The CABE Experiment and housing design: where have all the leaders gone?

Bad design? Housing development in Melton Mowbray by Persimmon

Guest blog: Matthew Carmona and Lucy Natarajan

Here at The Bartlett, UCL we recently completed a major study of the eleven years of publically funded CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. We evaluated the work, history, and impact of the organisation, and the ‘tools’ it used to promote good urban design across England. When it came to housing design CABE had real impact and, as we argue here, the leadership it provided is sorely missed. But there are ways that planners, urban designers and the government can draw on the CABE Experiment, which will be increasingly important in light of the intended increase in the volumes of housing being built.

CABE was never well understood. External perceptions were often of a monolith swallowing up huge dollops of tax-payers’ money to conduct design review. As we reported in our book Design Governance: The CABE Experiment, the organisation was tiny by government quango standards, and only around a fifth of its staff were dedicated to design review. The rest of the staff worked on lower profile but typically highly regarded and effective activities such as: enabling within local authorities; its research projects; the work of its public spaces and parks arm (CABE Space); production of its very well used guidance and website; and various educational enterprises such as its summer schools.

These ‘informal tools’ of CABE were not mandatory or statutory and instead influenced and guided the professions. Yet they created a culture that improved design, for housing as for many other aspects of place. The work of CABE even reached some, although not all, of the volume house builders. Such progress will easily ebb away without continued efforts and leadership.

But how did improvement happen?

The answer is relatively simple: CABE’s tools were flexible and the activity was coordinated across the country, with the voice of government behind them. CABE addressed the issue of housing design from different angles, with:

  • national housing audits to embarrass the housebuilders with a stark national picture of the generally poor standards of their products
  • case studies and guidance to demonstrate principles and help raise aspirations
  • training for local authority staff
  • ‘enablers’ within local planning authorities working directly with councils, assisting with policy frameworks and large-scale applications
  • hundreds of design reviews were conducted on residential-led masterplans around the country

In addition, the Building for Life consortium helped establish nationally acceptable standards and an awards system for the best housing designs. And last but by no means least, government strengthened national policy, including on highways design in residential areas.

So where are we now?

Since CABE’s demise we have seen a large scale withdrawal of government, at national and local levels from engaging in design, and a fragmentation of the non-governmental design governance services that remain.  We have also seen a retrenchment of house builders, highways authorities, and planning authorities across the country back to the old ways of doing things.  Respectively, these are based on standard (and inappropriate) housing types, rigid and over-engineered highways standards, and planning authorities without the time, skills or confidence to challenge the house builders.

This is not to imply that nothing is happening. The Place Alliance provides a forum for ‘grassroots’ exchange and, bubbling up from these connections, UDL initiated and lead the work to produce a collaborative and comprehensive guide: The Design Companion Planning & Placemaking. This publication demystifies the principles behind ‘good places’ and explains with detailed examples how planners and placemakers can deliver the highest standards in urban design. In addition the largest metropolises particularly benefit from local leadership, particularly the Mayoral SPG for new build in London and Manchester’s City Council’s guide. However without the national coordination of such initiatives, housebuilders can and surely will cherry pick where they build quality homes.

But learning the lessons from the CABE era…

What should the government do now?

  • Show leadership: Minsters should speak out when residential design is poor and celebrate it when it is not, and appeal decisions where residential schemes were rejected on design grounds can provide rich illustrations for that work.
  • Support proactivity in local authorities: LAs can move away from reliance on generic policies in local plans and prepare simple non-statutory site-specific frameworks and design codes for housing sites.
  • Promote design review: This constructive peer-based checking and refinement mechanism should be made compulsory in the forthcoming revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for all major housing schemes.

Speaking up for better places and better homes will help those who are working on the ground, and as Design Governance: The CABE Experiment shows, this can have a great effect.  With little cost and no new legislation we can once again drive design quality up the national agenda.

 

References

Carmona M, De Magalhães C, Natarajan L, (2017) Design Governance: The CABE Experiment. London: Routledge

UDL (2017) The Design Companion Planning & Placemaking. London: RIBA.


The Place Alliance were winners of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement in 2016’s RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. This award was sponsored by the Idox Information Service.

Local authority housing companies: getting back into building

Last December, research by Inside Housing magazine found that more than a third of English local authorities have already – or are planning to – set up their own housing companies.

The research showed that 98 out of 252 councils were considering the establishment of a private housing development company, or had already established one.  That’s a significant increase on the seven housing companies that existed in 2014.

The factors driving council housing companies

The 2011 Localism Act gave local councils the powers to establish their own private companies, enabling them to borrow money more cheaply and avoid government-imposed restrictions. A mixture of motives is now prompting local authorities to enter the housebuilding business. Some see the new companies as sources of additional revenue. In addition, homes built by these private companies are not liable to right-to-buy. The Inside Housing research also found that a number of councils want to target income generated on tackling homelessness in their area.

At the same time, councils are facing funding pressures. “Local authority budgets are biting more and more,” Croydon Council’s director of development Colm Lacey explained to The Architects’ Journal in February.

“For example, in Croydon we’ve lost more than half of our central government budget since 2010. That’s a slow drip-drip of a loss of resource. Quite quickly, you come to realise that you need to throw something else in to meet the gap.”

