The Knowledge Exchange Blog

The official blog of The Knowledge Exchange from Idox

Supporting perinatal mental health: from peer-support to specialist services

There is a societal expectation that pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby are happy and exciting times.  However, it may come as a surprise to learn that up to 1 in 5 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby (also known as the ‘perinatal period’).

Up to 1 in 10 women may develop postnatal depression, however, there are actually a number of other mental illnesses that can affect women during pregnancy or following birth.  These include:

  • Antenatal depression
  • Perinatal anxiety
  • Perinatal obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Post-partum psychosis

These illnesses can range from mild to severe.  Left untreated, perinatal mental illnesses can have a devastating effect on mental and physical health.  In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for mothers during the first year after pregnancy.

The wider impact on children and families

Perinatal mental illnesses can also impact upon children, partners and significant others.  Research shows links to depression in partners, higher rates of divorces, lower levels of emotional and cognitive development and higher levels of behavioural problems and psychological disorders among children.

As well as the high human cost, there are also a number of economic costs associated with failing to address perinatal mental health needs. Research commissioned by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance found that perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carry a total long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK.

In comparison, it would cost only an extra £280 million a year to bring the whole pathway of perinatal mental health care up to the level and standards recommended in national guidance.

Access to specialist services is a ‘postcode lottery’

The good news is that most mothers who experience mental ill health can and do make a full recovery.

At present, mild to moderate cases of mental ill health in pregnancy and following birth are treated by the GP through anti-depressants, talking therapies and/or support from a community mental health team.  For more complex or serious illnesses, GPs can make a referral to specialist perinatal mental health services for expert advice and support.  This may involve staying in a specialist psychiatric Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) – where mothers and their baby can be admitted together.

However, despite the high prevalence of, and risks associated with, perinatal mental illness, access to specialist perinatal mental health services across the UK is a postcode lottery.

Maps by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance show that women in around half of the UK have no access to specialist perinatal mental health services.  There are currently no MBUs in Wales or Northern Ireland, meaning mothers with more serious or complex mental illnesses often face either being admitted to a MBU far from home, or being admitted to a general psychiatric ward without their babies, in order to receive treatment.

For those with mild to moderate mental illness, waiting times for NHS talking treatments can be many months.  Lack of awareness means that many cases of mild to moderate mental ill health go undiagnosed and untreated.  There is an urgent need for both greater awareness of mental illness and better access to mental health services across the country.

The role of peer-support

In recognition of and response to the need for better access to mental health support for pregnant and new mothers, a number of local ‘grassroots’ peer-support projects have been established by dedicated volunteers and campaigners.

One such project is Blank Canvas.  Blank Canvas is a creative journaling workshop in Lanarkshire, aimed at women during pregnancy or in the first two years since birth, who are experiencing mental health difficulties.

The project was set up earlier this year by midwife Elaine Connell, together with some of her midwife colleagues, who shared her dedication to improving mental health support for women in the perinatal period.

Elaine was keen to start her own peer support group following her own personal and professional experiences of perinatal mental ill health, and was inspired by the success of other projects focusing on art and creativity, such as Maternal Journal.

As Elaine explains:

It is free… …to access, and each attendee is given their own art kit to keep. We have a different theme each week and have guest speakers coming to do sessions also. During the group they can explore new art materials and create reflections in their journal, whilst chatting over some tea and cake. Each session they will take home a prompt card which can inspire their journalling during the week until the group meets next.”

Blank Canvas is free to access and works on a self-referral basis, with advertising mainly through Facebook.  A local shop and community space (Swaddle in Hamilton) donated a venue space, and all other costs (including materials) have been raised by volunteers committed to the project, through fundraisers such as coffee mornings and participation in the Kiltwalk.

Elaine has conducted an evaluation of the first 10-week block and feedback from participants has been extremely positive.  Word about the project has spread and the next block of Blank Canvas – which started on the 18th September – is fully subscribed (with a waiting list).  As Elaine notes, this is fantastic for the project, but highlights the high level of demand that exists for mental health support among new mothers.

The long term plan is to run 6-week blocks frequently throughout the year, moving to separate antenatal and postnatal sessions in 2020.  Elaine also hopes to start up a creative journaling group aimed at fathers too – noting that father’s mental health is often overlooked.

One of the key things Elaine has learned from the creation of Blank Canvas is that there is a lack of support available for people who want to establish their own peer-support groups:

What has been clear when forming the group, is that there is very little support to establish peer support. There are lots of people who want to help others but who won’t because they don’t know where to begin, or how to access funding, or lack of training opportunities.”

