Community planning in the devolved UK

Community planning is all about how public bodies and other partners work with local communities to design and deliver services that suitably reflect the needs and priorities or a local area. Effective community planning incorporates strong partnership working and a shared vision which has been created especially to fit a set of local circumstances.

Providing effective and efficient services, promoting community engagement and enterprise and engaging the third sector are all things that could now be considered part of “community planning”. It is founded on the idea that communities know best; they know what they need, they know how it can be delivered and how they will use services in the most effective way to get the most value from them. With an increase in political devolution we have seen different approaches to delivering community planning emerge in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some nations embraced it from a very early stage, others less so. However, it has become an increasingly popular model over recent years, with all four administrations now using some form of community planning model.

England

In England, the focus has largely been on housing and land use and the relationship between community plans (which consider services and public engagement) and local development plans (which focus more on the physical aspects of planning in the community, such as land use). Neighbourhood plans give communities the opportunity to develop a shared vision for and shape the development and growth of their local area. Neighbourhood plans are not a legal requirement, but a right which communities can evoke if they wish to. They are designed to fit alongside local authority produced “local plans” and provide an opportunity for communities to set out a long term vision for their area in terms of development, and “may encourage them to consider ways to improve their neighbourhood other than through the development and use of land.”

Scotland

The introduction of the 2015 Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act is a clear indication of the stance of the Scottish Government with regards to community planning. As well as statutory rights being strengthened with regards to consultation and community consultation, the legislation also places statutory requirements on public bodies with regards to supporting local community based service delivery, and actively engaging local people in decision making processes. As a result of the legislation 32 Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) now exist in Scotland and they are responsible for developing and delivering community plans. These can take two forms:

  • a larger plan, which takes account of the whole CPP area (Local Outcomes Improvement Plan)
  • a smaller plan, which focuses on a smaller geographic area which has been identified as being in need of improvement (locality plan)

There is no limit to the number of plans CPP’s can create in a year, but the views of local communities are particularly important in creating these as that is the way to best reflect local needs and priorities.

In Scotland a consultation is also currently underway to consider ways to align community and spatial planning more closely, as it was recognised that planning for services should also be mapped along with physical development.

Wales

In a Welsh context the use of community planning focuses on resource allocation and the direction of resource to where it is needed. Promoting community cohesion and well-being through community planning is also something which can be seen in both Wales and Scotland. Increasingly, plans have attempted to incorporate a “place-centred”, “service focused”, “partnership led” approach, with the emphasis on individual need. It is hoped that by bringing service providers and other partners back in touch with the people who use their services that their views can be taken on in future planning projects. As in all community planning projects, partnerships are key; however in Wales one of the biggest challenges has been forming these partnerships and getting buy-in from local businesses. A similar challenge has also been seen with national level bodies.

This challenge of engaging national bodies in community planning has also been seen in Scotland. National bodies are expected to engage with rural and urban CPP’s in ways which reflect individual community need, something they had not been used to doing previously. As a result, promoting flexibility and adaptability and encouraging participation from a range of stakeholders in order to support the creation and delivery of community plans has been high on the agenda across the UK.

Northern Ireland

The situation in Northern Ireland is, to a large extent, still evolving. Executives at Stormont, as well as planners and developers, see engaging local people as important but they are also trying to find a model which works best for a Northern Irish context. Potential options for integrating community based models have included adopting models from England or Scotland respectively; creating their own model which takes elements from a number of different models; or making attempts to align the Northern Irish model closer to that of the Republic of Ireland.

Currently the legislative basis for community planning in Northern Ireland is set out in the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. The Act makes a statutory link between community plans and local land use development plans, and makes the link between community planning for a district and well-being more explicit.

category-picture-community-development

Engaging difficult to reach communities in community planning

The views of local communities are particularly important when creating community plans, as their fundamental principle is to reflect service and resource need more effectively in order to benefit communities. As a result community planners across the UK face the unilateral challenge of getting people to engage. Different groups within a community may have different capacity and ability to engage. ‘Hard to reach’ groups are particularly important to the consultation process as it is often they who make the most use of services or have the greatest need for specific service provision. People in this group may include young people, older people, ethnic minorities or other socially excluded groups, and small businesses. They are also sometimes referred to as ‘seldom heard’ groups.

