How well is your economy? Moving beyond GDP as an indicator of success

by Scott Faulds

Since the early 20th century, the predominant method of evaluating the success of a country has been through the metric of Gross Domestic Production (GDP). This measurement is based upon the assumption that economic growth is the key indicator of a successful country.

In recent years, this assumption has been challenged, with politicians and economists, arguing that the focus on GDP has led to the development of policy which values economic growth at the expense of the wellbeing of society.

Following the 2018 OECD World Forum, Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand, have formed a group known as the Wellbeing Economy Governments, to share best practice of how to build an economic strategy that will foster societal wellbeing.  Additionally, organisations such as the OECD, European Commission and United Nations, are all conducting research into the development of policy beyond GDP. Therefore, it is clear that the previously held consensus surrounding the use of GDP has begun to break down, with countries across the world searching for different ways to evaluate the success of policy.

We must forge ahead with progressive economic policies that defy common stereotypes about costs and benefits and keep on promoting gender equality as part of a forward-looking social justice agenda

Katrín Jakobsdóttir
Prime Minister of Iceland

 

What’s wrong with GDP?

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), GDP is the measurement of the monetary value of all final goods and services produced within a country during a given period. However, it should be noted that this measure excludes unpaid work and the economic activity of the black market. Simon Kutzents, the modern-day creator of GDP, argued that whilst GDP was effective as a measure of productivity, it should have never been used as an indicator of the welfare of a nation.

Critics of GDP contend that the measure is overly simplistic, due to its interpretation of a successful country as one which is experiencing economic growth, arguing that some countries with growing economies have many social problems. For example, in China GDP grew by 6.6% last year whilst levels of inequality rose faster than in other countries, and society faces a great deal of political oppression. Therefore, it can be said that GDP does not provide a true picture of the success of a country, as it fails to consider societal problems, such as inequality and political freedom.  

The wellbeing approach

As a result of growing criticism of the use of GDP, several countries have started to look at alternative approaches of measuring success which considers factors beyond economic growth. This has led to international interest around the concept of wellbeing, a desire to create policy to improve the wellness of society.

This can manifest in a variety of different forms, from Scotland’s National Performance Framework to New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget –  both policies designed to help improve the health of society rather than solely increasing economic growth.

However, this should not be interpreted as a movement away from encouraging businesses to grow; rather the Wellbeing Economy Governments believe that by improving the wellbeing of society they will indirectly stimulate sustainable economic growth.

“We need to address the societal well-being of our nation, not just the economic well-being

Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister of New Zealand

As a result of creating a budget justified by improvements in societal wellbeing, New Zealand has invested record levels of funding into supporting the mental wellbeing of all citizens, with a special focus on under 24s. Additionally, the budget prioritises measures to reduce child poverty, reduce inequality for Māori and Pacific Islanders and enable a just transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy. New Zealand believes that by tackling these inequalities, economic growth can be stimulated in ways that benefit all New Zealanders, where improvements in mental health alone could lead to an increase in GDP of 5%.

Therefore, whilst GDP isn’t the main priority of policy making under the wellbeing approach, it is possible for economic growth to occur as a result of implementing policy designed to improve the wellbeing of society. After all, according to the World Health Organisation, a healthier and happier society is a more productive society.

How well is well?

It is evident that the use of GDP as a measure of a country’s success has faced a great deal of criticism in recent years. However, some economists are not ready to give up on GDP quite yet. They argue that whilst GDP is not a perfect representation of a country’s success, neither is the wellbeing approach as it can be incredibly difficult to quantify societal wellness.

For example, if we compare one citizen who is in poor health and lives in an area experiencing low-levels of crime with another citizen who is healthy and lives in an area with high-levels of crime, how can we quantify which citizen has the better level of wellbeing?

In short, critics of the wellbeing approach argue that whilst it is vital that society’s wellbeing is considered during the policy-making process, basing policy solely around wellbeing is ineffective and would be incredibly difficult to measure, due to the personal nature of what constitutes wellbeing.

“Growth in GDP should not be pursued at any or all cost … the objective of economic policy should be collective well-being: how happy and healthy a population is, not just how wealthy a population is.”

