Hidden in plain sight – the value of green spaces

jardin public

By Heather Cameron

They may be something most of us see every day but take for granted – the area of green space we pass on our way to work or frequent in our lunch break. And although we might make use of such spaces on a regular basis, is the true value of them really understood?

As highlighted by a recent report from the Land Trust, green spaces provide even more to society than we often think about.

Wider value

It has long been recognised that green spaces provide multiple benefits to communities and wider society, but there has been limited robust evidence on their wider economic value. The Land Trust report highlights that the services delivered by soil, grass, flowers, trees and water provide society and the economy with significant benefits.

It suggests that several important functions are provided by these green spaces, including:

  • Reducing and preventing flooding
  • Cleaning our water
  • Storing and removing carbon
  • Cleaning our air, reducing air pollution

Such functions help to alleviate costs to local and wider communities, such as to the health service, other public services and local businesses. Previous research has similarly alluded to such benefits.

Independent research by UK scientists in 2011 highlighted the true value of nature in relation to the economic, health and social benefits, estimating that it was worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.

Other research has also shown that green space has been linked to reduced levels of obesity in children and young people, and that access to open spaces is associated with higher levels of physical activity and reductions in a number of long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal conditions.

The proportion of green and open space is also linked to self-reported levels of health and mental health, through improved companionship, sense of identity and belonging and happiness. And living in areas with green spaces is associated with less income-related health inequality, thereby reducing the effect of deprivation on health.

What the Land Trust’s report does differently, is demonstrate these widely recognised benefits in physical and monetary terms to help create a greater understanding of the economic contribution of well-managed green spaces.

Natural capital accounting

A ‘natural capital accounting’ approach was taken to translate these benefits into financial terms, taking consideration of the physical land, its quality, how it is managed, used and the functions it performs.

Two different parks – Silverdale Country Park in the Midlands and Beam Parklands in London – were used in the study to demonstrate this value. Overall, Silverdale’s annual natural capital value was estimated to be £2.6 million, with a return on investment of £35 for every £1 invested, while Beam Parklands’ natural capital value, based on a 99 year period, has been valued at £42 million – an increase of £21 million since 2009.

Other benefits provided by Silverdale include:

  • Nearly £400,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • An annual value of £82,000 for the park and its maintenance to retain and purify water
  • A wider annual value of £840,000 of absorbed and stored carbon
  • A potential increase of 113% in local air pollution absorption since 2011

Other benefits provided by Beam Parklands (primarily a flood defence) include:

  • Nearly £600,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • Nearly £800,000 per year of educational and health benefits to the local community

As two well-maintained green spaces, they indicate the importance of long-term investment.

Final thoughts

Perhaps these financial values will help people to better comprehend the true value of our green spaces. As the report notes, it is important to remember that they are “not ‘one off’ monetary values or price tags” but rather an indication of what our green spaces are worth and their benefits to both society and the economy.

Put simply, as the Land Trust concludes, “green spaces… are valuable to society”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on pocket parks and green spaces.

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Graduate ‘brain drain’ – is regional economic growth the solution?

college graduates groupBy Heather Cameron

With the economic performance of cities and regions increasingly reliant on the skills of their workforce, the longstanding issue of graduate ‘brain drain’ to London and the south is something that needs to be addressed.

Although students attend many of the universities spread across the country, a significant number of graduates flock towards the capital at the end of their studies. According to a recent report from Centre for Cities, this deprives other cities of skilled workers and essentially damages the overall economy.

The evidence

A quarter of all new graduates in 2014 and 2015 were found to have moved to work in London within the six months of finishing their degree. And the highest achievers make up a significant proportion. While London accounts for around 19% of all jobs, of the graduates that moved city six months after graduation London employed 22% of all working new graduates, and 38% of those with a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.

Although most cities experience an overall graduate gain, cities outside London don’t retain the majority of students that move to their city to study – the ‘bouncers’ that drive the brain drain overall, overshadowing any gain:

  • Manchester lost 67% of these students upon graduation;
  • Birmingham lost 76%; and
  • Southampton lost 86%.

Other figures show that 310,000 graduates have left the north in the past decade, contributing to a net average deficit of 7,500 highly qualified workers leaving annually, or 75,500 over a decade.

Northern regions have to some extent offset the effect of local brain drain by attracting enough highly qualified foreign workers to fill the gap. But with reductions in immigration, these regions could be left lacking.

Given the UK’s current position regarding the EU, concerns have also been raised over whether Britain faces a further brain drain of academics to Europe, following Brexit. A recent survey highlighted that 42% of academics said they are more likely to consider leaving Britain after the vote to leave.

Why?

While it may seem plausible to assume that higher salaries are the reason for this brain drain, it appears that the main pull for graduates is the availability of jobs and career progression, which London’s vast labour market offers.