Methods to improve communication and consultation with hard to reach groups vary, but some potential barriers and solutions to engagement include:

  • Jargon and technical language – Policy and planning documents can be very long, and very dense, with lots of planning specific technical jargon, create an easy access version so that everyone can be engaged in discussions and not feel intimidated by “high level” documents.
  • Digital illiteracy – Increasingly consultation documents, some forums and copies of the plans themselves are held online, and improving access to these would help to encourage more people to participate.
  • Awareness and accessibility – Promoting consultations or community planning events, and holding them at a variety of times and in a variety of settings to allow people from different groups to attend. In addition providing them in multiple languages, using language that is more accessible for young people, or in a larger type size may also help to encourage people to participate.
  • Showing impact – Create follow up documents so that people can see how their input has made a difference. Even if the plan won’t be implemented for a number of months, let people know how what they said influenced or changed the decisions that were made.

It is clear that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are at different stages in their community planning journey. However, they have all, in one way or another recognised the importance of engaging communities to identify needs and attempt to allocate resources accordingly. In many instances, these community agendas have not just been linked to spatial, or even service planning, but also to wider issues around inequality and well-being and how resources and planning across all areas can best be directed to tackle this. It may be that we see this reflected further in future legislation.


This blog reflects on a recent paper by Deborah Peel and Simon Pemberton “Exploring New Models of Community based Planning in the Devolved UK” a study funded by the Planning Exchange Foundation.

Idox Information Service members can access our research briefing on engaging communities in planning.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Co-production in the criminal justice system

Community concept word cloud background

By Rebecca Jackson

Co-production in criminal justice was the core theme of a conference held last Wednesday by the Scottish Co-Production Network.

The speakers were invited to showcase their organisations as three examples of best practice. All the organisations have integrating partnerships and co-production at the heart of their values, and they spoke of the benefits and challenges they had faced, as three very different organisations, all looking to use co-production in the context of criminal justice.

Startup Stock Photos

Startup Stock Photos

Supporting vulnerable women

Tomorrow’s Women Glasgow, is part of a national pilot which aims to develop community- based justice options for people who are offenders. This specific pilot focuses on vulnerable women with complex needs who are in, or have recently been involved in, the criminal justice system.

The women-only centre offers a safe space for women to come and spend time and to work with mentors to address the barriers and issues which prevent them from leading positive, healthy lives. In addition to this, the women are invited to contribute ideas towards the running of the centre, planning activities, contributing to a newsletter and hosting open days.

“The scheme gives vulnerable women a choice, a voice, a direction and opportunities”

The project is run in association with the social enterprise Outside the Box. There are some examples of Outside the Box’s other projects here.

woman hands isolated on sky background

Improving transitions from prison

Pete from Positive Prison? Positive Futures… delivered an inspiring and thought-provoking presentation about his experiences as a person with a conviction who had served time in prison and how that drove him to help others upon their release from prison. He helped to set up the organisation Positive Prison? Positive Futures… (PP?PF) which seeks to “improve the effectiveness of Scotland’s criminal justice system so as to reduce the harms caused by crime and to support the reintegration of those who are or have been subject to punishment”.

He was keen to stress that the charity is not a service provider; rather it is an initial point of contact to help direct people with convictions to the available and relevant services which already exist.

“We’re kind of like in space when you use the gravitational pull of an object to slingshot you in the right direction (Apollo 13 reference anyone?!). People are coming to us going one way, we come into contact with them, build their speed and send them in another, safer, hopefully better direction!”

In addition to this, the charity engages regularly with the Scottish Government as part of committees looking into reform of the prison service, the redesign of community justice and have, among other things, influenced policy decisions around the release of individuals from prison including transitional care.

The charity works with recently released, or soon to be released people with convictions, looking at building relationships during the vulnerable first few weeks ‘on the outside’ where re-offending and suicide rates are high. They also offer mentoring to help prepare people for the transition from prison life.

