Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Photo by Jackson So on Unsplash

By James Carson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computer pioneer Alan Turing first considered the notion of ‘thinking machines’ in the 1950s. More than half a century later, advances such as natural language processing and translation, and facial recognition have taken AI out of the computer lab and onto our smartphones. Meanwhile, faster computers and large datasets have enabled machine learning, where a computer imitates the way that humans learn.

AI has already had important impacts on how we live and work: in healthcare, it’s helping to enhance diagnosis of disease; in financial services AI is being deployed to spot trends that can’t be easily picked up by conventional reporting methods; and in education, AI can provide learning, testing and feedback, with benefits both to students and teachers. And now, intelligent automation is being adopted by local government.

AI goes local

A decade of austerity has left local councils struggling to ‘do more with less’. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, but has also accelerated efforts by local government to find digital solutions.

AI offers local authorities the benefits of streamlining routine tasks and processes, freeing up staff to focus on higher value activities which deliver better services and outcomes to citizens. Intelligent automation could also have important economic impacts. IPPR has estimated that AI could save councils up to £6bn in social care costs.

When it comes to system and data updating, intelligent automation really comes into its own. From managing council tax payments to issuing parking permits, there are now digital solutions to the many task-driven processes that are such a major part of local government’s work.

Many local councils are also exploring the application of chatbots or virtual assistants. These technologies enable customer services to provide automated, human-like answers to frequently asked questions on subjects as varied as waste management, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. The time and cost savings from this kind of digital solution can be substantial. Newham Council in London deployed a multilingual chatbot to answer residents’ questions. Within six months, the technology had answered 10,000 questions, saved 84 hours of call time and generated cost savings of £40,000.

The challenges of AI in local government: getting it right

Earlier this year, a report from the Oxford Commission on AI and Good Governance identified the major challenges facing local authorities when considering AI.

Inaccurate or incomplete data can delay or derail an AI project, so it’s vital that data quality issues are addressed early on. The report highlighted a project where one local authority explored how predictive analytics might be used to help prioritize inspections of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Predictive analytics involves the use of historic data to predict new instances. But in this case the challenges of cleaning, processing and merging the data proved too intractable to produce successful predictions.

Another important step for local authorities is to clearly define the objectives of an AI project, providing a clear vision of the outcomes, while managing expectations among all affected stakeholders – especially senior managers. The report points to a successful project implemented by Manchester City Council which developed an integrated database that allowed them to automate record searches and build predictive tools. The project had a clearly stated aim of identifying troubled families to participate in the government’s payment-by-results programme. This approach gave the project a specific focus and an easily measurable assessment of success.

It’s also important for local councils and technology suppliers to work together, ensuring that suppliers are aware of local contexts, existing data and processes. At the same time, making full use of in-house expertise can help AI technologies work better in a local government setting. The Oxford Commission report explains that after the disappointing results from the previously mentioned HMOs project, in-house data scientists working in one of the participating local authorities developed their own solution.

Sometimes, councils will discover that AI is a good fit in some parts of their work, but doesn’t work in others. In 2019, Oxford City Council explored whether chatbots could help solve design problems in some of their services. The council found that, while waste and recycling enquiries could be easily handled by a chatbot, the complex nature of the planning service would have made it difficult to remove humans from the conversations taking place in this setting. That said, another council has found it possible to develop a chatbot for its planning applications.

At the same time, digitalisation is compelling councils to adjust to new ways of working, something discussed in a Local Government Association presentation by Aylesbury Vale District Council.

The future of AI in local government

Since we last looked at this subject, local government involvement in AI has increased. But there are still important governance and ethical arrangements to consider so that AI technologies in public services can achieve benefits that citizens can trust.

The Oxford Commission report set out a number of recommendations, including:

  • minimum mandatory data standards and dedicated resources for the maintenance of data quality;
  • minimum mandatory guidance for problem definition and project progress monitoring;
  • dedicated resources to ensure that local authorities can be intelligent consumers and capable developers of AI;
  • a platform to compile all relevant information about information technology projects in local authorities.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, MJ magazine described AI as a ‘game-changer’ for local government. The potential benefits are clear. AI can generate labour and cost savings, but also offers the promise of reducing carbon footprints and optimizing energy usage. But while residents may welcome greater efficiency in their local councils, many will have concerns about data privacy, digital inclusion and trust in the use of public data.

