Coping with covid: supporting autistic children through and beyond lockdown

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) have impacted almost every aspect of our lives – from our contact with family, friends and loved ones, to how we work, eat, shop, relax and learn.

Adapting to and living with these new measures has been universally challenging.  For autistic people, the changes to daily life associated with the COVID-19 outbreak present a number of additional challenges.  In this blog, we are going to discuss some of these additional challenges, with a particular focus on autistic children and young people.  We also highlight some available supports.

Change of routines

A key feature of autism is the desire to follow certain routines and/or avoid unexpected or unpredictable events. Thus, adjusting to the changes caused by COVID-19 poses particular difficulty for many autistic people, for whom changes to routine may cause additional anxiety, distress and in some cases, emotional overload.

Other autistic people may be distressed because of the lack of structure their day now has – being unable to tell one day from the next, when there are no defining characteristics, can feel particularly disorientating.

Scottish Autism have produced guidance for autistic people and their parents/carers on helping to maintain a routine and the reasons why this is important.  They explain that not only does maintaining a routine provide a sense of security and stability, it can also help to provide a sense of calmness, support emotional self-regulation and encourage health and positive habits.

Many autistic children already use visual schedules and/or calendars to let them know what is happening and what to expect next.  These can be helpful in the current circumstances to help children adapt to new routines at home, and bring some sense of predictability and control to their changed lives.

 Being at home

Another change that COVID-19 has brought about is that more people within the household are at home than is typical – for example, one or both parents/carers may be working from home, along with any siblings/other householders who are usually in education or work.

This may be present challenges for autistic people both in terms of the change to routine and also in terms of sensory issues (e.g. noise).  For example, the household being busier than usual may be more challenging for autistic people as they will subsequently have less time and/or space to themselves, which may be needed in order to self-regulate and/or avoid sensory overload.

Special interests

Many autistic people have special interests that form a large part of their daily routines, and may play a key role in enabling them to relax, self-regulate and recover from sensory overload.

The coronavirus ‘lockdown’ has prevented most outdoors activities from taking place.  Thus many autistic people may have found that their special interest is no longer open to them – from train spotting to bird watching.  The removal of this activity from their life may be experienced as particularly distressing, and make self-regulation more difficult.

School closures

The widespread closure of schools means that many parents of autistic children have found themselves responsible for educating their child at home.

Educating children at home under these new circumstances is challenging for all parents.  However, for parents of autistic children, it presents additional challenges.

Many autistic children require additional support with their learning, and may experience difficulties sustaining concentration.  Autistic children may also have additional support needs such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which may require the use of specific approaches and/or learning aids.  This presents additional challenges for learning in the home environment for parents that are unaccustomed to providing a full time education for their child.

In school, many autistic children receive additional support in class either in a 1-2-1 or in a small group lesson from practitioners skilled in addressing these additional needs. Replicating this level of support at home is of course challenging for parents who may not be familiar with the techniques used, or skilled in their use.  They may also struggle to provide the necessary 1-2-1 support if they are also expected to work from home themselves, or have other children to care for.

Concern about their child being disproportionately affected by school closures without the skilled support that they receive in schools may also add considerable stress.  For example, the United Nations has recently noted in a briefing paper that children with disabilities and special needs are among those most dependent on face-to-face services and are least likely to benefit from distance learning solutions.

As well as adequately supporting special educational needs, there are also challenges in relation to an autistic child’s ability and/or willingness to undertake schoolwork at home.  Some autistic people have difficulties with what is termed ‘flexible thinking’. This may include, for example, the ability to see something in a new way. Autistic children may be more likely to have a fixed perception of home as distinct from school.  Thus, it may be more difficult for autistic children to accept and adapt to schoolwork being done at home.  Similarly, they may not readily accept the notion that their parent or carer is now also their ‘teacher’, particularly if this person is usually relied upon as being their primary source of comfort and safety when distressed.

Accessible home learning

While this is without a doubt a difficult situation for both autistic people and their parents/carers, the good news is that there is an increasing amount of support and sources of advice available to help support autistic people to adapt and respond to the ‘new normal’ that the coronavirus pandemic has created.

On Twitter, the #accessiblehomelearning hashtag has been trending, with people sharing lots of home learning ideas and support for parents and carers, including tools to support individuals with dyslexia and/or reading and writing difficulties.

Lucy Chetty, Head Teacher at New Struan School has also shared her top tips on education at home.  She notes that different young people will experience the changes to life differently – some will enjoy having more control over their day outside of school, whereas others will miss the routines that they are used to.

According to Lucy, happiness and fun is a key aspect of learning. Thus parents and carers should try to find something that interests and motivates their individual child special interests may be of particular help in this regard.

On a practical level, ensuring clarity is hugely important.  This includes providing clear instructions, and setting out a clear beginning, middle and end to the activity.  Also recommended is ‘chunking down’ activities into smaller pieces so that there are regular breaks, and the use of visual strips and/or timers to help illustrate how long an activity will last.

 Re-opening schools

As we look ahead to the future, there are a number of critical issues that need to be considered to support autistic children and/or adults to transition back out of lockdown.

Transitioning back into the school environment will be challenging for many autistic children, particularly those that have previously found it difficult to attend school, and/or have experience of ‘school refusal’.  For many autistic children, successful school attendance has required a great deal of input from teaching and support staff, parents and the child themselves. This is because the school environment is often experienced as being particularly challenging for a number of different reasons – for example, sensory issues (e.g. noises, smells, lighting), difficulties with processing information, and/or social communication challenges (social skills, etiquette, etc).  Many autistic children also experience heightened levels of anxiety, which is exacerbated by the school environment.