Most companies are being established as wholly owned subsidiaries of councils, while some are solely management companies, letting stock built by their parent local authority. Many are funded by councils borrowing money from the Public Works Loan Board at low rates and then lending it to the company at a market rate.

Early adopters

The types of councils establishing housing companies are very varied, from rural to urban, and across the political spectrum. There is also a wide geographical spread, with a growing number located in London.

Among the councils pioneering their own housing companies is Newham Council in east London, which established its Red Door Ventures company in 2014 to provide homes at market rents, with a third of profits to be invested in social or affordable housing. The company’s properties are built on land bought from the council by the company using a local authority loan. Already, three developments have been built, and planning permission has been given for two more.

Another council-established private development company is Brick by Brick, set up by the London Borough of Croydon Council in 2016. The borough owns a significant amount of land, but has found that procuring agreements with developers has rarely generated benefits to the council in terms of increased land values or development returns. In an interview with Local Government Chronicle, Croydon’s Colm Lacey explained the reasoning behind Brick by Brick:

“The model allows the council as land-owner, sometime finance provider and sole shareholder to extract value from the core components of development activity – funding, building and selling. It maximises both affordable housing supply and return from development activity to Croydon residents, and allows the council to reinvest in core services.”

 Learning from the pioneers: the upside and the downside

As more local authorities move towards establishing their own housing companies, they can learn from the experiences of early adopters, who can advise them on what to watch out for. This includes analysing council powers in relation to the establishment of a company, provision of funding, transfer of land, decision-making arrangements and potential conflicts of interest (for example in relation to planning).

At a time of acute housing shortages, the creation of house building companies takes on increased significance. Chartered Institute of Housing deputy chief executive Gavin Smart agrees that housing companies can help council deliver more homes, but warns:

“The downside is that the need to cross-subsidise might mean that their ability to produce new homes at genuinely affordable, social rents can be limited. It’s vital that they continue to prioritise building new homes at social rents.”

A rising tide or a drop in the ocean?

The trend towards council housing companies shows no sign of waning.

  • Cambridge City Council set up its housing company in January 2016, and the following May the company handed over its first rental property to new tenants.
  • The first of 128 new homes built by Gloriana – Thurrock Council’s housing company – will be completed this year in Tilbury. The development has been created to keep up with demand for homes from increasing numbers of people coming to work in the area, mainly in freight and retail.
  • Meridian Homestart is a company set up by the Royal Borough of Greenwich to offer high-quality homes for local working families to rent. These homes are let at 20% below local market rent levels in order to help working families who would otherwise find it hard to buy or rent on the open market.
  • A shortage of private accommodation has prompted Bracknell Forest Council to use its housing company to provide better and cheaper housing for homeless people.

At the moment, the contribution of council housing companies towards tackling the housing crisis is relatively small. Barking and Dagenham’s housing company, Reside, has so far delivered around 600 homes; while Blueprint, a joint venture between Nottingham Council and Igloo Regeneration, has completed 245 homes. That’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee recommendation of 300,000 new-build homes each year.

Even so, housing companies have come a long way in a short time, and their rapid growth signals a much bigger long-term vision. As Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham explains:

“We’re trying to correct 30 to 40 years of failure in the housing market, but it will take time.”


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other housing blog posts:

The 5G arms race: the UK’s strategy to become a global leader in 5G technology

By Steven McGinty

On 8 March, the UK Government published their strategy for developing 5G – the next generation of wireless communication technologies.

Released on the same day as the Spring Budget, the strategy builds on the government’s Digital Strategy and Industrial Strategy, and sets out the government’s ambition to become a global leader in 5G.

Accelerating the deployment of 5G networks, maximising the productivity and efficiency benefits to the UK from 5G, creating new opportunities for UK businesses, and encouraging inward investment, are the strategy’s main objectives.

If the UK makes progress in these areas, the strategy argues, 5G infrastructure has the potential to become an enabler of smart city technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and advanced manufacturing, and to support the expansion of the Internet of Things – the interconnection of people, places, and everyday objects.

5G Innovation Network

Although the strategy highlights the enormous potential of 5G, it makes clear that 5G technologies are still in development, and that the majority of funding will need to come from the private sector.

To support the growth of a commercial market, the strategy explains, a new 5G trials and testbed programme will be introduced – through a national 5G Innovation Network – to coordinate the development of 5G services and applications. This programme will help government and private sector partners understand the economics of deploying 5G networks, ensuring that technologies can he delivered in a cost-effective way, and enabling best practice to be captured and knowledge disseminated.

The government is investing an initial £16m into the programme (involving partners such as UK Research and Innovation and the Government Digital Service), and has targeted a trial of end-to-end 5G (high speed connectivity without the need for intermediary services) by 2018. In February, Ericsson announced that they had a successful end-to-end 5G trial in Sweden, alongside partners SK Telecom Korea.

Improving regulations

To support the development of 5G, the strategy suggests that there may need to be regulatory changes, particularly in the planning system. As such, the government has committed to reviewing current regulations before the end of 2017, and then to conduct regular reviews, as partners learn more from their 5G trials.

Local connectivity plans

The strategy highlights the important role local regions play in the deployment of mobile technologies, and explains that the government will be consulting with councils on how planning policies can be used to provide high quality digital infrastructure.