At its best, artificial intelligence will complement the services provided by local authorities, while ensuring that the all-important element of human intelligence remains at the heart of local government.


Further reading: more on digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Celebrating success in planning research: winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021

The winners of the annual Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for research excellence were announced on 8 September at an online ceremony hosted by the RTPI. 

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence celebrate high quality, impactful spatial planning research carried out by chartered members and accredited planning schools from around the world.

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

The Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence

Hannah Hickman MA, MSc, MPhil, MRTPI, senior research fellow at the University of West England, was announced as the winner of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

Ms Hickman’s research explored the under-researched and poorly-understood area of post-consent – the journey of a development from the point of permission through to delivery and on-going management. In particular it evidenced a worrying decline in design quality occurring at this point. It identified some of the causes, and considered what local authorities might do to address this decline.

In the same category, Professor Jo Williams, of University College London, received a commendation from judges for her book ‘Circular Cities: a revolution in urban sustainability.

Early Career Research

Dr Meadhbh Maguire MRTPI PhD MSc MA, McGill University, School of Urban Planning.

This project considered the use of survey data in planners’ decision making processes. It found that survey methods ae heavily used within planning but are often influenced by political contexts.

Commended: Jianting Zhao, University of Hong Kong.

Planning Practitioner Award

Antony Rifkin BCom MCRP Dip Urban Design MRTPI FRSA, Allies and Morrison

Mr Rifkin’s ‘Complex City: London’s Changing Character’ project made the case for character-based densification and provides recommendations for local authorities and cities attempting to meet growth demands while preserving local character.

Commended: Colin Robinson, Lichfields Planning

Student Award

Nicole Collomb BA (Hons) MSc, University of Brighton, department of architecture and design

Nicole Collomb was handed the Student Award for her research into the effectiveness of green factor policies, in which she identifies a need for robust evidence base for these policies to be successful.

Commended: Samuel ‘Nepo’ Schrade, University of Brighton

Also announced at today’s ceremony were the two recipients of the two £5,000 grants from the Practitioner Research Fund.

The winners of the grants are:

  • Oscar Wong for the project: ‘Strategic legacy planning for mega-events to achieve sustainable development goals: critical lessons learnt from London Olympics 2012 and Rio 2016’
  • Timon Moss for the project: ‘Regional community wealth building in Scotland’.

An exceptionally high standard

Dr Wei Yang FRTPI, RTPI President, said: “After receiving many brilliant entries for this year’s awards, the RTPI is now delighted to announce the stand-out projects across our four categories and recipients of the Practitioner Research Fund.

“I would like to congratulate all the winners and those who were shortlisted. The quality of submissions was exceptionally high this year, and we thank all the entrants for their submissions.

The RTPI is grateful to all applicants for sharing their fresh and innovative work. The awards give us the opportunity to celebrate the best and brightest work in the sector which is vital in driving the profession forward.

I would like to extend our great appreciation to the awards sponsors, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group and Idox Knowledge Exchange.

The awards would not be possible without our excellent judges, who have volunteered their time to review all of the entries in their categories and we would like to thank you all for your continued support for the research awards.”

John McLaren, Head of Business for Grantfinder and The Knowledge Exchange at Idox said:

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


Further information about the  2021 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, including the winners, judges and sponsors are available here.

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

The benefits of third sector research for policy and practice engagement

By Bonnie Thomson

Policy determines almost every aspect of our lives. It dictates the social, ecological and economic conditions around us and acts as the backbone to a functioning society.

For policy to be fair and reflective of everyone’s needs, it should have a solid grounding in evidence. Voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector research can have a huge part to play in evidence-based policy development. Organisations in this sector tend to be embedded in the communities they serve and operate on a “values-driven” basis, making them ideal candidates to represent those from all facets of society who may not otherwise be represented in the policy sphere.

Using third sector research to influence policy and practice was the focus of a recent Policy Scotland webinar, where guests from across the sector shared insights and experiences of harnessing their third sector research projects as vehicles for policy engagement.

Developing projects with policy in mind

Dr Hannah Tweed of Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland commenced her presentation by emphasising the importance of allowing real life experience to guide policy. Her project, which focused on experiences of self-directed support in Scotland, was co-produced with peer researchers who utilised their lived experience of social care to direct the design of the study – including which areas to focus on and how best to phrase questions.