However, as recent research from Homes for the North has identified, these are not the only reasons. It highlights the importance of additional non-work drivers of graduate location decisions, including the cost and quality of housing, quality of local amenities and the prospect of home ownership.

Of the graduates polled, 80% said the quality of housing was important, while more than 60% said the cost of housing was important. The quality of green spaces and local amenities was also deemed important by over 60% of graduates.

What can be done to redress the balance?

There have been numerous graduate retention initiatives at the local and regional level aimed at tackling the uneven distribution of graduates, such as graduate wage subsidies and local graduate job matching.  But it seems little has improved. The Centre for Cities research argues that these alone will not tackle the root cause of the graduate brain drain.

It suggests that cities themselves have a vital role to play in ensuring the local job market offers an appropriate number of graduate job opportunities that will allow them to both retain graduates and attract graduates from elsewhere. Policy should therefore broaden its focus to improve local economies by investing in transport, housing and enterprise, rather than focusing solely on graduate retention and attraction policies.

The chief executive of the Centre for Cities commented that the government’s new economic and industrial strategy should be used to strengthen existing devolution deals for city-regions such as Greater Manchester, extending their scope to grow.

Indeed, the industrial strategy green paper, published in January, clearly places emphasis on addressing the economic imbalances across the UK through a number of measures, such as working with local areas to close the skills gap, including new schemes to support the retention and attraction of graduates. However, the strategy has been criticised for providing little clarity on how regional rebalancing and sectoral deals will work in practice.

Final thoughts

While it appears clear that cities outside London need to improve their graduate offer with better job prospects, the evidence on graduate migration suggests it is more complex than this.

As has been argued, the provision of good quality affordable housing could play a role alongside high-skilled job creation and opportunities. With the cost of living in London so expensive, this would make sense, particularly as the average graduate salary in London is not that much higher than the average across other UK cities.


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Night mayors: building bridges between businesses and communities

We’ve previously written about the importance of the night-time economy as a driver of tourism, leisure and business growth in towns and cities. And we’ve also blogged about the challenges facing night-time industries, notably the number of nightclubs forced to close due to economic factors and security concerns.

A growing number of city authorities are responding to these developments, and exploring new ways of meeting the distinctive economic development, public safety and quality of life demands presented by cities after dark.

The pros and cons of the after-hours economy

The UK night-time economy is substantial. One estimate has put its value at £66bn, employing 1.3m people. In London, an already thriving after-hours economy is set to grow by a further £77m a year following this year’s launch of the 24-hour Tube on the Victoria, Central and Piccadilly lines.

But a city’s nightlife is about more than commerce. Noise, violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour can upset nearby residents, and put people off living in or visiting a city.

Some authorities have taken a hard line towards areas with a reputation for trouble at night. The New South Wales government has introduced laws to crack down on drug and alcohol-fuelled violence in parts of Sydney. But, while the new rules – including 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks at nightclubs – have reduced street crime, their impact on Sydney’s night-time economy has been devastating. More than 100 venues have closed, and the once booming entertainment district of King’s Cross is now being described as a ghost town.

Night mayors: bridging the divide

There’s a balance to be struck between protecting communities from anti-social behaviour and enabling a dynamic night-time economy to flourish. One idea for bridging these competing interests is the appointment of an individual dedicated to the needs of the city after dark.

Shortly after the Night Tube started operations, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to appoint a “Night Czar”. The role of this new figure will be to engage with night-time businesses, residents and public authorities, and to create a “vision for London as a 24-hour city”. And on 4 November it was confirmed that the new Night Czar would be the writer, broadcaster, DJ, performer and campaigner Amy Lamé.

London is following a trend set by other cities that have recognised the need for a distinct approach to their after-hours economies. In 2014, Marik Milan was elected Amsterdam’s first night mayor. Previously a nightclub promoter, Milan leads a non-profit foundation funded jointly by the city council and the business community.

One of his early successes has been helping to establish 24-hour licences for selected nightclubs on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s hoped that the relaxation of licensing laws will help to relieve the pressure on the city centre, while regenerating pockets of the city lacking both daytime and night-time offerings. And, given that most problems happen when clubs are opening or closing, the 24-hour approach may also lower the chances of disturbances.

Marik Milan also wants to bring some of the positive lessons from music festivals into the centre of Amsterdam. He’s suggested that the presence of stewards, trained in how to de-escalate situations and report incidents, could make for a safer city, especially at weekends.

Milan believes his approach, in contrast to that adopted in Sydney, is more likely to bring positive results:

“Cities are always interested in solutions, but if they keep treating night life as a problem, they’ll keep having the same outcome.”

An idea whose time has come?

