Digital Leaders Week: Digital transformation in local government

Image: Digital Leaders

Today is the start of Digital Leaders Week, a celebration of the opportunities and challenges for the digital transformation of Britain’s businesses, public services and society.

Here at the Knowledge Exchange blog, we’ve been taking a keen interest in digital developments in both the public and private sector. To celebrate Digital Leaders Week, we’re revisiting some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and bringing you up to date on current developments.

Several articles on our blog have highlighted the potential of digital technologies as drivers of internal transformation and improved service delivery in local government.

In May 2016, we looked at the benefits of digital for local authorities, noting that research by Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network had suggested local councils could save £14.7 billion by moving all transactional services online and digitising back office functions. This echoed the findings of Policy Exchange, which reported that £10 billion could be saved by councils making smarter use of data and technology.

But another article on our blog also pointed to some of the reasons why local government was struggling to develop digital strategies, including limited infrastructure, red tape and funding issues:

“In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority.”

Further blog posts have indicated that some councils are overcoming the barriers to digital change:

“For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.”

Today, more councils are embracing the challenges and opportunities of digital. A good example comes from Adur & Worthing Councils, which believes that digital inclusion can greatly improve the lives of local people. Among the digital services now offered by Adur & Worthing is an online payments facility. In addition, online access points enable residents to get up-to-date information on important issues such as council tax, recycling, public transport and cultural events.

Another example is Nottingham City Council’s workflow management app, introduced to replace an inefficient paper-based system:

“The new app allows staff from customer services, highway inspectors and response teams to enter faults, such as potholes or damaged street lights, directly into the system. It then automatically allocates the fault to the relevant inspector and, once the work is completed, digitally signs it off. The council has reported that the app has created £100,000 in savings in less than one year.”

However, we’ve also underlined that there’s more to digital transformation than getting the technical aspects right:

“With digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.”

It’s clear that digital transformation is a journey, not a final destination, and we’ll continue to report on the ways in which local government is embracing digital technologies for the benefit of councils and citizens.

Our next Digital Leaders Week blog post, on Wednesday, looks at digital developments in Singapore and Estonia.


With over 90% of UK local authorities as customers, Idox has built relationships that last across a varied portfolio, incorporating specialisms such as electoral management, business transformation, software solutions, managed services and front-end design and delivery. Our recent white paper explores the new digital trends being embraced by local government.

Five challenges facing the people who make elections happen

They’ve been called “the unsung heroes of democracy”, and in the past few years the UK’s electoral administrators have been facing unprecedented challenges that have imposed enormous strains on our voting system.

Multiple general and local elections, a new system of electoral registration, and referendums on Scottish independence and UK membership of the European Union have stretched – almost to breaking point – the resources of the country’s electoral administrators. And this year, their efforts to continue providing electoral services to the high standard they always strive for has been tested further.

Here are just five of the major challenges facing the people who deliver democracy.

1. The European Parliament Elections

It’s the poll that UK voters weren’t expecting to be part of. But because Brexit didn’t happen as planned, the UK was obliged to take part in the elections to the European Parliament.

Making elections happen is no small matter, involving months of planning and many different agencies, including central and local authorities, non-statutory bodies, partners and contractors, such as the police and postal services. Printing of ballot papers, arrangements for postal voting, booking polling stations and arranging venues for election counts are just some of the elements that need to be confirmed well in advance of polling day.

When the government confirmed in April that the UK would take part in the European Parliament elections on 23 May, this left electoral administrators with just a few weeks to organise a poll that would usually take months to prepare. Things were further complicated by unpredictable factors. Would enough staff be available to count the votes on a bank holiday weekend? And with forecasts of a higher than expected turnout, would extra ballot boxes be needed?

Initially, it looked as if the elections would be delivered smoothly. However, on Thursday morning, reports began to emerge of citizens from other EU countries being denied the right to vote. Thousands took to social media under the hashtag #deniedmyvote to complain that they had either been turned away from polling stations or barred from voting because of delays in registering them.

The Electoral Commission, which oversees UK elections, acknowledged the problems, and said the very short notice of the UK’s participation in the EU elections had significantly affected election administrators’ ability to inform and register citizens of other EU states intending to vote in the UK.

Cat Smith, the shadow minister for voter engagement highlighted the difficulties facing electoral services teams:

“This has caused havoc for electoral administrators tasked with delivering a national poll with extremely short notice.”