Two adult education students studying together in class.

Co-production and young people

Space Unlimited is a social enterprise based in Glasgow, which offers a creative space for young people to become involved in the planning and review of the criminal youth justice system. It encourages young people from vulnerable backgrounds, as well as young people who have served time in prison, to use their experiences to change how offending and criminal justice is viewed by young people.

The scheme aims to provide a space to show how young people can use their views to influence how the system can work best for them, to avoid re-offending and help integrate them back into society. The young people interact with adult stakeholders from across the local authority and criminal justice sector, as well as charities and third sector organisations.

“We promote and encourage children and young people to view themselves as experts in their own right, using their own experiences to promote positive change in the youth criminal justice system”

Category Picture Community Development

Creating new spaces for dialogue

What all of the case studies sought to highlight were the key elements of co-production:

      • Assets
      • Capacity
      • Mutuality
      • Networks
      • Shared roles
      • Catalysts

The speakers discussed their learning and experiences, as well as the challenges they face, but all highlighted the fundamental belief underpinning co-production – that service users and service providers can learn from one another. We create better services by engaging service users – creating services with people, not for them.

Co-production is an approach which is widely spoken about in health and social care, but as the conference and its speakers highlighted, the application and remit of co-production could be rolled out over other areas of policy too. It is all about finding groups of people willing to engage and to listen – creating a space for an exchange of dialogue, knowledge and learning. And the results could potentially be hugely beneficial for both service users and service providers. This video from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) highlights some of the benefits of co-production in practice.


Co-producing Positive Futures learning event: how co-production, learning and partnership building can improve community experiences and engage people in the criminal justice system. Scottish Co-production Network, Glasgow, 28 October 2015.

Archives in a digital world … creating social value and community engagement

By Rebecca Jackson

Recording the everyday goings on in our lives has almost become second nature, without most of us even thinking about it. Constant updates on Twitter or Facebook act as a personal archive in a digital age. Events we attend often result in photos being uploaded, tagged, liked and shared; while the advent of new tools like Periscope enable live streaming.

While we may think this is a modern phenomenon, a similar, albeit less personal, chronicling of people and events has been going on for centuries and is accessible to us today in the form of archives and art collections. Giving us a window into the lives of those who lived before us, archives have traditionally been seen as a way to enhance learning and increase understanding about the society we live in today. Archive material has also been used as a fun and accessible way to explore our history that goes beyond (sometimes tedious) reading in books.

But in this digital age, where does archiving fit in? What purpose does it serve and what relevance can it have to local communities?

spa blog photoThe Scottish Political Archive

The Scottish Political Archive (SPA) is a small but dedicated team of researchers and archivists based at the University of Stirling. I’ve been involved as a volunteer since 2012.

The archive, which is almost entirely reliant on student and public volunteers to function, is home to collections which document the recent political, social and cultural history of Scotland. There’s a particular focus on the impact of national events at a local level around Scotland’s Central Belt – preserving the legacy of Scottish politics for future generations.

A modern archive for modern politics

Since its establishment in 2010, the SPA has actively hunted for material to document the recent political history of Scotland, particularly artefacts relating to central Scotland. This includes anything from leaflets and posters to badges, banners, mugs and T-shirts.

It seeks to merge the traditional with the digital, with artefacts held on site (available to browse on request) and a digital Flickr archive which includes photos and videos from events attended by researchers and archivists.

The 2014 independence referendum archive is now one of the largest that the organisation holds, along with the digital archive of the Scots independent photography collection, and the personal archive of former first Minister of Scotland Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale (aka Jack McConnell).

In addition to this, the archive sends archivists and researchers to public meetings, hustings, party conferences and election night counts so that we can create as complete a documentation of political events from start to finish as possible. This was the case in both the 2014 independence referendum and the 2015 general election campaigns.

  Indyref photosreferendum collage 3

Engaging with local communities

As well as collecting material to add to its collections, SPA engages widely with the local community and in cooperation with the Stirling University Art Collection has organised projects with local primary schools, elderly groups and marginalised groups.