The successful deployment of night mayors in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities has prompted municipalities around the world to consider, and in some cases, to copy their example. In France, night mayors have been elected in Paris, Toulouse and Nantes, and they are also to be seen in Zurich and most recently in the Colombian city of Cali. Similar posts have been proposed for cities such as Berlin, Dublin, Toronto and New York.

Earlier this year, Amsterdam hosted the first Night Mayors Summit, at which city representatives could combine knowledge and share experiences on their night-time economies. This short film, from Monocle magazine, reports on the summit, and explains how the cities of Amsterdam, Berlin, Tokyo and Sao Paulo are exploring creative approaches to managing the night-time economy.

It remains to be seen whether London’s new night czar can win the support of local communities while championing the capital’s night time culture. But the experience of Amsterdam suggests that it’s an idea worth exploring.


If you’ve enjoyed his blog post, you might also like our other posts on the night-time economy

 

The death of nightclubs?

by Stacey Dingwall

Last month, Islington Council confirmed that one of London’s biggest clubs, fabric, would not be reopening. The nightclub’s licence had been suspended following two-drug related deaths at the venue. Over 150,000 people, including the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (whose Greater London Authority has no power to intervene in licensing decisions) have since signed a change.org petition demanding the club be allowed to reopen. Ironically, Khan has recently announced that he will be appointing a ‘Night Czar’ for the city. This new figure will be responsible for developing London’s night time economy, which is currently worth £41 billion and supports more than 1.25m jobs. The recent launch of the night tube is also intended to grow the city’s night time economy.

The night time economy

We’ve previously looked at the importance of the night time economy to the UK’s economic growth. A 2015 report from the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) placed the economic value of UK’s night time economy at £66 billion, employing 1.3 million people and representing 6% of the country’s GDP.

The Arches in Glasgow closed in similar circumstances to fabric last year. These clubs are just two of many that have closed their doors in the last decade. Between 2005 and 2015, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) estimate that the number of clubs in the UK fell from 3,144 to 1,733. The body believes that if this trend continues, the country will be left worse off “culturally, socially and economically”. Others have also highlighted the potential impact on youth employment, which is already a significant problem for the UK.

Who or what is to blame?

Some within the industry have pointed to the introduction of the smoking ban, longer pub opening hours and the recession as potential explanations for a decrease in the popularity of nightclubs. Others have placed the blame on planning policy and a “hostile” licensing climate. This is particularly evident in London, where widespread property development is prioritised in order to create the affordable housing the city so desperately needs.

There are also those that criticise the police’s “heavy handed” attitude towards drugs, and a stereotyping of clubs and those that frequent them. Police Scotland have come under particular criticism for the way in which they engaged with the Arches when it was still open. According to Dr Jack McPhee, a drugs and alcohol policy expert at the University of the West of Scotland, since the amalgamation of Scottish police forces, “…the recovery of controlled drugs and successful prosecutions became performance indicators in Scotland. So that in itself began to dictate police activity”. Scotland’s prosecution rate for drugs related offences is almost twice that of the other UK nations.

Comparisons with the rest of Europe

In comparison, drugs policy on the continent tend to focus more on harm reduction. In the Netherlands, for example, clubs use the Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS), which allows users to test the safety of their drugs. Rather than focusing on criminalisation, systems like these focus on public health, recognising that people will continue to take drugs regardless of how many venues the police close down. Indeed, some have voiced their concern that a continuation of current UK policy will only increase their use in the dangerous, underground market, whereas moving towards proper regulation could save lives.

A brighter future?

Despite this, the recently appointed director of government and public affairs at industry body UK Music, Tom Kiehl, believes that the night time industry has a “bright future” under the new government. Recent comments from Sadiq Khan in particular have given Kiehl confidence that planning and licensing restrictions may be lifted in order to support the growth of the night time economy. In addition, a successful club based drug testing system is currently being tested on a small scale in the UK, which may see a shift in current law enforcement attitudes depending on the results.

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Local poverty, national wealth: reflections from the annual SURF conference

The annual SURF conference took place in Edinburgh on the 1st September 2016. The theme for this year’s conference was Local poverty, national wealth: resourcing regeneration. Delegates came from a range of organisations across Scotland, including local authorities, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, COSLA, Creative Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and Transport Scotland. Speakers on the day included director of the Common Weal, Robin McAlpine, Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart MSP, Fiona Duncan from Lloyds TSB Foundation Scotland and Sandra Marshall coordinator and community activist from Leith Hub.