The Electoral Commission has promised to review the process, but its chief executive, Bob Posner, has indicated that there are broader lessons to learn:

 “We have argued for some time that the failure of governments and parliament to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address the pressures on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. It is time that these warnings are properly heard and acted upon.”

2. Trialling voter ID

In 2018, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. The trial followed a 2016 government-sponsored review of electoral fraud which recommended ID checks to prevent vote stealing.

Earlier this month, further pilots took place during local elections, involving 10 areas of England, including Derby, Mid Sussex, North West Leicestershire and Pendle. The trials required voters to show different types of photo ID and/or non-photo ID in order to be given a ballot paper.

The pilot schemes involved additional work for electoral administrators. Voters had to be informed well in advance of polling day about which forms of identification were valid in each area, and staff required additional training on delivering the identification requirements. In three areas voters could apply for local identification cards, while two areas used technology to scan QR codes on voters’ polling cards. Before the 2019 pilots began, two councils pulled out of the trial, with one believing it was too much work on top of a boundary review, and another expressing concerns about the time needed to inform the electorate about the changes.

Although an evaluation of the 2018 trials found that Returning Officers and their staff in polling stations were able to run the new processes without any significant problems, the Electoral Commission was not able to draw definitive conclusions on how a voter identification requirement would operate in the future across the country, or at polls with higher levels of turnout.

The authors of the report also found it impossible to say whether the requirements actually prevented attempts to commit electoral fraud at elections. Critics of Voter ID say the relatively low levels of fraud in UK elections mean identification is unnecessary, and could put some voters off – particularly the elderly, homeless and people with disabilities – if they do not have the necessary documentation.

It’s still too early to assess the impact of the 2019 trials, but a Local Government Chronicle analysis of the pilots found that almost 700 people were turned away from polling stations operating voter ID pilots and did not return.

3. Funding elections

“Administering elections requires ample resources. Administering them well requires even more”
Benjamin Highton: Political Science and Politics, January 2006

Funding arrangements for elections in the UK are highly complex, with separate personnel and operational costs for electoral registration and elections / referenda, and funding coming from local and central government. But there is surprisingly little information available about the cost of electoral services.

A 2017 University of East Anglia (UEA) study has underlined the difficulties in collecting accurate data about the budgets and spending of electoral organisations. However, the UEA survey found that, while budgets for electoral services have been rising, so too has the cost of managing these services. The authors found “strong evidence of many electoral services being financially stretched.”

Local elections and registration are funded from local authority budgets, and since 2010 they have been significantly affected by the financial restraints imposed by austerity cutbacks. At the same time, election administrators’ resources have been stretched by additional polls, as well as the introduction of a new electoral registration system.

In 2010, the Association of Electoral Administrators called on the UK government to undertake a thorough review of funding and resources required to deliver electoral services. The AEA repeated this call in 2015 and again in 2017, when it described the existing funding model as flawed:

“We remain disappointed that, despite recognising in its response to our 2015 report that general funding arrangements are an ongoing issue, the Government has failed to give any further thought as to how to address it.”

Does this matter? For those who believe elections just happen, their funding might seem of marginal importance. But when lack of resources leads to electoral mismanagement, the consequences for public confidence in democracy could be grave.

4. Improving communications about elections

The past week has underlined the importance of spreading the word to voters in order to ensure that they know when, where and how to vote in forthcoming polls.

The issue of elections communications was put in the spotlight earlier this year in a Local Government information Unit (LGiU) report.

The report focused on local elections, and expressed concern about falling turnout, suggesting that factors may include voters being unaware about candidates and their policies, difficulties in finding out local election results and a sense that local democracy is somehow “lesser democracy”.

The report went on to provide councils with tips on improving elections communications. The advice included simple guidance, such as:

  • providing photographs of preparations for elections and of the count
  • posting the results of elections on council websites
  • using social media to raise awareness about registration, voting information and other election-related information

In addition, websites such as Where Do I Vote and Who Can I Vote For can deploy council-supplied information to raise awareness about local elections and candidates – some councils are also highlighting these sites on their own websites.

The report highlighted examples of good practice. These include efforts by Kirklees Council to convey the many different aspects of delivering local democracy, and the inventive use of infographics by Coventry City Council to display election results quickly and clearly.