Many autistic children will need additional support with the change of routine back to school days and hours, and also with their anxiety levels – particularly if they have concerns about catching and/or spreading the virus, or if other people within the school are perceived to be ‘not following the rules’.

Additional support for transitioning back into school will be particularly important if the new school environment looks significantly different to that which the child is used to as a result of social distancing measures – for example, by attending different hours or days at school, or having different classroom set ups to allow for social distancing – both of which are options currently being considered by the Scottish Government.

Transitioning out of lockdown

In recognition of the difficulties facing many autistic people and their parents and/or carers, the Scottish Government recently announced new funding to help provide additional support in the form of an extended helpline run by Scottish Autism, and the creation of online social support groups by the National Autistic Society Scotland. 

Researchers at UCL Institute of Education are also currently conducting research into the experiences and needs of parents and carers of autistic children during the pandemic, which will hopefully help inform how they can best be supported as we transition out of lockdown and into the future, where we learn to live alongside coronavirus.

In Scotland, the Education Recovery Group is currently exploring options for stabilising the education of pupils with additional support needs as “an early priority”.

While there is still a degree of uncertainty about how and when lockdown will be eased across the UK, what is certain is that the easing of lockdown – whenever it happens – will present additional challenges for many autistic people and their parents/carers. Listening to the voices of autistic people and their parents and carers will be hugely important if they are to be successfully supported in this transition.


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Five blog posts that told the story of 2019

As the old year makes way for the new, it’s time to reflect on some of the topics we’ve been covering on The Knowledge Exchange blog over the past twelve months. We’ve published over 70 blog posts in 2019, covering everything from smart canals and perinatal mental health to digital prescribing and citizens’ assemblies. We can’t revisit them all, but here’s a quick look back at some of the stories that shaped our year.

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Tomorrow’s world today

Artificial Intelligence was once confined to the realms of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but it’s already beginning to have a very real impact on our personal and working lives. In February, we looked at the pioneering local authorities that are dipping a toe into the world of AI:

“In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services.”

However, the post went on to highlight concerns about the future impact of AI on employment:

“PwC’s 2018 UK Economic Outlook suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although it’s likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Tackling violent crime

One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the rise in violent crime. Figures released in January found overall violent crime in England and Wales had risen by 19% on the previous year.

As our blog reported in March, police forces around the country, along with health services, local government, education and the private sector have been paying close attention to the experience of Glasgow in tackling violent crime.

Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was launched in 2005, and from the start it set out to treat knife crime not just as a policing matter, but as a public health issue. In its first ten years, the VRU helped to halve the number of homicides in the city, with further progress in subsequent years.

In March, our blog explained that the VRU takes a holistic approach to its work:

“…staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.”

 Protecting the blue planet

Environmental issues have always featured strongly in our blog, and in a year when people in larger numbers than ever have taken to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, we’ve reported on topics such as low emission zones, electric vehicles and deposit return schemes.

In August, we focused on the blue economy. The world’s oceans and seas are hugely important to the life of the planet, not least because they are home to an astonishing variety of biodiversity. In addition, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. But they are also a source of food, jobs and water – an estimated 3 billion people around the world rely on the seas and oceans for their livelihood.

Pollution is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, and, as our blog reported, governments are finally waking up to the need for action:

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. 

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of place

The ties that bind environmental factors, health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. This was underlined at an international conference in June on the importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities.

One of the speakers was Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde. His research supports the idea that poverty is not the result of bad choices, but rather the absence of a sense of coherence and purpose that people need to make good choices:

“People who have a sense of purpose, control and self-esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices. Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that”.

Celebrating diversity

While it sometimes seems as if our society has made great strides in stamping out prejudice and supporting minority groups, at other times the stark reality of discrimination can shine a light on how far we still have to go.

In June, we marked Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month with two blog posts that aimed to raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today:

“Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults. There is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.”

But our blog also highlighted work being done to address these issues and to spread the word about GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage:

“Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller MovementFriends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community. The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making.”

 Back to the future

Since first launching in 2014, The Knowledge Exchange blog has published more than 700 posts, covering topics as varied as health and planning, education and digital, the arts, disabilities, work and transport.

The key issues of our times – climate change, Brexit and the economy haven’t been neglected by our blog, but we’ve looked at them in the context of specific topics such as air pollution, higher education and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we head into a new year, the aims of The Knowledge Exchange blog remain: to raise awareness of issues, problems, solutions and research in public policy and practice.

We wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2020.

A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

aerial view architecture autumn cars

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The UK population is ageing. A 2019 report from AgeUK using data from the ONS highlighted that there are nearly 12 million (11,989,322) people aged 65 and above in the UK of which: 5.4 million people are aged 75+, 1.6 million are aged 85+, over 500,000 people are 90+ (579,776) and 14,430 are centenarians. By 2030, one in five people in the UK (21.8%) will be aged 65 or over, 6.8% will be aged 75+ and 3.2% will be aged 85+.

Allowing people to live well in old age in their own homes is something which housebuilders and planners are giving increasing thought to, both from a wellbeing perspective for residents, and a financial perspective for services, including the NHS and social care. The creation of “lifetime neighbourhoods” – spaces where people can live well from birth to retirement – brings together a number of elements: providing easy access to services; creating physical spaces which are suitable for people with disabilities and mobility issues to navigate; and allowing people to maintain those social and community ties which are associated with wellbeing, which can sometimes be lost with forced moves to residential care or a prolonged stay in hospital.

Homes for life

Building homes that are suitable for an ageing population is an important first step in creating lifetime neighbourhoods. However, planners and developers are starting to realise that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to housing for older people. As with the general population, older people are not a homogenous group, and while some may need the support provided by extra care or sheltered housing projects, or may need single-storey open plan living to accommodate mobility aids or telecare packages, others simply want to live in a space which enables them to live comfortably in a community which suits their needs in terms of location and availability of services.

Designing and building a range of different housing types, which includes single-storey homes, extra care and sheltered housing, as well as stock which is suitable for people looking to downsize, is a key part of the development of effective lifetime neighbourhoods. This can free up larger family homes for people with children to move into and ensure that people are not kept unnecessarily in hospital because housing cannot be adapted to meet changing needs. A 2014 Age UK report showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing is a barrier to downsizing, highlighting that retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Now groups like the Housing Made for Everyone coalition (HoME) are calling on the government to make all new homes accessible and adaptable as standard to help meet growing need in the future.

Social infrastructure such as libraries, community centres, local shops and good transport links are also a key aspect to planning effective lifetime neighbourhoods, as is ensuring accessibility of services such as GP appointments. Effective infrastructure planning can help enable the whole community, not just older people to feel connected to their local area, both physically and socially which can really help to support the idea of lifetime neighbourhoods and enable people to live well regardless of age.

Preventing loneliness and isolation in older age

Preventing loneliness and isolation in old age by creating spaces which facilitate engagement and encourage people to have positive social interactions is important to ensure that everyone within the community feels respected, involved and appreciated. However, the challenges are different depending on the nature of the community in question. In rural areas, social isolation can be compounded by a lack of appropriate transport infrastructure or the removal of key services at a local level in favour of “hubs” which are often located in towns and cities; in urban areas, loneliness can be exacerbated by the chaotic, hostile or intimidating environment that living in a densely populated area can have, a flip side to the benefits of density.

Ambition for ageing is a programme which aims to discover what works in reducing social isolation by taking an asset based approach to creating age friendly communities. Asset based approaches seek to identify the strengths and the abilities of people and communities, rather than their deficits. The asset based approach to creating age friendly neighbourhoods also seeks to use the experiences and  attributes that all members of the community have to help make the community better. To create effective age friendly neighbourhoods older people need to have opportunities to participate and feel that they are making a positive contribution.

A space for all ages

While much of the research and literature on lifetime neighbourhoods focuses on older people, it is also important to ensure that spaces meet the needs of all groups in the community, including children and young people and people with disabilities. Creating places which balance the needs of all groups within the community is an important consideration for planners.

The physical environment can be as important as the built environment and infrastructure development when it comes to developing lifetime neighbourhoods. Spaces which make use of natural and green infrastructure with lots of green and open public spaces have been shown to help improve mental health and wellbeing, as well as encouraging people of all ages to be more active. A number of design factors such as good paving, effective street lighting and easy access to seating and public toilets make neighbourhoods accessible to older people and people with impairments. Poor design can ‘disable’ people in their immediate environment and act as a barrier to participation in local activities.

adult affection baby child

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Final thoughts

For lifetime neighbourhoods to be successful, it is necessary that there is access to a range of appropriate housing options. In addition, the planning of public, open and green spaces, availability of transport links and local community infrastructure like libraries, police stations and local shops are all vitally important to ensure communities can thrive.

It is clear that while there is demand for more suitable housing for people in older age, the location and type of housing being built must also meet the needs and expectations of older residents, including good connections to local infrastructure, and safe accommodation. Projects which bring a range of ages together can be effective in strengthening community cohesion, can help challenge stereotypes and can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Collectively these different elements feed into the creation of lifetime neighbourhoods which can support people to live well into retirement and beyond.


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Shared Prosperity Fund – greater productivity and inclusivity for Scottish cities?

new bridge glasgow

There are many questions surrounding the UK’s departure from the European Union, not least on the future of funding.

In Scotland’s regions and cities, EU Structural Funds have provided significant additional funding to support economic development for many years. The current structural funds programme is worth about €10.7 billion to the United Kingdom and up to €872 million to Scotland across the seven-year budget period which ends in 2020. The Funds were originally created to help rebalance regional social and economic disparities. With regional inequality a dominant feature of the current economic landscape, and the potential of Brexit to further exacerbate this inequality, continued investment to address this is vital.

The UK Government has made no commitment to continue with the EU Structural Fund approach following exit from the EU and has instead proposed to introduce a domestic successor arrangement – the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). The objective of the SPF is to “tackle inequalities between communities by raising productivity, especially in those parts of our country whose economies are furthest behind.” This objective is widely welcomed. However, as yet there has been no formal consultation on the new Fund and no detail on how it will operate.

Nevertheless, it had been suggested in recent research from the Core Cities Group on Scottish cities that despite the significant contribution from Structural Funds over the years, the proposed SPF could be an opportunity for greater productivity and inclusivity.

Success of EU Structural Funding

The two major EU Structural Funds utilised in Scotland are the European Social Fund (ESF), focusing on skills and jobs, and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which focuses on correcting regional imbalances.

Over £134m per annum is being invested in economic development in Scotland through these funds over the current programming period, which is supported by a significant amount of match funding, largely from the public sector. According to the Scottish Government, the total funding will be around €1.9 billion.

The Scottish Cities – the collaboration of Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness Perth, and Stirling) – and city regions have already successfully invested in each of the four Scottish Economic Strategy priorities (innovation, investment, inclusive growth and internationalisation) and the UK Industrial Strategy’s five foundations of productivity (ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and place).

Some examples of projects include:

Research suggests that the ending of such funding poses a risk to organisations and the positive economic impact gained, as illustrated by reductions in funding in other areas of the UK.

Limitations

Despite the successes that have been achieved through the use of Structural Funds, the approach is not without its limitations. As argued by the Core Cities report, the approach to managing, overseeing and using the funding has become more bureaucratic and cumbersome. Particular issues highlighted include:

  • increasing centralisation of funding and decision-making;
  • the requirement to provide match-funding at an individual project level becoming increasingly problematic due to public sector budget cuts;
  • monitoring, compliance and audit requirements have become increasingly onerous;
  • in the current programme period, the role of the Managing Authority has become more transactional, with little engagement at the project development stage;
  • eligibility rules restrict what can be funded, with some important elements of economic development no longer able to be supported e.g. new commercial premises, transport infrastructure, which can limit the benefits from other Structural Fund investment (such as business growth and employment creation on strategic sites);
  • the system does not encourage innovation, with high levels of risk aversion amongst programme managers, and a high degree of risk for project sponsors if project delivery does not proceed as planned – a particular issue for projects working with the most disadvantaged groups and those with complex needs.

The report argues that these factors have had the effect of limiting the achievements of the Funds, such as preventing some organisations from applying for funding, which in turn has made others wary about applying. This has led to projects being designed to meet the funding criteria rather than maximising benefits, resulting in too much time and effort on administrative activities rather than those which will have an impact on the economy.

As such, it is suggested that the introduction of the SPF affords an opportunity to change this.

Opportunity for change

According to the report, there is an opportunity to move away from the limitations of the Structural Fund programme approach to more effective arrangements that will increase productivity and contribute to a more inclusive economy. There is scope to increase the funding available through the SPF, reduce bureaucracy and become more responsive to local need.

It is suggested that there is potential for SPF investment in the Scottish Cities to deliver an economic dividend of up to £9bn as productivity increases, producing higher wages at all levels in the workforce, and contributing to a more inclusive economy overall.

Given that Scotland’s performance on some of the key economic indicators is likely to be taken into account when allocating SPF – GVA per job and per hour worked, employment rate, deprivation levels – the report also contends that there is a case for a greater share of the SPF for Scottish Cities. It argues that significant SPF investment in these areas “…will increase competitiveness and tackle inequality, as set out in Scotland’s Economic Strategy, as well as contributing towards the objectives of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, raising productivity and reducing inequalities between communities”.

The report warns that “Scotland will not make significant progress towards a more inclusive economy and society without addressing the deprivation challenges in the Scottish Cities.”

It is recommended that:

  • the SPF should use a transparent, needs-based allocation system;
  • the SPF budget should not be determined by previous levels of Structural Funds, and should be significantly increased; and
  • the Scottish Cities must be closely involved in the design of the SPF.

Final thoughts

There appears to be wide consensus for providing a replacement for EU Structural funding. Most organisations that have commented on the proposed SPF also agree that the level of funding should at least be maintained at its current level.

The concerns in Scotland, and indeed the other devolved legislatures, is the impact the SPF might have in devolved decision making powers currently exercised under EU Structural Funding.

The Scottish Cities have made clear their views on the proposed SPF and the Scottish Government has also launched its own consultation on how the Fund might work for Scotland.

Only time will tell whether the UK Government will take these comments on board, and indeed whether the opportunity for change will be realised at all.


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Diversity and inclusion in the workplace: more than just demographics

 

The experts are in agreement: having a diverse workforce can drive innovation, improve performance and attract top talent.  As such, diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a ‘hot topic’, with many top organisations identifying it as a key element of their corporate strategy.

But what does effective D&I look like in practice?  In this blog, we will look at how to implement effective D&I initiatives in the workplace.

 

Progress still needed

While organisational diversity has improved in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

Action has been most visible in regards to gender.  However, although female employment rates have increased, male and female experiences of progression within the workplace are still vastly different.  For example, in 2018, FTSE 100 CEOs were still more likely to be called Dave or Steve than to be female.

Progress has been less tangible in regards to race and ethnicity.  A recent study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that while 75% of FTSE 100 companies set progression targets for gender, only 21% did the same for BAME. Indeed, only 6% of top management jobs are held by Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) leaders, whereas BAME groups make up 12% of the working population.

There is a similar lack of representation among disabled and LGBT employees.  This only increases when considering intersectionality – that is, employees who identify with more than one protected status.

 

Diversity and inclusion are separate concepts

Many organisational diversity initiatives have proved unsuccessful.  Where have they gone wrong?

Firstly, being a truly inclusive organisation is about more than just hiring a diverse workforce.  Diversity alone does not guarantee that every employee will have the same experience within the organisation.

A first step towards implementing an effective D&I strategy is to understand that diversity and inclusion are related, but distinct, concepts.

As the recent CIPD report on ‘Building inclusive workplaces’ explains:

  • Diversity refers to the demographic differences of a group. It usually references protected characteristics in UK law: age, disability, gender, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
  • Inclusion, on the other hand, is often defined as the extent to which everyone at work, regardless of their background, identity or circumstance, feels valued, accepted and supported to succeed at work.

Thus, effective organisational D&I is more than just demographics.  Put simplyDiversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work’.

 

Copy and paste mistakes

Another key mistake that many organisations make is ‘copying and pasting’ initiatives from another organisation into their own situation.

Just because a D&I initiative has been successful elsewhere does not mean that it will be effective in a different organisational context.  It is essential that D&I initiatives are tailored to suit individual organisational contexts.  Much will depend on the unique structural and individual barriers to inclusion that are faced in an organisation.

 

Addressing the barriers

Thus, it is crucial that organisations identify and tackle these specific barriers to inclusion.

Structural barriers may include a lack of flexible working opportunities, or a lack of BAME representation on recruitment selection panels or within senior management and HR.

Individual barriers may include prejudice and bias (both conscious and unconscious).  For example, the TUC Racism at Work survey found that 65% of BAME workers have suffered harassment at work within the last five years, while 49% had been treated unfairly.  Similarly, an NIESR study found that 23% of LGBT employees had experienced a negative or mixed reaction from others in the workplace due to being LGBT or being thought to be LGBT.

 

Tackling prejudice and bias

Addressing employees’ unconscious bias is one way to help tackle this.  Unconscious bias training involves teaching people about the psychological processes behind prejudice and techniques that can be used to reduce it. Research has found that unconscious bias training can be effective in increasing people’s awareness and knowledge of diversity issues.

However, evidence of its impact on attitudes and behaviours is less conclusive, so it is not a panacea.

 

Making the mix work

So what else can organisations do to help foster inclusion?

Research has found that there are several key aspects that contribute to individual feelings of inclusion.  In particular, individuals must feel valued for their uniqueness, and they must feel able to  be their authentic selves at work, regardless of any differences between them and other team members. This, in turn, leads to a sense of belonging, without the need to conform to ‘group norms’.

Individual feelings of inclusion are influenced both by the behaviours of others at work, as well as informal and formal organisational practices.

Some good practice examples of organisational inclusion include:

  • Fair policies and practices
  • Ensuring the availability of specific practices, such as flexible working, that can support inclusion
  • Involving employees in decision making processes and networks
  • Actively taking feedback on board
  • Ensuring that leaders are role models for inclusion
  • Genuinely valuing individual difference, not just hiring for representation

Other practices that may help promote inclusive working environments include mentorship, sponsorship and the creation of inclusive employee networks.

 

Learning from good practice

The good news is that an increasing number of organisations are working towards becoming truly diverse and inclusive.  Awards and certifications such as Business in the Community’s Race Equality Award, EDGE certification for gender equality, and Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index for LGBT inclusion, all highlight the positive work that is being done.

For example, Pinsent Masons – currently the number 1 employer in the Workplace Equality Index – have worked to remove barriers to employment for trans individuals, provided support for LGBT women to overcome the ‘double glazed glass ceiling’ and facilitated the creation of an LGBT and allies employee network.

 

Inclusion leads to better, fairer workplaces 

Successful D&I cannot be measured by demographics – it is not enough to just have the right numbers on paper.  Every employee must feel valued as an individual and have equal access to opportunities.  In order to achieve this, organisations must look at their own contexts and develop initiatives that tackle the individual and structural barriers to inclusion that have been identified.  Listening to feedback from employees, and genuinely valuing and acting upon their input, is essential.

Becoming more inclusive is not only a moral obligation, it also has profound business implications – a recent study found that the potential benefit to the UK economy from full representation of BAME individuals across the labour market through improved participation and progression is estimated to be £24 billion per annum.  Thus, inclusive organisations are not only better and fairer places to work, but can also achieve better performance and innovation.


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Diversity and precarity: a conference on Scotland’s places of creative production

It might come as a surprise to learn that Scotland’s creative industries make up the country’s second biggest growth sector, after energy. But as well as making significant economic contributions, the creative sector is important on its own terms, with practitioners deploying their imagination, skills and expertise in a wide variety of sub sectors, from architecture and advertising to design and music.

Last month, The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) hosted a conference focusing on the ambitions of Scotland’s creative community. The organisers chose the perfect setting for the conference: for the past 20 years The Lighthouse in Glasgow has been a beacon for Scotland’s creative industries. As well as serving as Scotland’s architecture and design centre, the building has a direct connection to one of Glasgow’s cultural heroes. Designed in 1895 for the Glasgow Herald, The Lighthouse was the first public commission for Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Scotland’s creative community has a lot to be proud of, but as well as acknowledging success stories in television, computer games and the visual arts, the conference also addressed the shadows that threaten to undermine Scotland’s creative sector.

Defining design and the challenges of precarity

One of these issues was raised by Janice Kirkpatrick, founding director of Graven, one of Scotland’s most successful design studios. Janice observed that the creative community’s difficulty in defining creativity has made it hard to communicate its work to the wider world. This is important, especially when trying to attract young people into the sector. She noted that in England between 2000 and 2018 there was a 79% fall in the number of people studying design. The situation in Scotland isn’t quite as bleak, with a 16% increase in design students. But Janice argued that there is a need to introduce children to art and design at a much earlier stage in their lives so that they can regard the creative sector as a serious career option.

Katrina Brown, founding director of The Common Guild, agreed that schools have a vital role to play in nurturing an affinity for and awareness of the arts. She observed that other countries have adopted a different approach, noting that a friend living in France had complained that their daughter’s school organised visits to art galleries just once a month.

The Common Guild is a dynamic visual arts organisation in Glasgow, and Katrina referenced her experiences to highlight the precarity of the sector. The arts have not been immune to the impact of austerity following the global economic crisis. Galleries have closed, programming has been reduced, and opportunities for artists, invigilators, educators and technicians have shrunk. This matters, Katrina argued, not only because the arts have such positive economic effects, but they also enrich our health, wellbeing and quality of life.

Despite the harsh economic climate, many public bodies recognise the value of the arts, and Katrina offered the example of Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), which has become a world class centre for contemporary art and culture. The University of Dundee has demonstrated the importance of supporting the cultural life of the city by investing in DCA, which supports individuals in their artistic endeavours, but also provides them with an income through jobs in the centre’s café and cinema.

Place makers: Glasgow’s Meanwhile Spaces

The conference’s title – Places of Creative Production – took on a special resonance during a presentation by Richard Watson, Commercial Lead at City Property Glasgow, a subsidiary of Glasgow City Council. Like many UK cities, Glasgow’s city centre has been struggling to cope with the impact of online shopping and out-of-town retail centres. Closures have hit the city harder than any other in Scotland, with an alarming rise in the number of vacant properties. In response to these challenges, City Property Glasgow has been working with the council and other agencies to create ‘Meanwhile Spaces’ from empty shops in the city’s High Street and Saltmarket. After being made structurally safe and ready for new tenants, a new leasing strategy was developed, offering the properties for one year, rent-free (all other service, utility and business rates charges still apply).

Since June of this year, the first Meanwhile Space tenants have been moving in, and many of these are members of the Scotland’s creative community, including:

SOGO: a Scottish based bi-annual lifestyle and arts magazine, which promotes and provides a platform for Scottish creative industries and communities.

WASPS: the UK’s largest non-profit studio provider for artists, which will use a Meanwhile Space to support activities in which creators can prosper.

SALTSPACE: a new co-op launched by students and graduates from Glasgow School of Art to support young creatives in their transition from art school into professional practice.

Although the project is still at an early stage, Richard explained that the response of tenants and local residents has been positive, and City Property Glasgow is already working on plans to create Meanwhile Spaces in other parts of the city, and to develop longer-term spaces.

The conference heard a variety of voices and experiences, giving participants the opportunity to learn about a rich diversity of creative activities in Scotland and beyond:

  • Professor Andrew Brewerton from Plymouth College of Art, described the establishment of a free school specialising in the creative arts;
  • Video games artist and lecturer Andrew Macdonald compared his experience of working in Sweden’s games industry with the games sector in Scotland;
  • Writer and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove explained the approach taken by the Glasgow team in forming a successful bid to become one of Channel 4’s creative hubs.

Forward thinking

Closing the conference, Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam, Director of The Glasgow School of Art, said that the GSA would be happy to organise further events that might build on the ideas arising from the day’s conversations. And she reminded participants that although Scotland’s creative community faces significant challenges, it also has the skills, experience and passion needed to meet them.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on culture and creativity:

Housing wealth matters

Houses-on-coins-by-Images-Money

With the widening gap between the richest and poorest across different measures of inequality, there is growing awareness that income is not the only factor that impacts living standards. This has led to increasing interest in the distribution of wealth. While wealth can take various forms, the most visible way households accrue and store substantial amounts of wealth is through property ownership.

Property wealth in Scotland has increased ten-fold over the last 50 years – driven primarily by rising house prices, but also by the increasing number of properties and transfer of public housing into the private sector. However, this wealth is not distributed equally. In its recent examination of the scale and distribution of housing wealth in Scotland over time, the Resolution Foundation highlighted the marked rise in housing wealth inequality over the last decade, which is now twice as high as income inequality.

Why?

The new report shows that the growing inequality in housing wealth is in large part due to the fact that while very few families in Scotland currently have no form of income, over one in three Scottish households hold no property wealth at all and those in the top income decile own around 30% of the country’s property wealth.

Additional property ownership has also increased in recent years, adding to the level of inequality. The biggest wealth gaps were found to be in Scotland’s largest cities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow – where low rates of home ownership are coupled with ownership of multiple properties, concentrating housing wealth in fewer households’ hands.

In addition, the last decade has seen many people struggle to get a foot on the housing ladder and today’s young people hold less housing wealth than their predecessors. Location was also found to have an impact as house prices can differ greatly by local authority, although these variations have reduced in recent years.

As a result, levels of housing wealth inequality are now nearing the same levels as those in England and Wales, although rates of homeownership remain higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

With more people now having some form of income than ever before, it is perhaps reasonable to ask why housing wealth is so important.

The Foundation’s report highlights that owning property has value over and above general wealth effects in that it can also provide a secure home; a source of income; and greater financial security in later life. Indeed, the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) and Policy Scotland’s evidence review, which complemented the Foundation’s analysis, also highlights why housing wealth matters, citing many economic, health and social impacts.

Why housing wealth matters

While it has been previously argued that housing wealth inequalities are of little significance in terms of macroeconomic impact and can therefore be disregarded, there is now a growing body of evidence suggesting that in fact these inequalities do matter. The evidence review notes that:

  • housing assets are of growing importance encouraging household spending and were implicated in the global financial crisis;
  • access to home ownership is increasingly reliant on parental property wealth with negative implications for social mobility;
  • housing wealth is cumulative: e.g. buy-to-let has increased dramatically in Scotland over the last 20 years, often facilitated by the re-mortgaging of existing property by owners;
  • rising house price and wealth effects reduces productivity growth; and
  • different rates of house price change create inequalities across UK regions.

This is not only the case in Scotland and across the UK; across Europe housing wealth inequality has been shown to exacerbate socio-economic differences by segregating households based on income levels.

In relation to health and wellbeing, housing wealth can be a double-edged sword. A rise in house prices can lead to increased physical health of owners but decreased physical and mental health of renters.

Of course, historically, housing wealth has been seen to contribute to reduced wealth inequalities due to increased home ownership, however, there is now also an emerging concern that high house prices and rents may impair labour supply and productivity.

HWI

Main elements of wealth inequality processes within the housing system (CaCHE, 2019)

It is clear that income is not the only important factor in inequalities. This is illustrated by recent figures on child poverty and in-work poverty, which show that despite recent record levels of employment, two thirds of children living in poverty come from working households and more than half the people living in relative poverty in 2017/18 (53%) lived in households where at least one adult was in paid employment.

The Resolution Foundation notes that while the scale and distribution of housing wealth has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, wealth taxation has not.

Indeed, it has been recently argued that policy is widening the housing wealth divide and that the local supply of housing needs to be realigned with local housing demand if this is to be rectified.