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Image by Rebecca Jackson

Building resilient and equal communities through regeneration

The conference focused on connecting policy, practice and people within communities to promote effective regeneration of spaces to reduce inequality. One of the recurring themes of discussion throughout the day was the localisation of power and services, allowing local communities the ability to plan and decide the best way to regenerate their local area. Other general themes discussed during the day included finance, infrastructure to facilitate regeneration at a local level, and how to create a network of support and integrate professional knowledge to support community regeneration plans. Revisiting a theme from last year’s conference, cooperation with communities rather than imposition of regeneration, formed the backbone of discussion for the day.

Image by Rebecca Jackson

Image by Rebecca Jackson

Economic planning is key to reducing inequality and promoting regeneration

The first session of the day focussed on the policy and economic context around regeneration and reducing inequality. It was suggested in the opening remarks that there needs to be effective development and investment where people live- that poverty and inequality lead to degeneration, and that both must be tackled in order to facilitate effective regeneration of an area. In a way the two are not mutually exclusive: regeneration can help to alleviate poverty and inequality, but in order for regeneration to be as effective as possible, poverty and inequality should be eradicated as far as possible.

As well as this abstract macroeconomic debate delegates and panellists discussed locality based funding, including cooperatives. Panellists suggested that in Scotland the problem is not a lack of money, but a lack of effective distribution of resources. They also discussed how to reduce the gap between the lived experience of communities and what politicians think lived experience is. These insights were put into poignant context by panellist Sandra Marshall, who discussed her own personal struggles, and those of others she has helped in her community of Muirhouse in Edinburgh.

Tackling inequality is high on the agenda of the current Scottish Government, something which was emphasised during the panel session by Kevin Stewart MSP. Working at a community level and having the power to do so was also something which was highlighted as being vital to helping communities affect change through regeneration. Kevin Stewart highlighted the proposed decentralisation bill currently being discussed within the Scottish Parliament, which aims to give greater power to local communities to effect their own change.

pink pig and coins

Resourcing regeneration: the view from funders

There was a general consensus that funding is one of the key enablers, but also one of the biggest barriers to those who want to carry out community regeneration. The ease of access to funders and the ability to identify and engage with them was seen as a big barrier. Longevity of funding was also raised, with most funders donating grants for 3-5 years, despite acknowledging that many projects take longer to come to fruition. The second session of the day invited funders from major Scottish regeneration funding bodies: the Big Lottery Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Resilient Scotland, and the Scottish Government to present themselves and their funding options to delegates. Panellists were able to highlight their major funding schemes, how to apply and allow people the opportunity to chat directly with funders. The panellists also took part in a “funding cafe” exhibition which saw representatives from 20 of the major funding bodies in Scotland host stalls and interact with delegates.

Making connections and sharing learning

During the afternoon session delegates were able to hear about the lessons from SURF’s Alliance for Action collaboration projects. The projects in Govan, Kirkcaldy, Rothesay and Dunoon highlight the work done by SURF and their partners in using regeneration to promote community cohesion and reduce inequality. Discussions focussed on the projects themselves, how they were implemented, the challenges, barriers and differences in each of the projects, particularly in relation to scale, and the impacts and outcomes they produced. They also discussed how the models used in each of the projects are sustainable and transferable, and considered the role of SURF as the intermediary body through which policy and practice can be merged to the benefit of communities.

Community concept word cloud background

Community concept word cloud background

A bold new vision for regeneration in Scotland

The final session of the day put forward some suggestions for the future of regeneration, in particular using regeneration as a tool to reduce inequality within Scotland’s communities. Panellists discussed alternative and innovative funding methods, including co-operative and community ownership models, the decentralisation of power to help improve community decision making and the importance of addressing systematic and structural themes which underpin inequality within our communities and hinders the process of regeneration.

The conference was a day filled with interesting and unique insights into the regeneration agenda and the impact it can have on reducing inequality within communities. It also provided a platform for discussion about the future potential for regeneration projects within communities. Speakers and delegates came from a variety of policy, practice and community backgrounds, which resulted in a wide ranging and thorough discussion about many different aspects of the regeneration agenda within Scotland.


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The economy and Brexit – what’s next?

money-economics-growth

By Heather Cameron

‘Uncertainty and volatility’ – these were two key terms highlighted at a recent event focusing on the impact of Brexit on the economy, hosted by STEP Stirling.

Following the historic decision of the UK to leave the European Union and all the press that has ensued, it was interesting to hear from experts in the field on what they believe the true impact will be.

Speaker: David Bell, Professor of Economics, University of Stirling

Professor David Bell from Stirling University delivered the first presentation, providing an overview of the key economic implications of Brexit.

David suggested that the negative impacts from a leave vote have not materialised as predicted, noting that “the economics of Brexit has moved at a slower pace than the politics.” Many predicted that there would be an immediate impact on the economy and on consumer confidence, but this hasn’t happened. Retail sales have shown no signs of collapse, with recent research actually showing growth.