These techniques are all helpful in raising awareness about the opportunity to take part in decisions that could affect the way we are governed at local and national levels. As the LGiU report concludes:

“Proactive, open and transparent communication about elections does not guarantee active engagement with local government, but it is the essential base on which we build democratic involvement.”

5. Enabling blind / partially sighted people to vote

A functioning democracy is one where anyone entitled to vote is able to vote – and that includes people with disabilities.

Earlier this year, a High Court decision highlighted the difficulties facing blind and partially-sighted people when they enter a polling station.

The ruling concerned a tactile voting device (TVD), a transparent plastic overlay that fits on top of the ballot paper, with cut-out sections for the voter to mark their vote. However, even with the device, blind or partially sighted voters still require assistance to read the names on the ballots. The High Court ruling, delivered earlier this month, said the provision of a TVD “does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote”, and described it as “a parody of the electoral process”.

The challenge is to find and implement a solution that allows blind people to vote independently, while maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. Elsewhere, new technology has been used, such as a telephone dictation system in New Zealand and a combination of audio and braille systems in Germany.

Perhaps the most effective solution would be a web-based system, enabling all voters to cast their votes online. But the UK government has been reluctant to introduce electronic voting because of concerns about fraud and security.

In the meantime, 350,000 people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted are waiting for the day when they can vote independently and in secret, just like the rest of the electorate.

Final thoughts

Former prime minister Harold Wilson once observed that a week is a long time in politics. The truth of that statement has been brought home in the past seven days, which has seen another attempt to break the Brexit deadlock in parliament, significant results in the European Parliament elections, and the announcement of the current prime minister’s resignation.

Interesting times lie ahead, and it’s not out of the question that the UK’s electoral administrators could soon be called upon once again to help voters play their part in shaping the country’s political future. Unsung heroes they may be, but our democracy depends on them.


Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing outstanding expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management. Find out more here.

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Putting the brakes on rent rises: will London adopt rent controls?

Earlier this year, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan revealed that he plans to include the introduction of rent controls on private rented residential properties in the capital as one of his manifesto promises in the 2020 mayoral election:

“The housing crisis is now having such an effect on a generation of Londoners that the arguments in favour of rent stabilisation and control are becoming overwhelming.”

Research published in 2018, found that for the third consecutive year London was the most expensive city in Europe for renting accommodation. The Mayor is concerned about rent increases, particularly by unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords. He now seems set to call on the government to grant him new powers on rent stabilisation.

The case against controls

Opponents of rent restrictions believe that landlords finding their rental income reduced would be unable to maintain properties, leading to poorer housing standards. Some might choose to sell their properties rather than put up with controls on their income, adding to London’s already acute shortage of accommodation to rent.

There is also concern that rent controls could strangle London’s fledgling build to rent (BTR) market. Across the UK, the number of BTR homes has soared – a 30% increase was reported in 2018 – and growth has been particularly strong in London. But some fear that rent controls could scare investors away from BTR, resulting in a fall in properties available to rent.

German lessons

Concern about rising rents is by no means confined to London, and if the capital does adopt rent controls, it will be following an international trend towards putting the brakes on rent rises in the private sector.

Germany introduced legislation in 2015 specifying that landlords taking on new tenants could only raise rents by up to 10% above the local average for similar properties. One of the first cities to use the new powers was Berlin, where rapidly rising population numbers have been putting greater strains on the city’s housing market. Hamburg and Munich were among the more than 300 cities that followed Berlin’s example.

Overall, the impact of Germany’s rent controls has not been as positive as intended. A study by the German Institute for Economic Research found that, while the rent controls had worked in areas affected by the most dramatic rent rises, such as parts of Berlin, in other areas it had not had the same effect. In contrast to the UK, more than 50% of Germans rent their homes, but rent controls have benefitted only a tiny proportion of that number.

The reasons for the failure of rent controls in Germany were set out by The Economist, which reported that landlords have used loopholes to circumvent the controls for newly renovated properties and accommodation being rented out for the first time. In addition, there are no sanctions against landlords who flout the rules. But the article also pointed out the law’s “fatal flaw”:

Landlords are not obliged to disclose a property’s previous rental price; rather, the renters must ask for it before agreeing a new price and signing a contract. In practice, this means that many renters wary of jeopardising their chances of striking a deal end up keeping mum. And a landlord can then add a few euros to the price above that permitted by the brake.