Grassroots peer-support groups are an important source of support for mothers in the perinatal period, particularly in cases of mild to moderate mental ill health, where NHS capacity is strained.

Attending peer-support groups such as Blank Canvas may also have a preventative effect for mums who attend during pregnancy. Statistically, women who experience antenatal anxiety are more likely to develop postnatal depression, and so early intervention could help to reduce that risk.

Urgent need for better access to specialist services

While these projects have been successful, they are aimed predominantly at women experiencing mild to moderate mental ill health.

For those experiencing more complex or serious mental ill health, there remains an urgent need for better access to specialist treatment and support.  The Maternal Mental Health Alliance ‘Everyone’s Business’ campaign calls for all women throughout the UK who experience perinatal mental ill health to receive the care that they and their families need.  Specifically, it demands that:

  • perinatal mental health care should be clearly set at a national level and complied with
  • specialist perinatal mental health teams meeting national quality standards should be available for women in every area of the UK
  • training in perinatal mental health care should be delivered to all professionals involved in the care of women during pregnancy and the first year after birth

Promising signs of progress

There have been some promising signs of progress.  NHS England recently announced their plans to rollout specialist perinatal community services across the whole of England, including the opening of four new Mother and Baby Units.

And in Scotland, the Scottish Government recently announced the rollout of an initial £1 million for perinatal mental health services, as part of a wider £50 million investment in mental health services.  This initial investment will support a range of areas, including supporting the third sector to provide counselling, befriending and peer support for women and their families.  It will also help provide more consistent access to psychological assessment and treatment, by increasing staffing levels and training at Mother and Baby Units, for women with the most serious illnesses.

The Scottish Government also established a Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Programme Board earlier this year.  The PIMH Programme Board aims to help implement the commitments to improving perinatal and infant mental health set out in the 2018/19 Programme for Government and Better Mental Health in Scotland.

Clare Thomson, Everyone’s Business Co-ordinator for Scotland, says “It’s fantastic to see the evidence-based approach to developing community perinatal mental health services and look forward to hearing about the first steps – particularly in the North of Scotland“.

Perinatal mental health is Everyone’s Business

However, there is still much to do, including ensuring that this funding translates into services on the ground.  Wales and Northern Ireland are still without MBUs and there is a pressing need to raise awareness of and address mental illness among fathers.

The cost to the public sector of perinatal mental health problems is 5 times the cost of improving services.  It clearly makes sense to invest in improving this care – not only from an economic perspective, but to help improve the lives of women, their children and families across the country. And while more funding is essential to achieve this, raising awareness of the importance of perinatal mental health really is ‘everyone’s business’.


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Gardens of the dead: cemeteries as spaces for nature

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

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

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

Cemeteries as ‘green oases’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case study: Glasgow Necropolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaging local communities

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

Some notable examples include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges to address

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

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

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

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

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

‘Living places’ that inspire

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

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

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


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

How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer Martyn Wallace spoke to the CIO UK podcast and highlighted that in 2019 local government must take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better outcomes for citizens. He explained:

“I think in the public sector we have to see AI as a way to deliver better outcomes and what I mean by that is giving the bots the grunt work – as one coworker called it, ‘shuffling spreadsheets’ – and then we can release staff to do the more complex, human-touch things.”

To date, very few councils have felt brave enough to invest in AI. However, the mood is slowly starting to change and there are several examples in the UK and abroad that show artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword, but a genuine enabler of change.

In December, Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak announced the first round of winners from a £7.5million digital innovation fund. The 16 winning projects, from 57 councils working in collaborative teams, were awarded grants of up to £100,000 to explore the use of a variety of digital technologies, from Amazon Alexa style virtual assistants to support people living in care, to the use of data analytics to improve education plans for children with special needs.

These projects are still in their infancy, but there are councils who are further along with artificial intelligence, and have already learned lessons and had measurable successes. For instance, Milton Keynes Council have developed a virtual assistant (or chatbot) to help respond to planning-related queries. Although still at the ‘beta’ stage, trials have shown that the virtual assistant is better able to validate major applications, as these are often based on industry standards, rather than household applications, which tend to be more wide-ranging.

Chief planner, Brett Leahy, suggests that introducing AI will help planners focus more on substantive planning issues, such as community engagement, and let AI “take care of the constant flow of queries and questions”.

In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services. Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, reports that the new system is identifying 10 or 20 families a month that might be of future concern. As a result, early intervention measures have already been introduced.