Nevertheless, David noted that things were different for businesses, which are experiencing a lot of uncertainty. He indicated that this business uncertainty has dragged UK business output and optimism to a three year low.

What is clear, is that there has been a significant depreciation in Sterling which is unlikely to be reversed in the short to medium term. David considered the implications of this, including that we are poorer, more time will be spent working to benefit smaller businesses, there is lower borrowing costs and it is bad news for pensions.

David also highlighted the issues around the UK’s deficit in goods and surplus in services and trade agreements, which are particularly complicated. To conclude, David acknowledged that negotiations will be difficult and that we will be in the same position for some time to come – with a lot of uncertainty.

Speaker: Craig Wilson, Senior Director Treasury Solutions North England & Scotland at Clydesdale Bank

Following David, was Craig Wilson from the Clydesdale Bank. He considered the impact of Brexit from a financial markets perspective.

To begin, Craig highlighted that what was surprising about the Brexit vote was that ‘the bookies were wrong’, with odds as much as 2/9 suggesting an 82% probability of a remain victory. He noted that the immediate reaction, as similarly highlighted by David, was a drop in Sterling. He said:

“We had a reaction to a recession without the recession taking place.”

Craig also highlighted what has happened since the vote in terms of GBP/Euro stats, interest rate cuts and the price of Brent oil. Interestingly, Brexit hasn’t been shown to have affected commodities as oil prices only dropped slightly and have now increased again.

In agreement with David, Craig argued that there will be a negative impact on the economy in the short to medium term. Economists have cut UK GDP growth going forward to just 1%. Craig suggested that house prices will be important because if they hold up, consumer confidence is likely to remain.

The future, however, was also emphasised as uncertain by Craig. He highlighted that there are lots of variables, both within the UK and abroad, including:

  • UK data
  • Public perception and consumer sentiment
  • Recession?
  • Bank of England monetary policy – will there be more cuts?
  • Negotiations – timing of these, will they be positive or negative?
  • House of Commons/Lords may ignore the vote
  • The US presidential elections
  • US interest rate increases?
  • The Italian debt crisis
  • Emerging markets

In conclusion, Craig suggested the one thing to take away is that so many factors will make the markets volatile.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our other recent blogs on the impact of Brexit:

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Rising household debt: a real risk to the economy?

pink pig and coins

While household debt is still below its pre-crisis levels, it began to rise relative to incomes in early 2015 and remains high by historical and international standards, according to the Bank of England.

With the current uncertainty surrounding the economy following the EU referendum, there are concerns that household indebtedness could present a big risk to the UK economy.

So what do the statistics mean and just what impact could they have on the economy? A recent House of Commons briefing paper highlights the latest statistics and forecasts for household debt in the UK, including international comparisons, and the effects on the economy.

The statistics

The level of household debt more than doubled from £725 billion in early 2000 to £1,600 billion in late 2008. The global financial crisis resulted in a decline in the household debt-to-income ratio, however, from 168% at its peak in early 2008 to just over 140% in recent years. The levels of debt have increased again over the last couple of years, with annual rates of growth of around 3% recorded since 2014.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that the household debt-to-income ratio will increase in coming years, peaking at 167% at the start of 2020, close to the pre-recession peak. However, this has been revised down on earlier forecasts, such as December 2014, when it was forecast to reach just under 184%.

Despite these increases, the costs of household debt is expected to remain low relative to household income, and much lower than pre-recession levels, due to continued low interest rates. As a result, the debt burden is more affordable for households.

Benefits

The negative effects of debt on individuals has been highly publicised, but low levels of household debt can also provide benefits to individuals and the economy, as highlighted in the briefing paper:

“It allows people to buy things, like a house, that they would not be able to pay for in one go, raising their standard of living. In other words, it allows people to smooth their consumption over time, including during periods when their incomes temporarily fall. This can provide stability to the economy.”

Consumer spending can obviously be good news for retailers and the high street and high levels of mortgage approvals is good for the housing market.

The paper highlights evidence that the accumulation of household debt from 1996 to 2003 contributed to economic growth, with indebted households adding roughly 0.35% points a year to overall consumer spending growth of about 4.5% per year over this period. So a total of 2.5% was added to the level of consumer spending from 1996 to 2003.

Nevertheless, higher levels of debt can make households more vulnerable if an economic downturn occurs. And as the briefing paper shows, the households most likely to have debt (excluding mortgages) are those in the lower wealth quintiles – who are already vulnerable.

Economic impact

As the Bank of England has warned, the ability of some households to service their debts would be challenged by a period of weaker employment and income growth, which could have a wider economic impact through reduced expenditure. And higher interest rates may also lead to further reductions.

This could then have a knock-on effect on businesses which, faced with reduced revenues, may have to cut back on costs such as labour costs by reducing wages or the workforce.