Across the water

In Ireland, rent controls were introduced at the start of 2017, limiting annual rent rises to 2%, but so far the measures have not proved successful. In the first quarter of 2019, rent prices in Dublin rose by 7%.

The reasons mirror the situation in Germany, with a large number of exemptions to the controls,  landlords charging much higher rents for new rental properties, and no sanctions for offending landlords.

The Scottish approach

In 2016, the Scottish Parliament passed regulations intended to strengthen the rights of people renting private accommodation. Among the provisions was a measure enabling local authorities to apply to Scottish ministers for permission to cap rent increases in designated areas. If local councils can prove that rents are rising too much in these “rent pressure zones” (RPZs), a maximum limit will be set on how much rents are allowed to increase for existing tenants each year in that area.

As of yet, no RPZs have been designated in Scotland. Some opponents of the measure have pointed to the difficulties local authorities face in making RPZs work, while others have branded them a failure, and called for them to replaced by nationwide rent controls.

Final thoughts

It remains to be seen whether Sadiq Khan does include rent controls in his election manifesto. If he does, and if he goes on to be re-elected, he will then have to persuade the UK government to grant him the necessary powers. After that, the question is whether London can make a success of rent controls where others have stumbled.


You may also find the following blog posts on the private rental sector of interest:

Bees and butterflies are under threat from urbanisation: here’s how city-dwellers can help

Butterflies and flowers

Image: All-a-flutter. Shutterstock.

This guest blog was written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Bristol.

Pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies, are responsible for the reproduction of many flowering plants and help to produce more than three quarters of the world’s crop species. Globally, the value of the services provided by pollinators is estimated at between US$235 billion and US$577 billion.

It’s alarming, then, that pollinators are under threat from factors including more intense farming, climate change, disease and changing land use, such as urbanisation. Yet recent studies have suggested that urban areas could actually be beneficial, at least for some pollinators, as higher numbers of bee species have been recorded in UK towns and cities, compared with neighbouring farmland.

To find out which parts of towns and cities are better for bees and other pollinators, our research team carried out fieldwork in nine different types of land in four UK cities: Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Edinburgh.

An easy win

Urban areas are a complex mosaic of different land uses and habitats. We surveyed pollinators in allotments (also known as community gardens), cemeteries and churchyards, residential gardens, public parks, other green spaces (such as playing fields), nature reserves, road verges, pavements and man-made surfaces such as car parks or industrial estates.

Our results suggest that allotments are good places for bees and other pollinating insects, and that creating more allotments will benefit the pollinators in towns and cities. Allotments are beneficial for human health and well-being, and also help boost local food production.

In the UK, there are waiting lists for allotments in many areas, so local authorities and urban planners need to recognise that creating more allotment sites is a winning move, which will benefit people, pollinators and sustainable food production.

Good tips for green thumbs

We also recorded high numbers of pollinating insects in gardens. Residential gardens made up between a quarter and a third of the total area of the four cities we sampled, so they’re really a crucial habitat for bees and other pollinators in cities. That’s why urban planners and developers need to create new housing developments with gardens.

But it’s not just the quantity of gardens that matters, it’s the quality, too. And there’s a lot that residents can do to ensure their gardens provide a good environment for pollinators.

Rather than paving, decking and neatly mown lawns, gardeners need to be planting flowers, shrubs and bushes that are good for pollinators. Choose plants that have plenty of pollen and nectar that is accessible to pollinators, and aim to have flowers throughout the year to provide a constant supply of food. Our research suggests that borage and lavender are particularly attractive for pollinators.

Often plants and seeds in garden centres are labelled with pollinator logos to help gardeners choose suitable varieties – although a recent study found that that ornamental plants on sale can contain pesticides that are harmful to pollinators, so gardeners should check this with retailers before buying.

Weeds are important too; our results suggest that dandelions, buttercups and brambles are important flowers for pollinators. So create more space for pollinators by mowing less often to allow flowers to grow, and leaving weedy corners, since undisturbed areas make good nesting sites.

An urban refuge

Parks, road verges and other green spaces make up around a third of cities, however our study found that they contain far fewer pollinators than gardens. Our results suggest that increasing the numbers of flowers in these areas, potentially by mowing less often, could have a real benefit for pollinators (and save money). There are already several initiatives underway to encourage local authorities to mow less often.

