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.


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Dementia and the right to vote

On 3rd May 2018 voters in England will go to the polls in local elections. These elections will decide the make-up of local and borough councils across the UK, as well as some additional direct elections for the Mayoralties of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford.

As the population ages, questions arise over the ability and voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Formal enquiries to council election teams, and general Google searches about the legal rights of someone with dementia to vote are increasing in number.

A dementia diagnosis does not alter a person’s right to vote. The Mental Capacity Act, which provides a framework for making decisions on behalf of people who lack capacity to make a decision, does not apply to voting. This means that a lack of mental capacity does not stop someone from being able to vote. It is up to the individual to decide if they want to vote. However, challenges can sometimes arise, if for example relatives vote for the individual, rather than on their behalf, voting for who they “think” the individual would have voted for, rather than who the individual themselves have expressed a wish to vote for.

This grey area can sometimes present challenges, especially as often this goes on in private. However, there are steps that can be taken to make voting as transparent as possible, and make the process of voting as accessible as possible for people with dementia (and other disabilities).

Image by secretlondon123, via Creative Commons

Physical adaptations

Physical adaptations can be made to the polling environment to make it more accessible for voters with dementia and Alzheimer’s. While there is a responsibility to make sure that polling stations are accessible to all, some adaptations can sometimes be overlooked, or are not made as obvious as they could be. Making polling stations “dementia friendly” can require just a few short adaptations, including perhaps a specific polling booth which uses labels like “in” and “out” and “pencil” in the booth itself.

Training for polling station staff on understanding how to react to and deal with voters who attend polling stations who have dementia is also seen as very important. In particular, there may be those who may need a carer to enter into the polling station with them. Poll station staff should be able to direct such voters in an appropriate way, regarding how to vote appropriately, especially if there are multiple elections happening on one day, with multiple ballot papers. Polling station staff should also be aware that they are able to help the voter to mark the paper (as the voter chooses) if for some reason they are unable to mark the page or hold the pencil themselves.

Removing additional barriers to voting such as reminding the individual to attend their polling station on the right day, or providing transport for those who are not mobile or do not know how to get to their polling station can also help make the process of voting in person, on the day a more pleasant experience for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Postal or proxy votes: voting remotely from home

Increasing awareness of postal and proxy voting is another way that people with dementia and Alzheimer’s could exercise their right to vote without causing distress or confusion (which can sometimes be instigated by physically attending a polling station).

Postal voting allows the individual to vote from home and submit their ballot (and accompanying postal vote statement) via post. Voting by post can help reduce the potential stresses of an unfamiliar environment like the polling station. A signature is usually required on a postal vote, for security reasons, but if a voter is unable to sign their name, or if their signature varies a lot, then they can ask for a waiver. (If you want to do this, contact your local registration officer and they will help you, usually by sending you a waiver request form.)

A proxy vote allows the voter to nominate another person to vote on their behalf. A proxy does not make the decision about who to vote for on behalf of the person, but rather votes for who they are instructed to vote for by the original voter.

Guidance from the electoral commission has also been issued for Electoral Registration Officers (EROs), with regard to assisted applications to vote, and what can and can’t be done on behalf of a voter. This includes the presumption that a person has capacity. In addition, residents of care homes can be registered to vote by care home managers, who can complete an application for all residents, but again, cannot vote on their behalf (unless they are a registered proxy for the voter).

Graphic design image: three padlocks in front of a futuristic city.

Challenges and opportunities in the future

Additional challenges could be presented by the development of electronic voting. However, this could also be seen as an opportunity to create a voting system which is actually more straight forward and is easier to navigate for people with multiple disabilities, including dementia.

Estonia has one of the best developed e-voting systems in the world, with voting linked to a national digital ID card which contains photos and digital copies of fingerprints for additional security. The system can make the process of voting clearer, and also make it easier for people with a limited range of movement to vote themselves. However, there are a number of questions which have been raised as to whether this would be a feasible option in Britain.

