read a word. As we get older, while reading and writing, and general literacy, is seen as something that is essential, many do not hold basic maths and numeracy skill in the same regard. This is despite the fact that being innumerate can have just as significant an impact on someone as being illiterate.

The knock-on impact of poor numeracy skills can be seen throughout adult life:  poorer employment prospects; lower confidence and self-esteem, and as a result poorer mental health; increased risk of poverty; and an increased likelihood of having a poor grasp of personal finances and as a result higher risk of unsustainable levels of debt. In addition, poor parental numeracy, has been shown to have an impact on the numeracy and confidence around maths of children and young people who grow up in the same environment. While we can’t all be maths prodigies, it is thought that poor parental attitudes to numeracy is leading to children, particularly girls and those from deprived or lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to miss out on opportunities to advance their maths education. It is hoped that specific targeted interventions, such as the introduction of maths schools will provide an environment for these pupils to flourish, and then go on to inspire the next generation.

 

Lagging in the Pisa rankings

The latest PISA rankings (the new figures are due to be published later this year) show that the UK is, and has been, performing consistently poorer than a number of other developed nations. However, students from east Asia by far outperform most others. Schools are also being encouraged, as well as providing specialist maths teaching, to try to integrate some of the techniques used in Chinese and Singaporean schools in particular to drive improvement in the subject. In addition, the number of young people who take maths as an optional subject (once it becomes non-compulsory after GCSE level) is staggeringly low. Raising this, along with the general quality of maths teaching should be a priority of all schools, not just those which offer a specialist maths education.

From Russia with love

Back when Michael Gove was Education Secretary he had an idea to base maths free schools on the model seen in Russia, particularly on the Kolmogorov Physics and Mathematics school in Moscow. The specialist school which allows young people aged 11-17 to complete their formal education in a maths-centred environment is part of Moscow State University. The association with the university means that students are taught by professors and research assistants, not only raising their attainment in the subject, but exposing them to quality teaching from professionals passionate about their subject, inspiring them to understand the professional routes that further mathematics study can bring. This is something that research has suggested is not widely available in UK schools.

Maths schools in the UK

There are two specialist maths schools in the country: Kings College Mathematics School, and Exeter Mathematics School. H callowever the government has released extra funding to try to encourage other universities to set up affiliated maths schools, making use of their teaching resource and providing an opportunity for those gifted and interested enough in the subject to excel.

In Scotland, a report published in 2018 titled Making maths count suggested that maths be made a national priority, highlighting that while there were pockets of exceptional practice in Scotland, there was a lack of co-ordination when it came to sharing expertise and best practice between schools. There are no plans to encourage a similar programme to maths schools in Scotland, but suggested improvements to raise levels of teaching in maths education in Scotland have included changing the requirements for teacher training, to require new teachers to have at least a higher qualification in maths (they already have to have a higher in English to teach and some have asked why it is not the case for maths too). Additionally, projects relating to “maths upskilling” of both the current and new teaching workforce in Scotland are designed to build confidence in using maths and applying it to real life situations so that it can be taught to a high standard with a good level of understanding (which the report found is not always the case currently).

Final thoughts

Future mathematicians  are vital for the future growth of the economy. And not just in the obvious areas like maths teaching, economics and statistics. The “age of digital” presents unprecedented opportunities for those with maths-based qualifications, with the demand for skilled workers with an expertise in maths far outstripping the availability of skilled maths graduates. It is hoped that the introduction (and the government hopes future further rollout) of maths schools in England will help to promote maths as a subject and raise attainment and standards in maths to encourage a new generation of maths learners to be developed.


Want to check up on your maths skills? Take the National Numeracy Challenge.

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