Hannah went on to discuss how the team sought to involve local authorities and third sector partners working in social care in the development stage of the project. In doing so they benefitted from practical expertise on how to distribute surveys and conduct interviews in the most accessible formats. This helped to reduce barriers to participation and ensure a wider range of responses.

Engaging governing bodies early on in the project was also a reliable way of garnering interest which could be useful for policy influence down the line. Third sector partners offered invaluable local knowledge and contacts which may not have been reached without the power of word-of-mouth. Additionally, by invoking this level of cross-sectoral input in the project, the team were able to amplify the magnitude of the research, making as many people aware as possible.

Communications and dissemination

A steady stream of communications was also cited as key to policy impact and engagement. Robbie Calvert of the Royal Town Planning Institute discussed this in relation to his 20 minute neighbourhoods research.

Reports, news releases, policy briefs and social media posts were just some of the project outputs that Robbie highlighted as being crucial to gaining and maintaining traction around his research. Timing was a key element for disseminating research outputs, as this piece of work began to take shape around the time of the 2019 general election. Seizing an opportunity, Robbie and his team lobbied with party spokespersons and researchers across the political spectrum, delivering regular consultations and briefs. The end result was that almost every political party featured 20-minute neighbourhoods or a similar idea in their manifestos, which gave a strong sense of added value for the concept.

Both Hannah and Robbie discussed the merits of a succinct set of recommendations, covering large and small issues, in gaining the attention of policy makers. Hannah explained that policy recommendations at the small scale should not be forgotten as they can act as useful, simple outcomes to meet and complement the larger, national changes. Recommendations should be robust, showing consideration for practicalities and cost implications, whilst also painting a clear picture of “where next” for policy, practice and future research avenues.

Knowing your stakeholders

Dr Sarah Weakley of Policy Scotland rounded off the webinar by highlighting the importance of well-defined stakeholders in achieving policy influence. She began by describing how best to position a piece of research within the policy landscape. This involves working out which policy actors are key players in the area, what kind of work they have been known to engage with in the past, and, crucially, what new perspectives can be offered. Taking the example of poverty, she explained:

“We know about poverty, it has been with us forever, there’s nothing new about it. What can be added are some of the new solutions that your research might point to.”

Knowing the policy space was noted by all three speakers as being key to achieving influence. Sarah followed this up by acknowledging that the range of policy stakeholders is far wider than just central government. Some examples of other lesser-considered policy actors include:

  • think tanks;
  • community planning partnerships;
  • other third sector organisations; and
  • universities.

Establishing a network of groups and individuals who are doing work either directly or tangentially in a similar field and forging connections was a message echoed by all speakers. Sarah summarised this most succinctly by stating that policy making is based on relationships. Knowing not just the kind of work being done in an area, but also the people working in and around the area, is essential for exerting influence.

A key piece of advice offered was to not be afraid of reaching out to those in the sphere. Policy makers are usually looking for expertise in a broader sense, rather than a very narrow specialism on one specific topic – meaning research can be beneficial in policy areas which may seem digressive at first glance. Moreover, cuts to local authority departments over the years mean that there has been a decline in in-house research capacity. As such, there can often be more enthusiasm for external engagement. On this note, Sarah explained that local authority engagement can also influence practice on a grander scale if you can find the “right” person, making a further case for the necessity of networking.

Final thoughts

This webinar provided invaluable information on how to use third sector research to influence policy and practice. Each speaker gave practical advice on designing a far-reaching research project, disseminating outputs to the right people at the right time, and understanding the policy landscape – all contextualised neatly within their own research.

Evidence-based policy making is integral to building an equitable society that functions effectively for everyone. Third sector organisations conducting novel and meaningful research are well-placed to contribute to this and have the tools to enact real policy change. The guidance from this session could be a useful starting point for organisations looking to maximise their social impact and alter the policy landscape for the better.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on the third sector and policy making

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Britain’s town centres: down, but not out

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

Town centres have taken a battering in the past year, with many shops and services forced to close during lockdowns and growing numbers of stores going out of business.

But even before Covid-19, UK high streets were already under pressure. Economic recessions, rising business rates, higher rents, the growth of online shopping and development out-of-town retail parks have left Britain’s town centres struggling to survive.

Last month, Planning magazine brought together a panel of experts to discuss the future of town centres. Among the issues considered were trends affecting town centres, how demand for town centre property is changing post-pandemic and how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning laws.

The bigger picture: online shopping and working from home

Jennet Siebrits, head of CBRE UK’s research team, gave a helpful overview of two key trends affecting town centres.