In the US, the University of Chicago’s initiative ‘Data Science for Social Good’ has been using machine learning (a form of AI) to help a variety of social-purpose organisations. This has included helping the City of Rotterdam to understand their rooftop usage – a key step in their goal to address challenges with water storage, green spaces and energy generation. In addition, they’ve also helped the City of Memphis to map properties in need of repair, enabling the city to create more effective economic development initiatives.

Yet, like most new technologies, there has been some resistance to AI. In December 2017, plans by Ofsted to use machine learning tools to identify poorly performing schools were heavily criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers. In their view, Ofsted should move away from a data-led approach to inspection and argued that it was important that the “whole process is transparent and that schools can understand and learn from any assessment.”

Further, hyperbole-filled media reports have led to a general unease that introducing AI could lead to a reduction in the workforce. For example, PwC’s 2018 ‘UK Economic Outlook’ suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although its likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Should local government investment in AI?

In the next few years, it’s important that local government not only considers the clear benefits of AI, but also addresses the public concerns. Many citizens will be in favour of seeing their taxes go further and improvements in local services – but not if this infringes on their privacy or reduces transparency. Pilot projects, therefore, which provide the opportunity to test the latest technologies, work through common concerns, and raise awareness among the public, are the best starting point for local councils looking to move forward with this potentially transformative technology.


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New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part two)

Dunfermline town centre

This is the second of a two-part blog on high streets and town centres.  In our last post, we highlighted some recent publications that have sought to address the challenges facing our high streets and town centres.

We looked at how towns could work to diversify their retail offer, placing greater focus upon developing experiences and services that are not easily replicated online – such as hair and beauty services, gyms, cinema, restaurants and nightlife.

We also highlighted the benefits of identifying a town centre’s unique selling point (USP), capitalising on the opportunities presented by the widespread growth of technology, and offering various forms of support to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

In this post, we consider how community involvement, good quality inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street can all provide ways to promote and support town centres to better meet the needs of local people in a changing retail and economic environment.

A community-focused high street

The town centre has long been considered the beating heart of a community.  As such, it makes sense that any attempt to revitalise them would have local people at its heart.

In Dunfermline, a pilot placemaking project has made use of innovative, interactive methods of engagement with young people to help plan and deliver town centre improvements.

Young people were asked to assess the quality of the town centre and to identify areas where improvements could be made, using tools such as the Place Standard and the Town Centre Toolkit.

There are lots of other great community-focused town centre initiatives. ‘Can Do Places’ aims to engage the local community in order to bring empty town centre properties back into use in various ways, for example, by providing spaces for budding entrepreneurs or supporting community arts and crafts.

Stalled Spaces Scotland is another noteworthy project – with a focus on greening derelict, under- or unused outdoor areas.  As well as improving the look and feel of a town centre, this scheme also aims to involve the local community and schools in the development and use of the spaces themselves.

A healthy and accessible high street

It goes without saying that if town centres are to attract both people and businesses then they must be both attractive and accessible – easily walkable, safe, and clean.  Indeed, amongst its findings, the High Street 2030 report highlights “calls for improved accessibility that is more environmentally-friendly, new public spaces or areas, centres that better serve older people”.

There has also been considerable discussion around how the design of town centres (and urban areas in general) impact upon various vulnerable groups.  We have blogged on this subject on various occasions, focusing in turn on the creation of places that address the needs of older people, people with dementia, autistic people and children.

There has also been widespread discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of shared space street design – which has been used by many places in the UK in attempt to revitalise their town centre spaces with varying levels of success.

As well as their role in the creation of inclusive, accessible spaces for all, there has been some focus upon the link between high streets and health.

Last year, Public Health England published guidance on the development of ‘healthy high streets’ – high streets that have a positive influence on the health of local people.  It focuses on elements such as air quality, enhanced walkability, the provision of good quality street design, street furniture, and communal spaces. It argues that the development of healthy high streets will support economic growth as well as community cohesion.

It also approaches the subject of diversity on the high street – recommending that there is an adequate number of healthy and affordable food outlets and limiting the number of alcohol, betting and payday loan outlets.

A high street to call home

Another way of bringing people back into the high street is to have them literally live there.

At the end of 2017, the Federation of Master Builders published a report ‘Homes on our high streets’, which argued that “revitalising our high streets through well planned and designed residential units could help rejuvenate smaller town centres”.

For example, Aldershot, as highlighted in the High Streets 2030 report, has been making use of the Housing Infrastructure Fund to promote residential development in the town centre and has undertaken property acquisition in the town centre, most recently acquiring the former Marks & Spencer  store.

