The Knowledge Exchange Blog

The official blog of The Knowledge Exchange from Idox

Ugly veg: supermarkets aren’t the biggest food wasters – you are

Image via The Conversation, Amophoto_au/Shutterstock

This guest blog was written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

“Ugly” or “wonky” veg were blamed for up to 40% of wasted fruit and vegetables in 2013, as produce was discarded for failing to meet retailer appearance standards. About 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted worldwide every year and, of this, fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food type. But just how much of that is due to “ugly veg” being tossed by farms and supermarkets? The biggest culprit for food waste may be closer to home than we’d like to admit.

“Ugliness” is just one reason among many for why food is wasted at some point from farm to fork – there’s also overproduction, improper storage and disease. But the problem of “wonky veg” caught the public’s attention.

A report published in 2017 suggested that sales of “wonky veg” have risen in recent years as retailers have acknowledged the problem with wasting edible food, but it’s estimated that up to 25% of apples, 20% of onions and 13% of potatoes grown in the UK are still wasted on cosmetic grounds.

Morrisons reported that consumers had begun to buy more misshapen food, whereas Sainsbury’s and Tesco both report including “wonky veg” in their recipe boxes, juices, smoothies and soups.

Not all ugly veg is wasted at the retail point of the supply chain however. WRAP, a charity who have been working with governments on food waste since 2000, have investigated food waste on farms and their initial findings suggest a major cause of fruit waste is due to produce failing aesthetic standards. For example, strawberries are often discarded if they’re the wrong size for supermarkets.

The National Farmers Union also reported in 2014 that around 20% of Gala apples were being wasted prior to leaving the farm gate as they weren’t at least 50% red in colour.

Home is where the waste is

Attitudes seem to be changing on “ugly veg” at least. Morissons ran a campaign to promote its “ugly veg” produce aisle, and other supermarkets are stocking similar items. Despite this, household waste Love Food Hate Waste for food waste in the UK. Just under 5m tonnes of food wasted in the UK occurs in households – a staggering 70% of all post-farm gate food waste.

A further million tonnes is wasted in the hospitality sector, with the latest government report blaming overly generous portion sizes. This suggests that perhaps – despite the best effort of campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste – farms and retailers have been unfairly targeted by the “wonky veg” campaigns at the expense of focusing on where food waste really hits home. The 2013 Global Food Security Report put the figure for household and hospitality waste at 50% of total UK food waste.

There are some signs we’re getting better at least. WRAP’s 2015 research showed that, at the household level, people now waste 1m tonnes of food per year less than they did in 2007. This is a staggering £3.4 billion per year saved simply by throwing less edible produce away.

As climate change and its influence on extreme weather intensifies, reducing waste from precious food harvests will only become more important. Knowing exactly where the majority of waste occurs, rather than focusing too much on “wonky veg” in farms and supermarkets, is an important step towards making sure everyone has enough affordable and nutritious food to live on.

During the UK’s “Dig for Victory” campaign in World War II, a large proportion of the population had to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Now the majority of people live in cities and towns – typically detached from primary food production. In the UK, the MYHarvest project has started to uncover how much “own-growing” contributes to the national diet and it seems demand for land to grow-your-own is increasing.

Research in Italy and Germany found that people who grow their own food waste the least. One way to fight food waste at home then – whether for “wonky” fruit and vegetables or otherwise – may be to replace the farm-to-fork supply chain with a garden-to-plate approach.


Guest blog written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Putting the brakes on rent rises: will London adopt rent controls?

Earlier this year, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan revealed that he plans to include the introduction of rent controls on private rented residential properties in the capital as one of his manifesto promises in the 2020 mayoral election:

“The housing crisis is now having such an effect on a generation of Londoners that the arguments in favour of rent stabilisation and control are becoming overwhelming.”

Research published in 2018, found that for the third consecutive year London was the most expensive city in Europe for renting accommodation. The Mayor is concerned about rent increases, particularly by unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords. He now seems set to call on the government to grant him new powers on rent stabilisation.

The case against controls

Opponents of rent restrictions believe that landlords finding their rental income reduced would be unable to maintain properties, leading to poorer housing standards. Some might choose to sell their properties rather than put up with controls on their income, adding to London’s already acute shortage of accommodation to rent.