One of the most successful projects to date was a project with inmates of HMP YOI Cornton Vale prison in Stirling. The Create and Curate project, funded by Education Scotland, was designed to provide an innovative way to teach skills and encourage inclusion and participation, with inmates creating pieces of writing and artwork to be displayed in an exhibition.

The project helped to build the confidence of those inside the prison and gave them a creative outlet which many said they had never had before. Their work was initially shown in a private exhibition space within Cornton Vale Prison, but has since been moved to an exhibition space at the University of Stirling, where it will remain open for members of the public to view free of charge.

Archives as a bridge to the past

The SPA doesn’t just engage with local communities about modern politics. This year marks the second year of commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War, and more specifically this year, the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli.

SPA and the Art Collection worked with local primary schools in the Stirling area, in cooperation with academics from the University of Stirling and Stirling Council, to host an event to mark 100 years since the outbreak of Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli exhibition included the installation of over 100 handmade poppies, to mimic that of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper outside the Tower of London last year. The poppies were made from recycled material by the schoolchildren. The children were then invited to the University grounds to install them alongside representatives from the Scottish Government, Stirling Council and Stirling University.

poppies

The cultural value of archives

Local authority archive and heritage services have suffered from significant budget cuts in recent years. Demonstrating the value and impact of archives can be hard to evidence – it’s been suggested that the economic value of archives depends on how users make them meaningful. And the sector has suffered from a lack of public and official understanding of their wider benefits.

The SPA projects not only highlight how archiving, art and heritage projects are still beneficial to communities today but also show how local authorities can use them to bring social issues to life.

By collaborating with other organisations in the cultural sector, local authorities can use resources such as archives to promote local community engagement and link the importance of heritage to community values. It can also provide a way to teach new skills and integrate marginalised groups, as well as acting as a useful way to promote the local area.


Earlier this summer, we looked at the question of the use of volunteers to run libraries and archives, and the risks associated with the fragmentation of these public services.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Fathers and social services – is there a failure to engage?

paper family on handBy Heather Cameron

With failure to effectively engage with fathers repeatedly highlighted in serious case reviews over the years, it is worrying to hear that such failure is still evident within the social work profession.

Failure to engage

Just last week, a High Court judge heavily criticised children’s social workers for their “unprofessional” and “reprehensible” case building against a father whose child was up for adoption. The case involved making a decision on whether to return a two-year-old girl to her father and three siblings or allow her to be adopted by the couple she had lived with for the previous 16 months.

The judgement stated that the social workers’ evidence expressed opinions that they were not qualified to make, describing it as ‘psychobabble’. The judge also noted that this evidence was ‘entirely at odds’ with the evidence of qualified professionals and that the local authority gave insufficient weight to the observations of professionals working with the family.

The social workers were also criticised for continually referencing a “clearly out of date” parenting assessment completed in 2012, stating that this “still apparently colours their view of the father”.

It would seem that there could be deep-seated barriers within the social work profession preventing effective engagement with fathers.

Barriers

In fact, there has been much research around the barriers to fathers’ engagement.

It has been widely suggested that an inability among social workers to believe that a father has changed following past negative behaviour, and traditional assumptions and stereotypes about gender roles, have long played a role in preventing engagement.

An article published in 2009 which explored the representation of fathers in the social work literature argued that a pervasive and influential negative attitude towards fathers is widespread in the social work field.

More recently, a feasibility study highlighted that an analysis of serious case reviews conducted from April 2005 to March 2007 across England found a tendency for professionals to adopt ‘rigid’ or ‘fixed’ thinking, with fathers labelled as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, leading to attributions as to their reliability and trustworthiness. The influence of mothers (which can be good or bad), traditional approaches by the profession in relation to gender and parenting, and fathers being reluctant clients were also cited as barriers.