However, it also suggests that there may be a case for introducing ‘local connectivity plans’, which would outline how local areas intend to meet their digital connectivity needs. Interestingly, the strategy highlights that evidence, such as local plans, may be taken into account when the government is making funding decisions for local infrastructure projects.

Coverage and capacity, infrastructure sharing, and spectrum

The strategy accepts that the move towards 5G won’t be as straightforward as the move from 3G to 4G. Instead, 5G technology will be developed alongside the expansion of the 4G network.

In addition, the government has accepted the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)’s ‘Connected Future’ report, which states that unnecessary barriers to infrastructure sharing between telecommunications companies must be tackled. The strategy states that it will explore options for providing a clearer and more robust framework for sharing.

Increasing the available radio spectrum was also highlighted as key to developing 5G technology. The strategy notes that the government will work with Ofcom to review the spectrum licensing regime to help facilitate the development of 4G and 5G networks.

5G strategy’s reception

Natalie Trainor, technology projects expert at law firm Pinsent Masons, has welcomed the new 5G strategy, explaining that:

“…technology and major infrastructure projects will become much more interlinked in future and that the plans outlined can help the UK take forward the opportunities this will present.”

In particular, Ms Trainor sees the establishment of the Digital Infrastructure Officials Group – which will bring together senior staff from across departments – as a way of providing greater awareness and co-ordination of major public projects that involve digital infrastructure. Ms Trainor also hopes that the new group will encourage the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to work with industry to develop digital connectivity on the UK’s road and rail networks.

Professor Will Stewart, Vice President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, similarly welcomes the new strategy but highlights that the funding announced will ‘not come anywhere close’ to the investment required to deliver 5G across the UK. In addition, he also makes it clear that coverage and regulatory change will be vital, stating that:

The biggest challenge for government will be improving coverage for all, as 5G cannot transform what it doesn’t cover. And achieving universal coverage for the UK, outside high-capacity urban areas, will not be affordable or achievable without regulatory change.”

Former Ofcom director and author of The 5G Myth, Professor William Webb, has also applauded the government’s plans, even though he is an outspoken critic of the 5G industry. For Professor Webb, the strategy recognises that we are in the early stages of 5G technology, and that there is still a need to develop 4G networks.

Final thoughts

5G technology provides the UK with the opportunity to become a genuinely smart society. Yet, as the strategy acknowledges, 5G is still in its infancy and the idea of a 5G network across the UK is a long way down the road.

The new 5G strategy includes a number of positive steps, such as listening to the recommendations of the NIC report, and exploring the realities of deploying 5G networks. This cautious approach is unlikely to show any significant progress in the short term, but does provide a focal point for academia, government, and industry to rally around.


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 city articles.

An Englishman’s home is his rabbit hutch? Implications of the national space standard for the building control profession

When the coalition government launched a fundamental review of England’s building regulations in 2012, it was called “the biggest change in housing standards in a generation.”  One of the review’s major outcomes was a standard that prescribes space sizes for all new-build homes, bringing the rest of England into line with London, which has had its own space standard since 2011. But a year on from its introduction, the national space standard has been branded too complex to implement and too easy to evade.

Looking back on housing space standards

Housing space specifications are not a new idea. There were prescribed floor space minimums in England’s public housing between 1967 and 1980. These were based on the recommendations of the Parker Morris Committee of 1961, which linked space to the utility of homes, rather than to expected occupancy levels (a benchmark that’s still applicable in Scotland). This standard was sidelined in the 1980s, and the focus shifted to housing delivery.

The new national standard

The government’s 2012 Housing Standards Review aimed to reduce the cost and complexity of building new homes by streamlining the large number of codes, regulations and technical housing standards applied to new housing through the planning system.

Most of the outcomes from the review (such as those affecting security, energy and accessibility) required changes to the building regulations. But when it came to the national space standard, the government decided there was no case for statutory regulation. Instead, the standard is optional for local authorities to adopt, subject to local plan viability testing and approval by the planning inspectorate.

The national space standard, which came into effect in October 2015, includes requirements such as:

  • A new three bed, five person home should be a minimum of 93m²
  • a one bed, one person flat should be a minimum of 37m²
  • Two-bedroom homes should have at least one double bedroom
  • A double bedroom should have minimum floor area of 11.5m²

House builders strongly disagreed with the changes, claiming the standard would reduce the number of new homes being built and increase costs. But the space standard won vociferous support from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who went on to argue that it didn’t go far enough:

“Local authorities should be able to set space standards in order to improve new build homes in their communities. However….the most effective solution would be for a national space standard to be applied through building regulations so that it applies to all homes, in every location and type of housing.”

England’s shrinking spaces

England has the smallest homes by floor space area of any EU country. In 2013, the average size of a home was 93.6m², compared to 115.5 square metres in the Netherlands and 137 square metres in Denmark.

The contrast has given rise to new family homes in England being described as “rabbit hutches” because they are not big enough to comfortably meet the needs of residents. Smaller rooms have implications for wellbeing and quality of life, creating problems for storage, preparing food and entertaining visitors. More fundamentally, smaller living spaces can have impacts on mental health and family relationships.

Fighting for space

Shortly after the introduction of the national space standard, in October 2015, RIBA claimed that administration costs, red tape and potential challenges from developers on site-specific viability grounds, made it unlikely that the standard would have any meaningful impact:

“All of these bureaucratic processes place an excessive and unnecessary burden on local authorities to justify something which the government has already recognised is sensible and fair.”