In the past decade, e-commerce has seen a dramatic increase in activity. Since 2011, the value of online shopping has mushroomed from £23 billion to £58 billion –a 158% increase. But in 2020, even that figure was eclipsed, with the value of e-commerce rising to £84 billion – a 44% increase in just one year. The evidence from the first national lockdown suggests that this step change is here to stay.

The impact of this, along with the Covid-19 restrictions, has been grim for town centre stores. Over 11,000 shops closed in 2020, and while not all of those closures were due to online shopping, it’s clear that e-commerce has been a real driver of this.

Jennet suggested that, as the restrictions ease, it’s likely that supermarkets, along with in-store health and beauty and DIY stores will continue to attract customers. But other sectors will have to come up with innovative ways to lure consumers off their iPads.

Jennet also highlighted the increased move towards home working. Once people return to their workplaces, it’s likely that many will ask to continue working from home, at least for part of the working week.

The rise in home working may also affect demand for residential property, with more people moving further away from city centres. This could have a knock-on effect for ancillary services like coffee kiosks and sandwich bars, with local town centres capitalising on the losses experienced by city centres.

The legal perspective: changes to planning laws

David Mathias, a specialist planning solicitor at Shoosmiths law firm described some recent planning law changes that have particular relevance to town centres.

Since the demise of Woolworths in 2008, more and more UK department stores have been closing down, leaving big gaps on the high street. In future, it’s likely that many property developers will want to convert from retail to residential.

Until recently, permitted development rights for conversion to residential only applied in a limited set of commercial uses. But the UK government has announced new permitted development rights in England enabling greater flexibility on conversions without the need for planning permission. These will go ahead in August, subject to certain conditions.

In addition, further legislation on expansion of permitted development rights introduced last summer allows the construction of an additional storey on freestanding blocks and buildings on a terrace to create additional housing, and the demolition of buildings built before 1990 and construction of new dwellings in their place.

The government has argued that these changes will help to revive town centres, although others believe easing planning rules for developers will have the opposite effect. 

The developer’s perspective: re-imagining Manchester

Martyn Evans from the U+I Group offered his view of how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning. He did so using U+I’s development at Mayfield in Manchester.

Located next to Piccadilly railway station, in the centre of the city, this 24 acre-site is being redeveloped from derelict railway land. A consortium of Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and London & Continental Railways (LCR), along with U+I, has been working to regenerate the area, with the first buildings due for completion next year.

Right from the start, the consortium focused on the importance of creating a place where people want to live, work, rest and relax. One important feature of the development is a seven-acre park. Although it was planned into the scheme years ago, this green space has become all the more significant in the past year.

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of green space as a vital part of city living, both for physical health and mental wellbeing. Such spaces not only attract workers, residents and visitors, they also increase the value of developments. And because decisions about commercial property are increasingly being taken by HR teams rather than finance departments, the wellbeing benefits of workers’ surroundings are being taken more seriously. In short, understanding quality of place gives developers more of a competitive edge. 

The local authority perspective: managing change

To conclude, Michael Kiely from the Planning Officers Society looked at what local planning authorities can do to help sustain town centres.

Michael described some of the planning tools local authorities can use, including strategic planning, masterplanning and local plans. But with recent changes in planning laws, including the use classes order, Michael argued that policies such as Town Centre First may be ineffective.

However, local authorities can still make a difference, through partnerships with other stakeholders, such as land owners and Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), and the use of intervention and compulsory purchase powers.

In closing, Michael suggested the need for a licensing or permitting regime to manage and curate activities so that they do not cause harm and town centres can thrive.

Future perspectives: rethinking town centres

A £150m project to revamp London’s Oxford Street signals that high streets are already re-imagining themselves as leisure-focused and “experiential shopping” centres. And the Mayfield site in Manchester has the potential to transform a part of the city centre that has been underused for decades.

These are just two examples of the planning community working together to help sustain town centres. Britain’s high streets face substantial challenges, but this interesting discussion suggested there are good reasons to optimistic about the future.

A recording of The Future of Our Town Centres discussion is available to watch on-demand at the Planning magazine website.


Further reading: more on town centres from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Close to home: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Building sights: how offsite construction could help solve the housing shortage

“Offsite construction” by psd is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Long waiting lists, high rents, thousands sleeping rough, millions living in insecure or unsuitable homes and a generation of young people priced out of the market: these are the hallmarks of the UK’s broken housing system.