Some have suggested it would not actually make voting any easier, that it would require a major overhaul of voting systems and the transfer of a lot of data and information, and that, given the recent uncertainty around cyber-attacks, there can be little certainty, with current software, that the process could be completely reliable and secure.

Final thoughts

Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.

In 2017 the government launched a Call for Evidence asking for views on how people with disabilities experience registering to vote and voting itself. This included people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, although the results of this are as yet unpublished.

It is clear that, exercising your right to vote is something that should be protected for all citizens, but with the growing challenges raised by an ageing population, the time may be coming for the UK to have a major rethink about how it votes, and what changes could be made to make this easier for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.


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

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

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

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

An erosion of traditional lifestyles and cultures

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

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

Challenges span generations, and create entrenched barriers

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

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

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

Could art be the bridge to build understanding between communities?

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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


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

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

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

Hearing young people’s voices

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

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

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

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

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

Co-production and giving young people a choice

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

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

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

Award winning approach

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

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

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Joining the digital revolution: social workers’ use of digital media

In January 2018, NHS digital published a report, which highlighted the accessibility and availability of digital platforms to help social workers with their job role. The research, which was compiled from survey data, sought to understand not only how social work could be supported through the use of IT and digital platforms, but also to assess the current level of usage and understanding of digital technologies among the current workforce. While more than half of survey respondents said they had access to a smart phone as part of their role, far fewer were actually able to access case notes and other necessary documents digitally from outside the office.

The survey found there was an appetite for greater and better use of digital media in day-to-day work, which practitioners felt would not only improve their ability to work more flexibly but could also be used to forge better relationships with people who use services. In some instances, respondents to the survey felt improved use of digital media may provide a way to communicate more effectively with those who had previously been unwilling to engage, particularly in relation to social work with young people. The research found that digital technology was used in a range of ways to build and manage positive relationships, particularly with service users, including:

  • communicating with them to gather specific data (as part of assessment);
  • delivering interventions (such as self-guided therapy or telecare); and
  • supporting team work (peer support and online supervision)

Questions around the use of social media

Earlier research around the use of digital media in social care more generally found that it is used in a variety of capacities, such as storing and maintaining records, communications and day-to-day tasks such as booking appointments and scheduling in visits. However, the use of digital technologies by social workers can at times extend beyond simply maintaining records and scheduling visits. Many felt that while digital media in some ways makes their job easier, in other ways it can add to the stress of an already difficult job role.

A lot of the anxiety concerning digital technologies centres around social media. In the most positive of ways, it can be a core platform to allow service users to communicate, and make the social work team appear more accessible to people who may feel uneasy communicating in more formal ways. However, significant challenges around ethics and practice remain. Repeated instances of social workers being reprimanded have made some social workers wary of using social media platforms. In September 2017 HCPC published guidance which encourages practitioners to continue to use social media, but to seek advice and help if they are ever unsure. The guidance suggested that social media, if used responsibly, could support professionals to raise the profile of the profession and network with others nationally and internationally.

Supporting confidentiality and security

For many social workers and social work supervisors many of the challenges around using digital media centre on the necessity for confidentiality and security of information. While much of social work practice within offices is digitised with regard to record and case file keeping and report writing, security issues concerning remote access to files is one of the major challenges. In many cases until digital security can be assured, it will be difficult for social workers to work fully remotely and flexibly without some travel back to the office. GDPR also raises some interesting questions for the profession with regards to storing and accessing data.

An opportunity to improve information sharing and partnership working

It is well recognised that the use of digital media provides an opportunity to improve efficiency and partnership working within social work. If used effectively and supported well, it can allow information to be stored, shared and accessed across a range of different services, which can be particularly useful for increased health and social care integration. However, challenges in practice remain – including the ability of social workers to remotely access notes and information, the need to align working and IT systems, and the ability to access and read data in a number of formats across a number of devices. Research stresses the importance of risk management and appropriate training for staff so that they feel comfortable and confident using media platforms.