There is also concern that rent controls could strangle London’s fledgling build to rent (BTR) market. Across the UK, the number of BTR homes has soared – a 30% increase was reported in 2018 – and growth has been particularly strong in London. But some fear that rent controls could scare investors away from BTR, resulting in a fall in properties available to rent.

German lessons

Concern about rising rents is by no means confined to London, and if the capital does adopt rent controls, it will be following an international trend towards putting the brakes on rent rises in the private sector.

Germany introduced legislation in 2015 specifying that landlords taking on new tenants could only raise rents by up to 10% above the local average for similar properties. One of the first cities to use the new powers was Berlin, where rapidly rising population numbers have been putting greater strains on the city’s housing market. Hamburg and Munich were among the more than 300 cities that followed Berlin’s example.

Overall, the impact of Germany’s rent controls has not been as positive as intended. A study by the German Institute for Economic Research found that, while the rent controls had worked in areas affected by the most dramatic rent rises, such as parts of Berlin, in other areas it had not had the same effect. In contrast to the UK, more than 50% of Germans rent their homes, but rent controls have benefitted only a tiny proportion of that number.

The reasons for the failure of rent controls in Germany were set out by The Economist, which reported that landlords have used loopholes to circumvent the controls for newly renovated properties and accommodation being rented out for the first time. In addition, there are no sanctions against landlords who flout the rules. But the article also pointed out the law’s “fatal flaw”:

Landlords are not obliged to disclose a property’s previous rental price; rather, the renters must ask for it before agreeing a new price and signing a contract. In practice, this means that many renters wary of jeopardising their chances of striking a deal end up keeping mum. And a landlord can then add a few euros to the price above that permitted by the brake.

Across the water

In Ireland, rent controls were introduced at the start of 2017, limiting annual rent rises to 2%, but so far the measures have not proved successful. In the first quarter of 2019, rent prices in Dublin rose by 7%.

The reasons mirror the situation in Germany, with a large number of exemptions to the controls,  landlords charging much higher rents for new rental properties, and no sanctions for offending landlords.

The Scottish approach

In 2016, the Scottish Parliament passed regulations intended to strengthen the rights of people renting private accommodation. Among the provisions was a measure enabling local authorities to apply to Scottish ministers for permission to cap rent increases in designated areas. If local councils can prove that rents are rising too much in these “rent pressure zones” (RPZs), a maximum limit will be set on how much rents are allowed to increase for existing tenants each year in that area.

As of yet, no RPZs have been designated in Scotland. Some opponents of the measure have pointed to the difficulties local authorities face in making RPZs work, while others have branded them a failure, and called for them to replaced by nationwide rent controls.

Final thoughts

It remains to be seen whether Sadiq Khan does include rent controls in his election manifesto. If he does, and if he goes on to be re-elected, he will then have to persuade the UK government to grant him the necessary powers. After that, the question is whether London can make a success of rent controls where others have stumbled.


You may also find the following blog posts on the private rental sector of interest:

Zoning in on air pollution: low emission zones to tackle our dangerously dirty air

Image by Mike Malone

At the start of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution posed the greatest threat to global environmental health in 2019. The UN’s public health agency estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air every day.

Most of the pollutants in our air today come from traffic. Nitrogen dioxide and microscopically small particles emitted by motor vehicles can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, heightening the risks of heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory conditions.

In the UK, poor air quality is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution.

The road to cleaner air

Across Europe, national and local authorities have been responding to the health risks posed by air pollution with measures to tackle emissions from vehicles. Many have introduced low emission zones (also known as clean air zones). These regulate vehicles with higher emissions, banning the most polluting vehicles from entering the zone and requiring them to pay a fee if they enter the area.

In various countries, low emission zones have different rules according to the type of vehicle and whether it meets EU emissions standards. In Germany, for example, there is a national framework of low emission zones affecting all motor vehicles except motorcycles. In Denmark, a similar framework applies to all diesel-powered vehicles above 3.5 tonnes. In Paris, all vehicles entering the low emission zone are required to display a sticker according to their emissions standards. The most heavily polluting vehicles are not allowed in. In addition, any vehicle can be refused entrance to the city centre in response to high levels of pollution on a given day.