In England, the government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But in 2019, the number of new homes amounted to 170,000 – fewer than half of which were affordable homes. It’s a situation that is almost certain to get worse. Housing analysts have suggested that the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 will mean a 30% reduction in homes delivered.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, councils delivered just 60 new homes as a consequence of central government housing policy. But in recent years councils have been returning to housebuilding in large numbers. A 2019 RTPI report found that:

“…more than two thirds of local authorities are now involved in directly delivering housing and local authorities are delivering homes in numbers not seen for 20 years.”

In the same year, The Guardian newspaper highlighted some examples of council housing projects:

“Bournemouth is building housing above many of its surface car parks, and has won planning awards for the results. Wigan is transforming tricky former mining sites with an exemplary programme of housing for older people. Exeter has one of Europe’s largest Passivhaus schemes underway, while Liverpool is developing rent-to-buy homes.”

Going modular

But if councils are to succeed in their efforts to deliver more affordable, low carbon housing, they will need to change the way homes are built. Increasingly, prefabricated modular construction is being seen as a way to meet some of the demand for new housing. Built offsite in factories, with fittings included, prefabricated housing offers comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly.

An article in the 12 November 2020 issue of MJ magazine reported further benefits, noting that:

“…these homes are delivered with up to 40% less carbon, fewer defects, and less disruption to neighbourhoods where sites are located. Once completed the fact they are made in a factory is not obvious to the passer by or occupant, it is just great housing, beautifully built, with low running costs.”

A shortage of skilled labour presents another reason why the old ways of building homes need to change, as a 2016 review of the construction market highlighted:

“We will not have the labour force to deliver what the country needs by working in those ways, and those ways will not create enough added value for clients or suppliers to allow construction firms to prosper, and make those investments in our people and performance.”

The report demonstrated that prefabricated housing can make a significant difference to satisfying demand:

“Tokyo alone is able to build nearly the same number of homes per year that the UK delivers nationally. This is purely due to the reliance on a different delivery model for single family homes which benefits from the mass market cultural acceptance of pre-manufactured modular housing.”

Housing the homeless

Further evidence that modern methods of construction can work well has come from a project in Cambridge, where six modular homes were installed on a temporary site to house local homeless people. A report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research noted that residents were impressed with the design, space and quality of the modular units, and were keen to be involved in efforts to build a thriving community.

The Cambridge project is especially important in the light of the UK’s large number of rough sleepers and ‘hidden homeless’. In March 2020, more than 14,000 homeless people were housed in England as part of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative to take rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. The programme was hailed as one of the leading successes of the government’s coronavirus response, but it ended in May and has not resumed during the current lockdown.

The future is modular?

So, could modular construction offer a solution to the UK’s housing shortage? Recent research published in the Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology set out to compare the traditional approach with modular construction, and to assess whether a shift in construction systems offers the potential to alleviate the UK’s domestic housing crisis. The study stressed that more research was needed to provide greater certainty about how modular methods could be more effectively grafted onto the current UK construction practices. However, the authors concluded that:

 “…modular construction promises strategic solutions to the lack of affordable housing currently experienced in the UK.”

In the meantime, recent developments suggest that the prefabricated housing sector seems to be going from strength to strength:

  • A 20,000 sq ft unit will be the manufacturing site for a new modular housing company in Durham, with plans to produce 1,000 modular homes a year.
  • A modular housing developer owned by Ikea has signed a 750-home deal with a housing association in the south of England.
  • Planning consent has been granted for 185 homes to be located in Bristol after they are shipped in from a factory in Yorkshire. Half of the homes will become part of the city council’s affordable housing stock.

The numbers of prefabricated homes are still too low. But if this trend continues, offsite construction might start to have a bigger impact on the UK’s housing shortage. The days of bricks and mortar could be numbered.


Further reading
More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on modern methods of housing:

Inclusive streets: from low expectations to big dreams

We’ve written before about the health, environmental and economic benefits of walking, and the importance of making our cities and towns more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. This was the theme of two recent webinars presented by Living Streets, an organisation that has been campaigning for better walking and cycling environments for almost a century.

The first webinar was presented by Stuart Hay, Penny Morriss and Robert Weetman from Living Streets, who explained that inclusive streets are defined spaces where all members of the community can walk or cycle.