Such barriers have also been demonstrated by men’s experiences. A study which examined the experiences of fathers involved with statutory social work in Scotland highlighted that respondents reported feeling marginalised from child protection processes and facing barriers to contact with their children. Some men had experienced false accusations of sexual abuse, resulting in long-term involvement with child protection professionals; and some of the respondents felt that they were regarded with suspicion by professionals, with statutory conditions still being applied even after criminal charges had been dropped.

With such long-standing perceptions and approaches within the profession, it would be ill-advised to think that these can be fixed overnight. Nevertheless, there are signs that attitudes are changing.

Changing attitudes

A recent blog by Senior Evaluation Officer at the NSPCC, Nicola McConnell, acknowledges these tendencies within the profession but is confident attitudes are beginning to change. She highlights that only recently had she noticed that on most occasions she had not been interviewing ‘parents’ but almost exclusively mothers:

although services aim to work with parents, for a range of reasons including social organisation and gender expectations, services for children really tend to work with mothers.”

McConnell argues that this can lead to ‘flawed practice’ and discusses how professionals can improve their work with fathers through early engagement and taking a non-judgemental approach.

Facilitators of engagement have been consistently emphasised across the research:

  • Early identification and involvement of fathers;
  • Taking a proactive approach to engagement;
  • Making services relevant to fathers.

And the benefits of effective engagement have also been widely acknowledged. Numerous studies have emphasised the importance of engaging fathers for both children’s outcomes and risk management.

It has recently been highlighted that children with positively involved fathers tend to:

  • Make better friendships with better-adjusted children;
  • Have fewer behaviour problems;
  • Be less involved in criminality and substance abuse;
  • Do better at school;
  • Have greater capacity for empathy;
  • Have higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction.

Good practice

A project highlighted in a recent article in Children and Young People Now which aimed to increase social workers’ engagement with fathers and father figures has had positive results. Following the intervention at one local authority:

  • the percentage of fathers involved in their child’s core assessment rose from 47% to 82%;
  • the percentage of fathers invited to the initial case conference rose from 72% to 90%;
  • and the percentage of fathers whose involvement with the child was discussed at the initial case conference rose from 78% to 100%.

Social workers reported improvements in their practice, including motivating fathers to change problematic behaviour, engaging abusive men in discussion about their behaviour and assessing fathers’ positive qualities. It was also reported that some children had been placed with their fathers instead of being taken into care as a result of their new approach.

So progress is being made, illustrating that it is possible for engagement barriers to be overcome.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further research and good practice on social care services – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Caring Dads: Safer Children – interim evaluation report (2014, NSPCC)

Engaging fathers in child welfare services: a narrative review of recent research evidence, IN Child and Family Social Work, Vol 17 No 2 May 2012, pp160-169

Fathers’ involvement in children’s services: exploring local and national issues in Moorlandstown, IN British Journal of Social Work, Vol 42 No 3 Apr 2012, pp500-518

Don’t ignore the father, IN Community Care, No 1818 13 May 2010, pp16-17

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Neighbourhood planning – the current state of play

communitygroup

By Alan Gillies

Following the May 2015 General Election, the only Conservative minister to be replaced in the resulting cabinet reshuffle was Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The appointment in his place of Greg Clark, dubbed “the architect of localism” and the person who “invented neighbourhood planning”, reinforces the government’s commitment to the neighbourhood planning system. Just a few weeks later the Queen’s speech confirmed that there would be legislation with provisions “to simplify and speed up the neighbourhood planning system, to support communities that seek to meet local housing and other development needs through neighbourhood planning”.

The Localism Act 2011

The neighbourhood planning system was introduced by the Localism Act in 2011. At that time Greg Clark was the minster responsible for the legislation’s passage through Parliament. He described it then as “as a powerful option [for communities] to come together and decide, collectively, what their neighbourhood should look like in future; where new shops and offices should go; and which green spaces are most important to the community.” (Clark, 2011)

The Act gives residents and businesses in a neighbourhood the option to do two things: create a neighbourhood development plan for their area; propose that a particular development or sort of development should automatically get planning permission in their area (neighbourhood development order/community right to build order). Neighbourhood plans must be subject to a public consultation period, expert examination and a local referendum. But once passed at referendum, local planning authorities are required to adopt the plan and give it weight, along with the local plan and national planning policy, in determining planning applications.