Again, RIBA called for the space standard to be included in the building regulations, and again house builders voiced their opposition. Stewart Basely of the Home Builders Federation claimed buyers were content with the size of new builds, and warned that mandatory space standards could make the housing shortage worse:

 “Imposing space standards and so restricting what builders can build takes away choice from home buyers. This would not only prevent more people from buying their own home but also exacerbate the acute shortage of housing that we have experienced over several decades.”

Space: a place for building control?

On the face of it, the national space standard is not an issue concerning building control, whose focus is on enforcing the national building regulations.  But government guidance on the internal space standard has indicated that building control surveyors may have a role to play in the approvals process:

“Building control bodies may choose to provide checking of the space standard in development proposals as an additional service alongside carrying out their building control function. In these circumstances, local planning authorities may wish to avoid further additional checking of plans with regard to space standards.”

And the national standard could yet be included in the building regulations. In a House of Lords debate on the Housing and Planning Bill in May 2016, Labour peer Lord Beecham, put forward an amendment to make the standards mandatory. His intervention followed the Labour Party’s Lyons Housing Review, which recommended that space standards should be applied nationally, but suggested that more work was needed to consider exemptions in certain markets.

Later in 2016, the government launched a review into how the space standards are operating in practice. The findings of the review will be published in the spring, and it will be interesting to see the effects of the standard, and whether RIBA’s argument for mandatory implementation has taken hold.

Building control surveyors may have their hands full, not least because of changes to the building regulations resulting from the Housing Standards Review. But it’s not out of the question that the national space standard could yet become part of their workload.

Can they fix it? Reactions to the white paper on housing

By James Carson

After a delay of several months, the government’s housing white paper was finally published last week.  Its title – “Fixing our broken housing market” – makes clear that England’s housing market requires radical reform. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid underlined this when presenting the paper to MPs:

“We have to build more, of the right homes in the right places, and we have to start right now.”

The key proposals

The white paper contains 29 policy proposals. These include:

  • developers will be forced to use-or-lose planning permission within two years
  • local authorities will be required to keep an up-to-date local plan to meet housing demand
  • an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities
  • developers will be encouraged to avoid “low-density” housing where land availability is short
  • the time allowed between planning permission and the start of building will be reduced from three to two years
  • incentives for build to let
  • the Green Belt will continue to be protected, and may only be built on “in exceptional circumstances”

In addition, the paper proposes the establishment of a £3bn fund to help smaller building firms challenge major developers, and a “lifetime ISA” to help first-time buyers save for a deposit. The white paper also confirmed government plans to ban letting agency fees for tenants.

The paper proposes placing a cap of £80,000 (£90,000 in London) on starter homes (new-build homes for first-time buyers between 23 and 40 years old and sold at least 20% below market value). And it signals that 10% of all new homes should be starter homes (the current requirement is 20%).

Reaction to the proposals: the politicians

The communities secretary described the white paper’s proposals as “bold” and “radical”, but some responses have suggested that the new strategy will fail to meet the challenge of England’s housing crisis.

Describing the plans as “feeble beyond belief”, Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey observed: “This white paper is not a plan to fix the housing crisis. And it will do nothing to reverse seven years of failure on housing we’ve seen since 2010. There are 200,000 fewer home-owners, homelessness has doubled, and affordable house-building has slumped to a 24-year low.”

The Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the policies were a “slap in the face for the millions of people in this country desperate for bold plans to reduce rents and make their housing affordable”.

On build to rent, Tom Copley, Labour’s London Assembly housing spokesperson welcomed the shift in focus from home ownership, but was concerned about the scope of the proposals:  “…whilst the promise of longer tenancies is welcome, its bearing will be miniscule unless it is extended to existing rental properties, where the vast majority of renters actually live.”

Reaction: architects, housing bodies and builders

Simon Henley, of architects Halebrown, welcomed the paper’s proposals to help smaller building firms challenge major developers – “More and smaller housebuilders will bring variety and inspiration.”  But he added that “reasonably priced land is vital to the equation for great homes.”

Alex Ely of the Mae architecture practice was disappointed with the continuing restrictions on building on the Green Belt, observing that “We know that just a 1km ring of Green Belt from inside the M25 would yield enough land for a generation of building at current rates.”

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing said the package of measures demonstrates a commitment to tackle the housing crisis. “However our concern is that much housing remains out of reach for a significant number of people and we would like to see the government back up the package of measures with additional funding and resource in the budget.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation welcomed plans to bring forward more developable land: “If we are to build more homes, we need more land coming through the system more quickly.”

Reaction: homeowners and renters

Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent argued that the white paper failed to offer renters anything of substance. “Renters on stagnant wages need homes that cost no more than a third of their income, not ones let at 80% of the market rent, with a sticker that says ‘affordable’.”

Meanwhile, Paula Higgins, chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, called for more action and fewer words. “It’s difficult to see how these measures will enable the government to meet its target of one million new homes by 2020.”