A growing number of UK cities, such as Leeds and Birmingham have been working on the introduction of low emission zones, and some have already been implemented in Norwich, Oxford and Brighton.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government plans to create low emissions zones in the country’s four biggest cities by 2020, and the first of these is now up and running in Glasgow. The first phase was launched in January, targeting buses, which are among the most polluting vehicles. Glasgow’s biggest bus operator, First Bus, has purchased 75 new buses fitted with low emissions systems complying with the EU’s Euro VI standards. The scheme will be extended to other vehicles in stages.

London’s LEZ and ULEZ

Since 2003, when the congestion charge was launched, London has taken the lead with measures to tackle what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls the city’s “filthy, toxic air”.

In 2008, London created a low emission zone, and in 2017 a Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) introduced a surcharge for the most polluting vehicles entering central London. But levels of pollution in the capital remain stubbornly high, and so new measures have now been developed.

From 8 April 2019, an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be in place in London, imposing tighter exhaust emission standards. The ULEZ will cost £12.50 for diesel cars manufactured before 2015, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars cars, motorcycles and vans up to 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes will have to pay £100 to enter central London. These charges are on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. Failure to pay the ULEZ will result in fines of £160 upwards.

By 2021, the ULEZ will be extended to the north and south circular roads, taking in more London boroughs, including Brent, Camden, Newham, Haringey and Greenwich. By that time, it’s expected that 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries will be affected per day.

There have been mixed responses to the incoming ULEZ. Health organisations such as the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, have welcomed the measure, and environmental bodies also see the ULEZ as a step in the right direction. Sustrans, the sustainable transport organisation, commended the Mayor for “showing welcome leadership on tackling toxic air pollution.” Friends of the Earth welcomed the expansion of the ULEZ as “a promising step towards clean air in the city centre”, and called for further moves to protect the health of people living in Greater London.

However, motoring organisations voiced their concerns about the new zone. The RAC has argued that expansion of the ULEZ into residential areas will hit those on low income backgrounds hardest:

“…many now face the daunting challenge of having to spend substantial amounts of money on a newer vehicle or face a daily charge of £12.50 to use their vehicles from October 2021.”

The Road Haulage Association has voiced its opposition to the early application of the ULEZ to Heavy Goods Vehicles, claiming that the measure will have limited impact on improving health and air quality in central London.

Final thoughts

Striking a balance between environmental, health and economic pressures was always going to be a challenge. Even in London, which has led the way in tackling poor air quality, longstanding policies aimed at reducing air pollution have failed to bring it below legal levels. The new ULEZ may go some way to doing that, but it might also antagonise drivers faced with ever-rising costs. Cities on the journey to cleaner air are in for a bumpy ride.


Further reading on tackling air pollution

Recycling: is it worth it?

Free for all: fare-free public transport is going places

At the end of 2018, the coalition government in Luxembourg announced plans to abolish charges for anyone using trains, trams and buses. Beginning next spring, public transport across the country will be free for all.  The measure extends an existing scheme allowing those under the age of 20 to travel free on the country’s public transportation network.

One of the driving forces behind the move is tackling air pollution, largely caused by motor vehicles. In the capital city of Luxembourg, traffic congestion is a serious problem, where a study has suggested that drivers in 2016 spent an average of 33 hours in traffic jams. Across Europe, air pollution is estimated to cause half a million premature deaths each year.

Beyond Luxembourg, the idea of fare-free public transport has been gaining ground. In September, Dunkirk became the largest city in Europe to introduce free transit on its entire bus network. And last summer, Estonia extended to the whole country a free public transport scheme that has been operating in the capital, Tallinn, since 2013. There’s also growing interest in developing fare-free transport in Germany and Paris.

Free public transport: the driving factors

While environmental and public health considerations have pushed the idea of free public transport up the political agenda, the measure is also seen as a way of boosting local economies and tackling social exclusion.

Tallinn’s city authorities believe that free public transport is not only good for those on low incomes, but also for persuading the better off to leave their cars at home while enjoying life in the city’s restaurants, cafes and shops. It’s also beneficial for the municipal finances: every time a resident registers for the scheme, a proportion of tax is allocated to the city. According to the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office, “We earned double as much as we have lost since introducing free public transport.”

Putting the brakes on fare-free travel

But free public transport hasn’t worked everywhere, and some schemes have been withdrawn, largely because the costs have been unsustainable.