Progress so far

Earlier this year the government celebrated the milestone of fifty neighbourhood development plans passing the referendum stage. However, the fifty or so plans already approved are just the tip of the iceberg. In total around 1,400 communities are now involved at one stage or another in the formal neighbourhood planning process.  6.1 million people in England live in a designated ‘neighbourhood area’ (i.e. one formally designated as an area to be covered by a neighbourhood plan) – representing around 11% of the population. But, of course, that still means that 89% of the population is not yet involved.

Going forward

Whether this level of activity can be regarded as satisfactory progress and evidence of a real public appetite for neighbourhood planning depends on your point of view. But either way, the neighbourhood planning process represents a new mechanism for involving and empowering more people in the difficult decisions that the planning system has always faced – which can surely only be a good thing for those who become involved. And with the new government reiterating its importance, and a new minister in place who sees it as fundamental to localism, neighbourhood planning is here to stay.

The challenge, and legal requirement, for planners is to provide support to neighbourhoods to become involved.

References

Clark, Greg. A licence to innovate, IN MJ magazine, 17 Nov 2011, p15


 

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Involving young people in local political systems and decision-making

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Image from Flickr user UK Parliament via Creative Commons

Our latest briefing focuses on the involvement of young people in political processes and decision-making. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

While the media was focused on young people’s participation in politics at the national level during the recent General Election campaign, in this briefing we take a step back and look at the involvement of young people in local political processes and decision-making.

Research by the IPPR in 2013 found that alongside those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, young people are the group least likely to vote at elections. At the local level, research by the National Centre for Social Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that young voters are even less likely to turn out for local (and European) elections.

Our briefing highlights a range of reasons suggested by existing evidence as to why young people have low levels of engagement with political systems and decision-making. These include:

  • A lack of trust in politicians and their parties.
  • A focus on policies that do not directly impact on their lives.
  • Today’s generation of young people do not see voting as a civic duty.

Also highlighted are the reasons why it is so important that more is done to encourage young people to engage with political and decision-making processes. These range from legal factors (children and young people have the legal right to have a say in all matters that affect them, according to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) to examples of positive contributions that children and young people have made in the shaping of local services.

The briefing includes advice on how organisations including councils can help to encourage and facilitate young people to become more involved in formal decision-making processes. This includes tips on practical considerations (e.g. venues, timing of meetings), safeguarding issues and how best to communicate with young people.

A number of examples of good practice are identified, including Dorset County Council’s Youth Inspectors scheme. Established in 2009, the project aims to enable young people to learn about and influence local services in their area.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To gain an insight into the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

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Living in a democracy, it’s easy to forget how fortunate we are

voting what's the point

Photo: Rebecca Riley

By Rebecca Riley

A week ago I was invited to a private view of “Election! Britain Votes” – a bold and experimental new exhibition developed by the People’s History Museum in Manchester as we prepare to go to the polling station. Having read the recent review by New Statesman, where the exhibition is described as “candid and sincere… far removed from the complacency we often get when museums try and do politics”, I was looking forward to visiting one of my favourite museums.

As a big supporter of democracy and people having the right to actively participate in the decisions which rule our lives, I couldn’t help but wonder at the number of attendees (it was a ‘good turn-out’) and whether the innovation and impact of the exhibition will ever reach the people it needs to, the disaffected voters.

Opened by Jon Snow, he made some interesting opening statements –  his enthusiasm for the exhibition was obvious but he highlighted some key issues we face as a democracy:

  • “It’s time to start running the country in a different way… we are a country of London” – a tip of the hat to the devolution options now being discussed, within cities and across devolved nations.
  • It “cannot be right, that there are not more women in parliament” – pointing out a thought-provoking statistic from the exhibition, that there haven’t been enough women in parliament so far, to fill the whole House once!

The exhibition is pitched as a place to debate, discuss and reflect on the importance of our vote in 2015. Through the most amazing and immersive infographics I have seen (created by @AJGardnerDesign) the exhibition takes you through the history of voting; the mechanics of it and what goes on behind the scenes.