Ensuring there are healthy populations of pollinators will benefit the native plants and ecosystems in urban areas, as well as anyone who is growing food in their garden or allotment. Towns and cities could act as important refuges for pollinators in the wider landscape, especially since agricultural areas can be limited in terms of the habitat they provide.

It’s crucial for local authorities, urban planners, gardeners and land managers to do their bit to improve the way towns and cities are managed for pollinators. National pollinator strategies already exist for several countries, and local pollinator strategies and action plans are helping to bring together the key stakeholders in cities. Wider adoption of this type of united approach will help to improve towns and cities for both the people and pollinators that live there.The Conversation


Guest blog written by Katherine Baldock, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Recycling: is it worth it?

What will councils and community groups do for funding after Brexit?

With a recent study indicating that the majority of local authorities have made no provision for Brexit in their medium-term budgets, there is now a real risk for councils if a ‘no deal’ scenario goes ahead after 29 March 2019. So what does a potential black hole in funding mean for local authorities already beleaguered by austerity?

A recent paper from GRANTfinder, the leading authority on grants and funding in the UK, examines this question and why councils need to be preparing now.

The extent to which the public sector is failing to prepare for Brexit is alarming given that local areas were meant to receive over £8bn in EU funding from 2014 to 2020 from sources such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund, and the UK Government has not yet provided detail on replacement funding streams.

What many people may not be aware of however, is that funding applications under EU schemes can be submitted up until the date that the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019. So, there are still nearly eight months left in which councils and local groups can apply for, and benefit from, EU funding.

The full paper considers how local authorities may best attract funding to their local areas through applying to EU funding whilst the current arrangements still apply, as well as considering alternative funding sources beyond the EU. Usefully, it also identifies key types of local authority projects which commonly attract support.

Although it’s clear that councils are facing considerable financial uncertainty, and many are creating their own risk and Brexit impact assessments as a result, there is still funding support available. Given the short timescale and tight resources within councils however, it makes sense to turn to expert help and tools to identify where funding for local areas and community groups could be sourced. In this respect, GRANTfinder is relied upon by councils across the country to help secure investment.


Read the full guide via the GRANTfinder website. Our GRANTfinder colleagues work across the UK and in Europe to help councils, community groups, businesses and universities to source funding. They also provide training and consultancy in grant application processes and bid writing.

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

Hong Kong city

By Steven McGinty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Rent pressure zones

In December 2017 the Scottish Government passed legislation (Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016) which introduced a raft of measures relating to the private rented sector in Scotland, hoping to tackle issues such as supply, security and tenant rights. One of the headline policies from this piece of legislation was the introduction of Rent Pressure Zones (RPZ’s). The scheme allows local authorities to apply for areas to be designated as Rent Pressure Zones, limiting the ability of private sector landlords in the area to raise rents above a set level. The idea is to use rent control to ensure the market within a particular area remains stable; demand for social housing should not be put under increasing pressure as a result of tenants being priced out of the private rented sector by rising rents.

What’s happened in Ireland?

In the Republic of Ireland, legislation similar to that of Scotland was enacted in 2016. This included measures to introduce RPZ’s to 21 administrative electoral areas, including Dublin and Cork. In these areas, similarly to the Scottish model, landlords can impose a maximum rent increase on existing tenants, but issues with enforcement have proved challenging.  One of the major challenges local housing charity workers are reporting is the termination of contracts of existing tenants, so that landlords can bring in new tenants who they would then be able to charge more, because they are exempt from the terms of the RPZ’s.

Local authorities making a good case is vital

As was mentioned earlier, the responsibility of applying to have an area designated as a rent pressure zone falls on local authorities. One of the consistent challenges raised by academics, researchers, and those working elsewhere within the sector is the lack of data, or at least the lack of detailed, robust, quality data on which applications to designate an area and RPZ can be based. It has been suggested that in order to better support local authorities to make good applications, (which are likely to be accepted) the quality and accessibility of data available to local authorities must be addressed.

Supporting local authorities to increase supply of affordable housing is also important in high rent areas to allow all areas of the housing market to function effectively. Driving quality and affordability in one sector, it is hoped will drive up quality and standards in others to give people access to affordable quality homes in areas in which they actually want to live.

But will rent controls work?