Creating additional homes above shops or in former retail units not only helps to make use of vacant properties and regenerate town centres, but may also help to address housing shortages in many areas.

 Looking to the Future

So while 2019 may present high streets and town centres with some of their toughest challenges yet, there is a wealth of research, experiences and innovative ideas on which to draw.  The newly announced Future High Streets Fund will no doubt be of use to help put these ideas into practice.

And perhaps most importantly of all, local people remain enthusiastic about developing their town centres and wish to see them flourish. As the High Streets 2030 project noted:

The workshops and interactions provided real insight into the challenges faced by town centres. That they are worth fighting for was abundantly evident from the enthusiasm of those participating.”


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New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part one)

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

One thing is certain. The high street landscape has now irrevocably changed and there is no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.”

This was the conclusion of the Grimsey Review in 2013.  Five years on and the challenges facing the high street remain – now with the added economic complexities presented by Brexit.

Yet there remains optimism.  In the last year, a number of reviews have been published, illustrating how we can bring town centres and high streets back to life.

In summer last year, an update to the Grimsey Review was published. Its title – ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’ – is something of a call to arms.

It sets out 25 recommendations to help support the high street to transform “into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition (USP)”.

In November, Lichfields also published a number of recommendations for high streets, based on their own research.  Their conclusions echo that of Grimsey: “Town centres and operators within them should embrace online, promote themselves better and develop their own unique selling point(s). They must broaden their offer and attract new anchors and other uses, which make them more family friendly, and improve the overall ‘experience’ for visitors”.  It also highlights a number of examples of innovative practice.

In addition to these, at the end of December, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, and a related report by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) – ‘High Streets 2030’.

The IPM report gathered the opinions of local people, including young people, about their town centre, what they would like to see developed, and the related challenges that they perceive.

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at some of these reports’ key recommendations, and highlight some innovative examples of good practice.

A diverse high street

A recent tweet by Fountain Bookstore in the U.S. highlighted the difficulties presented by ‘showrooming’ – where people visit high street stores to view items which they subsequently purchase online, often only for a marginally cheaper price.  The tweet went viral and sparked much debate.

However, realistically, online shopping is not going away – and in recognition of this, it has been widely recommended that high streets should diversify their offer, placing greater focus on services and experiences that cannot be replicated online – including food and drink uses, and leisure facilities, such as cinemas and gyms.

There does appear to be some evidence of this happening in practice – barbershops and beauty salons were ranked first and second respectively in terms of their number of net retail openings in 2017.  And Fountain Bookstore may be pleased to learn that there has been a small increase in the numbers of indepedent booksellers in towns across the UK.

A unique high street

Another key recommendation is for town centres to identify their own unique selling points (USPs).

Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a fantastic example of a town that has developed a USP in order to regenerate the community.  In 1998, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national book town, and it has since become home to a wide range of book-related businesses, including both new and used booksellers, and an annual book festival that attracts many people to the town.

Other towns have sought to capitalise on their heritage to bring people back to the town centre – such as through the relatively new Heritage Action Zones programme and the £55 million fund announced in the 2018 budgetfor heritage-based regeneration, restoring historic high streets to boost retail and bring properties back into use as homes, offices and cultural venues”.

A digital high street

While the ubiquitous growth of technology has presented high streets with some of its key challenges – in the form of online shopping and showrooming – it also presents a number of opportunities.

As well as making the most of click and collect services, many town centres may also be able to capitalise on the ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon – where online retailers open physical stores in order to provide their customers with an enhanced experience, such as being able to trial goods before purchasing.

Grimsey 2 also outlines a number of other ways in which high streets can capitalise on technology – from providing free wifi and spaces for freelancers to work/come together, to becoming involved in digital marketing campaigns and gathering/using local datasets.

In Scotland, a number of ‘Digital Town’ pilots have been set up with a view to improving the high street’s digital infrastructure and skills, and supporting high streets to take advantage of these in order to boost tourism and local economies. Related guidance on the development of ‘Digital Towns’ has also been produced.

A well-supported high street

There is also a range of innovative supports for high streets – some more traditional, like business improvement districts, and others more unconventional – such as the growth of popup shops and other supports for local entrepreneurs.  We have discussed the many benefits of markets for town centres in a previous blog post. There have also been various awards and awareness-raising campaigns, such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street.

Another approach is to use the planning system.  One particularly innovative example of is that of the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first Simplifed Planning Zone (SPZ) focusing on town centres.  It was set up in 2015 and built on the success of Glasgow’s award-winning Hillington Park SPZ.

