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

Multi-agency partnerships and the transformation of domestic abuse support

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

Domestic abuse has been rising up the political agenda in the past few years. 2019 saw the appointment of the UK’s first Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and last month, the updated Domestic Abuse Bill was introduced to the UK Parliament (expecting to see Royal Assent in April 2021). But domestic abuse is still a widespread and endemic problem across the UK, with figures suggesting incidents across all areas of the country and across multiple demographic groups.

Often people who experience domestic abuse are difficult to identify and can struggle to engage directly with domestic violence support services. However, there is a growing recognition that knowledge sharing, and partnership working between statutory services, like housing or health teams, is vital to identifying and supporting victims and survivors in a timely and effective way.

Increasingly, the criminal justice system, health sector, social housing providers, charities, and local government have been attempting to work together to ensure that they are all able to respond effectively and provide the necessary support to domestic abuse victims and survivors.

The impact of lockdown

The most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that an estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (1.6 million women and 757,000 men). Research published by the London School of Economics (LSE) after the first lockdown found that in London domestic abuse calls to the police increased by 11.4% on average, compared with the same weeks in 2019. The increase was, in a large part, due to an increase in calls from third parties not directly witnessing the incident, including neighbours or family members.

Similarly a report from Women’s Aid found that those delivering services needed to grapple not only with increased demand for support, but also with the challenge of delivering effective support in a different way as many services were only able to be accessed virtually.

Coordinated community responses transforming support for survivors

Organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the roles they can play in supporting people who experience domestic abuse and in the early identification of people at risk. Research also suggests that if someone is experiencing abuse, there is a high likelihood that they will also be experiencing other “needs”, which may cause them to come into contact with multiple services at once. Co-ordinating the response between services encourages organisations to share information to ensure consistency of care and experience; it can also help identify any gaps in support and allow for appropriate signposting and places the onus on the organisations, rather than on the person experiencing abuse.

Coordinated community response (CCR) approaches encompass the broadest possible response to domestic abuse; CCR addresses prevention, early intervention, dealing with crisis, risk fluctuation, and long-term recovery and safety, working with a wide range of services, pathways, agencies, and systems.

The fundamental premise of the CCR is that no single agency or individual can see the complete picture of the life of a family or individual within that family, but all may have insights and can provide interventions that are crucial to their safety and wellbeing. The CCR enables a whole system response to the whole person. It shifts responsibility for safety away from individual survivors to the community and services existing to support them.

The CCR is made up of 12 components: survivor voice; intersectionality; shared objective; structure and governance; strategy and leadership; specialist services; representation; resources; co-ordination; training; data; policies and processes. Taking a CCR approach provides communities with method for coordinating a response to domestic abuse. It places survivors at the heart of decision making and is an approach many frontline services can and do take when designing and implementing support services for people who have experienced domestic abuse.

Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

A pilot roll out for wrap around housing support

The Whole Housing Approach (WHA) to domestic abuse was first conceptualised in 2018 by the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) in collaboration with the National Housing and Domestic Abuse Policy and Practice Group This approach aims: “to improve the housing options and outcomes for people experiencing domestic abuse so that they can achieve stable housing, live safely and overcome their experiences of abuse.”

The approach enhances how people who have experienced domestic abuse have control over their own lives, considers what they want to achieve and change, and offers interventions based on this. The key principles of the WHA are outlined as: safety; inclusivity; empowerment; accountability; and prevention, with 12 additional key components which make up the practical application of WHA programmes.

The initial WHA pilot project was delivered in three areas from October 2018 to the end of March 2020. Six specialist domestic abuse organisations, as well as a civil society organisation, have been working with 10 local authority areas, including in London, Stockton and Cambridgeshire to establish comprehensive and consistent housing practices and deliver a WHA.

A whole housing approach toolkit has been published which contains more information on the pilots, evaluations and analysis of the programme. The toolkit includes a dedicated section for each of the twelve components of the WHA. Each section can be read as a standalone toolkit that outlines key initiatives to help survivors achieve safety and stable housing. It offers practical guidance and resources to local areas to deliver a consistent WHA to domestic abuse.