Research conducted by academics on behalf of Shelter sought to review the use of rent controls across Europe. It shows a number of different models and how they have been adapted to reflect changes in the market. The term ‘rent regulation’ is commonly applied across Europe to refer to measures which seek to limit ‘in-tenancy’ rent increases, whilst leaving the rents for new tenancies free to find their place within the market. The research highlights the differing fortunes of those who have tried to impose rent controls, through RPZs and other means. Some have found it has had the desired impact, ensuring rent rates remain manageable for people living in an area. However, in addition to the Republic of Ireland, others have found challenges with implementation and enforcement.

Final thoughts

It will take time for this policy to bed in in Scotland, and for local authorities, government and the PRS to fully understand the impact it will have. It may mean that additional legislation may need to be introduced as a regulation method, or that landlords on the whole recognise the wider benefits to them and their sector which increased security can bring. However, the way that this element of the legislation was brought in (many think as a knee- jerk reaction to rising rents in Aberdeen which have now collapsed with the fall in oil prices) has meant that it has not been especially well thought out and the practicalities of its implementation on the ground have not been fully considered. Its long-term impact on the PRS, and on rent in areas more generally will be seen in the coming years. The rest of the UK will be watching intently to see how the Scottish project works. Ultimately, it could be replicated, particularly in large urban centres in England, including London, Manchester and Birmingham.


If you are interested in this topic, you may also be interested in the following blog posts:

The private rented sector: meeting demand and improving data

A mixed reception for Labour’s housing green paper

Released with nowhere to go: housing solutions for prisoners

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A mixed reception for Labour’s housing green paper

 

In April, the Labour Party launched its strategy for tackling the housing crisis in England. Housing for the Many presents a 50-point plan, with proposals that include:

  • investing £4bn a year to build one million ‘genuinely’ affordable homes over 10 years
  • lifting of council borrowing caps
  • removing the ‘viability loophole’, making it impossible for developers to dodge their affordable housing obligations
  • zero tolerance of developments without any affordable housing provision
  • a stricter definition of affordable housing
  • scrapping the ‘bedroom tax’
  • suspension of ‘right to buy’
  • cut-price government loans for housing associations
  • protected housing benefit for under 21s
  • consideration of mandatory space requirements
  • a new generation of garden cities and new towns

Following its publication, analysts in the housing and property sectors gave their thoughts on the strategy.

More affordable homes

The most ambitious proposal is the plan to build 100,000 homes each year.

For Emily Williams, associate director at Savills, this proposal was the most eyecatching:

“The emphasis on investing to deliver more homes to solve the housing crisis, rather than relying on housing benefit to support people who can’t access market housing, is something we have been talking about for a long time.”

However, Savills estimates that the £4bn figure is insufficient for Labour to hit its one million homes target, suggesting that a further £3bn would be needed.

Elsewhere, Carl Dyer, partner in Irwin Mitchell solicitors expressed concern about where the money would come from:

“After Labour’s last 13 years in power from 1997 to 2010, their out-going Chief Secretary to the Treasury famously left a note for his successor: “Sorry, there’s no money”. There is still no magic money tree, and no indication here how these homes are to be funded.”

Developers

Labour’s policy of no development without affordable housing has raised concerns in the property industry.  Justin Gaze, head of residential development at Knight Frank told Property Week that the proposals risked deterring developers from undertaking new projects:

“There will be instances where affordable housing cannot be provided, for example on conversions of some buildings where it’s difficult to deliver both open-market and affordable housing side by side.”

The land market

One of the less reported proposals caught the eye of Luke Murphy, IPPR’s associate director for the environment, housing and infrastructure. Writing in CityMetric, Murphy highlighted the proposal to create an English Sovereign Land Trust that would allow local authorities to buy land at cheaper prices to build affordable homes.

“It is here, through intervention in the land market, that the state could have the biggest impact – not to just build more affordable homes, but to make all new homes built more affordable.”

But he argued there was still room for improvement:

“… on land reform, there is scope to be bolder and go further to ensure that affordable housing really is available ‘for the many’, rather than the preserve of the few.

Redefining affordability

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) commented on Labour’s proposal to redefine affordable housing to relate it to average incomes rather than housing as a percentage of market rates:

“This makes sense as a measure of affordability, however, this will likely lead to a trade-off between affordability and the numbers of affordable homes delivered, unless capital grants are available at the outset, geared to the income segment to be accommodated.”

RICS also welcomed the plan to lift council housing borrowing caps.

“This is certainly something RICS has been calling for, however appropriate measures must be taken to ensure that local authorities do not expose themselves to too much risk.”