The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle. According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Renfrewshire Council have published a ‘how to’ guide detailing their experience.

To be continued…

These are but a few of the many innovative ideas and experiences that have helped town centres across the country.

In our next post, we will continue this theme and outline some additional ways that town centres can help to address their challenges and increase footfall – through community involvement, good quality, inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street.


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Unlocking the potential of smart cities: All-Party Parliamentary Group calls for coherent UK Government strategy

Hong Kong city

By Steven McGinty

The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together”. (Iain Stewart MP)

In June, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities published a report outlining the findings of its recent inquiry into how the UK Government can support the expansion of smart cities and enable the UK to become a world leader in the field.

It explains that although some people have concerns that smart cities are expensive gimmicks, or even something more sinister, the potential in becoming smarter could have a tremendous impact on the lives of citizens.  And ‘smart’, the report makes clear is not just about clever technologies, but any innovative approach or solution that brings together industries or government departments to solve everyday problems.

Included in the report are the number of ways smart approaches can improve city life, such as:

  • Making cities accessible for all – improving the design process can ensure that people with physical disabilities are not prevented from enjoying the public spaces.
  • Empowering citizens in democracy – new technologies can give citizens a voice by connecting them with each other, as well as those running services or those making decisions.
  • Reducing the strain on our health service – providing citizens with access to their own health records can encourage greater responsibility for their own healthcare.
  • A more efficient, flexible transport system – improving transport information can help citizens plan journeys and smart ticketing options can allow citizens to travel easily between transport services.
  • Creating a cleaner environment and enhancing air quality – smart technologies can help address environmental challenges, such as improving traffic flow to help limit harmful emissions in congested areas.

If cities are looking for a blueprint to success, there have been numerous smart city initiatives introduced across the world. For example, the report highlights how the Scottish Cities Alliance, a joint initiative between Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling) and the Scottish Government, is encouraging collaboration and the take-up of technologies designed to improve air quality, traffic flow and cut pollution.

There’s also two examples from further afield. Estonia, which is widely recognised as a smart city leader, is viewed as an example of best practice in data sharing. The country provides citizens with control over their data by providing easy access to their education, medical and employment records through an online portal (with the option to request changes). And in Singapore, the “Smart Nation” initiative has become known for its use of a coordinating body to provide leadership to their smart cities agenda.

In concluding the report, The APPG make a series of recommendations to effectively drive forward the smart cities agenda. This includes:

  • encouraging the promotion of a smart culture;
  • convening smart standards and data; and
  • promoting the UK’s smart city expertise overseas.

In particular, a number of interesting points are raised about how to promote a smart culture, from ensuring smart city initiatives focus on the outcomes for citizens to putting collaboration with other cities (and the sharing of best practice) before any form of competition.

Iain Stewart MP, chairman of the APPG on Smart Cities, summarises the report’s main message, as well as calling for the UK Government to create a strategy. He argues:

A coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach between businesses and those who work most closely with and on behalf of their citizens – local government. By fully embracing the smart cities approach, central government can empower local authorities to show ordinary people how smart can positively impact on their everyday lives.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles. 

Breaking down barriers: helping disabled people enter and sustain employment

“We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation for people with disabilities, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock their vast potential.Professor Stephen Hawking (2011)

In the UK, the disability employment gap – the difference in the employment rate of disabled and non-disabled people – has remained largely static for over a decade.

Just 48% of disabled people are in employment, compared to 80% of non-disabled people.  Employment rates are even lower for people with certain disabilities, such as learning disabilities (6%), and for people with autism (32%).

There are a number of reasons for this.  These include the personal barriers that people with disabilities face when working, a lack of appropriate support to help them into and remain in work, negative attitudes from employers and recruitment agencies, inaccessible workplaces and inflexible working practices.

Perceived barriers and prejudice

Employers are often wary of hiring people with disabilities.  A recent poll found that as many as 22% of employers openly admitted that they would be less likely to hire a person with disabilities.  Many more may have felt similarly but were less willing to admit to it.

According to research by the Centre for Social Justice, 63% of employers feel that there are significant barriers to employing someone with a disability.  These include:

  • concerns about their ability to do the job
  • the costs of making reasonable adjustments
  • the inconvenience of making reasonable adjustments
  • fear of increased possibility of litigation
  • concerns about their ability to integrate into the team
  • concerns about a potentially negative customer reaction

Given these negative attitudes and perceptions, it is no wonder that as many as 1 in 5 (21%) disabled people hide their disability from employers, and over half (58%) feel that they are at risk of losing their jobs because of their impairments.