Indeed, research on the impact of household debt on the economy highlighted in the briefing paper suggests that large increases in household debt prior to recessions tend to lead to longer and more severe downturns. And this is as a result of households with high debt levels cutting back on their spending by more than other households during and after a recession.

According to a 2012 OECD working paper, high debt levels can create vulnerabilities by impairing the ability of households and companies to smooth their spending and investment.  The paper also found that when household debt levels rise above trend, so does the likelihood of recession.

Other research has also found that large increases in household debt have preceded more severe and protracted recessions. And recovery following a recession was found to be typically slower in countries that carry the legacy of a large private credit boom.

Final thoughts

So it would seem that perhaps a certain extent of household indebtedness is good for individuals and the economy, in terms of maintaining growth. But when it rises above a certain level in relation to incomes, the evidence suggests it becomes a serious concern.

And with the current economic uncertainty, increasing household debt isn’t something to be ignored.


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Women in technology: London Tech Week

From 20-26th June London Tech week will once again be shining a spotlight on all things digital in the UK’s capital. An opportunity to showcase and network, the event will see some of the UK’s biggest tech firms gathering, along with smaller start-ups and keen individuals, to talk all things tech: from enterprise and engagement, to growth and innovation. This year one of the core themes is “talent and inclusion”, with the keynote seminar considering what now seems to many to have become the age old question: what will it take for business to truly take action on diversity within technology, and specifically how can businesses be encouraged to “shift the dial on the gender agenda”?

technology

There have been many studies, blogs, reports and comments about the reasons technology-based careers, or jobs within technology firms seem so inaccessible to women, and chances are many will form the basis of the London Tech Week event discussions.

In the UK today women make up fewer than 30% of the information and communications technologies (ICT) workforce, comprising around 20% of computer graduates and fewer than 10% of app developers. The Lords Select Committee, chaired by Baroness Sally Morgan, produced a report in early 2015: Make or Break: the UKs Digital Future 2015 which urged the UK government to seize the opportunity to secure the UK’s place as a global digital leader by investing in and promoting careers and skill building to try to encourage more young women and girls to consider a career in the tech industry. They state that increasing the number of women working in IT could generate an extra £2.6 billion each year for the UK economy. But just how exactly can women be encouraged to pursue a career in technology? Is it all down to funding or the availability of jobs, or does there need to be a combined approach? The following sections highlight some of the opinions of women who work in the tech industries, and showcase some of the strategies of technology firms to try to diversify their workforce and attract women to a career in technology.

Creating and promoting positive, high profile female role models in the tech sector

As the various magazine polls and top 10 countdowns show, some of the best and brightest minds in the UK tech industry are women. And yet, some girls and young women still feel like the technology world is not open to them. More and more high profile role models may be a way to tackle this – and clearly some do exist – but their profile is limited and more could be done by the industry and the media to promote them in an appropriate way. Similarly, mentoring schemes, like those promoted by Girls In Tech UK, which engages women already in industry by mentoring future tech professionals, could also demonstrate practical ways in which girls can work in a technology based profession.

Emphasising the importance of a female approach to creative technology and technology based problem solving

Women, it is often said in psychology and sociology literature, approach problems in different ways, and will often take a different approach to finding solutions. Including a female perspective brings another set of experiences which can be used to address specific problems. Additionally, the problems women experience are different to those of men and as a result they may allow tech companies to tap into an entirely new market.

Increasing funding and industry promoted schemes specifically to support women entering the tech industry

Although it is recognised that there is still a long way to go, the scope and the space to develop skills within the sector is growing for women. There are many initiatives promoted by large multinationals to encourage more women either to train for a career in tech, or to join their workforce. Many of these employers will be present at tech week but schemes by Microsoft, Apple, Google and Samsung need to have their profiles raised even within the sector; they should also be used as blueprints for others, and act as examples for smaller and medium sized businesses to encourage more women into their workforce.

Marketing a career in tech as desirable

Learning providers should recognise the importance of maintaining relatively low barriers to entry and promoting upskilling and retraining. They should also seek to engage with employers to create easy transition pathways into employment; an almost certain guarantee of employment at the end of a period of training can be a great incentive. Similarly, many courses exist to promote learning and upskilling around the tech sector. These should be made more accessible to women and promoted more widely, as should the availability of grants and additional funding opportunities for women and girls who want to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

Education and industry figures should do more to market the tech industry, emphasise the positives and make it an appealing career pathway. Some of the most rewarding aspects of working in the tech sector – problem solving, considering solutions and watching a product develop from start to finish – are not always highlighted as good reasons for joining. Many tech companies also come with a great working ethos. Employees can often work flexibly, or from home, enabling women to maintain a suitable work/life balance, while maintaining their position within the company.