Nicola Sturgeon
First Minister of Scotland

Final Thoughts

In summary, whilst there is a great deal of international interest in the possibility of a movement away from GDP, no consensus has yet formed as to whether the wellbeing approach is the way forward. With all new forms of policy, other countries often wait to see if early adopters succeed before following their lead. Perhaps it will be left up to smaller countries to prove that an economic policy focused on wellbeing can be successful.

Until then expect to see a great deal of interest in New Zealand’s implementation of the Wellbeing Budget and the results of the second meeting of the Wellbeing Economy Governments in Iceland this autumn.


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A rising tide: the growing importance of the blue economy

Wild Surf

There has been much focus on the green economy in recent times as the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C in 2018, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out an important part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st Century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why the blue economy is so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.


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Beneath the headlines: record high employment rate, but what’s more important – quantity or quality?

Competition for new jobs

The UK employment rate has hit a joint record high of 76.1%, according to the latest official figures. The unemployment rate was estimated at 3.8%; it has not been lower since 1974. The economic inactivity rate was also close to a record low.

It’s not surprising that such record figures are often highlighted as ‘good news’ headlines. However, there has also been an increasing focus on quality of work over the past decade and the impact this has on people’s lives – reflecting concerns regarding developments in working practices, as highlighted by a recent City-REDI briefing paper. It has therefore been argued that the record employment rates are not necessarily representative of a ‘good news’ story.

Concerns

Concerns over working practices include the rise of the gig economy, unequal gains from flexible working, job insecurity and wage stagnation, to name but a few. The City-REDI paper outlines a number of ongoing concerns related to:

  • weak productivity growth;
  • employment insecurity and precarity;
  • in-work poverty;
  • skills shortages and skills polarisation; and
  • the impact of automation, technological change and the gig economy on the nature and experience of work.

Indeed, analysis has shown that much of the recent rise in employment is due to a ‘surge in low-value work’, which is holding back productivity growth. Many people are stuck in low paid insecure work, all of whom are contributing to the high employment rate.

Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported that four million workers live in poverty, a rise of over half a million over five years – meaning in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment. The causes of this increase include poorly paid jobs – particularly under temporary and part-time contracts – and a lack of progression routes for people in low-skilled work.

In addition, the rising gig economy shows no signs of slowing down, more than doubling in size over the past three years and now accounting for 4.7 million workers, according to a new report. An interesting finding of the report is that the majority of gig economy workers use this platform to supplement other forms of income, suggesting that workers are not getting enough of an income from their primary employment.

It has also been shown that advances in technology have pushed some workers into poorer quality jobs than those lost, something which cannot be addressed without some kind of policy intervention.

Health impact

Not only is poor quality work bad for the economy, it is also bad for people’s health.

A recent report which examined the impact on social inequalities of policy initiatives and reforms to extend working lives in five European countries, highlighted that working conditions are also known to influence post-retirement health, and for those with lower socioeconomic status, workplace arrangements may be causing or contributing to poor health.

A number of studies have highlighted the link between good work and health and wellbeing. As stated by a What Works for Wellbeing briefing paper, “Being in a job is good for wellbeing. Being in a ‘high quality’ job is even better for us.” It has also even been suggested that being in a poor quality job is actually worse for health and wellbeing than remaining unemployed.

Moves towards improving quality

Recent developments in the UK to address such challenges for the future and quality of work include:

  • the establishment of The Work Foundation’s Commission on Good Work in 2016, which aims to better understand the factors shaping change, and the nature and scale of opportunities and risks, so as to promote policies to achieve ‘good work’;
  • The commissioning and publication of the independent Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices in 2017 which called for policy to address the wider issue of creating quality jobs for all; and
  • the Government’s Good Work Plan, published in December 2018, which sets out the reforms planned to help improve quality of work – the first time the UK Government placed equal emphasis on the quality and quantity of work.

In addition, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) launched the UK Working Lives survey, the first robust measurement of job quality in the UK. This has since contributed to government thinking and recommendations around ‘good work’ in response to the Taylor Review.