Benefits for employers

In truth, research has found that there is a “compelling case” for hiring disabled people – although few (9%) employers recognise this.

Becoming more disability-friendly can significantly increase an employer’s potential talent pool – around 1 in 5 working age adults in the UK have some kind of disability.

The majority (around 80%) of disabled people acquire their disability during the course of their working life.  There are clear benefits to retaining an experienced, skilled employee who has acquired an impairment – not least avoiding the costs and inconvenience involved in recruiting and training new staff.

Research has also found other benefits. These include:

  • higher rates of retention, lower absenteeism and good punctuality
  • improved employer loyalty and commitment
  • improving access to disabled customers
  • improving staff relations and personnel practices
  • improving the public image of the company as a fair and inclusive employer
  • bringing additional skills to the business, such as the ability to use British Sign Language (BSL)

Adjustments often low cost

Research has also found that employers frequently overestimate the costs of reasonable adjustments. Indeed, according to ACAS, only 4% of reasonable adjustments do cost, and even then the average is only £184 per disabled employee.

In any case, the government’s Access to Work scheme is specifically designed to cover the majority of the costs associated with making reasonable adjustments, including the provision of special aids and equipment, adaptations to equipment, travel to and from work, and support workers.

However, not enough employers know about the Access to Work scheme; only 25% are aware of it.

Free support and advice

According to Acas, there are many things that employers can do to become more ‘disability-friendly’.

These include helping people to gain employment, by tackling unconscious bias, adapting recruitment processes, creating an inclusive workplace culture, providing appropriate training and support for line managers, as well as addressing basic issues such as access to buildings (particularly older buildings where adaptations are more difficult/costly).

Once in work, it is important to maintain an open dialogue between managers and employees in order to develop an awareness of individual needs and potential adaptations.

Wellbeing initiatives, and clear and consistent attendance management/return to work policies, including ‘keep in touch’ days during any period of absence, can also help disabled people to avoid ‘falling out of work’.

Employers can obtain support on attracting, recruiting and retaining disabled people in the workplace through the government’s Disability Confident scheme. They can also make use of Fit for Work – a national occupational health service that is free at the point of delivery.

A better workplace for all

While not all disabled people should be expected to work, a significant majority would like to work more.

Closing the disability employment gap is important – not just for the individuals involved, but for businesses themselves and the wider economy.  Social Market Foundation research has found that halving the gap and supporting one million more disabled people into work would boost the economy by £13 billion.

There are some promising signs of progress.  Organisations as diverse as Barclays, Channel 4 and the Civil Service have all established innovative approaches to employee disability support and management.  Such initiatives not only help disabled employees directly, but also serve as a benchmark of what other employers can do to encourage and support disabled people within their organisation, and raise awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people for the organisation itself.

In many cases too, the improved working practices associated with becoming disability-friendly are of benefit not only to disabled employees, but to all employees, customers and service users too.


You may also be interested in our previous blog posts on supporting neurodiversity and mental health in the workplace.  

To see what other topics our researchers are interested in, follow us on Twitter.

Crowdsourcing in smart cities: a world of best practice

By Steven McGinty

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

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

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

Scottish Government

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

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

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

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

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

Milton Keynes

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

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

Madrid City Council

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

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

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

Reykjavik City Council

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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


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

Involving children and young people in town planning

By 2050, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.  In the UK, this figure is expected to be closer to 90%.   This demographic shift, along with population growth in general, means that more children than ever are growing up in urban environments.

This has a number of implications for the town planning system.  Creating a ‘child-friendly’ environment requires much more than just ensuring there are enough parks and play spaces.

As well as having a fundamental human right to participate in decisions that affect them, there are clear links between children’s health, wellbeing and development and the quality of their surrounding environment.  Particular areas of influence include:

  • housing quality
  • road safety
  • the walkability of an area
  • opportunities for cycling
  • play facilities
  • access to greenspace
  • local amenities such as libraries and community/leisure centres
  • environmental pollution
  • community safety/fear of crime
  • access to healthy food choices

One key way to address this is to involve children in the planning process. As well as helping to create safer, more suitable environments for children to grow up in, involving children in decisions about their local areas has a number of additional benefits.  It helps to build social capital, helps children to form a bond with their home city, and fosters a feeling that they can help to make a change in the world they live in. For planners, involving children can help to provide them with a new perspective on how children use their environments, and highlights issues that adults may not recognise or fully understand – potentially leading to improved design.