Reaction: the LGA and Shelter

Speaking for the Local Government Association (LGA), housing spokesman Councillor Martin Tett noted that the white paper contains signs that the government is listening to councils on how to boost housing supply and increase affordability. But he called for more support to enable local authorities to tackle the housing shortage: “…councils desperately need the powers and access to funding to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes. This means being able to borrow to invest in housing and to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from properties sold through Right to Buy to replace homes and reinvest in building more of the genuine affordable homes our communities desperately need.”

Writing on the organisation’s blog, Shelter’s Steve Akehurst described the white paper as a step, rather than a leap in the right direction:

“Overall, the shift in emphasis – towards tackling big developers and dysfunctions in the land market, towards making renting more stable, and delivering more affordable homes – is really welcome, and there are some good first steps to making them a reality. In reality more will be needed to deliver upon these lofty ambitions in full… But today is a good start.”

The next steps

The government is consulting on the planning proposals set out in the first two chapters of the white paper, with a closing date of 2 May 2017. After considering the responses, the government will decide on how to take its strategy forward.

As the paper concludes, millions of people who can’t afford to buy or rent already know that the housing market is broken. Fixing it will be a job not only for the government, but for local authorities, developers, housing associations and local communities.

Time will tell whether the proposals set out in the white paper are radical enough to help the homeowners and tenants of tomorrow.


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From data to intelligence and improvement – what cutting edge councils are doing in the UK

Group of workers having a meeting

By Steven McGinty

Data has the potential to revolutionise the delivery of local services. Just like the private sector – where organisations such as Amazon and Facebook have leveraged user data – local councils have the opportunity to reap significant benefits from analysing their vast silos of data. Improving efficiencies, increasing levels of transparency, and providing services which better meet people’s needs, are just some of the potential benefits.

Although many councils are still at the early stages of utilising their data, some are innovating and introducing successful data initiatives.

Wise Councils

In November 2016, the charity NESTA published a report highlighting the most ‘pioneering’ uses of data in local government. The report emphasised that most local services would benefit from data analysis and that a ‘problem-oriented’ approach is required to generate insights that have an impact on services. The case studies included:

Kent County Council

Kent County Council (KCC), alongside Kent’s seven Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), have created the Kent Integrated Dataset (KID) – one of the largest health and care databases in the UK, covering the records of 1.5 million people. The core requirement of the dataset was to link data from multiple sources to a particular individual, i.e. that information held about a person in hospital, should also be linked to records held by other public bodies such as GPs or the police.

This integrated dataset has enabled the council to run sophisticated data analysis, helping them to evaluate the effectiveness of services and to inform decisions on where to locate services. For example, Kent’s Public Health team investigated the impact of home safety visits by Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) on attendances at accident and emergency services (A&E). The data suggested that home safety visits did not have a significant impact on an individual’s attendance at A&E.

Leeds City Council

Leeds City Council have focused their efforts on supporting open innovation – the concept that good ideas may come from outside an organisation. This involved the initiatives:

  • Data Mill North (DMN) – this collaborative project between the city council and private sector is the city’s open data portal (growing from 50 datasets in 2014 to over 300 data sets, in over 40 different organisations). To encourage a culture change, Leeds City Council introduced an ‘open by default’ policy in November 2015, requiring all employees to make data available to the public. A number of products have been developed from data published on DMN, including StreetWise.life, which provides local information online, such as hospital locations, road accidents, and incidents of crime.
  • Innovation Labs – the city has introduced a series of events that bring together local developers and ‘civic enthusiasts’ to tackle public policy problems. Leeds City Council has also provided funding, allowing some ideas to be developed into prototypes. For example, the waste innovation lab created the app, Leeds Bins, which informs residents which days their bins should be put out for collection.

Newcastle City Council

Newcastle City Council have taken a data-led approach to the redesign of their children’s services. The Family Insights Programme (FIP) used data analysis to better understand the demand and expenditure patterns in the children’s social care system. Its aim was to use this insight to support the redesign of services and to reduce the city’s high re-referrals and the number of children becoming looked-after.

The FIP uses data in three different ways:

  • Grouping families by need – The council have undertaken cluster analysis to identify common grouping of concerning behaviours, such as a child’s challenging behaviour or risk of physical abuse. When a child is referred to long term social work, senior social workers analyse the concerning behaviours of the case, and then make a referral to a specialist social work unit. Since introducing this data-led approach, social work units have been organised based on needs and concerning behaviours. This has resulted in social workers becoming specialists in supporting particular needs and behaviours, providing greater expertise in the management of cases.
  • Embedding data analysts – Each social work unit has an embedded data analyst, who works alongside social workers. Their role is to test what works, as well as providing insights into common patterns for families.
  • Enabling intelligent case management – Social workers have access to ChildSat, a tool which social workers use to help manage their cases. It also has the capability to monitor the performance of individual social work units.

Investing in data

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, has suggested that councils need support from central government if they are to accelerate their use of data. He’s suggested that £4 million – just £1% of the Government Digital Service (GDS) budget – is spent on pilot schemes to embed data specialists into councils.

Mr Symons has also proposed that all combined authorities should develop Offices of Data Analytics, to support data analysis across counties. Over the past few months, Nesta has been working on this idea with the Greater London Authority, and a number of London boroughs, to tackle the problem of unlicensed HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). Early insights highlight that data analytics could be used to show that new services would provide value for money.