Don’t underestimate the importance of stereotypes and misconceptions

The consistent rhetoric that the tech industry is a “man’s world” can be off-putting for some people; not everyone wants to be a trailblazer within a company. Women’s involvement should be normalised, but so should the language.Talking about women working in tech careers as being unusual can have an effect on the women and their male colleagues. Industry and education both need to be aware of the need to strike a balance between not sounding too complacent about the number of women pursuing careers in tech, and not making too big a deal about women joining the tech industry so as to single them out and place additional pressure on them.

Showing that there’s more to a career in tech than “nerds doing coding”

Careers services and advisers need to be aware that someone who has an interest in STEM (or specifically in technology based subjects) has more career options within the tech sector than “computer coder”. The tech industry is diverse, taking in areas such as social media, gaming, content creation, research and development, digital marketing and product design and development. Technology as an industry also generates products and solutions needed by diverse sectors for their day-to-day business, including health and social care, education, finance, and ICT,

DARPA_Big_DataObviously these are just a few reflections on the literature and some common perceptions of women in the industry. But it is clear that there is a key role for both industry and learning providers in driving the diversity agenda forward.


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EU referendum – what the think tanks are saying

Euro Flag iStock_000003625536MediumBy Heather Cameron

With just under a month to go until the UK goes to the polls for the EU referendum, we take a look at what some of the major think tanks have been publishing on the debate.

Immigration and the economy have featured heavily in the referendum campaign. Negative attitudes to immigration, and in particular free movement within the EU has been highlighted as the strongest predictor of opposition to UK membership of the EU. And the possibility of a negative impact on the economy in the event of a ‘leave’ vote has been widely highlighted by the ‘remain’ campaign. Obviously, many of the think tanks have a specific agenda or political leaning, and this is reflected in how they are responding to the Brexit question.

What the think tanks are saying

Civitas has published a number of reports on Britain’s EU membership and how an exit from it would not damage the economy the way some would have us believe. Its most recent report on the trade benefits of EU membership has branded the argument that the European Single Market provides huge trade benefits to the UK as a ‘myth’.

Highlighting the example of Switzerland, Civitas has also argued that Britain could have much to gain from leaving the EU in terms of trade as it would be free to organise its own deals without EU restrictions.

Nevertheless, it also implies that retaining free trade with the EU Single Market, similar to the circumstances of Switzerland and Norway, would be important.

Others that appear to back ‘Brexit’ (Britain’s exit from the EU) have also alluded to the potential importance of the Single Market for trade. According to the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), the only viable option for the UK following a vote to leave the EU is joining the European Economic Area (EEA). This involves participation in the Single Market but from a position outside the EU. It allows for the free movement of goods, capital, services and people with the rest of EU.

Research on the referendum by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has also covered the economic impacts of a decision to leave, in addition to immigration and the financial sector.

Unlike Civitas, NIESR has warned of ‘a significant shock to the UK economy’ if there is a vote to leave the EU, assuming the UK will no longer have a free trade agreement. NIESR analysis suggests that the impact would include lower Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a depreciation of Sterling, reductions in trade and foreign direct investment (FDI), and a potential fall in consumption and real wages.

Similarly, the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) has argued that Brexit would have a negative effect on FDI. It estimates that Brexit would lead to a 22% fall in FDI over the next decade, which could cause a 3.4% decline in real income – about £2,200 of GDP per household.

Also in its analysis, CEP argues that leaving the EU would lower trade between the UK and the EU because of higher tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. It suggests that the UK would also benefit less from future market integration within the EU. And while it acknowledges the economic benefit of a lower net contribution to the EU budget in the event of a vote to leave, it also suggests that incomes would inevitably fall, offsetting any savings from reduced fiscal contributions to the EU budget: “we consistently find that by reducing trade, Brexit would lower UK living standards.”

In terms of immigration, recent NIESR research suggests that there has been relatively little impact on the UK so far but that a vote to leave the EU could dramatically change immigration and its impact. One article looking at the long term economic impact of a reduction in migration found that a significant reduction in net migration would have strong negative effects on the economy by reducing GDP and thereby impacting on public finances.

The Institute for Public Policy Studies (IPPR) has published a range of material on the immigration and free movement issue. Its most recent report highlights the importance of the issue of EU migration in relation to the upcoming vote. The study found that there are concerns around migrants’ access to welfare, pressure on public services, crime and personal security, and wage undercutting. But at the same time, the advantages of free movement were also noted, in particular opportunities for UK citizens to live and work easily in other EU countries and the benefits of EU migrants filling skills gaps.

Similarly, the Fabian Society has also highlighted the importance of the immigration issue, noting that more than half of voters select it as one of their top three concerns when thinking about the referendum. In testing the effectiveness of both arguments, it was found that while the ‘remain’ campaign is slightly ahead and does well on first impressions, the ‘leave’ arguments seem to have more power to persuade.