Participation methods

Research published in 2011 found that children’s voices had been “notably absent from UK planning and regeneration policies throughout the past two decades”. Children’s participation in planning tended to be focused on services that were designed ‘for them’ rather than ‘with them’, and little attention was given to children’s roles in the wider regeneration agenda.

However, there are some examples of successful involvement.  Methods that have been used successfully range from formal mechanisms such as youth councils, child-led surveys and data collection, to informal ones such as photography, computer-aided mapping, model building and role-play.  Dr Jenny Wood reports that she had success with a delightfully low-tech method, where children were asked to annotate A3 OS maps with a range of stickers, post-it notes and pens, to highlight their likes, dislikes, routes to school and any other information they felt was important about their local area.

At the other end of the scale, some particularly innovative examples capitalise on recent technological advances.  These include the use of mobile phone apps to make traffic reports (see Case Study 1 below), the use of Minecraft (see Case Study 2 below), mapping their local area (Children’s Tracks in Norway) and the use of the SoftGIS methodology in Finland.

Case Study: Traffic Agent, Norway

A new app-based initiative in Oslo, ‘Traffic Agent’, directly involves children in transport planning. It enables children to provide direct feedback on road safety, based on their own experiences.  The app makes use of ‘gamification’ whereby users act as “secret agents” for the city, sending immediate reports on their route to school when they come across, for example, a difficult crossing on the street or an area of heavy traffic.

The project lead, Vibeke Rørholt, illustrates its impact: “I received a telephone call from the mother of a little boy who had reported some bushes that meant he couldn’t see when he was crossing the street. And two days later the bushes were cut. She phoned in saying he’s so happy that he could make this happen.”

Case study: Blockbuilders, England

Blockbuilders is an innovative method of involving communities, and children and young people in particular, in the town planning system.

Using the hugely popular game, Minecraft, the Blockbuilders team create a 3D representation of a local area.  The model is then used as the basis for consultation with the wider community, and can be interacted with and played with to enable communities to help design and shape their local areas.  Projects have included the development of Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, the development of a family-friendly park by Brighton and Hove City Council, and an interactive map of Brighton and Hove.

Common success factors for children’s effective participation

There is no one definition of ‘good’ or ‘effective’ participation practice – the most suitable method depends on the age of participants and the nature of the decision that they are being involved in. However, in their review of children and young people’s participation, the Ecorys project identified a number of common ‘success factors’ for children’s effective participation in planning and regeneration. These include:

  • Official recognition of children’s fundamental rights
  • Partnership working, e.g. planners, local government, academics, NGOs, community organisations and residents
  • Involving adults with knowledge and experience of young people’s participation
  • Utilising a range of diverse participation mechanisms
  • Understanding participation as a ‘whole’ process of learning and change
  • Openness and reciprocal learning between children and adults
  • An incremental and realistic approach to goal setting and developing trust/confidence
  • Visibility in the results
  • Embedding at different levels and spatial scales

Challenges

Despite the compelling arguments in favour of children’s participation in the planning system, a number of barriers exist.

There is a general lack of awareness of the purpose, benefits or skills required for facilitating young participation among planners.  Children are often viewed as being incapable of engaging in a meaningful way, despite research concluding otherwise.

Children’s participation in planning is frequently still viewed as ‘special’, rather than as part of general community engagement processes.  It tends to be focused specifically on children’s services, rather than the wider range of universal services, and takes the form of consultation, rather than proper involvement in every phase of the decision making process.

A number of political and structural barriers also limit children’s potential influence – such as competing interests within the planning system and the short timescales often required for decisions.  This can mean that even when the intentions are there, planners themselves may have limited time or influence over the decision making process.

Future steps

However, these challenges are not insurmountable.  As we have seen, through its influence on the design of the urban environment, the town planning system has a huge impact upon the wellbeing and development of children.  By involving children in the design of their local environment, it can help create environments that support children to reach their fullest potential.

Children who are involved and interested in their local environment will hopefully grow up to become adults who are involved and interested in their local environment.  The town planning system is in a unique position to help facilitate this.  And as Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has said:

If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people”.


Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Next month we look at the characteristics of child-friendly urban design. 

If you can’t wait, why not download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city – available to Idox Information Service members via our customer website.

“A new journey”: creating a dementia-friendly public transport system

People diagnosed with dementia can live independently for many years – in fact, 1 in 3 people with dementia are still able to drive safely.  However, as the disease progresses, people with dementia must eventually stop driving.  Public transport can be a good alternative to driving for those in the early stages of dementia, enabling them to stay connected with their families, friends and local communities, and provide access to healthcare.