But inclusive streets are about more than accessibility. Many streets and public spaces that might be accessible are not necessarily navigable. They can present social and physical barriers that mean the streets are not delivering equal access for everyone.

Walking Connects

In this context, Penny Morriss highlighted the work which she’s been doing with older people in a project called Walking Connects. A rising proportion of the UK population is over 65, and while many older people remain active, a lack of facilities – seating, shelter, hand rails, public toilets,  pedestrian crossings and well-maintained streets – can hinder to their ability to access services and meet other people.

In one Airdrie community studied by the Walking Connects team, residents found the lack of pedestrian access at the end of their housing complex a significant barrier to accessing the shops, community centre and church.

Robert Weetman of Living Streets noted that this community’s experience was by no means uncommon, and is not confined to older generations.

“We’re not talking about a small number of people not being able to get along a particular street; what we’re talking about actually moves into a large number of people not even being able to get to the end of their own local streets, or even outside of their gate.”

The reasons for this largely rest on the longstanding assumption that everyone in towns and cities wants to get around by car. Today, the need to tackle climate change and the recent improvements to air quality due to the pandemic restrictions, is driving a reappraisal of our car-centric cities. At the same time, local authorities, who are mostly responsible for the design and maintenance of streets, are under greater financial pressure than ever.

Challenging the authorities

The webinar stressed that citizens are not powerless when it comes to challenging councils to improve their streets. Penny highlighted another Walking Connects project in Edinburgh, where a number of tenants in a retirement development had experienced falls because of poor paving. The problem had been reported to the council many times, but residents were repeatedly told that the faults were not bad enough to warrant resurfacing. However, after working with Living Streets to document the number of falls, they persuaded the council to resurface the pavements.

Penny explained that this pro-active approach was vital, but that marginalised groups in the community often felt that their voice didn’t count:

“One of the first things that we need to do is to make sure that they understand it’s okay to ask for an issue that they encounter on a day-to-day basis to be resolved.”

A common message throughout the webinar was the need to bring local people, councillors and road technicians together. As Robert Weetman observed, once that happens communities can drop their low expectations and start to dream big:

“I think that our biggest and in some ways our most difficult priority is to create and communicate a vision of how different our streets could be, and why that would be so much better for everybody.”

People with disabilities: overcoming the barriers

The second webinar included contributions from  Keith Robertson, an advisor to the Scottish Government through the Mobility and Access Committee Scotland, and  Catriona Burness from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who spoke about the particular barriers faced by people with disabilities when navigating urban streets.

These include temporary road signs, advertising boards, bins and seating. For wheelchair users, blind or partially-sighted pedestrians, this ‘street furniture’ can make a simple journey more like an obstacle course, and can also have serious consequences. Barriers can cause accidents, and if people are deterred from getting out and about, they may experience mental ill health.

Both Keith and Catriona stressed the importance of local authorities engaging with disabled people and disability organisations, not as a tick-box exercise, but to really take their needs into consideration. The results of such consultations can be dramatic.

In Perth, for example, a pedestrianisation project did away with grilles where trees were planted, removing a hazard for wheelchair users and people using canes. At the same time, all of the signs, seats, bins and other items of street furniture were aligned, giving pedestrians unimpeded access along the street. Restaurants, cafes and shops placing advertising boards outside their establishments have to follow these regulations, or face a fine from the local authority.

People with sight loss: the challenges of social distancing

Catriona highlighted the numbers of people in Scotland who are blind or partially-sighted, amounting to over 200,000 people. This figure is likely to rise further over the next decade due to an ageing population and greater prevalence of diseases such as diabetes.

Pedestrians who are blind or partially sighted have found the context of coronavirus especially challenging. Social distancing, which is such a crucial part of preventing the spread of the virus, is very hard for people with sight loss to deal with.

One particular challenge has been the increasing use of ‘floating bus stops’. Councils have been responding to the need for greater social distancing on pavements by creating more pop-up cycle lanes, which in turn has led to bus stops being repositioned from the kerbside to ‘floating’ in-between bike lanes and the road.

For blind and partially-sighted pedestrians, such arrangements make boarding a bus more inaccessible and potentially hazardous. As Keith pointed out, accidents are usually a signal to local authorities that a design isn’t right, but if people with sight loss don’t feel safe going out, there will be no accidents to report, and the situation will be unchanged.

Final thoughts

If there was an underlying message emerging from the two webinars, it was that when it comes to accessible streets, design matters to ensure fair access for all. Badly designed streets can be frustrating, and dangerous, leaving some groups of people feeling excluded. On the other hand, well designed streets can help all of us feel good about getting around, and can especially help people with disabilities feel more independent. The key is to enable engagement between the people who design our streets and those who use them.

There was so much more useful content in both of these sessions, including a discussion on how to raise issues on street accessibility with the authorities who have the powers to make changes.

Living Streets have provided recordings of both webinars, along with transcripts of the proceedings.

Living Streets Webinar One: Video Recording; Transcript

Living Streets Webinar Two: Video Recording ; Transcript


Further reading: more from our blog on accessible streets

How the COVID-19 homelessness response shows opportunities for future progress

Before the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, there were already discussions around how the spread of COVID-19 would impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There was an acute awareness not only of the significant levels of homelessness in our towns and cities but that the number of people who needed support was growing at an alarming rate. Strategies for prevention and outreach programmes to help break the cycle of homelessness through a network of support systems for homeless people were helping to a certain extent in some areas, but the problem was (is) chronic and the concern among people who worked in, and had experience of, the sector in relation to the potential impact of COVID-19 was growing.

Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Surprisingly though, in many areas the response to support the UK’s homeless populations was swift, definitive and all encompassing. Partnerships were formed with local hotel chains – the GLA partnership with multiple hotel groups as part of the Pan London Placement scheme is probably the best publicised but individual arrangements have sprung up across the country and people were moved from the street into accommodation which was self-contained and would allow them to effectively isolate if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19.

In March, minister Robert Jennick announced £3.2 million of funding for councils to help them protect local rough sleepers from the pandemic and MHCLG, councils, the voluntary sector and those who work within homelessness outreach specifically have all mobilised to form an effective network of support for many people who had previously been sleeping on the streets.

The response to moving those who were sleeping rough off the streets has been unprecedented, as is the volume of people who have been helped. Many people have been accommodated regardless of their “local connection” or their “recourse to public funds”, something which previously was a significant barrier to many people being housed in temporary accommodation by their local authority.

A new wave of homelessness?

However despite the significant progress made, there are growing concerns about a “second wave of homelessness”- people who become homeless off the back of the stagnation and collapse of some areas of the economy, particularly those in low paid and precarious work i.e. hospitality and retail sector. Additionally, there are signs that some especially vulnerable groups have not engaged with the process or that some people have became homeless after the initial offer of support was rolled out. These include people from migrant backgrounds, and people with acute and severe mental ill health.

Things can’t go back to the way they were

One thing is clear, according to professionals, things can’t be allowed to return to the way they were. In some instances this is for practical reasons, and in other instances because we have been able to see what it is possible to achieve when people co-operate and there is a collective will to progress.

The use of communal shelters, one of the main ways of delivering emergency accommodation for many years may have to stop, or at least be re-organised to avoid multiple people sharing facilities like bathrooms or sleeping in rooms with multiple beds. A move towards more “pod style” contained living may be a way forward, but it will take a shift in design to accommodate people safely in the future.

The response has shown that it is vital to develop links between housing and health, and that the integration of services with public health to create wrap-around care (which is something which is currently being co-ordinated in response to the pandemic) should be maintained going forward.

The pandemic response has also shown that multiple organisations can work well effectively together and that the red tape, perceived layers of bureaucracy and challenges of different ways of working can be overcome if there is collective understanding and will. These barriers can be overcome to create really effective and much needed services and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Concerns have been raised around future funding, and in particular the risks of funding being stopped abruptly or the supply being removed at short notice, for example if hotels re-open and councils then struggle to identify appropriate accommodation for people to transition into. The sector has stressed that councils should be planning for this transition phase to prevent people returning to the streets and dis-engaging with services.

Opportunities to learn lessons

At an online event hosted by the Centre for London, which brought together professionals from within the sector in London to reflect on the response to COVID-19, somewhat surprisingly, the atmosphere was one of optimism that this could be the start of a new way of working. There is hope that a “can do” and “get things done attitude” which had been catalysed by the need for urgency because of the spread of COVID-19 can be harnessed and that this mindset should be embedded into practice going forward.

One of the main questions that appears to be raised is, if we can do it now, with such urgency, why couldn’t we do it before, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that the collective will and the government support doesn’t disappear post COVID-19? This is something local authorities, homeless outreach groups and other partners will have to grapple with over the coming weeks and months.

The response to the pandemic has been unprecedented. It has shown that with understanding, flexibility and effective partnership working to deliver coordinated services (as well as appropriate supply and funding) that tackling homelessness, or at least offering more to our homeless communities in terms of effective long term support, can be achieved.

There is a collective sense within the sector that the steps forward taken as a result of this pandemic should not be allowed to regress in the future, but should be strengthened and built upon to provide more effective support going forward for homeless communities across the UK.


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Read some of our other blogs on housing and homelessness:

Digital Housing Week: How coronavirus is affecting housing

Throughout this week, Inside Housing magazine has been providing a series of webinars offering debate, learning and innovative thinking on how housing providers are responding to present-day challenges and preparing for future demands.

One of the webinars focused on the ways in which Covid-19 has accelerated the move to agile working for housing associations (HAs) and council staff, and how housing providers can tackle the  mental health and wellbeing issues experienced by staff and residents.

Responding to the new normal

Anita Khan, from Settle Housing Association in Hertfordshire explained how her HA responded to lockdown by mobilising its continuity plan. Settle’s first responsibility is to engage with and support its customers, and once the plan was enacted, agile behaviour took root.

Anita described how automated contacts with HA customers enabled it to identify which people were in isolation or shielding. At the same time, methods of enforcement had to change, as the UK government banned evictions. Anita explained that once the HA stopped sending messages warning customers of enforcement of the rules on rent payments, the residents started to engage more positively with it.

Working practices at Settle also changed substantially, with a move away from a face-to-face culture towards remote working. Anita described the process of change HA staff experienced, from relief at not having to make long commutes, followed by fatigue from too many video conferences, and more recently recalibrating to a situation that works.

Agile working in the age of coronavirus

Tony Morrison, an agile working consultant, described the measures taken by Newham Council  to modernise the way the local authority worked. He explained that in 2019, Newham got a new leadership team, and deployed a plan to make the first investment in IT for eight years. The aim was to make sure everyone was mobile by default, and to pivot a local authority with 14.5 million pieces of paper towards a paperless organisation. The plan was already under way when the lockdown was imposed.

Immediately, the council had to adapt to the new situation. Around three thousand members of staff didn’t have effective ways of working from home, and so the council identified who most needed assistance, and delivered laptops and mobile devices to these 500 individuals.

At same time, the council deployed Office 365 and migrated Skype for Business, and enabled staff to communicate with customers using Zoom.

Newham has now rolled out a further 2000 devices to staff, and it’s clear that the lockdown experience has demonstrated the possibilities of remote working.

The council is already looking to the post-pandemic period when it might not require so much expensive office space. Tony explained that now would not be the right time to consider disposal of offices because so many other organisations are in the same position. Instead, Newham is looking at alternative uses for its property estate, including cohabiting with other organisations, pop-up spaces and conversion to affordable housing.

Housing on the frontline of a mental health crisis

There’s now little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on mental health. With the loss of lives and livelihoods, and the growing demands for support from already overburdened health services, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to be on an unprecedented scale.

During the Inside Housing webinar, consultant psychiatrist Raj Persaud talked about the unique role housing can play in tackling mental health issues among staff and residents.

He noted that housing staff may be among the first to identify signs of mental illness among residents, because fewer people have been attending GP surgeries during the pandemic.

He suggested that housing staff in this position should raise such issues with community mental health teams. He also highlighted the importance of contacting NHS services by letter. Because letters are legal documents, health professionals are more likely to pay attention to issues raised in this way.

Raj highlighted a key issue housing staff can focus on when dealing with people who have mental health problems:

“Too often, the aim has been to concentrate on the causes of mental illness, but that misses out on the coping skills people have used in the past. The right skills can make a person super resilient, and so it’s always useful to engage in conversation about coping skills people have used for previous life events.”

All of the speakers in the webinar stressed the importance of the human factor in tackling the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. Raj Persaud noted that, in the absence of the water cooler, the pub or the staff room, physical locations have to be recreated virtually. Doing this may feel clunky at first, but even if things don’t feel right, housing staff and others should persist until they find a method that suits them, and enables people to feel they are less isolated.

Final thoughts

One thing is certain: post-Covid will be very different from pre-Covid. But this webinar demonstrated that housing providers are embracing the fluidity of this situation. In an age of thinking differently, those who consider alternative solutions to the problems of the present may be better equipped for the challenges of the future.


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