  • In the 1970s, a free transportation experiment in Rome tried and failed to persuade drivers to exchange their private vehicles for public transport.
  • Forty years after it began, a city centre free bus service in Seattle was dropped as part of a cost-cutting programme in 2012.
  • Also in 2012, Portland’s inner city free public transport system, introduced in 1975, was withdrawn under a package of service cuts.
  • In 2014, spiralling costs forced the Belgian city of Hasselt to abandon a free transport programme that had been in operation since 1997.

Cost is also a factor giving pause for thought to cities considering new free public transport schemes. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is keen on the idea, but needs to take account of the revenue implications. Transport fares account for a third of the city’s transport budget, and universal fare-free travel would open up a funding gap of €3.5 billion a year. For the time being, she has proposed free public transport for children under 11.

Here, there, but not everywhere

The main point of free public transport is to encourage more people to leave their cars at home, resulting in reduced traffic congestion and better air quality. The big challenge is developing a public transport system that goes a long way to matching the flexibility, convenience and door-to-door travel times of private vehicles.

In 2016, a study of the Tallinn scheme found that, while public transport use increased by 14%, car use declined by only 5%. The biggest increase in public transport use came not from drivers, but from pedestrians and cyclists, whose journeys on foot or by bike fell by 35-40%.

Elsewhere, research has suggested that fare-free public transport is more suited to smaller communities than to big cities. A 2012 study of 39 fare-free transit schemes in the United States found that most were successful in attracting greater public transport usage. However, these schemes were mostly in small municipalities, holiday resorts, and university towns.

This research echoed the findings from a previous study, which also argued that eliminating fares for specific groups, such as students and older people, would be more effective than universal free transport in addressing traffic congestion in larger cities.

In the UK, this targeted approach has been adopted for older people, many of whom can travel by bus free of charge. In London, accompanied children under 11 can travel for free on the tube, DLR, Overground and TfL rail services. But, while students and young people can benefit from reduced fare schemes, the UK has not followed the example of the Netherlands, where students can travel on buses and trams for free.

All aboard?

Back in Luxembourg, some believe that fare-free public transport will fail to address the country’s traffic congestion and air pollution problems, and could actually make things worse for commuters. Another blogger has suggested that the scheme will not persuade drivers to leave the car at home:

“An alternative way of levelling the playing field between car driving and public transport without inducing even more people to travel is to increase the petrol tax. Indeed, petrol prices in Luxembourg are markedly lower than in neighbouring Germany, Belgium and France, which may well contribute to Luxembourgers’ reliance on cars.”

Many of those advocating free transport schemes are not setting out a one-size-fits-all approach. As the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office observes, the diversity of schemes in operation should encourage transport authorities to consider what’s right for their localities:

“Municipalities should be brave to use their city as a testing ground to find out what system is realistic for them to implement.”

Lessons from America: ideas and caveats from the US midterm elections

This month, a new session of the United States Congress met for the first time since November’s mid-term elections. The election results brought mixed fortunes for the country’s main political parties. Although the Republicans retained control of the US Senate, the Democrats gained the seats they needed to take control of the House of Representatives.

Beyond the impact on American politics, the 2018 vote shone a light on the management of elections in the US, with a particular focus on registration and voting issues arising on election day. It’s worth taking a closer look to see if the midterms offer any lessons for the UK system of voting.

Voter Registration

Electoral registration is an important and often highly sensitive issue. The validity of elections depends on ensuring a high turnout, which means encouraging all eligible voters to ensure their names are on the electoral register.

In the United States, electoral registration is very complicated, as each of the fifty states has its own registration rules, processes, and deadlines. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law has described the US voter registration system as ‘broken’, and ‘a chief cause of long lines and election day chaos’

During the run-up to the mid-term elections, many states reported record numbers of voter registrations, reflecting intense media attention and the widely held view that the mid-terms represented a referendum on the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. On national voter registration day alone, 865,000 people registered to vote, compared to the 154,500 people who had registered in 2014.

However, concerns have been raised that some states have been making it harder for US citizens to register, particularly among African-Americans, Hispanics and other marginalised groups. A report in The New York Times highlighted attempts in Alabama and several other states to require proof of citizenship before granting the right to register to vote in state and local elections. There were also reports that strict voter registration requirements had disproportionately disadvantaged students in New Hampshire, that poorly labelled forms prevented more than 300,000 voters in Arizona from updating their voter registration information, and that manipulation of voter rolls had been taking place in Georgia and Ohio.