It lays down the gauntlet to Russell Brand by answering the question “voting: what’s the point?” and finishes with a terminal which allows you to register online to vote. The visitor is challenged not to, having witnessed the struggle others went through to enable you to have the right!

Having visited, the prevailing memory of the exhibition is summed up in the title of this blog – we take for granted the privileges we have as a result of living in a democracy. Taking it for granted means we risk losing its benefits:

  • Reducing inequality by preventing the capture of power by elite groups – power is spread wider and in a more representative way;
  • Representing diverse opinions and needs of individuals across government, and ensuring government money helps those in need;
  • Having greater control and power over our own everyday lives;
  • Countering extremism from either direction; and
  • Maintaining local decision making and accountability.

As Jon Snow said, the exhibition shows us “how we got to where we are… but we don’t know where we will be”. But one thing was very obvious from the voter turnout figures presented – fewer and fewer people are exercising their right to shape what we will be, as a country and community. The voting population is disillusioned and feels excluded from the decision making; and political parties, individual politicians and the government should take action to re-engage the electorate.

If you are wondering why you should vote, I would highly recommend a visit!


Further reading

We have previously blogged on voting and democracy:

Other resources which you may find interesting (some may only be available to Idox Information Service members):

A programme for effective government: what the party manifestos must address in 2015

Civic participation and political trust: the impact of compulsory voting

Elections: turnout (House of Commons Library standard note SN/SG/1467)

Voter engagement in the UK: fourth report of session 2014/15

5 things we’ve learnt from Scotland’s indyref

SG referendum date announcement

Image from Flickr user Scottishgovernment via a Creative Commons license

By Stephen Lochore and Morwen Johnson

As the consequences of Thursday’s referendum result continue to reverberate across the UK, we look at what the indyref tells us about political engagement and public policy in 2014.

  1. The public will vote, when they feel the issue is important and affects them

The indyref voter turnout of 84.5% was a record high. And this was based on over 97% of the eligible population registering to vote. This contrasts with turnout at other referenda, general elections and particularly local government and European parliamentary elections.

Turnout for the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2011 was just 50.4%. In the UK, in the 2010 general election it was 65.1%. The Scottish devolution referendum in 1997 (which provided the yes vote which created the Scottish parliament) had a turnout of 60.4%; the Welsh devolution referendum the same year had a turnout of 50.1%.

At local level, turnout is even lower. The 2012 Scottish local elections had a turnout of 39.1%; the turnout for the English local and mayoral elections in May 2014 was estimated to be around 35.3% (with the 2014 European Parliament election being held on the same day).

New initiatives such as the 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) elected across England and Wales in November 2012 have failed to engage public interest, at least at the ballot box. Turnout was below 20% in most areas – with an average turnout of 15.1%. This despite the fact that the PCCs are responsible for a combined budget of £8bn, and were set up specifically to hold Chief Constables and police forces to account to communities.

Many people have said that they cast a vote in the indyref ‘because they felt it would mean something’ and it was to be expected that more people would vote in a referendum with significant implications and a clearly discernible difference between the two sides. But it’s quite depressing that in elections for political administrations which control the delivery of local services, the perception of representation and accountability seems to have been lost.

The question for political parties, public servants and policymakers is how to communicate about policy choices in a transparent and accessible way, and embed public engagement in day-to-day processes. And that is more difficult to do than when its about campaigning for support for a Yes/No vote on one question.

  1. Young people are capable of exercising their franchise

For the indyref, 16 and 17 year olds had the vote extended to them for the first time. Many campaigners, on both sides of the indyref debate, claimed that voters should consider the potential impact of the decision on future generations.

Across Scotland, there were 109,533 people on the young voters’ register, according to official figures issued on 19 September. This represents just under 90% of 16 and 17-year-olds estimated to be eligible. Issues that were reported of high interest to young voters included tuition fees, but perhaps surprisingly also welfare and pensions.