Way forward

The research suggests that a number of actions could be taken to address the growing housing wealth inequalities in Scotland:

  • Firstly, support for sustainable home ownership, especially for those on lower incomes or in the younger age bracket is highlighted as one obvious response, although it notes that policies such as Help to Buy risk stimulating demand to the point that house prices are driven up. As a result, it is suggested that policy action to lessen the demand for holding additional properties would be a more sensible strategy.
  • Second, it is argued that there is a strong case for substantial reform in the area of the property taxation to address the current mismatch between the value of housing wealth and taxation.
  • Third, it is suggested that the Scottish Government could give consideration as to how the benefits of holding housing wealth can be provided to those who are unlikely to ever be able to support home ownership, with more efficient taxing of housing wealth. In addition, the government could also build on their recent reforms which have provided tenants with greater security of tenure and more predictable rent increases, and look to provide more support to low-income families via further supplements to benefits.

With the current system of council tax described as “highly regressive”, “inequitable” and “inefficient”, the research calls for much needed reform.

Both reports acknowledge that radical change is a political challenge but while the Resolution Foundation’s report states the case for action is clear, the evidence review advises caution, suggesting that a more equal housing system is a long-term aspiration rather than something practical and realisable in the short to medium term.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in some of our previous posts on housing topics.

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A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


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A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 1

Traditional Scottish Traveller bow tent at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

This month is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM).

GRTHM aims to celebrate and promote awareness of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) history, culture and heritage, and the positive contribution that GRT groups have made and continue to make to society.  It also seeks to challenge negative stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions associated with GRT groups.

Over the next two blog posts, we will raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today, and highlight some lesser known aspects of GRT culture and heritage.

Gypsies and Travellers are not a homogenous group

One common misconception is that Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are a homogenous group.

In fact, GRT is a term which encompasses many distinct ethnic groups with their own cultures, histories and traditions.

This includes Romany Gypsies, who today are generally of English or Welsh heritage.  Gypsies first arrived in Britain in the 16th Century. The term ‘Gypsy’ was coined due to a common misconception that Gypsies originated from Egypt. However, recent DNA studies suggest that they actually originated from the Indian subcontinent.  Some Gypsies may prefer to be known as either English Gypsies or Welsh Gypsies specifically.

Irish Travellers are Travellers with Irish roots, however, a recent DNA study suggests they have been genetically distinct from the settled Irish community for at least 1000 years. Irish Travellers have their own language – Shelta (also known as Cant).

Scottish Gypsies/Travellers are indigenous to Scotland.  Their exact origins are uncertain, but it is thought that they may be descended from the Picts, and/or the scattering of the clans following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  Certainly, Scottish Travellers tend to share many of the same Clan surnames – including Stewart, McMillan, McPhee and McGregor.

Scottish Travellers also have their own language – the Gaelic-based Beurla Reagaird.

European Roma are descended from the same people as British Romany Gypsies, and they are Gypsies/Travellers who have moved to the UK from Central and Eastern Europe more recently.  Some have arrived as refugees and asylum seekers. While they face many of the same issues as Gypsies, Irish and Scottish Travellers, they are also subject to a number of additional challenges.

There are also other groups that are considered ‘cultural’ rather than ‘ethnic’ Travellers.  These include Occupational Travellers such as fairground and circus owners and workers and New Age Travellers – individuals who have chosen a travelling lifestyle for ideological reasons.

Distinct ethnic minorities protected by law

Whilst there are some similarities between GRT groups in terms of lifestyle, economic, family and community norms and values – and certainly in terms of the discrimination and poor outcomes that they experience – there are clear genetic differences between each of the groups.

As such, Gypsies, Irish Travellers and Scottish Travellers are each considered ethnic minorities in their own right and protected as “races” under the Equality Act 2010.  Migrant Roma are protected both by virtue of their ethnicities and their national identities.

However, despite this protection, GRT groups are still subject to high levels of discrimination.

‘The last acceptable form of racism’

Indeed, prejudice and discrimination has affected GRT groups throughout history.

In the 16th century, any person found to be a Gypsy could be subject to imprisonment, execution or banishment.  Even after anti-Gypsy laws were repealed, discrimination continued.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for doctors to refuse to attend to Travellers.  And despite Travellers’ strong Christian beliefs, churches would often refuse to bury their bodies within their grounds.

And today, GRT people have the worst outcomes of any ethnic group across a huge range of areas, including education, health, employment and criminal justice.  They have the poorest health and the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the UK, and are subject to high levels of racism and hate crime.

GRT groups still face barriers to accessing health services.  As part of a mystery shopper exercise by the Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) charity, 50 GP practices were contacted by an individual posing as a patient wishing to register without a fixed address or proof of identity. They found that almost half would not register them, despite NHS guidance to the contrary.

And while racism towards most ethnic groups is now seen as unacceptable and less frequently expressed in public, racism towards GRT groups is still common and often overt – even among those who would otherwise consider themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘forward thinking’.  This had led it to be termed “the last acceptable form of racism”.

The 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that over 30% of people in Scotland would be unhappy with a close relative marrying a Gypsy or Traveller, and 34% felt that Gypsies or Travellers were unsuitable as primary school teachers.

Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults.

Prejudice and discrimination against GRT groups is not limited to the public – there is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.

Even politicians have openly displayed anti-GRT sentiment.  In 2017, the Conservative MP for Moray Douglas Ross, stated that he would impose “tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers” if he were Prime Minster for the day.

His remarks were widely criticised.  Amnesty International’s Scottish director, Naomi McAuliffe, said “When our elected leaders use this sort of blatantly partisan speech, they set a terrible example that only serves to foster further discrimination and prejudice.”.

A lack of sites has led to a ‘housing crisis’

Mr Ross’s remarks reflect another common misconception about GRT communities – that they all live in caravans, purposefully choosing to set up on unauthorised sites.

The truth is that while Gypsies and Travellers have traditionally lived a nomadic life, living in bow tents, wagons – and even caves – over 70% of Gypsies and Travellers no longer live in caravans, having chosen, or being forced for one reason or the other – disability, old age, lack of suitable sites – to move into traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ accommodation.

For those who do still live in caravans, it is widely recognised that they face a ‘housing crisis’ – an urgent shortage of authorised sites to set up on, which threatens their travelling heritage.  It is this shortage that drives much of the use of unauthorised sites.

Of those sites that do exist, quality has been raised as a key issue.  Many sites can lack even the most basic amenities, and some are sited near recycling plants or in other undesirable locations.  Poor conditions and sanitation contributes to poor levels of health, exacerbating existing health inequalities.

Further inequalities

In our next blog post, we will look in more depth at the inequalities that GRT communities face – in health, education and employment.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.


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Engaging the ‘silent majority’ in planning: is digital the answer?

It has long been a concern that traditional planning consultation methods do not adequately capture the views of the majority.

Instead, they tend to be dominated by individuals with certain characteristics – typically older people or retirees, with high disposable income and social capital, and the time and means to attend in person.

This is partially because traditional planning consultation methods, such as public exhibitions, mainly involve individuals physically attending events at pre-specified places and times.

Younger people, students, people with disabilities, and working families with or without children, may find it difficult to attend and engage with such consultation methods.

In addition to this – people are also more likely to engage with the planning system when they are opposed to something.  Research by Shelter found that people opposed to local housebuilding were three times more likely to actively oppose an application than supporters were to actively support it (21% compared to 7%).

However, the majority of people surveyed were actually supportive or neutral regarding local house building.  This means that in many cases, there is a ‘silent majority’ – people whose voices are not being heard by the planning system.

This ‘silent majority’ often includes young people and others who may have the most to gain from new housing, employment and other benefits created by local developments.

In the rest of this blog, we consider the potential of social media and digital apps to make the planning system more accessible, inclusive and representative.

The potential of social media

Social media is everywhere – and as such it has a huge potential to reach and engage people from all walks of life.

Through adverts or posts in relevant groups, information about developments can be shared, with likes and comments providing feedback.  Short questionnaires or polls can also be administered to help gauge public opinion on a range of matters, such as locations, layouts and designs.

At present, social media is not a widely used planning consultation method – however, there is support for it to become so.

In 2016, a YouGov survey explored local councillors’ attitudes towards the use of social media during public consultation.  It found that:

  • 75% of councillors felt that social media was an important or very important engagement tool
  • 74% believed that social media would add value when reviewing planning applications
  • 60% felt that developers should be doing more to engage with local communities through social media
  • 60% believed social media will increase in importance as a public engagement tool over the next three years

It has been argued that social media is a much more relevant way to share information and consult on development proposals, particularly for young people.

It also has the potential to help overcome many of the time and accessibility barriers that prevent people from attending traditional ‘time and place’ consultation events.  And it has an incredible potential reach too – with Facebook having a total of 44 million active users and Twitter 14 million.

There are, however, some concerns – particularly regarding the verification of an individuals’ locality and the public management of negative comments, particularly as users can remain anonymous.  The potential for cyberactivism against a development and the spread of ‘fake news’ are also concerns.  Social media training would no doubt be required for those using social media to consult on developments.

Innovative apps

In addition to social media, digital apps offer an exciting new way for people to engage with the planning system.

Hailed as ‘Tinder’ for urban planning, CitySwipe is a new digital tool being used in Santa Monica’s downtown area to learn citizens’ preferences and concerns about the city’s urban core.  It enables local residents to swipe left or right to indicate their preferences regarding various different urban development scenarios.  For example, users may be asked to choose between different types of outdoor seating.  The app also covers attitudes towards things such as walking, bike lanes, housing and other such areas of interest to urban planners.

If CitySwipe is Tinder, then TrueViewVisuals can be likened to the Augmented Reality (AR) mobile gaming app ‘Pokémon Go’.  AG is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view of both.  TrueViewVisuals makes use of this to enable users to use their mobile device to view proposed developments in existing locations and is thus particularly useful in assessing their potential visual impact.

Bootlegger is a mobile app originally designed to film live music, which is now also being applied to the urban planning context.  It enables users to collaborate and share their footage with others, and edit them into a single video.   In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Bootlegger has been used to enable members of the public to make their own ­films regarding planning proposals and the neighbourhood area and share them with others.

ChangeExplorer uses location data to provide users with ‘push notifications’ when they enter a geographic location that is subject to redevelopment plans.  Users can then view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.  It has been used successfully by North Tyneside Council, where it was found to be “an effective tool in encouraging participants to think about what they would like to change and for them to feel empowered in raising relevant issues”.

Enhance and evolve

These are just a handful of the ways in which technology can be used to engage young people and others within the ‘silent majority’.  It is an area which is developing all of the time – as recent reports by the Scottish Government, Future City Catapult and the RTPI show.

It also comes at a time where there is wider discussion of the need to make planning more inclusive.  In order to do this, it is essential that the views captured by planning consultations truly represent the needs and preferences of all local residents.

Of course, online engagement cannot replace the need for traditional consultation approaches and techniques entirely.  Instead, they should complement one another, offering both an enhancement and an evolution of the current planning system.  And in doing so, the planning system can meet both the needs and expectations of an increasingly digital world.


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