One possible way of overcoming these problems is automatic voter registration (AVR). The Brennan Center for Justice reports that fifteen states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, and more states are expected to join the list. The policy streamlines registration by making it opt-out instead of opt-in for eligible citizens who interact with government agencies. For example, under AVR anyone issued with a driver’s licence has their details passed to the electoral registration authorities and they are then automatically registered to vote.

The impact of AVR has been striking. Since Oregon became the first state in the US to implement AVR in 2016 voter registration rates have quadrupled, while in the first six months after AVR was implemented in Vermont in 2017, registration rates jumped by 62%.

Election day voting issues

The record numbers registering to vote was a foretaste of the turnout for the mid-term elections.  An estimated 114 million votes were cast by voters for the House of Representatives. This was a significant increase on the 83 million votes cast in 2014, and the first time a midterm election surpassed 100 million votes.

However, the figure could have been higher. Across the US, there were reports of delays in polling stations opening, long queues of people waiting to vote and extensions to the scheduled closing times. In many cases, the problems were caused by technical issues and equipment failures due to the use of ageing voting machines. Unlike UK voters, for many years, Americans have been using a variety of devices to cast their votes, from punch card systems to touch-screen technology. However, in the most recent elections, 41 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old, and most existing systems are no longer manufactured.

From broken ballot scanners in New York to machines changing votes in South Carolina and untested technology in Michigan, the technical difficulties heightened fears that inadequate equipment could undermine faith in democracy.

Another election day issue concerned the requirement for voter ID. Ten US states require eligible citizens to present some form of government-issued identification before they can vote. But 11% of Americans don’t have the relevant ID and certain groups, such as black communities, those on low incomes and students are even less likely to have the required documentation.

The problem has been compounded by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling which struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act introduced to protect minority voters. The 1965 Act required states to obtain permission from the federal government before changing voting laws. The 2013 ruling in effect struck down practices that helped make sure voting was fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

Following the ruling, the state of Alabama enacted a strict voter ID law, which remained in force for the 2018 mid term elections. The state dismissed claims from civil rights groups that an estimated 118,000 potential voters lacked the necessary photo ID.

Lessons for the UK?

Registration

In 2014, the UK government replaced household registration with Individual Electoral Registration. While the new system improved the accuracy of the register and helped to counter fraud, there are concerns that certain groups of voters – such as students, private renters and young adults –  might be falling off the electoral register.

The success of AVR in the US suggests that this method of registration can ensure that these and other groups don’t miss out on voting, for example because they’ve forgotten to register after moving home.  The UK’s Electoral Commission has advocated an automatic registration scheme similar to that in Oregon, where citizens can register to vote whenever they are in contact with government, from getting a driving licence to applying for benefits.

Voting technology

Much has been made of internet voting as a way of improving turnout at elections. Estonia has pioneered online voting for parliamentary elections, but only a few countries have followed their example. In the UK, pilot schemes involving internet voting have taken place at local level, but there are no plans to introduced online voting for national polls. However, e-counting (the electronic counting of ballot papers) is becoming increasingly prevalent in Europe. An e-counting solution developed by Idox has been used successfully for elections in Scotland, Norway and Malta, resulting in considerable  improvements in speed and accuracy of results.  The problems caused by obsolete technology in the US elections underline the importance of ensuring the mechanics of elections systems are up to delivering transparent, fair democracy.

Voter ID

Concerns about election fraud has prompted the UK government to consider voter ID. During last year’s local elections, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. While some saw the trials as successful, others argued that the fact that hundreds of voters were turned away because they did not have the relevant documentation proves the policy of voter ID is misguided. Further trials of voter ID have been proposed, but these are being challenged.  The American experiences of voter ID raises questions about the exclusion of citizens from exercising their democratic rights.

Final thoughts

Delivering transparent, fair and accessible elections is never straightforward, but the challenge is all the greater in one of the world’s biggest democracies. America’s midterm elections may have changed the landscape of the country’s politics, but they’ve also provided ideas and caveats to exercise the minds of electoral administrators on this side of the Atlantic.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on elections:

Reeling in the year: a look back at 2018

It’s been another busy year for The Knowledge Exchange Blog. We’ve covered a variety of subjects, from housing and the environment to education and planning. So as the year draws to a close, now’s a good time to reflect on some of the subjects we’ve been blogging about during 2018.