Final thoughts

Full Fact is attempting to independently check statements made by both sides of the campaign. But whatever the outcome, we are guaranteed that Europe will continue to be a talking point after 23 June.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous posts on political participation and the role of social media and voter turnout.

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Budget 2016 – 5 messages for local government

One pound coin on fluctuating graph. Rate of the pound sterling

By Heather Cameron

Last week George Osborne revealed the details of his 2016 Budget, at the centre of which was a major deterioration of the forecast for productivity growth. Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projected an average growth in productivity per hour of 1.9% between 2015-16 and 2020-21; that average is now 1.7%.

As a result, a further £3.5 billion of savings from public spending is to be found in 2019/20. While Osborne has suggested these savings are equivalent to 50p in every £100 the government spends, experts have warned that the figure is closer to £2 or £3 for services that haven’t been protected.

What does it mean for local government?

Despite no direct cuts for local government, it remains unclear where these savings will come from. And with ring fencing of much public spending, local government may yet again bear the brunt of these cuts one way or another.

Business rates

Concerns have been raised over the announcement to extend business rate relief, the revenue from which is 50% retained by councils. It was revealed that this will remove £7 billion from the total take in England over the next five years; 600,000 small businesses will pay no rates at all from next year.

While good news for small businesses, there are fears it could leave a huge hole in local government finances as all locally raised business rates are to be fully devolved by the end of 2020. This will be accompanied by the phasing out of central government grants, and the devolution of additional spending responsibilities.

The government says that “local government will be compensated for the loss of income as a result … and the impact considered as part of the government’s consultation on the implementation of 100% business rate retention in summer 2016.”

But details of how such compensation will work remain unknown. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has suggested that the government’s plans for reimbursing local government is “nigh on impossible”.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), if protection for council budgets isn’t extended to beyond the devolution of business rates, councils stand to lose £1.9bn per year, or 2.9% of their total revenues.

Benefits cuts

Further cuts to welfare spending could also have a knock-on effect. The Chancellor outlined controversial plans to reform Personal Independent Payments (PIP) for disabled people, to save £1.3 billion. Overall, £4.4 billion will be cut from benefits for disabled people over the course of the parliament.

The cuts to PIP have been described as ‘devastating’ for disabled people, with many relying on them to live independently. They could therefore lead to increasing pressure on already stretched local services.

Even the government’s own party members criticised these cuts, which have since led to the shock resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and a government U-turn on the reforms to PIP, which will now not go ahead.

But there is no alternative plan to fill the hole left by this U-turn so local government may still need to brace themselves for cuts elsewhere.

Education

Under the education reforms, every state school in England is to become an academy by 2020 or have a plan in place to do so by 2022, ending the century-old role of local authorities as providers of education.

But, as our recent blog has highlighted, there are ongoing concerns over the academy programme with little evidence to justify it.

The plans have been criticised by councils and teaching unions. Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) children and young people board, said:

We have serious concerns that regional schools commissioners still lack the capacity and local knowledge to have oversight of such a large, diverse and remote range of schools.”

Ofsted rated 82% of council maintained schools as good or outstanding, while the results of recent HMI inspections of academies has been described as “worrying”. The findings also highlighted a “poor use of public money”, something that has been reiterated by the LGA.

In response, the LGA noted that “councils have been forced to spend millions of pounds to cover the cost of schools becoming academies in recent years”.

Devolution deals

There was some better news for local government in the form of new devolution deals with the West of England, East Anglia, and Greater Lincolnshire. The West of England and East Anglia will each receive a £900 million investment fund over 30 years to boost economic growth, while Greater Lincolnshire’s deal is worth £450 million.

New powers over the criminal justice system are also to be transferred to Greater Manchester and business rates are to be fully devolved to the Greater London Authority next year, 3 years before everyone else.

The LGA welcomes these deals as recognition of the economic potential of all local areas and calls for a return to the early momentum in which similar deals were announced last year.

Flood defences

Another positive for local government was the £700 million funding boost for flood defences by 2020-21, including projects in York, Leeds, Calder Valley, Carlisle and across Cumbria, to be funded by a 0.5% increase in the standard rate of Insurance Premium Tax.

Considering the extent of recent winter flooding, this was welcomed by local government as a “step in the right direction”.

However, the LGA has stated that councils will need further help from government once the full cost of recent damage emerges. It has also called for flood defence funding to be devolved to local areas so the money can be spent on where it is really needed.

Final thoughts

So despite no direct cuts for local government, and the welcome boost to local economies and flood defences, it remains to be seen whether local government will lose out financially in the longer term.


Read our related blog on the total academisation of schools.

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