Image Via DAHA

Final thoughts

While the landscape of domestic violence support is varied and is delivered in different ways by different agencies, there is a growing understanding of the practical steps which should be taken to ensure that partnership working and effective coordinated responses between services are offered to survivors of domestic abuse. It is clear that there is an appetite among those who work within frontline services to improve the availability of support. The ultimate aim of a coordinated response and a wraparound service to survivors of domestic abuse is achievable if current best practice and effective pilot schemes can be built upon, with additional funding and wider roll outs.


If you enjoyed this article you might like to read:

Domestic violence during quarantine: the hidden crime of lockdown

Safeguarding in social isolation: how social care teams are adapting to the new normal

A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

Follow us on Twitter to see which topic areas are interesting our research team.

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

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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Five blog posts that told the story of 2019

As the old year makes way for the new, it’s time to reflect on some of the topics we’ve been covering on The Knowledge Exchange blog over the past twelve months. We’ve published over 70 blog posts in 2019, covering everything from smart canals and perinatal mental health to digital prescribing and citizens’ assemblies. We can’t revisit them all, but here’s a quick look back at some of the stories that shaped our year.

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Tomorrow’s world today

Artificial Intelligence was once confined to the realms of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but it’s already beginning to have a very real impact on our personal and working lives. In February, we looked at the pioneering local authorities that are dipping a toe into the world of AI:

“In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services.”

However, the post went on to highlight concerns about the future impact of AI on employment:

“PwC’s 2018 UK Economic Outlook suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although it’s likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Tackling violent crime

One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the rise in violent crime. Figures released in January found overall violent crime in England and Wales had risen by 19% on the previous year.

As our blog reported in March, police forces around the country, along with health services, local government, education and the private sector have been paying close attention to the experience of Glasgow in tackling violent crime.

Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was launched in 2005, and from the start it set out to treat knife crime not just as a policing matter, but as a public health issue. In its first ten years, the VRU helped to halve the number of homicides in the city, with further progress in subsequent years.

In March, our blog explained that the VRU takes a holistic approach to its work:

“…staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.”

 Protecting the blue planet

Environmental issues have always featured strongly in our blog, and in a year when people in larger numbers than ever have taken to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, we’ve reported on topics such as low emission zones, electric vehicles and deposit return schemes.

In August, we focused on the blue economy. The world’s oceans and seas are hugely important to the life of the planet, not least because they are home to an astonishing variety of biodiversity. In addition, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. But they are also a source of food, jobs and water – an estimated 3 billion people around the world rely on the seas and oceans for their livelihood.

Pollution is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, and, as our blog reported, governments are finally waking up to the need for action:

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships. 

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of place

The ties that bind environmental factors, health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. This was underlined at an international conference in June on the importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities.

One of the speakers was Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde. His research supports the idea that poverty is not the result of bad choices, but rather the absence of a sense of coherence and purpose that people need to make good choices:

“People who have a sense of purpose, control and self-esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices. Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that”.

Celebrating diversity

While it sometimes seems as if our society has made great strides in stamping out prejudice and supporting minority groups, at other times the stark reality of discrimination can shine a light on how far we still have to go.

In June, we marked Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month with two blog posts that aimed to raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today:

“Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults. There is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.”

But our blog also highlighted work being done to address these issues and to spread the word about GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage:

“Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller MovementFriends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community. The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making.”

 Back to the future

Since first launching in 2014, The Knowledge Exchange blog has published more than 700 posts, covering topics as varied as health and planning, education and digital, the arts, disabilities, work and transport.

The key issues of our times – climate change, Brexit and the economy haven’t been neglected by our blog, but we’ve looked at them in the context of specific topics such as air pollution, higher education and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we head into a new year, the aims of The Knowledge Exchange blog remain: to raise awareness of issues, problems, solutions and research in public policy and practice.

We wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2020.

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.