Final thoughts  

After successive years of cuts, there has never been a greater need for adopting a data-led approach. Although there are undoubtedly challenges in using council data – including changing a culture where data sharing is not the norm, and data protection – the above examples highlight that overcoming these challenges is achievable, and that data analysis can be used to bring benefits to local councils.


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 digital articles. 

In support of qualitative research: the value of qualitative insight for policy formation

For many people, working in the tangible, measurable area of hard figures provides an element of certainty to decision making processes. It is perhaps for this reason that quantitative research was, for many years, the largely uncontested preference for decision makers and people looking for research to evidence their decisions.research

Some criticisms that are often made of qualitative research are that it:

  • can be limited in scope and size and have a longer turnaround time than quantitative studies;
  • can be difficult to replicate and scale to achieve multiple results across multiple test sites
  • can be too reliant on researcher interpretation, perception and experience, and therefore too exposed to bias and unreliability.

In contrast, quantitative research is stereotypically presented as producing results that are consistent and replicable; and therefore ‘higher quality’ and ‘more valid’.

A question of quality

Qualitative research has always suffered from a reputatio of being less rigorous. Instead of dealing with empirical data, it deals with the more human side of research and the effects of a programme. It questions the reasoning of understanding, and the emotional implications of an intervention. As a result, qualitative researchers approach their subject from an entirely different epistemological standpoint (i.e. they have a different view of what ‘knowledge’ is, what should be judged as evidence, and what should not).

This challenges the understanding of what is meant by “research standards”. While quantitative researchers base their understanding on demonstrable results which can be proven and replicated to the same standard, qualitative research brings to the fore questions of researcher subjectivity, the concepts of validity and reliability of results and questions of ethics. It also stresses the importance not only of measuring information to gain results, but gaining results through examining and interpreting experiences and social contexts. It considers these social factors on policy outcomes rather than by categorical measurement using a predefined scale.

A mixed methods approach

While this traditional dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative research methods is convenient, in practice many organisations value the social dimension especially when looking at understanding the impact of policy interventions.

In fact many local authorities and public sector bodies, including the Greater London Authority (GLA), are increasingly looking to qualitative researchers to form part of their wider research teams. In a policy context, it is clear that qualitative research has its place alongside quantitative research as part of a mixed methods approach to evidence based policy making.

Some of the things that qualitative research brings to policy research are: a flexible research method (the methods of collection and analysis can easily be changed as the research is being conducted and the data emerges); and very rich data (if done correctly, one study could provide research data for a number of research tasks).

It allows for a deeper understanding of what lies behind results – not just that something has had an impact, but why. It also allows researchers to understand social phenomena from an individual perspective and consider the specific contexts and conditions which have contributed to it (for example, the experience of stigma or discrimination).group-discussion_unsplash

Giving a voice to marginalised groups

Qualitative research is also finding a role in evaluative research teams, looking at the meanings and constructions which made an intervention effective or ineffective and potential steps to make it more successful in the future.

One example is in engaging with hard-to-reach or marginalised people. While quantitative research would tell you that certain groups of people engage less frequently in community groups for example, qualitative research would help to explore what motivates people to engage, and therefore tease out potential methods to increase engagement. Qualitative research also allows for bespoke research questions on niche topics to be created and explored thoroughly. This can be useful for local authorities who wish to explore issues at a local level with specific communities which would not necessarily be distinct within wider national quantitative data sets and statistics.

Supporting the personalisation agenda with bespoke research

Qualitative research is also becoming more popular as a supplementary option to hard data and raw statistics because of the increased importance which is being placed on individual experience and personalisation in public services, particularly, but not exclusively within health and social care. Qualitative data allows researchers to get an in-depth view of how people experience services.

While it will never be a replacement for the empirical data produced by quantitative data, qualitative data brings its own benefits and enhances understanding around policies in a way that hard data often cannot. It encourages professionals to think beyond figures as a benchmark for outcomes. It also allows them to gain rich data on the experiences of marginalised groups in society, who often go unrepresented in large national quantitative data sets.


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From failure to improvement: how public services can turn themselves around

Abhacken

A new report on the instructive role of failure has been published this summer by the Institute for Government.

Failing Well describes the experiences of four previously failing public services organisations which managed to turn their services around.

Introducing the report, the authors highlight what failure means for public services.

“Failure matters because failure happens. The constellation of organisations that constitute public services in the UK is inherently complex and therefore at permanent risk of failure. This risk, while longstanding, is particularly acute at present. Service providers remain under pressure to cut costs and reconfigure the way services are delivered.”

In addition, structural changes to the ways services are being delivered – a push towards more decentralised and autonomous models of public services – can heighten the risk of failure.

And the authors note that the impacts of failure in the context of public services can be serious:

  • unacceptable standards of service provision
  • harm to service users
  • disruption to service provision
  • discontinuation of the service entirely

Doncaster Council

Four case studies in the report illustrate the different ways in which identified failings in a public sector organisation can lead to changes for the better.

In 2010, a corporate governance inspection by the Audit Commission reported that Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council:

“does not do enough to meet the needs of its most vulnerable people, does not safeguard children, and has not been good at helping vulnerable people find a home.”

In short, the commission described Doncaster Council as “a well-known failure”.

In the light of this damning assessment, the Communities Secretary appointed a new chief executive and a team of commissioners to oversee a turnaround at the council. As Failing Well’s authors note, the move by central government to impose its will on local government in direct opposition to democratically elected councillors was an extraordinary step. One of the lessons from Doncaster’s case is that earlier forms of support may prevent such interventions before a public service reaches the point of serious failure.