A welcome change in the profession?

For many within the profession, the rise of digital platforms as a way to engage with service users and provide increased support and flexibility for social workers themselves has been a positive development. It is a great leveller and can encourage service users who feel comfortable to engage in a much more transparent way with social workers. However, NHS Digital research shows that there are still significant challenges. Overcoming these to successfully integrate digital platforms and interfaces into social work practice has the potential to revolutionise not only how social workers engage with service users, but how they themselves conduct their work. Improved collaboration with other services, increased flexibility, and increased capacity for completing and recording continuing professional development and training to improve practice are just some of the potential fruits of social work’s digital revolution.


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Exploring Barnahus: a Nordic approach to supporting child abuse victims

Barnahus (which literally means Children´s house) is a child-friendly, interdisciplinary and multiagency centre where different professionals work under one roof in investigating suspected child sexual abuse cases and provide appropriate support for child victims.

Learning from the Nordic countries

Barnahus has assumed a key role in the child protection and child justice systems of many Nordic countries, including Sweden and Iceland. While there are some small differences in definition of the model across these nations, the general principle remains the same: to create a one-stop-shop for services that children can access under one roof. Services range from country to country, but usually include a combination of police, criminal justice services, child and adolescent mental health practitioners, paediatric doctors and social services.

The Barnahus model involves a high level of interdisciplinary working between different teams and allows for a complete package of care and support for a child to be created to reflect their needs. Within the Barnahus centres there are normally facilities including medical rooms, interview rooms, courtrooms, and residential facilities for those young people deemed at risk and who need to be taken immediately into temporary residential care.

Evaluations of areas that use this model of intervention have found significantly better outcomes for child victims and their families because of the multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach. Some discussions have also suggested that creating an adapted model for adult victims could also be a possibility in the future.

Reducing the trauma for victims of child sexual abuse

In England, it is estimated that only 1 in 8 victims of child sexual abuse are identified by the authorities. Children who disclose that they have been sexually abused face multiple interviews in multiple settings to a number of different people, often asking them the same questions. This can be confusing and frightening, as well as traumatic for many children who have to repeatedly recount the story of their abuse. Once the interview process is over, they can also then face long waiting times to access specialist therapeutic support.

The Barnahus model seeks to reduce some of the trauma experienced by victims of child sexual abuse by making the approach child-focused, emphasising the importance of a positive, safe and supportive environment in which to be seen by specialists, give evidence and receive support. For example, within the models used in Iceland children and young people are interviewed and examined within a week of the abuse allegation being made. These interviews are all conducted and recorded in a single location with specially trained officers and medical professionals, and they are then used in court as evidence, avoiding the victim having to revisit court in order to give evidence or testify.

Inside the centre, a specially trained interviewer asks questions, while other parties watch via a video link. Any questions they have are fed through an earpiece to the interviewer. Lawyers for the accused have to put all their questions at this point.

Another benefit to the model is that children who are interviewed are then able to access immediate assistance and counselling; in the current system in England, children may face cross-examination in court months after the alleged abuse, and would have to wait for victim support therapy.

Allocation of funding from government

In 2017, in response to the success reported in the Nordic models, the UK government earmarked Police Innovation Funding of £7.15m to help establish and roll out a similar scheme in London, which would see criminal justice specialists working alongside social services, child psychologists and other services and, it is hoped, pave the way to create a UK-wide Barnahus model in the future.

Building on the existing model in London, CYP Haven, which provides largely clinical, short term care, will provide a multi-agency, long-term support and advocacy service that is expected to support over 200 children and young people each year. Criminal justice aspects of aftercare will be embedded in the service, with evidence-gathering interviews led by child psychologists on behalf of the police and social workers, and court evidence provided through video links to aid swifter justice.