Benefits reforms

The Chartered Institute of Housing wondered whether Labour would reform the benefit system to bring it closer into alignment with housing policy:

“Of course, abolishing the bedroom tax will help, but tenants’ ability to pay their rent if they are on low incomes is now under assault from the whole range of welfare reforms, of which bedroom tax is only one.”

Final thoughts

The housing crisis has been decades in the making, and there is no quick fix for tackling the problems of housing shortages, affordability and homelessness. Just last month, research by Heriot-Watt University found the chronic shortage of housing in the UK was greater than first thought, amounting to four million homes. To meet the backlog, the researchers estimated that the country needs to build 340,000 homes a year until 2031. This is significantly higher than the targets set both by the Conservative government and the Labour Party.

The new green paper from Labour has presented clear alternatives to the government’s housing policies, and later this year the government is set to publish its own green paper on social housing. The debate will continue, and housing will remain high on the political agenda.


The Knowledge Exchange keeps a close watch on developments in housing. Some of our recent blog posts on the issue include:

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How low can they go? Cities are taking action to reduce air pollution and save lives

Air pollution is a bigger killer in Europe than obesity or alcohol: nearly half a million Europeans die each year from its effects.

Particulate matter (a complex mixture of extremely small dust particles and liquid droplets) and nitrogen dioxide (an invisible, but foul smelling gas) are particularly harmful to health.  As the New Scientist has explained:

“…nitrogen dioxide lowers birthweight, stunts lung growth in children and increases the risk of respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease. Particulate pollutants like soot cause a wider range of problems, including lung cancer.”

Motor vehicles are the main source of these emissions in urban areas. For this reason, European Union regulations introduced in 2010 set down that nitrogen oxide should average no more than 40 micrograms per cubic metre over a year. These limits are regularly breached. By the end of January this year, London had reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole of 2018. Scientists say that even these limits are unsafe: the 30,000 deaths each year attributed to particulate pollution are due to exposure levels below the legal limit.

Getting into the zone

Many local authorities have been trying to tackle the issue by getting the most polluting vehicles out of their city centres.  As Traffic Technology International has noted:

“From Athens to Aberdeen, and from London to Ljubljana, there is an eclectic smorgasbord of initiatives with over 200 low emission zones (LEZ) around Europe excluding more polluting vehicles, and some cities employing road-user charging to deter vehicles from entering.”

In the UK, Glasgow is set to become Scotland’s first low emissions zone, while Oxford could become the world’s first zero emissions zone, which would exclude all non-electric vehicles from the city centre by 2035.

T Time in London

London has adopted especially ambitious goals to clean up the capital’s air. As of October 2017, older vehicles driving in London between 7am and 6pm have needed either to meet the minimum toxic emission standards (Euro 4/IV for both petrol and diesel vehicles and Euro 3 for motorised tricycles and quadricycles) or to pay an extra daily charge of £10.00 (in addition to the £11.50 Congestion Charge).

Air quality campaigners have welcomed this “T Charge”, but not everyone is happy. The Federation of Small Businesses has voiced concern that the charge will have a negative impact on small and micro-businesses that are already struggling with high property, employment and logistics costs. Shaun Bailey, a Conservative member of the Greater London Assembly, has described the T Charge – and the mayor’s plan to bring forward to 2019 the launch of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) – as “vanity projects” that will have little effect on air quality.

National demands and local plans

London’s T Charge is one way of tackling air pollution, but there are other methods, such as retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel and supporting cyclists. Some UK cities are already taking action, while in Germany and Belgium, even more radical ideas are being mooted.

Last summer, the UK government set out its plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The document made it clear that local authorities have a leading role to play in achieving improvements in air quality.

By the end of this month, local authorities were expected to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue, with final plans to be submitted by December. The government promised support for councils, including a £255m Implementation Fund to help them prepare and deliver their plans, and the opportunity to bid for additional money from a Clean Air Fund.

It was hoped that these measures would lower the poisonous emissions. However, last month the High Court ruled that the government’s approach to tackling pollution was not sufficient, and ordered urgent changes. Even if the subsequent plan is accepted, many feel that the only sure way to solve the problem is to eliminate traffic from our cities. Others counter that this will damage the economy.

The battle of Britain’s air quality has only just begun.


Our previous articles on air quality include: