How low can they go? Cities are taking action to reduce air pollution and save lives

Air pollution is a bigger killer in Europe than obesity or alcohol: nearly half a million Europeans die each year from its effects.

Particulate matter (a complex mixture of extremely small dust particles and liquid droplets) and nitrogen dioxide (an invisible, but foul smelling gas) are particularly harmful to health.  As the New Scientist has explained:

“…nitrogen dioxide lowers birthweight, stunts lung growth in children and increases the risk of respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease. Particulate pollutants like soot cause a wider range of problems, including lung cancer.”

Motor vehicles are the main source of these emissions in urban areas. For this reason, European Union regulations introduced in 2010 set down that nitrogen oxide should average no more than 40 micrograms per cubic metre over a year. These limits are regularly breached. By the end of January this year, London had reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole of 2018. Scientists say that even these limits are unsafe: the 30,000 deaths each year attributed to particulate pollution are due to exposure levels below the legal limit.

Getting into the zone

Many local authorities have been trying to tackle the issue by getting the most polluting vehicles out of their city centres.  As Traffic Technology International has noted:

“From Athens to Aberdeen, and from London to Ljubljana, there is an eclectic smorgasbord of initiatives with over 200 low emission zones (LEZ) around Europe excluding more polluting vehicles, and some cities employing road-user charging to deter vehicles from entering.”

In the UK, Glasgow is set to become Scotland’s first low emissions zone, while Oxford could become the world’s first zero emissions zone, which would exclude all non-electric vehicles from the city centre by 2035.

T Time in London

London has adopted especially ambitious goals to clean up the capital’s air. As of October 2017, older vehicles driving in London between 7am and 6pm have needed either to meet the minimum toxic emission standards (Euro 4/IV for both petrol and diesel vehicles and Euro 3 for motorised tricycles and quadricycles) or to pay an extra daily charge of £10.00 (in addition to the £11.50 Congestion Charge).

Air quality campaigners have welcomed this “T Charge”, but not everyone is happy. The Federation of Small Businesses has voiced concern that the charge will have a negative impact on small and micro-businesses that are already struggling with high property, employment and logistics costs. Shaun Bailey, a Conservative member of the Greater London Assembly, has described the T Charge – and the mayor’s plan to bring forward to 2019 the launch of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) – as “vanity projects” that will have little effect on air quality.

National demands and local plans

London’s T Charge is one way of tackling air pollution, but there are other methods, such as retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel and supporting cyclists. Some UK cities are already taking action, while in Germany and Belgium, even more radical ideas are being mooted.

Last summer, the UK government set out its plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The document made it clear that local authorities have a leading role to play in achieving improvements in air quality.

By the end of this month, local authorities were expected to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue, with final plans to be submitted by December. The government promised support for councils, including a £255m Implementation Fund to help them prepare and deliver their plans, and the opportunity to bid for additional money from a Clean Air Fund.

It was hoped that these measures would lower the poisonous emissions. However, last month the High Court ruled that the government’s approach to tackling pollution was not sufficient, and ordered urgent changes. Even if the subsequent plan is accepted, many feel that the only sure way to solve the problem is to eliminate traffic from our cities. Others counter that this will damage the economy.

The battle of Britain’s air quality has only just begun.

Our previous articles on air quality include:

Bumps in the road for bike-sharing schemes

Image: Paul Wong, Chief Data Officer, PanelHype, Victoria, Australia

Last year, we reported on the rapid rise of bike-share schemes around the world. Since then, bike-sharing has continued to grow in its existing strongholds, while new schemes have been launched in places as varied as Lisbon and Detroit. But the nature of bike-sharing has also undergone dramatic changes, with some welcoming the new developments, and others branding them a public nuisance.

The most significant change has been the rise of dockless bike-sharing schemes. Over the past four years, two companies – Ofo and Mobike – have transformed bike-sharing in China, enabling people to rent a bike simply and quickly with the aid of a smartphone app. There are no pick-up or drop-off bike stations; cyclists simply find a bike using a GPS locator, pay and go. When they’ve reached their destination, cyclists can leave the bikes wherever they please.

Ofo, Mobike and a growing number of rivals have revolutionised transportation in China. Half the population of Beijing – 11 million people – have registered for the schemes; across the country, more than 100 million bike-share apps have been downloaded. The success of app-driven bike-sharing schemes in China means they are now cropping up elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Australia, Europe and North America.