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Walk this way- the benefits of walking for people and cities

In a quality city, a person should be able to live their entire life without a car, and not feel deprived” – Paul Bedford, City of Toronto Planning Director (2014)

Improvements to the design and layouts of streets and cities can have a significant impact on encouraging more of us to walk. However, many people living in cities face a significant number of barriers to being physically active where they live, particularly in relation to walking. Pathways and public spaces such as parks and throughways are often unappealing, unsafe, congested, traffic filled, noisy or for some completely inaccessible, which leads to a reliance on vehicular travel and a reluctance to be physically active within the city environment.

Walkable environments consider not only the physical design of routes, but also features and facilities that are inclusive of the widest possible range of needs; for example, places for people to rest along their journeys (including well designed seats and benches), accessible toilet facilities, signage and street design that is sensitive to a range of needs and that can help with orientation and wayfinding. However, the benefits are clear across the board when it comes to trying to make our cities more walkable (and as a result healthier). This blog post outlines a few of these potential benefits, and considers how planners can get involved in realising some of them through effective planning and design in their own cities.

Social benefits
Safe, walkable, environments can provide opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to stay socially connected and engaged. This can be particularly helpful in communities with a lot of children, older people or vulnerable adults. Having areas that are known to be safe can help to encourage people to leave their homes, reducing the impact of loneliness and social isolation, and improving their sense and feeling of community in their local area, which in turn can help with health and wellbeing and community cohesion.

Health benefits
Walking is good for us! In August this year a survey by Public Health England revealed that four in 10 middle-aged adults fail to manage even one brisk 10-minute walk a month. This despite research showing that walking each day can rapidly reduce risk of health conditions such as stroke and heart attack. Promoting active lifestyles through encouraging walking has also been shown to help tackle the growing issue of obesity, particularly among younger people. Walking can also be good for mental health, particularly when it is done as a group. Increasingly, walking interventions are being prescribed as part of social prescription initiatives to help people regain health, fitness and confidence. But in order for these to be effective, spaces and suitable environments for walking need to be made available.

Environmental benefits
For many cities, London, Manchester and Glasgow included, congestion and air pollution are major issues. Creating walkable cities, and encouraging walking, cycling and other more environmentally friendly modes of transport can have a significant impact on the levels of pollution within an area. Reducing vehicle use can also have an impact on noise, water, thermal and light pollution in our cities too. Some attempts are being made to reduce the level of pollution in our cities – vehicles in central London have been subject to a congestion charge for a number of years. However, recent developments and attempts to reduce the high levels of air pollution in the city have led to the introduction of the “T-Charge”. It has been suggested that the money raised from this charge could be used to fund green transport initiatives, and this includes improving cycle and walkways and making streets more easy to navigate on foot.

Economic benefits
Walkable spaces can act as a catalyst for local economic vitality, regeneration and tourism. Research has shown that improving public spaces, and creating an environment which encourages more people to walk safely, (and free from the noise, smell and feelings of claustrophobia that can come with high levels of car traffic) has a significant and positive impact on businesses, resulting in people spending more time, but also more money in shops and town centres.

Creating walkable cities: what can be done to help
Planners and city officials are increasingly aware of the need to promote more open, safe and accessible public spaces in new development areas. However, some cities have already implemented practices that could be taken forward in the future. Organisations like Living Streets have produced road maps and blueprints of how cities can use planning to improve public spaces, make them walker friendly and reduce reliance on vehicles. Consultancies like Arup have also produced research on the benefits of creating “walkable cities” and in 2014 RTPI launched their own report on the benefits of planning for “healthier cities” (which includes provision for making cities more walkable). In 2017 the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a briefing on transforming public spaces to promote physical activity in cities. There are a number of ways in which planners and city planning teams can have a positive impact on promoting change to encourage more walking in our cities including:

  • Create walkable neighbourhoods – In Melbourne a “local connectivity plan” was introduced in 2014. The plan was used to build a network of neighbourhoods which had social, leisure and retail facilities within a 20 minute walk of people’s homes.
  • Prioritise walking, and “walkable spaces” in development and regeneration plans – The mayor of London appointed a walking and cycling commissioner in 2017, whose role is to make walking and cycling easier and safer across the capital. The mayor’s new ‘healthy streets’ approach is a commitment to a system of healthy streets and strategies that will help Londoners use cars less and walk, cycle and use public transport more.
  • Make walking safe – Designing walkways and footpaths that incorporate wide, well lit pathways, well signposted and nicely designed and maintained routes has been shown to be one of the main factors in encouraging people to walk more within their local area.
  • Make walking easy (and fun) – Go Jauntly is a new walking app that uses photographs rather than maps to guide users on routes around woods and byways. Walkers can add their own routes, and it is hoped that it the app will “increase the social appeal of people walking together” coming up with new routes within their own neighbourhoods, or areas they like to walk in.

If you found this article interesting, you might also like to read our previous blogs:

It’s a kind of magic: how green infrastructure is changing landscapes and lives

Hidden in plain sight – the value of green spaces

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Who’s caring for our young carers?

In less than two months time the UK will come together to recognise the 700,000 young people in the UK who provide care and support to families and friends, on Young Carers Awareness Day on 25 January.

Every day, children and young people provide physical and emotional care and support to their family members. Helping with household tasks, they care for young siblings, administer medication and deal with the emotional and physical stress of caring for a loved one with an illness. Estimates of the number of young carers living in the UK vary greatly. But Carers Trust suggests the number of young carers to be around 700,000 – that’s 1 in 12 secondary school-aged pupils. And those are only the ones we know about. Too many are falling through the net, going unnoticed and unidentified by services who can support them.

Attainment and employment

Earlier this year we joined in publicising the 2017 Young Carers Awareness Day, whose theme was “When I grow up”. The idea was to help people to understand how difficult it can be for young carers to realise their hopes and dreams for the future without the right support in place. A survey conducted by the Young Carers Trust found that over half (53%) of those surveyed were having problems in coping with schoolwork, with nearly 60% struggling to meet deadlines. Over 70% have had to take time out of school or learning specifically to care for a family member. A third admitted that they have to skip school most weeks.

With over 50% of young carers surveyed by The Children’s Society admitting that their caring responsibilities have caused them to miss days at school, and the burden of caring impacting on the ability of children to engage fully with school activities, it is unsurprising that young carers are twice as likely to be NEET as their peers. In addition, young carers in work find caring responsibilities have a disruptive effect on their workplace attendance, with understanding and flexible employers often being the difference between young adult carers remaining in work or becoming unemployed.

Mental health and wellbeing

Caring for a relative takes a massive toll on a young person. Recent reports published by Carers Trust and the Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland (CYPS) both show the significant mental health burden that caring places on a young person. Stress, isolation and anxiety that can come as a result of being a carer can have a significant impact on a child as they lose much of their contact with the outside world, become removed from social groups and miss out on opportunities to experience a “normal” childhood. Projects like Off the Record’s Young Carers Project in Croydon provide support and opportunities for respite for young carers. But it is clear that as child and adolescent mental health services  (CAMHS) are becoming increasingly stretched themselves, it is more important than ever to ensure that specialist services are also made available to young carers.

Partnerships working to provide support

Young carers often come into contact with multiple services. Education, social care, health and others all have an impact on young carers and their experiences and as a result can have a positive impact on their experiences too. Increasingly, services are being encouraged to cooperate in order to create a holistic support network for young carers, which encompasses every area of need they may have, and creates a seamless transition for young carers through all of their interactions with various services. Key coordinators and facilitators are vital in this role.

In the previously referenced report from CYPS, it was highlighted that many young carers felt positive about – and took pride in – their caring role, but that around two-thirds also said they felt “left out of things” at least some of the time. While they care for their loved ones, we need to make sure someone is caring for them.


Young Carers Awareness Day 2018 will take place on 25 January 2018.


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