Bibliotheraphy, walkability and family learning

We started the year with health and wellbeing in mind. Our first blog post of 2018 highlighted the increasing application of “bibliotherapy”:

“The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.”

In February, we blogged about family learning, where parents engage in learning activities with their children. This can involve organised programmes such as Booksmart, but activities such as reading to children or singing with them can also be described as family learning:

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

In recent years, growing numbers of cities and towns have introduced “shared spaces”, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers share the same, deregulated space. As we reported in March, the practice has proved divisive, with supporters claiming that shared spaces can improve the urban environment, revitalise town centres, and reduce congestion, while opponents believe that shared space schemes – particularly the removal of kerbs and crossings – are dangerous and exclusionary for vulnerable groups of pedestrians, people with disabilities and those with reduced mobility.

In April, we took the opportunity to promote the Idox Information Service, highlighting a selection of the hundreds of items added to our database since the beginning of 2018. All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

Voters, apprentices and city trees

Local elections in May prompted us to blog about the voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“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.”

A year after the launch of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy in June, we highlighted a report from the Reform think tank which suggested that significant reforms were needed to improve England’s apprenticeship system. Among the recommended changes were a renewed focus on quality over quantity, removal of the 10% employer co-investment requirement and making Ofqual the sole quality assurance body for maintaining apprenticeship standards.

The shortage of affordable housing continues to exercise the minds of policy makers, and in July we blogged about its impact on the private rented sector:

“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.”

The long, hot summer of 2018 was one to remember, but its effect on air quality in urban areas underlined the need to combat the pollution in our air. In August, we blogged about an innovation that could help to clear the air:

“Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.”

Planning, polarisation and liveable cities

September saw another highly successful Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference. It opened with a thought-provoking presentation by Greg Lloyd, professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who challenged delegates 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.

In October, we focused on the ever-increasing job polarisation affecting the labour market:

In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%). As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown.”

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, presenting significant challenges to local authorities who have to try and make their cities work for everyone. In November, we reported from The Liveable City conference in Edinburgh, which showcased ideas from the UK and Denmark on how to make cities more attractive for residents and visitors:

“A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people.”

Although much has been made of the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end, many local authorities are still struggling to provide services within tight financial constraints. One of our final blogs this year reported on local councils that are selling their assets to generate revenue:

“In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations.”

Brexit means….

Overshadowing much of public policy in 2018 has been the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our blog posts have reflected the uncertainties posed by Brexit with regard to science and technology, local authority funding and academic research.

As we enter 2019, those uncertainties remain, and what actually happens is still impossible to predict. As always, we’ll continue to blog about public policy and practice, and try to make sense of the important issues, based on evidence, facts and research.

To all our readers, a very happy Christmas, and our best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Gender pay gap at universities could get even worse – here’s why

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This guest blog was written by Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer at Queen Mary University London.

Britain has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the European Union, with women earning roughly 21% less than men. This means that women in UK universities today are still earning less than their male colleagues. So although laws on equal pay have been in place for more than 40 years, there is still a large gender pay gap in UK universities.

The difference in hourly pay between men and women is 15% in top UK universities and 37% in other universities. What’s more, men have most of the top jobs in UK universities, while women have more of the lower-paid jobs.

And this “gender pay gap” may keep getting wider if women aren’t supported to develop their digital skills. This is because women tend to have less advanced digital skills than men – skills that are increasingly in demand for university lecturer roles. And as universities around rely more extensively on digital technology, they need employees who have creative digital skills – which means women are more likely to miss out on jobs, promotions and pay increases.

Wanted: technical talent

The use of technology is now just part of the day job for anyone involved in teaching and learning in universities. Universities use technology to teach and communicate with students online – which can help to improve a student’s learning experience. Staff are also expected to use online learning and mobile learning platforms to teach, assess and talk to students in a virtual environment.

Universities also plan to use more advanced technology. Gamification is on the rise in universities. This is where universities personalise a student’s learning, using game design thinking in non-game applications. Wearable devices, such as an Apple Watch or Google Glass, can also encourage learners to get more involved in the subject. This type of technology will most likely be used more in universities over the coming years.