Despite the widespread agreement over the need to adopt ‘good work’ principles, however, there remains no agreed set of indicators of exactly what it encompasses nor metrics for measuring progress towards it.

What is good work?

As the City-REDI briefing paper and other studies indicate, defining good quality work is complex as quality means different things to different people.

A range of factors contribute to different people’s perception of quality and fulfilling work, including pay, flexibility, security, health and wellbeing, nature of work and job design. The CIPD survey highlights seven dimensions of job quality:

  • pay and benefits
  • employment contacts
  • job design and nature of work
  • work-life balance
  • work relationships
  • voice and representation
  • health and wellbeing

Of course, there is no one size fits all solution.

Final thoughts

While productivity and employment rates undoubtedly remain important, they alone are clearly not enough to understand the health of the labour market; the quality of work also needs to be considered.

As shown by the visible shift from quantity to quality of work in recent years and the recent developments from the government and others, ‘good work’ is undeniably on the policy agenda. However, as the City-REDI paper suggests, there should be a focus on promoting ‘good work’ amongst the most disadvantaged groups such as the young, people with disabilities and those working in hotels and restaurants. It is also suggested that there is scope for further research on good practice in promoting ‘good work’ in establishments of different sizes and in different sectors.

As highlighted in the Taylor Review, “All work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment.


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How can the UK Government support our rural entrepreneurs?

Rural Wales, house by a river

By Steven McGinty

Rural businesses play a significant role in the UK economy. Yet, policymakers often overlook their contribution and, as such, have failed to realise the economic opportunities in many of our rural areas.

Last year, University of Essex researcher Anupriya Misra presented an insightful webinar (register to hear a recording of the webinar) outlining some of the key challenges facing rural entrepreneurs, as well as the likely drivers of growth.

The make-up of the rural economy

Research by the House of Lords Library shows that the rural economy accounts for approximately 20% of England’s total economic activity, an estimated £229 billion.

Unsurprisingly, one of the key differences between city and rural economies is the size of the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors. In England, they amount to 2% of the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the rural economy. However, in rural areas classed as ‘sparsely populated’ this figure significantly increases, with these industries accounting for 32% of registered local businesses.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, agriculture, forestry, and fishing play a more prominent role in the rural economy. In Scotland, 13 out of its 32 local authorities have more than 50% of their population living in rural areas, with these councils contributing 20.6% of Scotland’s GVA. In Northern Ireland, 25% of VAT registered businesses are involved in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and outside of Belfast, it’s the largest industry in each local authority area.

The challenges for rural entrepreneurs

Many rural businesses have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the products they sell make up a significant proportion of UK exports. For example, 25% of Britain’s goods exporters are registered in rural areas. Nevertheless, these rural entrepreneurs can face barriers their counterparts living in cities are far less likely to experience. This includes:

  • Slow broadband – Online rural businesses can be particularly affected by slow broadband speeds. In addition, businesses involved in the tourism industry are affected, as free wi-fi is becoming an increasingly important part of the visitor experience.
  • Skills shortages – Rural businesses in sparsely populated areas can struggle to recruit the right staff, and their existing staff can experience challenges accessing training and development opportunities.
  • Poor transport infrastructure – Poor infrastructure can make it challenging for rural businesses to recruit, as well as connect to suppliers and customers in larger urban centres.
  • Difficulty accessing finance – Lower land values in rural areas can also limit a business’s ability to provide collateral for loans.

Why do some rural areas do better than others?

An interesting question raised by webinar presenter Anupriya Misra is why do some rural areas outperform others? In her view, a mixture of supply and demand factors impact on an area’s economic performance. For instance, having access to high skilled labour, good transport links to cities, beneficial planning laws, and business support are very important for supporting rural economic growth.

Additionally, rural areas which have a wealthy local population or have products with strong global demand are also likely to be high performing.

Business advice and networking

A key theme to emerge from the webinar was the important role business advice and networking plays for rural entrepreneurs. Fledgling rural businesses will often need a range of support, including help to develop their business management skills (such as basic accountancy skills), legal advice, as well as guidance on grant writing and the funding opportunities available to them.

Entrepreneurs looking to grow their business, will need other forms of support, from help to develop an online marketing strategy to advice on providing great customer service. Informal networks, and opportunities to connect with other business owners, can also be an invaluable resource.

In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up the Rural Growth Network (RGN) Pilot Initiative to help rural areas overcome the barriers they faced.  This included projects in Cumbria, Heart of the South West (HotSW), North East, Swindon and Wiltshire, and Warwickshire. In practice, this involved creating a network of ‘enterprise hubs’, offering rural businesses a mix of premises, business, and infrastructure support.

An evaluation of the initiative highlighted that introducing enterprise hubs brought several benefits to rural entrepreneurs. 70% of start-up founders surveyed reported an improvement in their business skills and half reported that they improved their networking with other firms. In financial terms, the net economic impact of the RGN pilots, in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA), was estimated to be around £16.5 million, with £56.6 million expected over a further three years. And, for every £1 invested by Defra, £1.50 was created in net GVA.

Researcher Anupriya Misra concluded the seminar by suggesting that the rural economy could be improved by following Defra’s evidence and creating a new network of rural enterprise hubs, which provide business skills and support that meets the needs of local communities.


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UK slipping to third place in international higher education – are UK universities losing their competitive edge?

Two guys taking a selfie at graduation.

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Professor Simon Marginson published a report that would have worried university chiefs more than a BBC investigation into their eye-watering salaries.

The concern? That UK universities are no longer able to compete with the world’s elite universities and have slipped from second to third in the international higher education rankings.

The Marginson report

For many years, the UK has sat comfortably behind the United States as the second most popular destination for international students.

However, Professor Marginson’s analysis of the data shows that since 2012 there has been moderate growth in the numbers studying at British universities. Interestingly, this is also the year the UK Government cancelled the post-study work visa, which allowed non-EU students to stay and work in the UK for up to two years after graduation, and replaced it with the right to stay for four months after graduation.

In contrast, the research shows Australia has seen a surge of international students studying at their universities, rising from 249,868 in 2012 to 335,512 in 2016. This is still fewer than were studying in the UK in 2015 (430,687). However, Australian government figures show that student numbers increased by 14.7% in 2017, with this high growth continuing into 2018.

And, Professor Marginson predicts that when the full data becomes available the UK will only be slightly ahead of Australia, or that Australia may have already climbed into second place. In either scenario – and with Brexit on the horizon – this news will be undoubtedly worrying for universities, who have a long tradition of welcoming students and academics from across the globe.

Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings

Although UK universities are respected internationally, this is not the first piece of evidence to suggest international students might be tempted elsewhere.

In 2018, the Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings, which scores universities based on the quality of their research and teaching, highlighted that British universities either stayed the same or fell down the international league table. In particular, Durham University has lost its place amongst the top 100 universities in the world, whilst University College London and Imperial College London have dropped down the rankings.

Phil Baty, THE’s editorial director of global rankings, argues that the UK’s elite universities cannot take their international reputation for granted and suggests the findings should “give pause for serious thought as the country seeks to champion its status as ‘global Britain’ in a post-Brexit world.”

The competition

Although recent immigration changes and uncertainty over Brexit present challenges for British universities, the policies adopted by other countries have also impacted on their competitiveness.

In the US, President Barak Obama’s liberal approach to immigration resulted in a 26% increase in international students between 2011-2015 – this is significantly higher than the UK’s 2.6% growth rate for the same period. However, more recently, President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has led to the tightening of the student visa system and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. In turn, the US has experienced a decline in international student numbers, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Canada.

Canadian universities have attempted to capitalise on these political changes by marketing themselves as a more tolerant North American alternative. For example, the University of Montreal has set up a travel fund to help international students attend US conferences, as some may face difficulties entering the country. Policies, such as these, are likely to have led to a 20% increase in international students accepting places in the Autumn of 2017.

In Australia, there has been a dramatic change in direction. In 2009, violence against Indian international students ignited protests in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney. In response, the Australian Government made a significant diplomatic effort to salvage Australia’s reputation as a welcoming place for international students, including by relaxing the regulatory and financial requirements for study.

How can the UK foster competitiveness?

Education Insight founder, Janet Ilieva, suggests that the UK Government should work with higher education institutions to coordinate their international marketing efforts, as well as provide post study work opportunities.

Similarly, Universities UK, have stressed the importance of bringing back work visas for overseas graduates. They highlight that competitors such as the United States and Canada allow students to stay and work for three years after graduating, and four in the case of Australia.

To mitigate against Brexit, the Economist has discovered that some universities are considering setting up a European campus in order to avoid immigration restrictions.

Policy reforms and practical support, such as those highlighted above, would certainly improve British universities’ ability to compete with up-and-coming international student destinations. However, the real question is, is there enough political will to make this happen?


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

Dunfermline town centre

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

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

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

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

A community-focused high street

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

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

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

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

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

A healthy and accessible high street

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

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

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

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

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

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

A high street to call home

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

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

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

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

 Looking to the Future

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

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

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


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

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A diverse high street

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

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

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

A unique high street

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

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

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

A digital high street

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

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

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

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

A well-supported high street

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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


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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.

Do we really need a middle class? How the UK Government should respond to the challenge of job polarisation

Women sitting at her desk doing paperwork

By Steven McGinty

At the beginning of the year, former government advisor and HR expert Kevin Green gave a TEDx talk entitled “Why our jobs matter now more than ever before”.

In his talk, he explains that technologies such as artificial intelligence have transformed the labour market and, unlike previous industrial revolutions, old jobs are not necessarily being replaced by better forms of work.

Instead, he warns, the economy is experiencing ever-increasing ‘job polarisation’. In this labour market, highly skilled, in-demand workers benefit from higher wages and flexible working conditions, whilst middle-income earners are finding their jobs disappear, and competition grows for low skilled, often manual work.

What does the research say about this phenomenon?

In 2017, the OECD published the report ‘Future of Skills and Work’, which highlighted that labour markets are polarising within some G20 countries. 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. In particular, the report found that countries experiencing skills shortages are paying higher rates for staff with desirable skills and that greater competition for low skilled jobs is holding down wages for the bottom half of earners.

Greater regional inequalities are also noted as a possibility, as employers are likely to locate in areas with a high concentration of high-skilled workers – which are often very different to the areas experiencing job losses.

However, the report does suggest that some groups may benefit. For example, it highlights that disadvantaged millennials, who have grown up with technology, may have an advantage over older, less tech-savvy workers.

Is technology the only factor leading to job polarisation?

Economist Andrea Salvatori has conducted extensive research and argues that job polarisation in the UK is far more complex. In a 2015 paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, he argued that although technology is a factor, the growth in high skilled jobs can be explained by the increase in the number of graduates since the 1990s.  Similarly, in a 2016 paper, he found that routine employment did not decline in organisations which had adopted technology and that workplaces which specialise in high skilled employment had grown dramatically, from 30% to almost 50% between 1998 and 2011.

One theory highlighted is that of MIT scholar David Autor, who suggests that while technology might be replacing workers in certain tasks, it’s also complementing them in other areas which are more cognitive and difficult to automate.

In addition, Professor Maarten Goos has suggested that offshoring and the global competition for labour has been a factor. In his view, companies have taken advantage of lower wages in foreign countries, particularly in middle earning jobs such as back-office administrative functions and in customer service positions. Highly skilled jobs have been less affected as the supply of skills is less readily available.

What are the social consequences of job polarisation?

Mr Green’s Tedx Talk is less about the economics of job polarisation, and more about the social issues which may stem from this divided economy. He recounts his own experience, describing himself as a ‘late bloomer,’ and recounting his journey from an administrative middle-class job in Wandsworth council to gaining promotion through further study.

For him, the real concern is that the chasm between low and high skilled jobs means that it will be increasingly difficult for some groups in society to progress in their careers. In particular, he highlights graduates looking for their first positions, as well as mothers returning to the labour market after a period out to raise children.

Research has also shown that increased job polarisation might be leading to discontent amongst low skilled workers, and that this could partially explain recent political divisions between those living in large metropolitan cities and those in left behind regions.

So, how should the UK Government respond?

Academics Dr David Hope and Dr Angelo Martelli recently investigated the role labour market institutions play in tackling wage inequality in modern economies. By analysing the economic data for 18 OECD countries from 1970 to 2007, they attempted to prove that national labour market systems could protect wages. They found that:

strong labour market institutions, in the form of coordinated wage setting, employment protection legislation, and high wage bargaining coverage, reduces the effect of the expansion of employment in knowledge-intensive services on income inequality.”

In addition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that there is a need to tackle inequality locally by focusing on the bottom of the labour market, particularly by improving working conditions for low-skilled workers.

Mr Green takes a similar viewpoint, and argues the solution is a ‘revolution in lifelong learning’. This means creating labour market institutions that help people trapped in low skilled work, so that they are aware of the opportunities available to them, and potentially providing funding to support them on their journey.


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. 

Want to understand what’s going on in the world? New books in our library can help

Our research team are focused on helping our members put evidence into practice in fields as diverse as planning, housing, education and social services. But more generally, our library collection covers social commentary and political critique – books to help you understand the state of the world and the times we are living through.

Here are some of the latest and most popular books in our library just now.

  • Human+Machine

Where is Artificial Intelligence heading and what does it mean for our lives, especially how we work?  AI has huge potential for redesigning jobs and tasks to support productivity and economic growth. But what are the wider implications? This book from Harvard Business Review explores the steps any organisation should be taking to understand and benefit from AI. It also considers the human consequences of skills gaps and disruption.

  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Winner of multiple book awards, Reni Eddo-Lodge has written an essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today. As well as analysing structural racism, she calls on everyone to see, acknowledge and counter racism. Going forward, Eddo-Lodge calls for us to ‘listen intently, learn from marginalised perspectives, intervene as bystanders and collectively address profound inequalities’.

  • Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow

In a challenge to conventional economics and the unquestioning pursuit of growth through material consumption, Tim Jackson considers what prosperity could look like if sustainability was taken seriously as an objective. The new edition of this classic text brings the discussion up-to-date and identifies clear steps to make a ‘post-growth economy’ a reality.

  • WTF

Robert Peston is a hugely successful political, economics and business journalist and his book WTF gives a personal view of what has gone wrong within our society and how we could put at least some of it right. From Trump to Brexit, Facebook scandals to austerity, this book may be an easy read but it’s also an intelligent, thought-provoking call to action.

  • The Tyranny of Metrics

The objectivity promised by metrics, and the decision-making that results, is critiqued in this book which claims that we’ve gone from measuring performance to fixating on measuring itself. With examples from across the public and private sectors it explores the trend towards measuring and paying for performance. And considers when and how to use metrics appropriately.

  • Doughnut Economics

Is it a sign of the times that many of our most popular books at the moment are focused on economic theory? Kate Raworth’s book critiques mainstream economics and offers a new economic model fit for the 21st century. This new model would take justice, fairness and rights as foundational principles.

  • The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration

David Goodhart’s book draws on both interviews and statistics to chart the ways in which Britain has transformed through immigration over the last seventy years. What does this say about race, immigration and multiculturalism today, and how can we have a more nuanced discussion of the winners and losers of such social shifts.

  • Poverty Safari

Winner of 2018’s Orwell book prize, Darren McGarvey (aka rapper Loki) brings together in this book his own experiences growing up in Pollok, Glasgow and testimonies of people in deprived communities across Britain. A powerful critique of how both left-wing and right-wing politics misunderstand the complexity of poverty as it is experienced, the book ultimately provides an uplifting focus on the potential of individuals to create change.

Books for all

These are just some of the books currently popular among our members. Created over forty years, there are more than 60,000 books and reports in our library collection, as well as hundreds of different journal titles. Our members can borrow any book from our collection via a postal loan service – offered free as part of the organisational membership subscription to our Idox Information Service.

Quick reads – such as the policy briefings written by our own team – will always be popular given the pressures on people’s time, but book loans are still a hugely important part of our service. Many organisations use membership of our service as a way to support their staff’s CPD – whether that’s informal personal interest or supplementary support for staff doing formal courses or degrees.


Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Get more information on membership here or contact us to arrange a free trial of our service for your organisation.