Why are we still talking about healthy places?

In recent years, there has been a wide ranging debate across the housing, planning, health and infrastructure sectors about the development of healthy places in both regeneration and newly approved projects.

In 2016, Town and Country Planning Journal published an article on building health and wellbeing into the built environment (Town and Country Planning, Vol 85 No 11 Nov 2016, Knowledge Exchange customers can login to view the article here) In 2017 and 2018 the talk was all about healthy towns initiatives, and a Design Council report in 2018 looked at the relationship between healthy placemaking and the impact on our communities. In 2019 the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) called on members to “reunite” health and planning

It is clear that everyone involved in placemaking agrees building places that promote health and wellbeing for all is of vital importance to our communities, The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus, and the idea remains at the forefront of design policy, particularly in urban city contexts. But, over four years after the initial conversations and thought pieces, why are we still talking about it, and what actions still need to be taken to integrate the idea of a healthy place into planning to the extent that it just becomes the norm in the planning and design of our places?

Preventing avoidable disease

The phrase ‘healthy placemaking’ has been defined by Design Council as: “Tackling preventable disease by shaping the built environment so that healthy activities and experiences are integral to people’s everyday lives”.

Public Health England defined healthy placemaking as: “Placemaking that takes into consideration neighbourhood design (such as increasing walking and cycling), improved quality of housing, access to healthier food, conservation of, and access to natural and sustainable environments, and improved transport and connectivity”

Research has shown preventable diseases linked to lifestyle and environment are among the most significant threats to public health. Lifestyle-related conditions like heart disease and cancer, as well as being health problems in their own right, can also contribute to the development of other chronic conditions, exacerbate symptoms and create complications with care which are costly to the NHS.

Creating healthy spaces is not just about encouraging people to live more active lifestyles by facilitating active travel and improving the environment around buildings, although this is a significant part of it. “Healthy places” include approaches to improve air quality, reduce loneliness, allow people to age well in place, promote mental as well as physical wellbeing, reduce deprivation and inequality through projects like housing, infrastructure development, and high street regeneration.

Healthy places also have a preventative role to play in public health management, not just a health improvement role; such interventions are essential to help avert the onset of disease, improve people’s quality of life and reduce health inequalities. And evidence shows the return on investment from public health interventions is high and creates value of different kinds – economic, social and personal.

In short people who live in healthy places, tend to live healthier lives, place less strain on services and “contribute” more to society, both economically through work or spending and socially through community engagement.

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

Enabling planning practitioners to think about creating healthy places

Research published in 2020 by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) explored local, national and international planning practices that enable the creation and delivery of healthy places. While a lot of research draws attention to the barriers to building healthy places – including a lack of funding, different requirements from developers and conflicting policy priorities – the RTPI report instead sought to identify important challenges faced by planners who try to integrate healthy placemaking principles in their decisions and then offer potential solutions to these in practice. Key themes emerging from the report include a need to improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and the skills of planners.

The report provides case studies looking at: the place standard tool; the livewell development accreditation; connecting communities in Tower Hamlets; health planning in South Worcestershire; and train station district rejuvenation in Grasse, France. It also identifies seven steps to plan for healthier environments

Across the sector there have been calls for planners to be allowed to be innovative, creative and take a “visionary” approach to planning to help make places healthier in order to address the convergence of challenges around public health, the climate emergency, and economic recovery from Covid-19.

How has the coronavirus pandemic changed how we think about healthy spaces?

The lockdowns  imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have thrown the importance of quality space into sharp focus. Places that facilitate health and wellbeing among the people who live there, and places where the indoor living quality is as important as the outdoor space have become incredibly important.

The pandemic has highlighted what it really means to have a healthy space. It has also demonstrated how wider socioeconomic deprivation and inequality – linked to living conditions as well as other factors – is having an impact on infection and hospital admission rates, with those groups who live in more deprived areas being found to be at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. 

The 2018 Design council report found in its survey of practitioners that focus was given far more to outdoor space than to indoors, as it was easier and more cost effective to make changes that could produce demonstrable impacts (an increase in cycling, for example). But the pandemic and the increased time we have been forced to spend indoors has encouraged designers and urban planners to think even more creatively about quality space in their developments.

Where now?

Public Health England (PHE) which for many years was a strong voice in the conversations around healthy placemaking has been disbanded and will be replaced by a National Institute of Health Protection. It remains to be seen how, or if this new organisation will fit into the conversation going forward. But reflecting on recent reports on the significant public health crisis facing the UK in the long term, it is clear that the work must continue, driven collectively by those in planning, urban design and public health.


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Season’s Greetings from The Knowledge Exchange

The Knowledge Exchange Information Service will be closed from 25 December, and will reopen on Monday 4 January. We wish all our readers a very happy Christmas, and best wishes for 2021.

Prize-winning planners take a bow: winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2020

High-quality and impactful planning research has once again been celebrated at the annual Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for research excellence.

The award-winners were announced on 7 September at an online ceremony hosted by the RTPI.  The judging panel for this year’s Research Awards comprised 30 public and private sector representatives as well as academics.

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence recognise and promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research carried out by chartered members and accredited planning schools from around the world. 17 projects were selected to compete across the four award categories. The submissions and shortlisted entries included research reflecting an interest in cross-cutting issues such as the links between planning and health, and how to deliver sustainable communities.

For a sixth year, Idox has been pleased to sponsor three of the Awards categories – the Planning Practitioner Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

The Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence

The Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence was awarded to Professor Anthony Crook from the University of Sheffield and Professor Christine Whitehead from the London School of Economics for their entry Capturing development value, principles and practice: why is it so difficult? The paper looks at how far ‘unearned increments’, particularly those arising with planning permission, should be taxed for the public good.

The judges, considered this research to be of critical importance to contemporary planning debate:

“Drawing on English experience, it provides transferable lessons and will no doubt be a key resource for understanding value capture generally and planning-based value capture in particular.”

Student Award

The winner of the Student Award was Jacob George of Newcastle University for his research entitled Accommodation Through Deregulation: Understanding the Social Impacts of Office-Residential Permitted Development in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Jacob’s research investigated the much-debated permitted development right for office-to-residential conversions, focusing uniquely on its social impacts in a city in northern England.

The judges commended the research’s intellectual rigour, methodology and presentation:

“Through evaluating the impacts of the expansion of Permitted Development Rights in the North-East of England this entry brings a much needed wider geographical scope to this area of research and discussion.”

Planning Practitioner Award

The Planning Practitioner Award went to Lucia Cerrada Morato and Becky Mumford of the Place Shaping Team at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for their High Density Living Supplementary Planning Document.

The research, exploring the lives of residents living in high density and tall buildings  will be used to develop and evidence design guidelines to ensure that future development supports good quality of life for all residents living and working in these buildings.

The judges were impressed by the scale of the survey work, and looked forward to more local planning authorities taking up practical research in this way.

Shining a light on planning research

A further award in the Early Career Researcher category was won by Dr Hannah Budnitz from the University of Birmingham,  with Professor Lee Chapman, also from the University of Birmingham, and Dr Emmanouil Tranos from the University of Bristol. Their research found that proactively addressing the accessibility of non-work destinations, planners can help telecommuters travel more sustainably.

The judges described the research as “thorough and robust, offering the potential for further research into sustainable land use and transport planning, with wider application internationally.”

RTPI President Sue Manns FRTPI said: “The Research Awards are one way the Institute promotes high-quality and impactful research and ensures it helps to improve planning practice across the UK and Ireland.

“This year’s award entries addressed a diverse range of issues faced by the planning profession in its delivery of high quality, sustainable and healthy communities. They shine a light on fantastic research from Chartered members and accredited planning schools from around the world.”

David Meaden, CEO at Idox said:

“Idox is very pleased to be continuing our relationship with the RTPI and supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for another year”.


Further information about the  2020 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, including the winners, judges and sponsors are available here.

You can also read our guest blog featuring the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which used theatre to engage communities in planning.

Gardens of the dead: cemeteries as spaces for nature

The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies.Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Adonais (1891)

Percy Shelley’s description of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome perfectly illustrates how the cemetery, often negatively associated with death and decay, can in fact be a place where nature flourishes.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the great work being done to promote and conserve biodiversity in cemeteries, and the wider benefits of this.

Cemeteries as ‘green oases’

The importance of cemeteries as urban green spaces is often overlooked.  Relatively untouched by surrounding urban development, cemeteries often act as green oases, providing a range of important natural habitats for many different – and often rare – plant life and animals.

Indeed, as the 2000-01 Select Committee Report on Cemeteries observes:

Cemeteries support a wide range of habitats, including relict grasslands, heath, ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, hedges, ponds and flushes, as well as more artificial features such as high maintenance lawns, stands of trees, ornamental flower beds, and shrubberies. In addition, buildings, monuments, tombs and headstones, made from a variety of rocks, can provide support for lichens, mosses and ferns, as well as providing geological interest. A large number of rare species of trees, plants, fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals are found in cemeteries. Cemeteries are often designated as local Wildlife Sites, and sometimes as Nature Reserves.

Green space such as that provided by cemeteries, churchyards and other burial sites is important for a number of reasons.

From an environmental perspective, green space can help to address the negative effects of climate change, including the catastrophic decline in the number of insects. And from a human perspective, research has consistently shown the health and wellbeing benefits of access to green space.

Thus, cemeteries have an important role to play in both supporting the environment and promoting the health and wellbeing of local people.

Case study: Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis is an impressive example of a Victorian garden cemetery, designed to be both inspiring and aesthetically pleasing.

Today, it is the second largest greenspace in the centre of Glasgow and provides a diverse range of habitats for wildlife, including sandy slopes, ivy-covered rock, wooded areas and unmown areas of grass and wildflowers.

The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis is a charity staffed entirely by volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the cemetery.

As well important monument conservation and restoration projects, and hosting walking tours to engage and educate the public, they also work to support the cemetery’s role as a space for nature.  One key aspect of this is recording and monitoring the flora and fauna within the cemetery.

Recent surveys have found that the Necropolis supports over 400 species of animals – including a variety of species of birds, bees, butterflies, insects and spiders, as well as deer, foxes, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of other small mammals. Some of these species are particularly rare, including the aptly-named hoverfly, Eumerus funeralis.

There is also a wide diversity of plant life.  In total, 180 species of flowering plants and trees have been recorded in the Necropolis, and there are also at least 15 species of lichens – including one rare species (Lecania cyrtella).

Other key projects have sought to actively enhance the biodiversity of the cemetery – such as the creation of a wildflower meadow, planted with the help of local school children, and the creation of the ‘Green Man’ – a 3D grass head sculpture, in collaboration with the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow City Council, Dennistoun Community Council, Dennistoun Conservation Society and Foundation Scotland.

There are also plans underway to create a ‘tree map’ for the Necropolis – a visual representation of the different tree species that exist within the cemetery grounds.

Engaging local communities

Across the UK there are a number of examples of other grassroots projects working to promote, conserve and engage local communities in cemeteries’ rich natural heritage.

Some notable examples include:

There have also larger-scale projects and campaigns to promote the role of cemeteries as havens for wildlife.

Caring for God’s Acre is a charity working to “support groups and individuals to investigate, care for, and enjoy burial grounds”.

For a week in June each year, they run a national ‘Love your Burial Ground’ campaign, which encourages people to connect with and celebrate their local churchyards, cemeteries and burial grounds through a variety of local events.

They are also responsible for running the ‘Beautiful Burial Grounds Project’ – a £600,000 Heritage Lottery Fund project that aims to “inspire, engage and support interest groups, communities and individuals to learn about, research and survey the natural, built and social heritage of their local burial grounds”.

The project includes collecting, collating and disseminating data on the importance of burial grounds for biodiversity, providing training events on recording biodiversity and disseminating a variety of resources such as short films, toolkits and pop ups to encourage communities to value their burial grounds as refuges for wildlife.

The Green Flag Award scheme has also been involved in the promotion of cemeteries as spaces for nature.  The scheme “recognises and rewards well managed parks and green spaces” and at present, over 80 cemeteries have received this award, including Tipton Cemetery in Sandwell, and the new Dumbarton Cemetery – the first cemetery in Scotland to be awarded a Green Flag.

Challenges to address

There are of course a number of challenges to be addressed if the full potential of cemeteries as green spaces are to be realised.

Firstly, there is a lack of data on the plant and animal species that exist within cemeteries.  This lack of ecological awareness can mean that sometimes burial ground management and maintenance can be well-intentioned, but inappropriate or damaging.  Thus, projects to record species – such as those conducted by the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis and other cemeteries’ friends groups – are incredibly important.

There is also a need to find an appropriate balance between allowing nature to flourish and ensuring that the cemetery remains accessible.  For example, there have been complaints that long grass around headstones can make it difficult for some people to visit family graves.  The Select Committee Report on Cemeteries notes that: “conservation must not be confused with neglect. A neglected cemetery does not become a haven for flora and fauna.”

Health and safety is another key consideration.  Unstable memorials can cause serious – and sometimes fatal – injuries.  Any project operating within cemeteries needs to be aware of this risk, particularly if it involves children or young people.  The Scottish Government recently published guidance for local authorities on inspecting and making safe memorials and headstones.

Other potential barriers to the use of cemeteries as green spaces include the lack of onsite facilities, such as toilets and bins, physical constraints, such as steep stairs, lack of vehicle access/wheelchair access, and concerns about visitor safety and anti-social behaviour.  These issues, however, are not insurmountable – for example, the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis have recognised these accessibility concerns and raised funds from grant applications to resurface many of the paths on the lower levels of the cemetery to make it easier for people with mobility problems to get around.

‘Living places’ that inspire

It is worth remembering too that cemeteries were set up not just to bury the dead but to stir the Muses among the living.” Fiona Green, a landscape historian, quotes John Strang‘s Necropolis Glasguensis (1831)

Cemeteries are not just for the dead.  They are in many ways ‘living places’ – havens for a range of plant and animal species in the midst of urban housing and development.  They also have an important role to play in the wider community, providing opportunities for local people to connect with and be inspired by nature.

And hopefully, after reading about the many ways in which people across the country are getting involved with nature at their own local burial grounds, you may be similarly inspired.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, take a look at some more posts on the subject of biodiversity:

Bees and butterflies are under threat from urbanisation: here’s how city-dwellers can help

Butterflies and flowers

Image: All-a-flutter. Shutterstock.

This guest blog was written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Bristol.

Pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies, are responsible for the reproduction of many flowering plants and help to produce more than three quarters of the world’s crop species. Globally, the value of the services provided by pollinators is estimated at between US$235 billion and US$577 billion.

It’s alarming, then, that pollinators are under threat from factors including more intense farming, climate change, disease and changing land use, such as urbanisation. Yet recent studies have suggested that urban areas could actually be beneficial, at least for some pollinators, as higher numbers of bee species have been recorded in UK towns and cities, compared with neighbouring farmland.

To find out which parts of towns and cities are better for bees and other pollinators, our research team carried out fieldwork in nine different types of land in four UK cities: Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Edinburgh.

An easy win

Urban areas are a complex mosaic of different land uses and habitats. We surveyed pollinators in allotments (also known as community gardens), cemeteries and churchyards, residential gardens, public parks, other green spaces (such as playing fields), nature reserves, road verges, pavements and man-made surfaces such as car parks or industrial estates.

Our results suggest that allotments are good places for bees and other pollinating insects, and that creating more allotments will benefit the pollinators in towns and cities. Allotments are beneficial for human health and well-being, and also help boost local food production.

In the UK, there are waiting lists for allotments in many areas, so local authorities and urban planners need to recognise that creating more allotment sites is a winning move, which will benefit people, pollinators and sustainable food production.

Good tips for green thumbs

We also recorded high numbers of pollinating insects in gardens. Residential gardens made up between a quarter and a third of the total area of the four cities we sampled, so they’re really a crucial habitat for bees and other pollinators in cities. That’s why urban planners and developers need to create new housing developments with gardens.

But it’s not just the quantity of gardens that matters, it’s the quality, too. And there’s a lot that residents can do to ensure their gardens provide a good environment for pollinators.

Rather than paving, decking and neatly mown lawns, gardeners need to be planting flowers, shrubs and bushes that are good for pollinators. Choose plants that have plenty of pollen and nectar that is accessible to pollinators, and aim to have flowers throughout the year to provide a constant supply of food. Our research suggests that borage and lavender are particularly attractive for pollinators.

Often plants and seeds in garden centres are labelled with pollinator logos to help gardeners choose suitable varieties – although a recent study found that that ornamental plants on sale can contain pesticides that are harmful to pollinators, so gardeners should check this with retailers before buying.

Weeds are important too; our results suggest that dandelions, buttercups and brambles are important flowers for pollinators. So create more space for pollinators by mowing less often to allow flowers to grow, and leaving weedy corners, since undisturbed areas make good nesting sites.

An urban refuge

Parks, road verges and other green spaces make up around a third of cities, however our study found that they contain far fewer pollinators than gardens. Our results suggest that increasing the numbers of flowers in these areas, potentially by mowing less often, could have a real benefit for pollinators (and save money). There are already several initiatives underway to encourage local authorities to mow less often.

Ensuring there are healthy populations of pollinators will benefit the native plants and ecosystems in urban areas, as well as anyone who is growing food in their garden or allotment. Towns and cities could act as important refuges for pollinators in the wider landscape, especially since agricultural areas can be limited in terms of the habitat they provide.

It’s crucial for local authorities, urban planners, gardeners and land managers to do their bit to improve the way towns and cities are managed for pollinators. National pollinator strategies already exist for several countries, and local pollinator strategies and action plans are helping to bring together the key stakeholders in cities. Wider adoption of this type of united approach will help to improve towns and cities for both the people and pollinators that live there.The Conversation


Guest blog written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Scotland’s rise in human trafficking: a year on from the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy

Girl crying

By Steven McGinty

In June, the Scottish Government published its first annual progress report on their Human Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy.

Introduced in May 2017, the strategy was a requirement of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 and set out how Scotland would achieve its target of having zero human trafficking. This included:

  • identifying victims and supporting them to safety and recovery;
  • identifying perpetrators and disrupting their activity; and
  • addressing the conditions, both local and global, that foster trafficking and exploitation.

In addition, protecting child victims of trafficking and exploitation was identified as central to the strategy and, as such, it introduced a new Independent Child Trafficking Guardian role to assist, support, and represent children.

Progress report – human trafficking in numbers

Within the first year of the strategy 207 people were identified as potential victims (a 38% increase on the previous year). This included people facing domestic servitude, labour exploitation, and sexual exploitation. Adult males experiencing labour exploitation saw the largest increase, with instances rising by 47% from 2016.

Data showed that victims were most likely to be Vietnamese (82) or Chinese (32), with the most common European nationality being Romanian (10) –  a substantial increase from the 3 reported cases in 2016.

The report also highlighted that a new category of ‘child sexual exploitation’ had been introduced, and saw a rise in reported cases (from 12 to 52 since 2016). However, it’s unclear whether any of these were associated with human trafficking.

On release of the report, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said that he views the increased trafficking referrals as a positive sign.

This suggests that we are getting better at identifying and reporting victims of trafficking, and ensuring they receive the help and support they need.

Unseen’s modern slavery helpline

Anti-slavery charity Unseen also published a report to coincide with the first anniversary of the Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy. It provides a breakdown of callers to their 24/7 helpline (The Modern Slavery Helpline and Resource Centre) from October 2016 to March 2018.

Andrew Wallis, chief executive of Unseen, highlights that:

“It’s not a problem taking place far away that we can’t do anything about, it’s under our noses and we can arm ourselves by learning to spot the signs of slavery and report it to the helpline.”

Since the centre opened, it’s received 172 calls and 34 webforms through their online service. In total, there have been 82 reported cases of human trafficking and exploitation, with a total of 297 potential victims. These calls have led to referrals to Police Scotland, local authorities and to other charitable organisations.

From the end of August to early October 2017, the Scottish Government ran a human trafficking awareness campaign on STV (it also highlighted the helpline). This led to Unseen receiving a spike in calls during September (38) and October (21), with a total of 123 potential victims identified. The charity argues that increasing the general awareness in society is key to tackling the crime, and that as awareness has grown, calls to their helpline have increased year by year.

Labour exploitation was found to be the most common form of exploitation (50 cases), whilst sexual exploitation was second (14 cases). Workplaces such as car washes (15 cases), nail bars (11 cases) and hospitality (6 cases) were found to be where exploitation occurred the most.

In addition, potential victims were mostly likely to be Romanian (10%) or Vietnamese (6.4%), whilst British nationals were the third most prevalent group (5.7%).

Public awareness of human trafficking

In May 2018, the Scottish Government published a survey into the public’s awareness of human trafficking and exploitation. It highlighted positive findings: 87% of Scots were willing to report suspicions of human trafficking to the police (an increase from 80% in the previous year). And the public claimed to have seen the government’s marketing on the issue, including on TV (15%) and online or on social media (10%).

However, there were mixed results when it came to the public’s knowledge of industries and activities where trafficking may occur. For instance, when asked to name industries affected by trafficking, fewer people mentioned the sex industry, manual labour, and drugs than in the previous year. Yet, there was a greater awareness of other areas such as farming, the beauty industry, tourism, and catering and hospitality.

Final thoughts

The increase in reported cases and recent high-profile prosecutions have been viewed by the Justice Secretary as a step in the right direction. However, there is still plenty of work to do, and it will be important that the Scottish Government continues to raise awareness of human trafficking and exploitation, as well as fund the support necessary for victims.


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The private rented sector: meeting demand and improving data

The private rented sector (PRS) has grown recently, to become a more than significant part of the housing market in the UK. A shortfall in social housing availability, and extortionate deposit costs for first time buyers has meant that demand in the private sector has grown exponentially since the 1990s, the sector now taking in clients from across the demographic spectrum.

But research has shown the demand for private rent housing is not just about finance. Increasingly, many young professionals actively choose to live in the private rented sector because they like the flexibility and locational benefits of private rents. Renting privately can mean they are able to move freely for jobs without being constrained by a mortgage, and live in city centre locations, with short commutes and close proximity to amenities like shops, restaurants, gyms and cinemas.

Despite the growing “young professional” market, the sector also (in some areas) has something of an image problem. Characterised by rogue landlords charging extortionate rents for poor quality homes, with the ability to remove tenants without reason or much notice. This negative aspect, which centres on the issue of tenant rights and security within the private sector, is something which has been discussed widely at a number of events recently, for example, at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) event we attended in Glasgow last month. It is also something which last year the Scottish Government legislated to try and mitigate.

Ensuring quality in a place people can call home

One of the other major issues that is often highlighted with PRS is the need for a minimum quality standard, bringing private lets into line with the minimum standards (supposedly) adhered to in social housing. The legislation and policing of this element of the PRS is proving more complicated to navigate, although it is something which is being discussed within the Scottish Government.

There is also the growing issue of the short-term rented sector. You cannot have failed to notice, whether you work in housing or not, the rise of sites like AirBnB and HomeAway which allow individuals to list entire properties or spare rooms out on a short-term basis. Concerns as to the growth of this market have been raised the world over. The major issues are the impact on permanent residents, who can find having new neighbours each week disconcerting, and on the local housing market more generally, as the rise of short term lets then reduces the pool available for longer term private lets. Cities like Barcelona are, however, beginning to look at how regulation and use of permits can address the negative impacts, and are being watched the world over to see if their actions will work.

How can we meet demand?

It is often said that housing is a complex flux of different sub-sectors, and that, more often than not, one cannot function effectively without the other. The PRS, the housing market and social housing are all reliant on each other to help control demand and prices and ensure that everyone, regardless of circumstance, has somewhere that they can call home.

One of the major issues with meeting demand is space and land to build; another is funding and another is understanding exactly who needs homes, and what type of homes they need. In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.

Understanding these trends will be key to meeting demand. In order to do this the data on housing, particularly within the private rented sector needs to improve. Research from the Urban Big Data Centre and CaCHE found that data is lacking, and that we need to improve it if we are to improve the PRS more generally.

A recent evaluation by the Welsh Government of Rent Smart Wales found that Rent Smart Wales and its database of registered landlords has provided good quality information and guidance to local authorities and landlords, as well as driving up standards within the PRS in Wales. Learning from how data collected on the Rent Smart Wales database can be maximised to provide an accessible source of information on the PRS in Wales is very important going forward, and this is something we are seeing increasingly across the sector – the desire for more data, to help those within the sector make better decisions.

What next?

A report released by LSE in June 2018 found that while the PRS has grown significantly, projections suggest that it will start to level out, and reach a state of stasis, or even decline in the coming years. Other reports have contradicted this, however, stating that unless there is an intervention or significant change in house prices, more people than ever will be forced to live within the PRS.

What does seem to be agreed upon is that better data and understanding of the sector and how to manage it is necessary and that ultimately, standards will improve across the board, with or without government intervention, but the way we view private rented sector accommodation will also change.

PRS properties will not only be buy-to-let houses, converted into HMOs, or tiny bedsits where 5 people share 2 rooms. Instead the market for sectors like build-to-rent are growing, and changing the expectations of the new generation of renters about what to expect from PRS accommodation.

In the future the ambition is for high quality, stability and housing which is suitable for a range of different tenants and their needs from young professionals and families with children, right through to older people living in retirement villages managed by a corporate landlord. It is hoped this will help stabilise rents and improve standards across the board, creating affordable places that people can plan to live in long term, with security and quality at their heart.


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Protecting privacy in the aftermath of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal

By Steven McGinty

On 4 June, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told MEPs that she was ‘deeply concerned’ about the misuse of social media users’ data.

She was speaking at the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) inquiry into the use of 87 million Facebook profiles by Cambridge Analytica and its consequences for data protection and the wider democratic process. The whole affair has shone a light on how Facebook collected, shared, and used data to target people with political and commercial advertising. And, in a warning to social media giants, she announced:

Online platforms can no longer say that they are merely a platform for content; they must take responsibility for the provenance of the information that is provided to users.”

Although this is tough talk from the UK’s guardian of information rights – and many others, including politicians, have used similar language – the initial response from the Information Commissioner was hardly swift.

The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) struggled at the first hurdle, failing to secure a search warrant for Cambridge Analytica’s premises. Four days after the Elizabeth Denham announced her intention to raid the premises, she was eventually granted a warrant following a five-hour hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice. This delay – and concerns over the resources available to the ICO – led commentators to question whether the regulator has sufficient powers to tackle tech giants such as Facebook.

Unsurprisingly, it was not long before the Information Commissioner went into “intense discussion” with the government to increase the powers at her disposal. At a conference in London, she explained:

Of course, we need to respect the rights of companies, but we also need streamlined warrant processes with a lower threshold than we currently have in the law.”

Conservative MP, Damien Collins, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, expressed similar sentiments, calling for new enforcement powers to be included in the Data Protection Bill via Twitter:

Eventually, after a year of debate, the Data Protection Act 2018 was passed on the 23 May. On the ICO blog, Elizabeth Denham welcomed the new law, highlighting that:

The legislation requires increased transparency and accountability from organisations, and stronger rules to protect against theft and loss of data with serious sanctions and fines for those that deliberately or negligently misuse data.”

By introducing this Act, the UK Government is attempting to address a number of issues. However, the Information Commissioner, will be particularly pleased that she’s received greater enforcement powers, including creating two new criminal offences: the ‘alteration etc of personal data to prevent disclosure‘ and the ‘re-identification of de-identified personal data’.

GDPR

On 25 May, the long awaited General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force. The Data Protection Act incorporates many of the provisions of GDPR, such as the ability to levy heavy fines on organisations (up to €20,000,000 or 4% of global turnover). The Act also derogates from EU law in areas such as national security and the processing of immigration-related data. The ICO recommend that GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018 are read side by side.

However, not everyone is happy with GDPR and the new Data Protection Act. Tomaso Falchetta, head of advocacy and policy at Privacy International, has highlighted that although they welcome the additional powers given to the Information Commissioner, there are concerns over the:

wide exemptions that undermine the rights of individuals, particularly with a wide exemption for immigration purposes and on the ever-vague and all-encompassing national security grounds”.

In addition, Dominic Hallas, executive director of The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec), has warned that we must avoid a hasty regulatory response to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. He argues that although it’s tempting to hold social media companies liable for the content of users, there are risks in taking this action:

Pushing legal responsibility onto firms might look politically appealing, but the law will apply across the board. Facebook and other tech giants have the resources to accept the financial risks of outsized liability – startups don’t. The end result would entrench the positions of those same companies that politicians are aiming for and instead crush competitors with fewer resources.

Final thoughts

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytical scandal has brought privacy to the forefront of the public’s attention. And although the social media platform has experienced minor declining user engagement and the withdrawal of high profile individuals (such as inventor Elon Musk), its global presence and the convenience it offers to users suggests it’s going to be around for some time to come.

Therefore, the ICO and other regulators must work with politicians, tech companies, and citizens to have an honest debate on the limits of privacy in a world of social media. The GDPR and the Data Protection Act provide a good start in laying down the ground rules. However, in the ever-changing world of technology, it will be important that this discussion continues to find solutions to future challenges. Only then will we avoid walking into another global privacy scandal.


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“This garden has been almost medicinal to me”: community gardens are cultivating the land and empowering communities

In 2016, we reported on the renaissance of community growing projects across Scotland. Since then, interest and participation in community gardens has continued to grow. London, Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow have seen urban food growing projects expand and flourish. Elsewhere, cities such as Detroit, Copenhagen, Sydney and Barcelona have experienced their own community garden revolutions.

Increasing concerns about the origins of food, and moves towards healthier eating have been the driving forces behind the development of community growing projects. But this trend has as much to do with connecting communities and empowering individuals as it has with growing fresh and healthy food. Two recent studies have highlighted the many benefits of community growing projects.

Community growing: a tale of two cities

Glasgow

Earlier this year, an article in Work, Employment and Society focused on the work being done in community gardens in Glasgow. The authors selected 16 gardens across the city to explore the potential of community growing projects for generating new forms of social relations around work.

Apart from the food produced by the gardens, the study identified further benefits arising from these projects, including:

  • Recovery of derelict space for community use and recovering places for local people
  • Improving recreational, occupational, employment and training opportunities
  • Providing therapeutic spaces to recover from the stresses of daily life
  • Recognition and celebration of different food cultures
  • Connecting with nature
  • Engaging with other stakeholders, such as local authorities and NHS bodies

The authors of the study also identified tensions that can arise between community gardening groups, with their “progressive sense of collective space” and local authorities’ “commercialized property-based narrative”.

However, the study concluded that “…community growing projects lead to important forms of social empowerment for individuals, while at the same time helping to re-energise communities in some of the city’s most deprived areas.”

 Edinburgh

The findings from the Glasgow research were echoed in a further study focusing on Scotland’s capital city. Edinburgh now has more than 50 community gardens which have been developed by grassroots groups, community organisations, the NHS and third sector charities.

The research, published in January, was conducted in three community gardens in East Edinburgh:

As in Glasgow, the authors found that community gardens are not only places for cultivation of the land, but can also address wider social issues, such as social bonding, skills development and health. One Lochend participant highlighted the health-giving properties of community gardens:

“A big part of what motivates the garden is mental health. It is nice for people to get out of their houses and spend time in the garden, working on something. It is quite mindful to get out and be productive…this garden has been almost medicinal to me.”

There were also strong feelings among the Edinburgh community garden participants about the connections between the right to grow food and the right to reclaim unused or waste common land. The study’s authors noted that community gardens are often seen by councils and governments as barriers to developing housing and market revenue. The common feeling in community gardening projects is that, given the chance, they can put the land to better use.

Climate Challenge Fund

Our 2014 blog post raised questions about the challenges facing community gardens, such as planning and legal issues, land availability, funding, winning the support of local communities and addressing skills shortages. Two years on, those challenges remain.

However, there have also been positive developments that should help to advance the cause of community growing projects.

Since 2008, the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund has been providing support to communities. Examples include South Seeds, a community-led organisation in the south of Glasgow which has obtained funding for a community garden located on a disused tennis court, and Tayport Community Garden, where experienced gardeners provide support to people growing their own food. At the inaugural CCF Awards in 2017, Tayport Community Garden won the Food Category Award.

Community Empowerment Act

In 2015, the Scottish Parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act, which aims to help communities to do more for themselves and have more say in decisions that affect them.

The Act includes a section requiring every Scottish local authority to publish a food growing strategy to identify land that may be used for individual or community growing, and to describe how the authority intends to increase provision for community growing, especially in disadvantaged areas.

A number of councils have already made a start on their food growing strategies, including Clackmannanshire, East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Growing forward

Across Scotland – and beyond – communities are demonstrating the enormous potential of collaborative growing projects. As the Glasgow study authors conclude: “…community gardens grow much more than food, they grow community.”