And as women in higher education are generally less likely to be skilled in using these technologies, they may well be left behind – widening the gender pay gap in higher education – while also making it harder for women to progress in their careers.

Digital skills divide

Our research which looks at the gender gap in smartphone adoption and use in Arab countries shows there is a wide gap in the way men and women use technology in some parts of the world. And we found similar patterns in the UK. Men have more advanced digital skills than women, and women are underrepresented in the technology sector, specifically in the digital sector in education.

This “digital divide” begins at a very early age in school. It continues into higher education – in the UK there is one of the highest gender gaps in technology-related courses among all university courses in the world.

Technology is advancing quickly, so academics and others working in higher education constantly have to update their skills. Without these skills, women in the sector are at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion and pay rises. So it’s more important than ever for universities to provide training and other programmes that help women develop their digital skills.

Closing the gender gap in digital skills would remove one factor contributing to the gender pay gap in UK universities. It would increase the chances of women being employed in the sector and make it easier for them to develop their careers. Tapping into female talent in technology would bring huge benefits to universities.

And above all, it would help to close the digital skills gap – while helping to build a more equal and fairer society.The Conversation


Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer in Information Technology Management, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Liveable cities with people at their heart

The historic Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh was the suitably attractive setting for a conference last week on liveable cities. As Paul Lawrence, Executive Director of Place at Edinburgh City Council, observed, Edinburgh has been grappling with liveability for 300 years. But it’s one of many cities now facing new challenges to ensure that the concept applies as much to the “have-nots” as to the “haves.”

Including the precariat

Paul described Edinburgh’s single biggest challenge as addressing social and economic polarisation. While the city has a very successful economy, the benefits are not being enjoyed by all of its people. Many have well-paid jobs and enjoy a good quality of life, but those at the fringe of the labour market – the “precariat” – are on short-term contracts, with low wages and poor housing.

At the same time, the city of Edinburgh is facing significant urban planning challenges. Paul highlighted the difficulty for pedestrians – particularly those with disabilities – negotiating Princes Street at the height of the Edinburgh Festivals, and noted that the city didn’t have a single example of a successful pedestrian precinct.

Making successful places

The theme of how to make cities more liveable was taken up by Ian Gilzean, Chief Architect for the Scottish Government. He gave numerous examples of successful placemaking, such as the Crown Street and Laurieston redevelopment projects in Glasgow and regeneration in Edinburgh’s Craigmillar district. Ian also highlighted the work of charette programmes, which bring communities together to engage in the design and development of their neighbourhoods.  Ian stressed that the key drivers of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – were also vital for improving the health and wellbeing of communities.

Reinventing a post-industrial area

A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people. Unemployment in the area is now 26% – still too high, but an improvement on the 39% of 2008. The project has taken risks –  building infrastructure such as roads and a school in the hope that developers will be attracted. And, as Ian explained, Clyde Gateway needs more people to settle in the area to fill the gap left by the 20,000 who moved away in the post-war years.

To attract more people, places need to be distinctive, to surprise and delight. And, as Ian stressed, they need to acknowledge and respond to their historical urban patterns and buildings. For example, the much-loved former Olympia cinema at Bridgeton Cross has been given a makeover, and is now home to a public library, café, boxing centre and Scotland’s first BFI Mediatheque.

Learning from Denmark

The conference was organised by the Royal Danish Embassy in the UK, and there were good examples of successful placemaking from Denmark.

Jacob Kurek, from Henning Larsen Architecture in Copenhagen explained why the Danes are so famous for doing design differently. “We have a curiosity and ambition for making things better for people.” Denmark has put this philosophy into practice, designing clean harbours for swimming in the city centre, providing safe and stylish bike lanes and planning open-air spaces that take account of the challenging Danish winters (what Jacob described as “conquering the public realm”).

This approach has attracted attention elsewhere, and Jacob described his work in Belfast, where there are plans to transform the east bank of the River Lagan, using Copenhagen harbour as a model.

Stephen Willacy, Chief Architect for the city of Aarhus, reminded the audience that there’s more to Denmark than Copenhagen.  Aarhus is a city on the move, with a population growth of 5,000 per year. Stephen described some of the efforts to make Aarhus a good city for everyone by developing facilities for living, playing and working, including an ambitious masterplan for the city’s harbour.

Ewan Anderson of 7N Architects in Edinburgh has also been learning from Denmark. He took his team to Copenhagen to explore the city’s innovative approaches to place making, such as the transformation of a car park into a playground and the creation of a “pop-up neighbourhood” on a former warehouse site. Once back in Scotland, the 7N team developed their own ideas for making more liveable cities – introducing electric bikes for hilly streets, replacing a car park with a modern art gallery and even transforming Edinburgh’s Leith Walk into a Ramblas of the north.

Putting people at the heart of placemaking

Too often, architects and town planners have failed to engage with the communities they serve. Throughout the day, speakers at this conference made it clear that those days are largely in the past. Many made reference to the influential Danish architect Jan Gehl, whose vision for successful public space and urban design had people at its heart.

As this conference demonstrated, his vision is being realised in places as different as Copenhagen and Glasgow, Belfast and Aarhus, to the benefit of visitors and more importantly for those who live there.


More on urban planning and liveable cities:

Making social mobility a reality: the Robertson Trust’s Journey to Success programme

The Sutton Trust, which works to combat educational inequality, has described low social mobility as the biggest social challenge of our times:

“The income gap between the richest and poorest in society continues to widen, while education opportunities remain overwhelmingly dominated by children from the most privileged homes.”

Education can make all the difference for people struggling to improve their lives. But young people from many disadvantaged areas who might see college or university as an escape route from low income employment are encountering significant barriers to education. And location can aggravate the problem. The Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 report found that just 10% of disadvantaged teenagers from Barnsley, Hastings and Eastbourne make it to university, while the figure for Kensington and Chelsea is 50%.

In Scotland, a 2015 Sutton Trust report on widening access to education found that, despite offering free tuition, the country had the worst record in the UK when it comes to getting students from poorer backgrounds into university. The report noted that:

“…despite improvements, young disadvantaged Scottish people are four times less likely to go to university than their wealthier counterparts. In England the same figure is 2.4, while in Wales and Northern Ireland, poorer students are three times more likely to do so.”

The Scottish Government claims that the situation is now improving. In March, Scotland’s higher education minister, Shirley-Anne Somerville reported a 13% increase in the number of Scots from the most deprived  communities getting places to study at a Scottish university:

“That means over 600 additional people from the most deprived communities being accepted to study at university.”

 The Robertson Trust: a journey to success

One organisation trying to overcome the barriers facing disadvantaged young people is the Robertson Trust. The trust is Scotland’s largest independent funder, awarding over £16m per year to Scottish charities. Its four main objectives are:

  • improving outcomes for individuals and communities
  • improving capacity of third sector organisations to deliver impact to their beneficiaries
  • building and using evidence to inform policy and practice
  • developing greater understanding of the trust’s role as a funder

Since 1992, the Robertson Trust has provided scholarships, bursary awards and grants to individuals, and has been working with colleges and universities to remove barriers to participation in education.

More recently, the trust has developed a dedicated training and mentoring programme called Journey to Success. The programme supports over 600 higher education students at any one time with a bursary and personal development programme.

Students are nominated by their school or university for a place on the programme, and each year around 160 students join the Journey to Success. Once accepted, students receive a bursary of £4000 a year (£2,800 if they live at home). But the bursary is just the start of a long-term support programme that includes the development of skills to support students in their future careers. This is achieved through residential weekends, university workshops, internships and mentoring.

The Journey to Success programme also supports students in undertaking volunteering placements and in providing funding for self-development awards in particular activities Recent examples include working on a hospital ship on Lake Tanzania and developing British Sign Language (BSL) signs for scientific terms.

Making social mobility work

The Journey to Success programme is living up to its name. In 2015/16, 88% of the programme’s graduates received a degree classification of 2:1 or above, and most go on to employment in a graduate job or further study.

Clearly, the programme can only support a fraction of the young people who have the ability but not the means to further their education. But its success demonstrates the benefits of giving social mobility a helping hand.

As Gordon Hunt, the Robertson Trust’s Head of Scholarship explains:

“…the aim of the Journey to Success programme “is to give students from disadvantaged backgrounds the support and guidance that will help them to overcome the barriers they face in fulfilling their potential.”


You may also be interested in reading some of our previous blog posts on the subject of social mobility:

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