The report goes on to describe the improvement plan for Doncaster Council agreed by the new commissioners, covering areas such as corporate issues, health and caring. At the same time, the commissioners sought to repair breakdowns in personal relationships at the council that were partly responsible for the problems in running the organisation. By 2014, confidence in the governance of Doncaster Council was restored, and the commissioners were withdrawn ahead of schedule.

West Sussex Children’s Services

Another case study in Failing Well describes the traumatic impact a poor Ofsted assessment had on West Sussex County Council’s Children’s Services, particularly concerning recruitment and retention. But the labelling of failure also proved to be pivotal in bringing problems into the open and stimulating action.  Children’s Services presented its own improvement plan, with progress measured by the council’s Improvement Board. Subsequent Ofsted assessments demonstrated that the journey from failure to improvement was under way.

Lessons from failure

The case studies from Doncaster and West Sussex, along with those from a school and an NHS foundation trust, highlight the different pressures faced by a range of public service organisations. But the authors found some common lessons emerging from these different stories:

  • Peer-to-peer support provides opportunities for earlier intervention – but it needs a trigger.
  • Interventions may not need to remain in place until the turnaround is complete.
  • Insularity is often a characteristic of failing organisations.
  • Responses to failure can be over-reliant on structural reforms.
  • Creating an open, no-blame culture helps to protect against future risk of failure.
  • There is scope for more sector-wide learning from failure.
  • Failure can appear to get worse before it gets better.
  • Turnarounds should set the foundation for long-term improvement, as well as dealing with immediate problems.

The authors warn against an over-reliance on blame, suggesting that this can forestall attempts to understand why failure arose. And they conclude that cultural reform is key to responding to failure:

“In all of the case studies, turnarounds were to some extent predicated on the adoption of new cultures and ways of working…Open, blame-free cultures, where staff are actively encouraged to flag risks or concerns about standards of provision, allow organisations to prevent further failure and encourage reflection when failure does occur.”


Previous blog posts on the the subject of public sector services include:

Digital Greenwich: a local council approach to smart cities

By Steven McGinty

According to research by Lucy Zodion, a leading designer and manufacturer of streetlighting equipment, smart cities are not deemed a priority for local government. The findings show that 80% of local authorities have little or no involvement with smart cities, and that only a few had specific teams managing smart city initiatives.

The research explains that the challenging financial environment was the main reason for the lack of prioritisation. However, it also finds despite funding challenges, some local councils have been successful at introducing initiatives, through working in partnership with private organisations and universities and encouraging local businesses to participate in developing solutions.

On our blog today, we’re going to look at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, a local council quietly leading the way in the smart cities revolution.

Greenwich Smart City Strategy

On the 22nd October 2015, Greenwich council officials launched their smart city strategy at the Digital Greenwich hub. Denise Hyland, Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, outlined the council’s reasoning for investing in technology, explaining that:

In the face of the rapid increase in the borough’s population and in the face of globalization and technological change, we have to invest in the future and face these challenges head on, right now.”

The strategy introduces four key principles:

  • Inclusivity – the strategy will benefit all citizens, communities and neighbourhoods.
  • Citizen centric – citizen engagement will be transformed to ensure citizens are at the heart of policies and that their needs are met.
  • Transparency – citizens will be informed of changes and desired outcomes and accessible information will be provided to all citizens.
  • Standards and good practice – the Royal Borough of Greenwich will become a ‘learning organisation’, willing to listen and share ideas, and using evidence to inform decision-making.

The strategy also explains that it will transform four main areas:

  • Transforming Neighbourhoods and Communities – the council will reach out to the Boroughs diverse communities, including strengthening links with key organisations to improve the quality of life for citizens, and introducing projects to reduce digital exclusion and promote digital skills.
  • Transforming Infrastructure – the council will improve fixed and mobile connectivity in the Borough and encourage the widespread use of sensors in the built environment, to provide the building blocks for smart city projects.
  • Transforming Public Services – innovative pilot projects will be introduced to help ensure public services are co-ordinated and citizen-centric.
  • Transforming the Greenwich Economy – many jobs in Greenwich’s economy are vulnerable to automation, therefore the council will look to make businesses more resilient to technological change, as well as encourage the development of digital SMEs.

Bringing together the right team

Digital Greenwich has been established to develop and take forward Greenwich’s smart city strategy. The in-house, multidisciplinary team, provides expertise in the areas related to smart cities, such as the modern built environment, implementing Government as a Platform, and economic regeneration in the digital age.

The team will play an important role in shaping thinking, managing pilot projects to mitigate the risks of innovation, and ensuring that the council’s strategy is aligned with emerging practice.

 Partnerships

The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme

The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme is a €25m project, which involves cities from across Europe investigating how innovative technology can be used to improve the lives of citizens. As part of this programme, Greenwich will act as a demonstrator area and trial several initiatives, including:

  • introducing 300 smart parking bays to help drivers find parking quickly and conveniently
  • developing a shared electric bicycle and car scheme to reduce the number of citizens using private cars
  • installing solar panels in local homes to improve energy efficiency
  • using the River Thames to provide affordable heating for local homes.