The Electoral Reform Society has pointed out that young people receive citizenship education at school but face a delay before they can put their knowledge about democracy and rights into practice. The 2006 Power Inquiry emphasised the need to include young people in the political process as early as possible in order to create a basis for greater political engagement in later life.

The question about voting age often hinges on the argument that younger people are not mature enough to think through voting decisions. Engagement in schools during the indyref suggests that this isn’t the case. Campaigners also thought it important due to the perceived potential impact of differences in voting choices by age. This research suggests older people would be more likely to vote No – and the Ashcroft Poll of 3000 people on the night of the referendum showed nearly three quarters (73%) of those aged 65 or over voted No.

Perhaps the indyref can set the precedent for lowering the voting age … with the next reform being votes for prisoners?

  1. Grassroots campaigning and social media brought the debate into the public consciousness

With an office in the centre of Glasgow, we experienced first-hand the very visible campaigning from grass-roots supporters. You may have also noticed that, although we’re focused on knowledge sharing of public and social policy, we didn’t blog on the referendum – there being good, balanced sources already out there such as the ESRC’s Future of Scotland and the UK site.

It’s been clear that there’s been huge interest in the indyref. According to research from the University of Strathclyde, the referendum inspired more than 10m ‘interactions’ on Facebook over a five week period – one of the highest levels of activity that the monitoring company had ever recorded. These types of interactions include comments, campaign group activity and sharing videos and images relating to the referendum.

Although there is the potential for engagement with the referendum to translate into ongoing engagement in local politics or with public policy, there’s probably a larger risk of disillusionment. How will organisations and grassroot movements calling for change sustain momentum after the No decision?

  1. Democracy will always leave some people’s views unrepresented

There was a lot of angst, as the referendum date grew closer and the polls tighter, about the fact that just a one vote majority would be enough to win. Within our first-past-the post electoral system, sometimes described as ‘winner takes all’, it is often the case that the governing party or parties do not have a mandate from the majority of the population. In fact, at UK (Westminster) parliamentary level, no single party after WW2 has won over half the popular vote.

The binary nature of the indyref increased the proportion of voters on the losing side – though conversely, a greater number of options would reduce the mandate of the winning option.

The No campaign might argue that part of democracy is accepting the will of the majority – including at UK level. The Yes campaign alleged that UK politics and governance has systematically failed to respond to the needs of the Scottish people, although we would highlight the fact that people’s needs are rarely homogenous across Scotland, the UK or indeed in any locality.

  1. Evidence is always context-specific and open to interpretation

For any undecided voter, the big decision in the indyref was who to believe. Our team of researchers here at the Knowledge Exchange were sourcing material every day purporting to be ‘evidence- based’ and it was a good reminder that research is rarely impartial. From the design or framing of research questions, to the interpretation put on results, there are numerous opportunities for bias to be introduced. How findings were reported in the media was also a big issue throughout the indyref.

This was exemplified by differing forecasts of the economic strength of an independent Scotland, reflecting different assumptions about key factors such as the future price of oil and the extent of accessible reserves, the transfer of a share of UK debt to Scotland and trends in business investment. One downside of the No vote is that we’ll be deprived of seeing who was proved right!

Concluding thoughts

Society is sometimes characterised as politically apathetic, but the Scottish referendum emphatically refutes that. A simplistic assumption is that people are fed up with politicians and the increasingly similar manifestos of mainstream political parties. A more nuanced conclusion is that campaign-based politics, which encourages people to express their support for a cause or issue, and then allows them to become as active or inactive as they prefer, is a more natural fit to the networked and fractured manner in which people increasingly communicate both at work and in their personal lives.

Indyref witnessed a proliferation of grass-roots groups, particularly among those favouring independence, often organised through social media, for example the Facebook group Scottish Pensioners for Independence. Or the contrasting women together and women for independence networks. The challenge for governments across advanced democracies is how to develop and deploy the interactive tools, digital knowledge and responsive legislative and civic processes needed to tap into informal, fragmented and often transient group activity, while avoiding the danger of only listening to those who network the loudest.