The pros and cons of dockless bike-sharing

Bike-sharing is an affordable and environmentally-friendly way of getting around, especially in congested city centres. And, as The Washington Post has observed, dockless bike-sharing schemes ‘solve what planners call the “first-mile-last-mile problem,” helping people get from their homes to a bus stop, for example, or from a subway station to their final destination.’

But the new schemes have also generated problems. In Shanghai, where there are now over forty bike-sharing companies, bikes have been abandoned in large numbers outside subway stations and office buildings, clogging up pavements and creating what locals have called “a new generation of trash”.

Elsewhere – from Melbourne to Manchester, Sydney to San Francisco – the sudden appearance of hundreds of bikes on the streets (sometimes without the permission of the local authority) has been met with mixed reactions.

For cyclists looking for a truly door-to-door service, the new schemes offer convenience and flexibility. However, instances of theft and vandalism have highlighted the negative impacts of dockless schemes.

Within a month of Mobike launching its bike-share scheme in Manchester, images of damaged bikes started to appear on social media, and at least two bikes were dumped in a canal. Similar incidents have been reported elsewhere in the UK, as well as in Australia, the United States and Spain.

Getting bike-sharing right

Cities have been on a steep learning curve in coming to terms with dockless bikes, and there have been some very different responses.

Shanghai, Beijing and Amsterdam have taken a hard line by banning new dockless bike-share services. In London, Wandsworth Council impounded more than a hundred bikes, claiming that they were causing obstructions and blocking parking spaces, although cyclists using the scheme argued the move was excessive.

Other cities have introduced new regulations on dockless bike-sharing. In September, Transport for London published a dockless bike-share code of practice outlining requirements for operators.

In Australia, three Melbourne local authorities have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with dockless bike share operator oBike. The terms of the MOU require oBike to ensure their bikes do not obstruct access and to relocate any dangerously parked bikes.

The dockless bike-share companies themselves have been learning the lessons of early teething problems.

The Platform for European Bicycle Sharing and Systems, which brings together bike mobility companies across Europe, has prepared a policy framework which aims to guide cities through the process of implementing a new bike sharing system.

Other companies have turned to technology. Urbosolutions and oBike are among those bike-share services now providing local authorities with a “geo-fencing” option. This enables councils to designate zones where bikes may not be parked. Bike-share users entering a geo-fenced area are unable to lock their bikes until they move outside the zone. Cyclists who fail to comply will incur penalties.

The changing face of bike-sharing

The explosive growth of dockless bike-share services has undoubtedly benefitted city dwellers looking for flexible, affordable, sustainable and healthy transportation options. But as bike wars heat up among operators, and between bike share companies and local authorities, cities need to develop new regulatory frameworks for the smooth management of bike-share schemes. At the same time, the operators need to rethink how their businesses work.

As for the future, bike-sharing will continue to evolve, with forecast developments including payment for bike rentals using cryptocurrencies, the launch of dockless electric bikes and continued expansion into new territories.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in these Knowledge Exchange blog posts:

Urban bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Urban cycling innovations: smart cities get on their bikes

Could deposit return schemes turn the tide of plastic pollution?

For decades, plastic has been regarded as something of a miracle product. Lightweight, durable and versatile, it’s been used for practically everything, from food packaging and water pipes to aircraft and insulation systems.

But all of a sudden it seems that plastic has become public enemy number one.  In January, the Iceland supermarket chain announced plans to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic packaging of all its own-label products by the end of 2023. Also in January, the UK government set out its ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years.

A rising tide

The new war on plastic is largely to do with an increased awareness about the highly damaging impact of plastic waste on the planet. Research has found that, since the 1950s, nine billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, a figure that’s likely to rise to 30 billion tonnes by the end of the century. Over eight million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year, threatening marine and bird life, as well as having a wider impact on human health.

The difficulty of disposing of plastic waste has been amplified by China’s decision last summer to ban the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including most plastics. The news was a body blow to the waste management sector, which has relied on China’s dominant position in recycling to dispose of plastic waste.

Tackling the problem, one bottle at a time

More recently, the focus has been on single use plastic bottles for water and other soft drinks. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee last year reported that 13 billion plastic bottles are used each year in the UK. Only 57% of these are recycled, with the rest going to landfill/incineration or litter.

Various solutions have been suggested to reduce plastic bottle waste, such as greater provision of public drinking fountains and bottle refill points.

Another idea is the development of deposit return schemes (DRS). These involve consumers paying a small deposit on top of the price of a bottled drink. The deposit is refunded when the bottle is returned to an in-store collection point or a reverse vending machine. The bottles are then collected and recycled into new plastic bottles.

A 2015 study by Eunomia for Zero Waste Scotland considered the feasibility of a DRS being introduced to Scotland. The research included case studies of deposit return schemes in Germany and Scandinavia. In Germany, the introduction of the deposit on one-way beverage packaging was a big success with 98.5% of refillable bottles being returned by consumers. And in Norway, 96% of bottles are returned for plastic recycling.

The Eunomia study concluded that none of the challenges posed by introducing a DRS to Scotland was insuperable, and in September 2017, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a Scottish DRS. Shortly afterwards, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommended the introduction of a DRS in England, arguing that it would recycle more plastic bottles, save money and create jobs in the long run.

Deposit return schemes – pros and cons

Writing in the January 2018 ENDS Report, Dominic Hogg, chairman of Eunomia, described four benefits of DRS:

  • The return rates can be high, and the climate change benefits associated with recycling the materials are correspondingly higher;
  • Because materials returned are of a high level of purity, they are sought after by reprocessors;
  • Because they now have meaningful value, the rate of littering of used beverage containers falls by about 95%
  • A DRS would reduce the prevalence of plastic found in the marine environment.

However, some local authorities have expressed concern that they would lose money as people would use the DRS rather than recycle through local authorities’ kerbside systems.

Reservations have also been voiced by the soft drinks sector. AG Barr believes that “…the scope for fraud in a Scottish DRS is huge. On a small scale we could see people scavenging in bins for containers, as is the US experience. On a medium scale there is the potential for local authority amenity centre looting. And on a larger scale there is the very real possibility of cross-border trafficking of deposit-bearing containers.”

However, having previously opposed DRS, one major soft drinks company has undergone a change of heart. “A well-designed DRS, targeting the littering of on-the-go soft drinks, could have a role to play alongside reforms and improvements for the current systems,” said Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners.

A future role for plastic

While there is a growing recognition of the need to manage plastic waste, there’s also an understanding that plastic can’t simply be uninvented.

WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), which promotes sustainable waste management, has recognised the value of plastic as a resource:

“Take health care, for example. Most disposable medical items – insulin pens, IV tubes, inhalation masks, and so on – use plastic as a core component because it is sterile and reduces the risk of infection. Plastic packaging preserves and protects food. According to the US Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), plastic film extends the shelf life of a cucumber from three days to 14.”

Even so, it’s clear that we’ve reached a watershed moment concerning DRS. As Dominic Hogg concludes:

“Policymakers should make it clear that this is going to happen. The naysayers can choose either to be part of the solution’s design or to have it imposed upon them.”

If you found this blog post interesting, you might also like to read some of our previous articles on waste management:

Planning to protect: how architects and urban planners are balancing security with accessibility

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

 “In high profile buildings or crowded places that may be attractive targets for terrorists, the challenge for designers is to incorporate counter-terrorism measures into their buildings and public spaces whilst maintaining quality of place.” RIBA guidance on designing for counter-terrorism

In recent years, terrorist attacks in London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona and Nice have heightened concerns about the safety of living in and travelling to cities in Europe and North America. In many of these attacks, cars or trucks have been driven at high speed into crowded streets with the aim of causing the maximum number of casualties. While such attacks remain relatively rare, planning authorities are now working on methods to deter and thwart the use of vehicles as weapons in public spaces.

From buildings and infrastructure to “soft targets”

The attacks on London’s transport infrastructure in 2005 and an abortive car bomb attack at Glasgow Airport in 2007 prompted a rethink in the UK about how to protect people from acts of terrorism.  As a result, protective cordons and barriers were installed at government offices, public buildings and transport hubs.

Subsequently – and perhaps as a consequence of the success of these measures – terrorists have changed tactics, focusing their attention on members of the public in crowded city centres. These so-called “soft targets” are harder to protect, partly because of the scale of defences that would be required, but mostly because city authorities want to retain the open and accessible nature of places which are most attractive to shoppers, tourists and businesses.

Approaches to protection

Guidance issued by the Home Office in 2012 explains how public authorities, communities and the private sector can mitigate terrorism risks by physical, technical and procedural measures, such as speed gates, barrier systems, closed-circuit television cameras and sufficient stand-off distance between vehicles and buildings. Similar guidance has been adopted in the United States, and most recently in Australia, which has also developed a self-assessment tool to help owners and managers of public spaces to assess their own risk.

Safer places with style

The challenges presented by terrorist attacks have prompted urban planners and architects to think again about how to protect the public without creating forbidding strongholds.

A successful example of an innovative approach can be found in New York City’s financial district. Home not only to the New York Stock Exchange, but to museums, shops and waterfront entertainment attractions, this part of the city is a vibrant area that brings together many people from different walks of life.

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

It’s this widespread appeal which makes the financial district a potential target for terrorism, and which presented Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers with the challenge of ensuring its security while retaining the positive aspects of the area.

Working with stakeholders, city agencies, and law enforcement officials, the architects came up with an innovative concept that includes sculptural barriers which play a dual role of seating and security. These “NOGO” installations quickly won over pedestrians and were widely applauded in the media. The Chicago Tribune was noted that the NOGO’s bronze surfaces:

“…echo the grand doorways of Wall Street’s temples of commerce. Pedestrians easily slip through groups of them as they make their way onto Wall Street from the area around historic Trinity Church. Cars, however, cannot pass.”

Closer to home, the National Assembly for Wales has also adopted counter-terrorism measures to protect the people who work in and visit this major public building. The architects have taken advantage of the public plaza around the building to achieve sufficient stand-off through landscaping. In addition, staircases and reinforced street furniture contribute to the protective facilities without turning the building into a fortress.

Secure and liveable public spaces

“Barbed wire and concrete barriers may be effective, but they make city dwellers feel like they are living in a war zone.”
A Green Living

Urban planners have a fine line to tread between making people feel comfortable in public spaces while ensuring their safety. Concrete barriers may be effective, but if they make residents and visitors fearful, they are more likely to drive them away. And since that is what terrorists are aiming to achieve, it’s all the more important to get the balance right.

Our thanks to Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers in New York City for supplying the information and photographs concerning the streetscapes and security project in the financial district.

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

From big data to creative ‘binfrastructure’: new ideas for tackling litter

As we’ve previously reported, litter is a big and expensive problem for the UK’s local authorities. A 2015 report by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee put the annual cost of cleaning up litter in England at around £850m. Litter also generates strong emotions. Research by Populus has found that 81% of people are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter lying all over the country.

The CLG committee and the UK government have put forward a range of proposals for tackling litter. But at home and overseas local authorities and the third sector have been looking at inventive ways to keep our streets clean.

 Philadelphia’s data-driven litter index

Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet launched a digital tool to help catalogue the type and location of litter in the city’s neighbourhoods.

The Litter Index provides a full picture of the different types of waste in each of the city’s neighbourhoods, as well as recording the incidence of litter during different weather conditions. Using tablets, city workers record how much waste they’re seeing in their neighbourhoods, take photos and give ratings. The information can then be used to devise a plan for cleaning up litter in different parts of the city, and to pinpoint where resources are needed.

The Philadelphia plan is ambitious, but, as Nic Esposito, the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Director says: “If we’re not changing infrastructure and attitudes, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

 Edinburgh’s intelligent litter bins

New technology has been undergoing tests by the City of Edinburgh Council to measure how full litter bins have become and provide alerts via mobile when they reach capacity.

Sensors positioned inside the bins use ultrasonic technology to measure how full a bin has become. The data is then transmitted to notify the council’s waste management system when a bin needs emptied. The system can also help the council to spot fly tipping when there is sudden spike in the results, and a heat sensor detects fires inside the bin.

During the initial pilot project, collections in areas fitted with the new bins increased by 24% on average, and some collections quadrupled in frequency. The data from the sensors will be used to provide reports on waste generation patterns and can help in planning the most efficient routes for litter bin collections.

Driving litter underground

A growing number of European cities have invested in underground collection units in an effort to make their streets less cluttered.  In the Slovenian capital of Ljulbljana, these units are located around the city centre, with different receptacles for paper, glass, and packaging. In addition, residents of the city have access cards which open receptacles for organic and other specialist waste types, which in turn determines the level of their monthly waste management bill. Separation of waste in this way drives down the cost of managing it, and makes recycling much easier.

In the UK, Cambridge City Council has also taken an interest in subterranean waste units. Steel chutes have been set into the pavement with the aim of replacing thousands of wheelie bins. Residents have corresponding bins for their kitchens, which the city council believes will help create a sustainable living space.

Once completed, the 150-hectare site will have 450 underground recycling and general waste banks across 155 locations.

Thinking outside the bin

Environmental charity Hubbub has examined research and examples from around the world to develop a catalogue of creative and playful ideas for tackling litter effectively. Among the suggestions are:

  • an open-air gallery featuring local people to raise awareness of personal responsibility for waste management;
  • flashmobs to cheer on people who pick up litter and put it in the bin;
  • brightly-coloured bins that draw attention to litter campaigns; and
  • ‘talking bins’ that reward users with belches or coughs.

Hubbub has not confined its efforts to urban waste. Earlier this year, the charity unveiled a campaign targeting countryside litter. A “trashconverter” van toured the Forest of Dean, accepting trash, rather than cash, in exchange for flowers and hot drinks.

Final thoughts

As the Populus survey demonstrates, litter has a negative impact on how people view their own neighbourhoods. At the same time, as the recent Blue Planet 2 programme highlighted, our litter can have terrible effects on the natural environment and on birds and marine life, both in our own coastal waters and in oceans thousands of miles away.

Data, technology and behavioural insights all have important roles to play in tackling the blight of litter. Unusual initiatives, such as those employed in Philadelphia, Edinburgh and Cambridge, as well as Hubbub’s inventive ideas, are worth exploring if they can make an impact on human behaviour, and contribute to the conservation of the natural world.

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

Talking rubbish: the never-ending problem of litter on Britain’s streets

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management

The year that was: looking back on a year of policy and practice on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Before bidding farewell to 2017, there’s just time to reflect on some of the issues we’ve been covering in The Knowledge Exchange blog during the past twelve months. There’s been no shortage of subjects to consider, from health and social care and devolution to  universal credit and town planning.

Missing EU already?
Of course, the major issue dominating policy in the UK this year has been Brexit. In July, we reviewed a new book by Professor Janet Morphet which assessed the UK’s future outside the European Union. While not claiming to have all the answers, the book provides a framework for making sure the right questions are asked during the negotiation period and beyond.

One important consideration concerning Brexit is its potential impact on science, technology and innovation. In August, we noted that, while the UK government has been making efforts to lessen the concerns of researchers, anxieties remain about funding and the status of EU nationals currently working in science and technology roles in the UK.

Home thoughts, from home and abroad
Throughout the year, we’ve been looking at the UK’s chronic housing crisis. In May, we considered the potential for prefabricated housing to address housing shortages, while in August, we looked at the barriers facing older people looking to downsize from larger homes. In October, we reported on the growing interest in co-housing.

The severe shortage of affordable housing has had a significant impact on homelessness, and not only in the UK. In April, we highlighted a report which documented significant rises in the numbers of homeless people across Europe, including a 50% increase in homelessness in France, and a 75% increase in youth homelessness in Copenhagen.

One European country bucking this trend is Finland, and in July our blog looked at the country’s success in reducing long term homelessness and improving prevention services. Although the costs of Finland’s “housing first” approach are considerable, the results suggest that it’s paying off: the first seven years of the policy saw a 35% fall in long term homelessness.

Keeping mental health in mind
A speech by the prime minister on mental health at the start of the year reflected growing concerns about how we deal with mental illness and its impacts. Our first blog post of 2017 looked at efforts to support people experiencing mental health problems at work. As well as highlighting that stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence in the workplace, the article provided examples of innovative approaches to mental illness by the construction and social work sectors.

A further post, in August pointed to the importance of joining up housing and mental health services, while in September we explored concerns that mobile phone use may have negative effects on the mental health of young people.

Going digital
Another recurring theme in 2017 was the onward march of digital technologies. In June, we explored the reasons why the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year. New online services have generated very clear benefits: in-person visits to the council have been reduced by 30% each year, reducing staffing costs and increasing customer satisfaction from 57% to 98%.

Also in June, we reported on guidance published by the Royal Town Planning Institute on how planners can create an attractive environment for digital tech firms. Among its recommendations: planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are, and local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help to better facilitate their growth.

Idox in focus
Last, but not least, we’ve continued to update our readers on new and continuing developments at the Idox Information Service. Our blog has featured articles on the Research Online, Evaluations Online and Ask-a-Researcher services, as well as the Social Policy and Practice database for evidence and research in social care. We were proud once again to sponsor the 2017 RTPI Research Excellence awards, and highlighted the winning entries. And following an office move, in September we explored the fascinating history behind the building where we now do business.

Back to the future
2018 is already shaping up as an important year in policy and practice. One important issue exercising both the public and private sectors is preparing for the General Data Protection Regulation. The Knowledge Exchange blog will be keeping an eye on this and many other issues, and the Idox Information Service, will be on hand to ensure our members are kept informed throughout 2018 and beyond.

Thank you for reading our blog posts in 2017, and we wish all of our readers a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

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

Figuring it out: five issues emerging from the Scottish draft budget

The week before Christmas might not seem an ideal time to be mulling over the minutiae of economic forecasts and the implications of tax changes. But on Monday morning, the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) review of last week’s Scottish draft budget attracted a big turnout, and helped make sense of the numbers announced by Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay.

Here are some of the key issues to emerge from yesterday morning’s presentations.

  1. Growth: degrees of pessimism

Last month, the UK Office for Budget Responsibility revised downwards its growth forecast for the UK economy to less than 2%. The FAI, meanwhile, has forecast a slightly lower growth rate for the Scottish economy of between 1% and 1.5%. However, the independent Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) is much more pessimistic, forecasting growth in the Scottish economy of less than 1% up to 2021. If the SFC’s forecast turns out to be accurate, this would mean the longest run of growth below 1% in Scotland for 60 years.

Dr Graeme Roy, director of the FAI, suggested that the SFC’s gloomy outlook is based on the view that the Scottish working-age population is projected to decline over the next decade. In addition, the SFC also believes that the slowdown in productivity, which has been a blight on the Scottish economy since the 2008 financial crisis, will continue.

  1. Income tax rises: reality v perception

Mr Mackay proposed big changes in Scotland’s tax system, with five income tax bands stretching from 19p to 46p. While these measures attracted the biggest headlines for the budget, the FAI believes that most people will see little meaningful impact in their overall tax bill (relative to income). Charlotte Barbour, director of taxation at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, also suggested that the tax changes are unlikely to result in any significant behavioural changes in the way people pay tax in Scotland. And, as has been noted elsewhere, high taxation does not necessarily lead to unsuccessful economies.

However, as the FAI highlighted, perception is important, and if Scotland comes to be seen as the most highly taxed part of the UK, this could have serious implications for business start-ups and inward investment.

  1. Taxation: two systems, multiple implications

Charlotte Barbour also highlighted some of the implications of the tax changes in Scotland that haven’t featured widely in press coverage. How the changes interact with areas such as Gift Aid, pensions, the married couple’s tax allowance, Universal Credit and tax credits will need careful examination in the coming weeks.

  1. Public spending: additional resources, but constrained settlements

The FAI’s David Eiser noted that Mr Mackay was able to meet his government’s commitments to maintain real terms spending on the police and provide £180m for the Attainment Fund. He also announced an additional £400m resource spending on the NHS. But these settlements are constrained in the context of the Scottish Government’s pay policy,

Mr Mackay’s plan offers public sector workers such as nurses, firefighters and teachers earning less than £30,000 pounds a year a 3% pay rise, and those earning more than that a 2% rise. For the NHS alone, this could cost as much as £170m.

In addition, analysis published yesterday by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE) has estimated that, if local authorities were to match the Scottish Government’s pay policy, this would cost around £150m in 2018-19.

  1. The budget’s impact on poverty

If the growth forecasts are correct, even by 2022 real household incomes in Scotland will be below 2007 levels. Dr Jim McCormick, Associate Director Scotland to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looked at the Scottish budget in the context of poverty, and suggested that three principles need to be addressed before the budget can be finalised: there are opportunities both to increase participation by minority groups in employment and to improve progression in low-wage sectors, such as hospitality and retail; energy efficiency is one important way of lowering household bills and improving housing quality in the private rented sector; and options such as topping up child tax credits and more generous Council Tax rebates are better at reducing poverty than cutting income tax.

Finalising the budget

As all of the speakers noted, the Scottish draft budget is not a done deal. The minority Scottish National Party government in the Scottish Parliament needs the support of at least one other party to ensure its measures are adopted. The most likely partner is the Scottish Green Party, which has indicated that the budget cannot pass as it stands, but could support the government if an additional £150m is committed to local government.

It took until February this year before the Scottish Government’s 2016 draft budget could be passed. Time will tell whether a budget announced shortly before Christmas 2017 can finally be agreed before Valentine’s Day 2018.

The complete collection of slides presented at the Fraser of Allander Institute’s Scottish budget review are available to download here.

Our blog post on the Fraser of Allander Institute’s review of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2017 Autumn Budget is available here.

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management

If you think poetry is a load of old rubbish, you might find some agreement in the unlikeliest quarters. Poets themselves have been finding inspiration from the items we discard, and from the people who make a living clearing up our trash.

In October, John Wedgewood Clarke published a book of poetry called Landfill, the result of a year-long residency at two Yorkshire rubbish sites. The collection explores what John calls the “hideous beauty” of places that most of us would rarely describe as poetic.

The residency had a profound experience on the poet. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, John described the experience of making his way through the landscape of trash as akin to walking on the moon. And he found that landfill sites have their own seasons, with a blossoming of fairy lights just after Christmas and an upsurge in lawnmowers in the spring. In autumn the dump was littered with pumpkins and glow-sticks.

The collection features poems both about rubbish itself and its effects. Newsprint turns the writer’s skin grey, and he finds himself wandering through a “palace of glistering cans”.

A rubbish dump is also a repository for stories. One of the site workers told John about poignant finds such as discarded war medals and photograph albums.

In recent years, there have been greater efforts to divert more and more of our waste away from landfill. Many of us are recycling waste products, and the idea of a circular economy is becoming a reality.

In spite of these efforts, John’s rubbish residency is a reminder of the sheer scale of landfill, and of its enduring nature. As he told the Yorkshire Post: “our waste doesn’t disappear, it is simply on its way to becoming geology.”

Unsung heroes

In Edinburgh, the city’s Makar, Christine de Luca, has also found poetic inspiration from an unlikely source. A visit to the Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works resulted in a poem called Gardyloo which describes a space-station of engines, pipework and pumps that transform effluent into a purified stream which flows with “the speed and sparkle of a Highland burn in spate.”

Later, Christine persuaded a selection of poets to celebrate other Edinburgh workers whose service for the city largely goes unnoticed or unappreciated. The result was a collection of poems called Edinburgh Unsung, now freely available on Edinburgh City Council’s website.

The subjects are varied, from chimney sweeps and environmental wardens to facilities managers at the Scottish Parliament and book dusters at the National Library of Scotland. Christine herself, more used to writing in praise of the great and the good, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and James Clerk Maxwell, contributed a poem celebrating Edinburgh’s refuse collectors. It describes their daily routine of waste collection and disposal as a kind of dance, with its own repertoire, rhythm and precision.

A strange beauty

Percy Shelley described poetry as “a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”. Many would have thought it impossible to equate the workings of a waste water treatment plant with something beautiful. But, as Christine de Luca, John Wedgewood Clarke and many other poets have demonstrated, there is a strange beauty in the features and functions of the everyday. And if these poets can – even for a moment – shine a light on the people working to make our lives better, then that’s kind of beautiful too.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also find another poetry-related blog post of interest:

Moving stories: how poetry is carrying the message about mobility challenges facing older people

Focus on: Evaluations Online


Evaluations Online is a public portal providing access to a collection of evaluation and economic development research reports commissioned by Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s main economic development agency.

Ensuring that public investment generates economic and social benefits, and long-term inclusive growth for Scotland is core to Scottish Enterprise’s remit. Making evaluation and research reports publicly available, supports this aim as well as ensuring transparency.

Some of the most popular recent reports added to the site have focused on:

Working in partnership

Since 2007, Idox has been working with Scottish Enterprise to deliver Evaluations Online using a publishing platform designed specifically to deal with research material. Users can easily navigate to and assess the relevance of material thanks to specially-written abstracts and structured search functions based on a bespoke classification and record structure.

The site now contains over 600 evaluation and research reports commissioned by Scottish Enterprise, dealing with different aspects of economic development activity such as business support, investment, sector growth and improving skills. All of the reports are publicly accessible and free to access.

Since the site launched we have continued to refresh and improve the site, ensuring it better meets the needs of key user groups, including economic development policy-makers and practitioners across Scotland. In the last quarter of 2016, the reports hosted on the site were accessed over 30,000 times.

The importance of evaluation

We’ve highlighted the importance of evidence and evaluation and assessment of information quality on the blog several times before. It’s worth repeating that repositories of evidence can help bring about better policy in a number of ways:

  • improving accountability by making it easier for people to scrutinise the activities and spending of public sector organisations – this helps organisations meet Freedom of Information responsibilities;
  • improving the visibility and therefore the impact of evidence;
  • helping identify gaps in evidence by making it easier to compare research findings; and
  • increasing our understanding of what works (‘good practice’), not only in the activities covered, but also in evaluation and research methods.

We’re proud to support Scottish Enterprise in the dissemination of their evaluation and research output, through a portal which they believe increases the return on these activities.

You can find out more about the projects The Knowledge Exchange team has been involved in, and the consultancy services we offer, here.

Autumn Budget 2017: a wintry economic outlook

On a chilly morning in Glasgow last Friday, delegates gathered at the University of Strathclyde’s Technology and Innovation Centre in Glasgow for the Fraser of Allander Institute’s (FAI) post-Budget briefing.

Chaired by Alf Young, visiting professor at the International Public Policy Institute, the presentation focused on the economic and tax measures in the Chancellor’s first Autumn Budget and the implications for Scotland as the Scottish Government prepares to present its own Budget next month.

The economy

The FAI Director, Professor Graeme Roy suggested that arguably the most significant element was the substantial downward revisions in UK growth forecast.

In its forecast for the next five years, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has wiped off £60 billion from the UK economy. The principal reason for this is the OBR’s shift in its outlook for productivity. As recently as March this year, the OBR were forecasting a gradual acceleration of the economy, returning to growth of 2% by 2021. Now, however, they believe that weak productivity performance in the wake of the financial crisis can no longer be seen as temporary, and that the slowdown is evidence of structural weakness.

Professor Roy described the implications of this for household incomes as “nothing short of dismal”. Scotland will not be immune from these pressure, and the Scottish Fiscal Commission is likely to be just as (if not more) pessimistic as the OBR.

The reasons for the UK’s weak productivity – labour hoarding, flat investment, inefficiencies in the financial system and a lack of labour market slack – add to the pressures on the Chancellor, who also remains committed to fiscal restraint. This, Professor Roy suggested, means budgets will continue to be squeezed for the next 15 years.


Charlotte Barbour, director of taxation for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland went on to review the tax elements of the Autumn Budget.

She explained that it was a “predominantly English Budget”, with a number of measures that would not apply in Scotland, such as those concerning business rates, stamp duty, training investment, capital and resource funding for the NHS, and a number of measures affecting housing.

However, there were also measures which will affect the whole of the UK, including changes to the corporation tax main rate, freezing of the VAT threshold, a rise in income tax personal allowance and the raising of the higher rate threshold for income tax.

While the Autumn Budget contained relatively few taxation measures, Ms Barbour suggested that forthcoming issues are likely to have significant impacts, including moves by HMRC to make tax digital, taxation changes concerning the gig economy, the devolution of tax powers and, of course, Brexit.


David Eiser, research fellow at the FAI reminded his audience, that, as far as Scotland was concerned, the Chancellor’s Budget was the first of two important economic announcements this autumn. On 14 December, the Scottish Government’s Finance Cabinet Secretary, Derek Mackay, will deliver his Budget to the Scottish Parliament.

The Chancellor announced that Scotland is to receive an extra £2bn in block grant funding, spread over the next four years. But the Scottish Government has argued that £1.1bn of this money can’t be used to support day-to-day spending on public services, and has to be repaid by the Scottish government to the UK government”.

Mr Eiser noted that, while in principle it would be possible for the Scottish Government to offset grant cuts by raising income tax in Scotland, there is a still a need to consider the performance of the Scottish economy.

Mr Mackay will face pressure to match the Chancellor’s decision to reduce stamp duty land tax for first-time buyers on properties up to £300,000 in England. But Mr Eiser argued that there are more effective ways of addressing housing affordability issues in Scotland than reducing the broadly similar Land and Buildings Transactions Tax.

Overall, Mr Eiser assessed that there are opportunities in the Scottish Budget to increase public investment and to explore the use of fiscal transactions to stimulate the economy. But with the block grant – not to mention welfare and other reserved spending in Scotland – still driven by UK fiscal policy, the outlook for public spending in Scotland looks tough.

A wintry outlook

In Scotland, the focus now switches to Mr Mackay’s Budget speech next month. The FAI will be holding another post-budget review, and the Knowledge Exchange Blog will report on this shortly afterwards.

But, as Professor Roy suggested, the main story of the Autumn Budget was the outlook for the UK economy. It’s been reported that this has been the worst decade for UK productivity since the Napoleonic wars. That stark historic perspective presents a grim backdrop for the UK economy as it prepares to leave the European Union.

The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.