Digital Greenwich and Surrey University

On 27th July 2016, Digital Greenwich and the University of Surrey set up a partnership to develop smart city technologies, with a focus on creating ‘resource-efficient, low-carbon, healthy and liveable neighbourhoods’.  The Digital Greenwich team will now have access to the university’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), which will enable it to develop and trial smart city solutions. The university have highlighted that the centre’s 5G infrastructure (the next generation of communications technology) will provide the opportunity to scale solutions to a city or national level.

The university’s 5GIC is funded by a £12 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council.

Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Denise Hyland, commented that the new partnership will act as a ‘valuable catalyst’ to their smart city strategy and help strength the Borough’s economy and improve services.

Involving industry

GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment)

GATEway is a collaborative project involving academia, government and industry in the field of automated vehicle research. It’s led by TRL, the UK’s transport research centre, and has several aims, including:

  • safely and efficiently integrating automated transport systems into real life smart city environments
  • inspiring industry, government and the wider public to engage with using autonomous transport technology
  • understanding the technical, legal, cultural and social barriers that impact the adoption of autonomous transport technology

One of the companies involved in the research (based at the Digital Greenwich Innovation Centre) is Phoenix Wings Ltd, who specialise in innovative mobility solutions, fleet management and autonomous vehicle technology. In 2014, they announced ‘Navia’, the first commercially available 100% driverless shuttle.

The GATEway project is funded by an £8 million grant by industry and Innovate UK.

Final thoughts

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) have highlighted that local council spending power reduced by 23.4% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2014–15. This is clearly significant, particularly when there is pressure to meet greater demands.

However, to conclude, we’ll leave you with the comments of Professor Gary Hamel, a leading management expert,

My argument is the more difficult the economic times, the more one is tempted to retrench, the more radical innovation becomes the only way forwards. In a discontinuous world, only radical innovation will create new wealth.”


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

Are the stars out tonight? How some councils are tackling the problem of light pollution

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Earlier this month, a new study reported that 80% of the world’s population now lives under light polluted skies. In Europe and the United States, this figure is even higher – for 99% of their populations the night sky is obscured by artificial lighting.

Later in the same week, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) released the most detailed ever satellite maps of England’s dark skies. The maps show that the Isles of Scilly, West Devon, and Eden in Cumbria are England’s darkest districts, while the very darkest spot in England is a secluded hillside on the East Kielder Moors in Northumberland.

However, the maps also showed the areas where light pollution is obscuring the night sky. Among the brightest spots in England are:

  • above the Tata Steel foundry in Rotherham
  • the Thanet Earth greenhouse complex in Kent
  • the space around Wembley Stadium in London
  • Leicester City’s King Power stadium

Nineteen of the brightest 20 skies are above London boroughs, and just 22% of England is untouched by light pollution.

The problem of light pollution

While artificial lighting is important for safety, crime prevention and leisure activities, it can be obtrusive. Poorly designed sodium lights reflect off the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a lurid yellow blanket that obscures even the clearest of starry skies.

Artificial light also has wider economic, environmental and social implications. Local councils in England alone are estimated to spend £613 million a year on street lighting, and these lights can account for between 15-30% of a council’s carbon emissions. Light pollution has been claimed to have negative effects on human health and on ecosystems.

Tackling the problem

There is now a growing awareness of the need to tackle the problem of light pollution, and an acceptance that local planning authorities have a role to play. The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework from the Department of Communities and Local Government stated that:

“By encouraging good design, planning policies and decisions should limit the impact of light pollution from artificial light on local amenity, intrinsically dark landscapes and nature conservation.”

A 2014 CPRE survey of local authority approaches to lighting reported that, while there had been progress in developing policies to control the use of lighting, including street light switch-off and dimming schemes, there was still a lot of potential to improve lighting management to reduce light pollution.

Good practice in Kent, Northumberland and Galloway

One local authority keen to limit the adverse impact of artificial light through planning mechanisms is Ashford Borough Council, in Kent. Its 2015 dark skies supplementary planning document recognises the problems of light pollution. Although it does not seek to prevent lighting as part of new developments, the document does suggest that lighting should be carefully directed and sensitively designed so as to reduce obtrusiveness.

Meanwhile, Northumberland National Park has been working with the county council to ensure it remains Europe’s largest area of protected night sky. The park authority’s chief executive, Tony Gates, explained to a local newspaper:

“In all our planning activities we continually seek opportunities to preserve and improve the situation. This includes offering pre-planning advice, where we advise on how all developments, large and small, can preserve the Dark Sky Park. We also use this opportunity to proactively promote dark sky lighting good practice.”

North of the border, the Galloway Forest Park has controlled development of the land, providing night-time visitors with dazzling celestial displays. And earlier this year the Dumfries and Galloway town of Moffat became the first European town to achieve Dark Sky status after installing new street lighting. Dumfries and Galloway Council intends to build on the status by including a protection policy for Moffat in its next local development plan.

A vital role for local authorities

Not every region of the country can have its own dark sky park. But the CPRE report accompanying the new satellite maps recommends various ways to decrease light pollution. It underlines the role of local authorities in implementing light pollution policy set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, and calls for local authorities to develop policies to control light pollution in local plans. The report also recommends that National Park Authorities and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty should continue their exemplary work in curbing light pollution in their areas.


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