“The great British sell-off” – losing community assets to balance budgets

Since 2016, local authorities have been allowed to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 (now extended to 2021-22) into transforming frontline services, something they were previously prohibited from doing.  Following years of austerity and the extent of recent government funding cuts, it is not surprising that councils have used such money in this way.

However, the rate at which such assets are being sold has raised concerns over the potential loss of publicly-owned buildings and spaces.  Earlier this year, coinciding with the launch of their Save our Spaces campaign, Locality highlighted that on average more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off every year – “more than four times the number of Starbucks in the UK.”

‘Financial predicament’

This year’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on the financial sustainability of councils highlights the financial predicament facing councils across the country. While it notes that the sector has done well to manage substantial funding cuts since 2010-11, financial pressure has increased markedly since 2014. In real terms, there has been a reduction in government funding of 49.1% since 2010, representing a reduction in local government spending power of 28.6%.

These cuts are coupled with rising demand for services and other cost pressures. For example, demand has increased for homelessness services and adult and children’s social care. The NAO highlights that from 2010-11 to 2016-17:

  • the number of households assessed as homeless and entitled to temporary accommodation under the statutory homeless duty increased by 33.9%;
  • the number of looked-after children grew by 10.9%; and
  • the estimated number of people in need of care aged 65 and over increased by 14.3%.

Other cost pressures have included higher national insurance contributions, the apprenticeship levy and the National Living Wage.

It is perhaps no shock that Northamptonshire county council became the first local authority since 1998 to be issued with a section 114 notice earlier this year, indicating it was unable to balance its books and at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018/19. Nor is it indeed a shock that the NAO have identified other councils that are in danger of following suit in the next three years.

Despite this dire financial situation, it seems worse is to come. It has been recently announced that local services are to face a further £1.3bn cut in government funding in 2019/20. The revenue support grant, the main source of government funding for local services, will be cut by 36% next year – the largest annual deduction in almost a decade.

While the 2018 Budget has made provision for extra funding for adult social care, recent analysis suggests this falls short of what is needed to plug the projected funding gap.

Plugging the gap

In a desperate bid to raise finances, councils have been trying to find alternative income streams. A growing reliance on the use of reserves to offset funding reductions is an approach highlighted as unsustainable by the NAO. Most councils plan to increase or introduce charges for various services and many have also been making use of the government’s flexibility offer of using capital receipts to make improvements to services.

According to the NAO, in the year to April 2017, £118.5m of such capital receipts were used in this way. Locality has reported that the rate of asset sales has been consistently high for the last five years, with an average of 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces being sold off each year. Many councils are hoping to sell off their historic town halls to save much needed money. But it’s not just buildings that are under threat; council-owned parks and other land are also at risk. A recent parks survey, published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), found that 85% of councils surveyed expect a cut in parks and green space funding in the next year. In January, Knowsley council voted to go ahead with proposals to sell 10% of its parkland to fund the running of its remaining parks, since funding for its green spaces is to end in March 2019.

Locality warns that selling such assets on the open market could result in them being lost to the community forever as they have no real influence over what they will be used for; and could potentially lead to social, economic and environmental decline.

Indeed, concerns have been raised over the programme of disposing of council assets by Norfolk County Council, which has recently been reported to be looking to save £10m by selling its assets.

Locality suggests that community ownership is the answer to saving such assets under threat. Community Asset Transfer, set up in 2003, enables councils to sell assets to community organisations at below market rates in return for demonstrable community benefit.

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. However, the Locality report shows that less than half of councils have a Community Asset Transfer policy. It also notes that while community ownership is a ‘powerful alternative’ to losing public buildings and spaces, it is not straight forward, and community organisations face a number of barriers, including:

  • funding;
  • lack of expertise;
  • limited time; and
  • a lack of clear process.

With 95% of councils surveyed expecting the sell-off of publicly owned buildings and spaces to play an increasingly important role in the next five years, it is surely paramount that something is done to protect important community assets from being lost.

Way forward

Locality has called for the government to create a Community Ownership Fund and for a change in legislation to make it easier for community organisations to gain control of such assets.

Or perhaps councils could follow the example of others who, instead of selling their assets, are using them to generate revenue. Lewisham Council for example, is planning to raise £500k through hosting large commercial events in its parks.

Whatever route local authorities take, it remains to be seen if others will follow in the  footsteps of Northamptonshire or succeed in counteracting continuing cuts to maintain services and balance budgets; and indeed protect important community assets.


If you enjoyed reading this you may also like our previous blogs on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of green spaces.

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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.

Creating caring places: placemaking in our town centres

What do caring places look like? How can planners, developers and project organisers contribute to the discourse around creating caring places? And what responsibility do they have to communities to help develop places that put people at their heart?

They are just some of the questions being increasingly raised by organisations in Scotland, trying to identify if there is a new way to focus on place and wellbeing in Scotland’s towns. Projects such as Carnegie Trust’s Kindness, Scottish Towns partnerships’ Town Centres First, or Architecture and Design Scotland’s Creating Caring Places are all exploring the importance of the quality of a place to the wellbeing of people who live there. But what does this mean for people who actually plan these areas, and what could they consider in the future to help develop more caring places?

The 3 P’s: place, people, practice

Many of the discussions around creating places which foster wellbeing and wellness centre around 3 key concepts:

Place: Understanding place and the impact that it has on wellbeing is a significant part of this agenda. The environment in which people live day-to-day has a significant impact on individuals and can be both a positive or negative influence. It can help to facilitate positive community interaction, creating stronger community ties and helping organisations and people to feel more valued within their community.

In order for places to be caring a number of factors have been identified, and these are common across research done by a number of organisations including Architecture and Design Scotland and the Carnegie Trust. These include: a sense of support (from people); a sense of purpose (stuff to do); a sense of place (familiar surroundings); and a sense of worth (feeling wanted).

People: Loneliness or social isolation has the same impact on health and mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Traditionally, it has often been assumed that older people are most often victims of social isolation (as they are less mobile and less willing or able to participate in community activities). Recently however more research has been produced which highlights the growing isolation of younger people. Understanding the nature of isolation, which impacts across the whole community, can help us to identify effective solutions which benefit and engage multiple groups.

Practice: This particularly relates to care within communities. The process of deciding where and how we care for the old or ill is a vital part of how we function as a society. Effective care extends far beyond the physical act of caring for someone, although this is obviously a key element. It also includes creating more and better jobs within the sector, and encouraging people to enter the profession as a worthwhile career choice; shifting the focus from acute to primary care settings and away from hospital-based emergency care; and giving people greater choice about how and where they receive care through increasing and improved personalisation of services.

There is a responsibility on both spatial and community planners to identify need and to create places which facilitate wellness, choice and care at home. This could be through the building of new infrastructure or more effective transport, or it could be through the creating of a community centre which offers recreational classes to someone who would otherwise have no contact with the outside world. Putting place at the centre of discussions provides an opportunity for a community approach to wellbeing, with strategies on placemaking being linked to other approaches such as asset-based, or strengths-based, planning.

Thinking about people like we think about the environment

Even as little as 10 years ago, the prevalence of environmental impact assessments for development projects was limited. Now we take for granted that we measure the impact of a project on the environment. What if we thought about people and in particular the risk of isolation, in the same way during planning processes? What if developers, planners and project organisers considered the “isolation impact” of a project, how it would impact the people of a local area, and whether it would specifically impact one group more than another (either for good or for bad), and reported on the steps they were taking to mitigate any adverse impact?

It is a striking notion, but creating a set of criteria to measure the social impact of developments, may be hugely useful if we are trying to place an increasing emphasis on inclusion and community within our town centres.

In fact, planners are beginning to realise the critical role they play in connecting services to people, and the necessity of understanding which services are needed in an area and how to make them as accessible for the whole community as possible. And while it is down to the community to use the resources they are given by planners to create connections and networks that help to combat things like poor mental health and social isolation, the decisions that planners make about how and where to plan in services and infrastructure can be the difference between someone leading an active and engaged life, and someone living a life where the only human contact they have in a day is a carer.

Planners can and should recognise the significant role they can play in making someone’s life more livable.

Final thoughts

Creating caring places for people to live and grow old in is vital to the success of our communities. Effective and thoughtful decisions on investments such as infrastructure and community planning projects can have a significant positive impact on wellbeing and reduce loneliness not only among older people, but throughout the community.

Increasingly, policy makers in Scotland are being asked to consider the human element of planning in their work. Creating places that allow people to feel safe, valued and happy is key for planners to help bridge the gap between the creation of places, and the wellbeing of people who live in them.


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Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference is a ‘huge success’

SPEL Conference 2018 banner

Last week, we welcomed delegates and speakers to the 2018 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) conference in Edinburgh, sponsored by Terra Firma Chambers.

Delegates and speakers came from organisations across Scotland to discuss and debate the current state and future opportunities for planning and environmental law in Scotland.

Should we just scrap planning altogether?

The conference was kicked off in typically thought provoking style by Greg Lloyd, Professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Professor Lloyd delivered this year’s keynote and took the opportunity to challenge delegates and other speakers 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.

The creation of a new way of planning has, Professor Lloyd argued, the potential to better align community needs and other areas of policy like land and taxation, as well as creating opportunities for a more functional system, not as bogged down in process, where communities can come together to help make decisions about planning in their local area.

This “utopian vision of the future of planning” could potentially allow planning to ‘catch up’ with other services given that currently it is a 1950s model which has been shaped and adapted to allow us to “get by” rather than being reformed to suit new and changing planning needs. This new way, he argued, could be achieved if we are bold enough to take the leap away from the constraints and barriers presented by the “old” system.

Community empowerment and community right to buy: what are the implications for planning law?

Mark Lazarowicz and Pippa Robertson from Terra Firma Chambers and Aurora Planning respectively, navigated delegates through the complex waters of community right-to-buy, with Mark setting the scene and outlining some of the key elements to legislation and policy which have helped to shape community empowerment, including discussions around “relevant authorities”; “subjects of transfer”; and the “activation and implementation of community right-to-buy”. Pippa followed this with a discussion around community empowerment in relation to right-to-buy, and how this can be used to bring land back into active use.

The Planning Bill and funding infrastructure

Archie Rintoul, former chief valuer in Scotland, gave what many found to be a frank and insightful discussion of the issues around infrastructure development. Continuing on a similar theme after lunch, Russell Henderson from RPS explored the role of transport policy, and in particular sustainable transport. In both sessions there was further discussion of the importance of facilitating and accommodating new infrastructure, while recognising the growing responsibility to be aware of environmental factors, in part through the development of sustainable development measures for transport.

Following Russell, Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers outlined the basis for, and the potential implications of, the Landfill Tax Ban, including an exploration of what the Bill may mean for those who work within the waste sector, and the potentially significant environmental impacts that the landfill ban may have when it is introduced in 2021.

The conference also included timely discussion of the progress of the Planning Bill and case law updates from Terra Firma, informing delegates of the latest developments in recent key cases.

Planning’s role in promoting inclusive economic growth

The conference was closed by RSA Scotland’s Lesley Martin who discussed how planning can help to promote inclusive economic growth. She questioned how the implementation and translation of the planning bill into practice will impact on inclusive growth in towns and cities.

Economic growth within places, she argued, can be driven through effective planning, and inclusive planning processes can in turn help to create inclusive economic growth. The planning bill is, she suggested, a symbol and an opportunity to provide an ambitious statement of the potential of wiser policy approaches. Planning is not merely about controlling or enabling development – it is an example of how the way we think and behave more generally impacts on inclusive growth in our towns and cities.

Summing up

This year’s SPEL conference sought to explore some of the wider implications of the Planning Bill for Scottish planning and the environment. By covering a range of topics the conference sought to highlight some of the key challenges and implications that the Bill may pose to the profession and to practice. The speakers were brought together to provide a range of perspectives and to help frame these issues for delegates and raise points for discussion and debate – and there was certainly plenty of that!

We would like to thank our speakers, those who attended and our sponsors, and hope to see you all next year!


We publish Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal every two months. More information on the journal and how to subscribe is available here.

We also blog regularly on planning and environmental issues … why not read one of our other recent articles:

What will councils and community groups do for funding after Brexit?

With a recent study indicating that the majority of local authorities have made no provision for Brexit in their medium-term budgets, there is now a real risk for councils if a ‘no deal’ scenario goes ahead after 29 March 2019. So what does a potential black hole in funding mean for local authorities already beleaguered by austerity?

A recent paper from GRANTfinder, the leading authority on grants and funding in the UK, examines this question and why councils need to be preparing now.

The extent to which the public sector is failing to prepare for Brexit is alarming given that local areas were meant to receive over £8bn in EU funding from 2014 to 2020 from sources such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund, and the UK Government has not yet provided detail on replacement funding streams.

What many people may not be aware of however, is that funding applications under EU schemes can be submitted up until the date that the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019. So, there are still nearly eight months left in which councils and local groups can apply for, and benefit from, EU funding.

The full paper considers how local authorities may best attract funding to their local areas through applying to EU funding whilst the current arrangements still apply, as well as considering alternative funding sources beyond the EU. Usefully, it also identifies key types of local authority projects which commonly attract support.

Although it’s clear that councils are facing considerable financial uncertainty, and many are creating their own risk and Brexit impact assessments as a result, there is still funding support available. Given the short timescale and tight resources within councils however, it makes sense to turn to expert help and tools to identify where funding for local areas and community groups could be sourced. In this respect, GRANTfinder is relied upon by councils across the country to help secure investment.


Read the full guide via the GRANTfinder website. Our GRANTfinder colleagues work across the UK and in Europe to help councils, community groups, businesses and universities to source funding. They also provide training and consultancy in grant application processes and bid writing.

Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

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Crowdsourcing in smart cities: a world of best practice

By Steven McGinty

Too often, debates on smart cities revolve around terms such as “Internet of things”, “big data”, and “sensors”. However, there is a growing realisation that truly smart cities take a more person-centric approach, which focuses on the needs of citizens and harnesses their skills, talents and experience.

Crowdsourcing is one approach that can help cities do just that. From Danish toy maker Lego to tech giant Amazon, organisations are using digital tools to gather views, opinions, data, and even money from citizens. Public sector institutions have also got involved, introducing projects that engage with citizens, as well as tap into external skills through events such as hackathons (where civic hackers come together to solve key city problems).

Already, there is a wide range of crowdsourcing initiatives across the world. Below I’ve highlighted some of the best.

Scottish Government

In 2015, the Scottish Government’s Open Data and Fisheries teams introduced Dialogue, a citizen engagement tool developed by Delib (a social enterprise based in the UK and Australia).

The Open Data team were in the process of creating an open data plan for public bodies. They felt that crowdsourcing could help them gain a greater understanding of the types and formats of datasets people would be interested in, and as such, posed a series of questions to citizens.

The Fisheries Team took to crowdsourcing to gather the views on a proposal to create a ‘kill licence’ and carcass tagging regime for salmon. As they knew this would be controversial, they wanted to gain a better understanding of the concerns in fishing communities, and to see if there were any better approaches.

Both teams learned a lot of useful lessons from the process. These included:

  • ensuring questions were as specific as possible so citizens could understand;
  • marketing projects to specific communities with an interest in the question raised;
  • avoiding making assumptions or stereotyping audiences; and
  • giving short deadlines (as this added urgency and encouraged greater participation).

Milton Keynes

MK: Smart – Milton Keynes’ wide ranging smart cities programme – has introduced an online platform known as Our MK to connect with citizens. This award-winning project supports people in playing a central role in urban innovation, from crowdsourcing initial ideas through to finding mentoring support and funding through their dedicated SpaceHive page.

The platform’s citizen ideas competition offers up to £5,000 worth of funding to turn ideas into reality. So far it’s generated over 100 ideas, with 13 projects being allocated funding. This includes the Go Breastfeeding MK App (an app which promotes the use of breastfeeding within Milton Keynes) and the gamification of Redways (which saw an app developed to encourage people to explore the Redways network – a series of shared use paths for cyclists and pedestrians.)

Madrid City Council

In 2016, Madrid City Council launched Decide Madrid. The platform played a key role in supporting the city’s participatory budgeting process, allowing citizens to propose, debate, and rank ideas submitted to the website. Once citizens had chosen their top proposals, city employees checked the ideas against viability criteria and a cost report was carried out. If the proposal failed to meet the criteria, a report was published explaining why it had been excluded.

Decide Madrid provided guidance of what was allowed and what was not (offline meetings were also used to explain the limitations of the scheme), to ensure that only valid proposals were checked. This ensured the initiative didn’t become too labour intensive.

In the 2016 Budget, €60 million was set aside. By the time the process had finished, citizens had debated over 5,000 initial ideas, with 225 projects being chosen for funding.

Reykjavik City Council

Better Reykjavik was introduced to provide a direct link for citizens to Reykjavik City Council. The online platform enables citizens to voice, debate and prioritise the issues that they believe will improve their city. For example, Icelandic school children have suggested the need for more field trips.

In 2010, the platform played an important role in Reykjavik’s city council elections, providing a space for all political parties to crowdsource ideas for their campaign. After the election, Jón Gnarr, former Mayor of Reykjavik, encouraged citizens to use the platform during coalition talks. Within a four week period (before and after the election), 40% of Reykjavik’s voters had used the platform and almost 2000 priorities had been created.

Overall, almost 60% of citizens have used the platform, and the city has spent approximately £1.7 million on developing projects sourced from citizens.

Final thoughts

Crowdsourcing is more than just creating a flashy website or app. It’s a process which requires strategic planning and investment. If you’re planning your own initiative, seeking out good practice and learning from the experience of others is a great place to start.


This article was based on the briefing ‘The crowdsourced city: engaging citizens in smart cities’. Idox Information Service members can access this briefing via our customer website.

Disrupting cities: are tech firms to blame for rising inequalities?

By Steven McGinty

In cities across the world, there is growing unease at the impact of tech firms on local communities. In San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, “Google Buses” – the corporate commuter buses for Google staff – have been the subject of multiple protests by local activists, including the blockading of buses and displaying provocative banners.

The protesters’ main grievance? Housing. Researchers at the University of Berkley have found that rents close to bus stops used by Google employees are 20% higher than in other comparable areas.

It’s not just about Silicon Valley

In East London’s Tech City – home to both Google and Amazon – there have also been housing pressures, with property prices increasing by 13% in the two years to April 2017.

Further, The Economist has produced a map of London gentrification, showing that affluent young professionals are living in the inner-city, whilst poorer, often less educated ‘service workers’, are being pushed to the outskirts of the city. As Professor Richard Florida describes it “London is the archetypal example of a class-divided city”.

In Dublin, where Google and Facebook occupy 4% of all commercial office space, local activists have blamed tech firms for their housing crisis. Aisling Hedderman of the North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community, highlights that

“…we’re not going to see housing provided for families, but houses provided for single people and couples. And as long as people are willing to pay the high rents it’s going to keep driving up the rents

Tech firm Airbnb has also received a lot of attention for its impact on housing. Airbnb, who enable people to rent out their properties or spare rooms, has faced challenges in a number of cities. For instance, in November 2017, Vancouver introduced new regulations to stop businesses from offering short-term rentals through Airbnb and similar services. This means people can only rent out their principal property – which the city hopes will increase the availability of long-term rentals.

Technological change is nothing new

Edward Clarke, former analyst at the Centre for Cities, however, argues that the real problem for cities is not gentrification but poor city management.

In his view, urban neighbourhoods have always experienced periods of change, highlighting that Shoreditch’s status as a tech hub follows a long tradition of innovators moving to the area. And that research has shown that ‘new jobs’ (such as those in the digital and creative sectors) bring higher wages to an area, for the people working for these firms and in other sectors. Instead, Mr Clarke suggests there is a need to build more homes, and to consider developing on part of the Green Belt.

To alleviate these challenges, cities have started to recognise the need for closer collaboration. New York, Dublin, and London have all recruited tech leads to work with the tech sector. However, Joe Kilroy, policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), highlights that tech leads must have a remit that is wider than encouraging tech firms to move to the city. He explains:

Ideally the tech lead would liaise with city planners who can articulate the issues being faced by the city – such as housing affordability, infrastructure pressures, and skills shortages.”

Toronto and Kitchener, Ontario

In 2017, Toronto and its small town neighbour Kitchener announced plans to introduce a new transit line to ensure the city can cope with an expected influx of new tech workers.

It may be surprising to some that it’s not Toronto that’s the main tech player, but the region of Kitchener-Waterloo, home to the University of Waterloo and the birthplace of the Blackberry. It’s internationally recognised as a hub of innovation and prides itself on being different to Silicon Valley, viewing itself as more of a community than a series of business networks.

Local tech leaders acknowledge the importance of reaching out and working closely with local charities on issues such as affordable housing, as well as offering their skills to the community.

Final thoughts

Cities must ensure that the growth of the tech sector benefits everyone, and that sections of society aren’t left behind. However, big tech firms also have a role to play, and should become active participants in their communities, leading on areas such as education and skills and housing. Only then, will these tech firms truly prosper while having a lasting and positive impact on the surrounding communities.


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. 

How urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

This guest blog was written by Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.

Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about US$6.9 billion worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

As with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.


Silvio Caputo is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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‘Agent of Change’ protects music venues from noise complaints, but won’t stop them from closing

This guest blog was written by Marion Roberts, Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

A Conservative minister for housing, a grey-haired Labour MP, ageing icons of rock and creative young people have formed an unlikely alliance in support of the Agent of Change (Planning) Bill. The proposed law, which will be discussed for the second time in the House of Commons on March 16, makes developers responsible for dealing with noise issues when they build new homes near music venues.

This all came about because people were worried about the high number of live music venues that were closing across the UK. The Greater London Authority (GLA) asked for a report on London’s grass roots music venues, only to find that 35% of them had been “lost” since 2007. Cities across the nation – from Glasgow to Manchester – have similar stories to tell, even though the government has recognised how important the music industry is for the economy.

So how did this happen? Many different governments since around the year 2000 have tried to get more flats and houses built in cities, because there aren’t enough for everyone who wants to live there. Many homes have been built on “brownfield” sites – where there used to be factories or warehouses, which are now used less or not at all. These types of places also offered spaces where creative entrepreneurs could set up new clubs, or take over existing venues and attract new customers with the offer of live music.

Buyer beware

But as people move into the new flats built on these sites (which they often pay a lot of money for) some inevitably complain about the noise coming from the venues. Venue owners in Shoreditch (one of London’s hip neighbourhoods) actually put up signs warning would-be buyers that there are live music venues in the area.

Up until now, these complaints caused big problems for music venue owners, because planning principles were not on their side. The onus was on them to ensure their neighbours weren’t disturbed by music and loud noises. But putting in proper soundproofing or keeping customers quiet can be difficult and expensive.

This doesn’t just affect the kind of places run on a shoe string on the outskirts of town. Even London’s mighty Ministry of Sound – which has been a mecca for House music lovers since 1991 – was caught up in a lengthy planning application for a tower block of flats nearby – a case which eventually ended in the flats having to be soundproofed.

A matter of principle

The way the planning system works, is that local authorities in England and Wales produce their own development plans, which must align with national policy as set out in a 2012 document called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This document made a small move to protect venues, by saying that if they wanted to expand, then there should be no unreasonable restrictions. But it didn’t address the situation described above.

Some local authorities have already started to draw up their own policies, which put the burden of noise reduction measures firmly on the developer who is making the change – whether it’s for flats or other uses. This is the legal principle, known as the “Agent of Change”. The bill, now supported by government, will ensure that the principle is embedded in the NPPF – so all local authorities will have to follow it. It will also carry more weight in appeals against planning decisions.

Although the “Agent of Change” principle will help prevent live music venues from closing, it won’t be enough on its own. Sadly, it would not address other issues such as rising rents, hikes in rateable values and property owners preferring to redevelop their buildings into flats. For example, consultancy firm Nordicity estimated that a revaluation of business rates would cause a fifth of London’s grass roots venues to close. And London’s oldest LGBTQ venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, is still engaged in a battle to save it from redevelopment, by way of a community buy out.

Yet past examples show that people can save their local pubs from closure, whether through local campaigning or by taking ownership of the buildings. And to see creativity and culture, especially for young people, supported through the dusty corridors of parliament, is truly heart warming.


Marion Roberts is Professor of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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