Indeed, the provision of easily accessible public transport options is a key aspect of dementia-friendly communities.  It is difficult to overstate its importance:

“If I didn’t have coping strategies to remain independent and mobile I’d be very lonely and soon sink into depression. Travel brings normality to an often abnormal life” Wendy Mitchell, recording a Dementia Diary for Upstream

However, the challenges faced by people with dementia mean that travelling by public transport can be daunting.  This is because dementia affects more than just memory.  Environments that are noisy and busy can be extremely disorientating for people with dementia, particularly when there are added time-sensitive elements such as bus or train times.

People with dementia often lose the confidence to travel.  They may experience difficulties purchasing the correct tickets, become confused by different fares or travel options, or feel hurried or pressured.  They may feel anxious or unsafe, for example, when becoming separated from their luggage or they may have a fear of becoming lost, or getting off at the wrong stop/station.

In addition to the cognitive, emotional and sensory challenges faced by people with dementia when travelling, there are a number of additional barriers.  These include:

  • Difficulties with journey planning
  • The use of fast changing technology which can exclude certain groups of people
  • A lack of service integration
  • Staff with limited awareness of the needs of people with dementia
  • Poor, inconsistent or confusing signage – or unclear rules regarding reserved seats/spaces

Policy and practice

The UK has set out the goal of becoming the best country in the world for people with dementia by 2020.  It has made some significant steps forward – currently, there are now over 200 communities working towards becoming ‘dementia friendly’.

In regards to transport improvements specifically, earlier this year, the Bus Services Act gained royal assent in England.  The Act provides powers to ensure that buses make both audible and visual announcements about the route and the next stop.  These reminders can help to reassure people with dementia.  The government has committed to work alongside the bus industry, passengers and disability groups to develop the policy further.

The government is also currently consulting on a draft ‘Accessibility Action Plan’, which addresses the barriers faced by people with disabilities using public transport, including a focus on hidden disabilities, such as dementia.  It also commits to updating existing guidance on ‘inclusive mobility’ to incorporate current knowledge and understanding of the needs of those with hidden disabilities such as dementia.

Involving people with dementia in service design

Involving people with dementia in the design of services can help to ensure that their needs are addressed.  Upstream is a project that does just that.  It helps to give people living with dementia across Scotland a voice in the design of future mobility services.

Projects have involved visiting various groups in the Western Isles to learn about the challenges of island transport, workshops to gather insights about travel with Dementia Friendly East Lothian and the North Berwick Coastal Area Partnership; and developing training programmes in conjunction with transport providers.  They have produced a report of their work so far.

Use of technology

The expansion of real time audio and visual information as set out in the Bus Services Act provides a good example of where technology can be used to make transport more accessible for people with dementia and other disabilities.

Other ways in which technology may help include the expansion of live departure boards at bus stops and increasing the use of journey planners – either online or via the telephone.  Apps may also have the potential to help organise shared modes of transport for groups of people in rural areas, and in the future, driverless cars may offer an additional transport option for people living with dementia.

Improved awareness of dementia among travel staff

Improving awareness of dementia among transport staff, and developing training programmes on how to respond to the needs of passengers with dementia, is another key way in which services can be improved.

For example, East Anglia Trains, has worked with the Dementia Society to deliver a dementia-awareness training pilot for staff at four of its stations, and plans to roll this out to all East Anglia staff. Arriva Rail Northern has also announced funding to develop the Bentham Line from Leeds to Lancaster and Morecambe as a ‘centre of excellence’ for people with dementia.

Transport assistance cards are another example of possible ways to improve transport for people with dementia. These cards record details of an individual’s needs so that the individual can show the card privately to the driver or other travel staff as a means of asking for extra assistance. Many individual transport operators and local authorities across the country already issue such cards.  Standardising these schemes across the UK may be one way to help improve people’s confidence when using public transport.

Future developments

While these initiatives are making a significant impact, there is still much to do.  If the growing number of people living with dementia are to maintain their independence, then it is essential that transport services become more dementia-friendly. Bringing together the shared knowledge and experiences of those living with dementia, and the skills and experience of professionals involved in the design and delivery of transport services will help to create a more inclusive, person-centred public transport system.

Dr Joy Watson, an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society who herself has been diagnosed with dementia, sets out an admirable goal:

A diagnosis of dementia is not the end of the road, but the beginning of a new journey.  Some people need a little more help to take the first steps, and if I can contribute to them living well, then my mission is fulfilled.”


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