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.


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Recycling: is it worth it?

How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should local government investment in AI?

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


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Reeling in the year: a look back at 2018

It’s been another busy year for The Knowledge Exchange Blog. We’ve covered a variety of subjects, from housing and the environment to education and planning. So as the year draws to a close, now’s a good time to reflect on some of the subjects we’ve been blogging about during 2018.

Bibliotheraphy, walkability and family learning

We started the year with health and wellbeing in mind. Our first blog post of 2018 highlighted the increasing application of “bibliotherapy”:

“The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.”

In February, we blogged about family learning, where parents engage in learning activities with their children. This can involve organised programmes such as Booksmart, but activities such as reading to children or singing with them can also be described as family learning:

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

In recent years, growing numbers of cities and towns have introduced “shared spaces”, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers share the same, deregulated space. As we reported in March, the practice has proved divisive, with supporters claiming that shared spaces can improve the urban environment, revitalise town centres, and reduce congestion, while opponents believe that shared space schemes – particularly the removal of kerbs and crossings – are dangerous and exclusionary for vulnerable groups of pedestrians, people with disabilities and those with reduced mobility.

In April, we took the opportunity to promote the Idox Information Service, highlighting a selection of the hundreds of items added to our database since the beginning of 2018. All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

Voters, apprentices and city trees

Local elections in May prompted us to blog about the voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.”

A year after the launch of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy in June, we highlighted a report from the Reform think tank which suggested that significant reforms were needed to improve England’s apprenticeship system. Among the recommended changes were a renewed focus on quality over quantity, removal of the 10% employer co-investment requirement and making Ofqual the sole quality assurance body for maintaining apprenticeship standards.

The shortage of affordable housing continues to exercise the minds of policy makers, and in July we blogged about its impact on the private rented sector:

“In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.”

The long, hot summer of 2018 was one to remember, but its effect on air quality in urban areas underlined the need to combat the pollution in our air. In August, we blogged about an innovation that could help to clear the air:

“Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.”

Planning, polarisation and liveable cities

September saw another highly successful Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference. It opened with a thought-provoking presentation by Greg Lloyd, professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who challenged delegates to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

In October, we focused on the ever-increasing job polarisation affecting the labour market:

In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%). As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown.”

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, presenting significant challenges to local authorities who have to try and make their cities work for everyone. In November, we reported from The Liveable City conference in Edinburgh, which showcased ideas from the UK and Denmark on how to make cities more attractive for residents and visitors:

“A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people.”

Although much has been made of the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end, many local authorities are still struggling to provide services within tight financial constraints. One of our final blogs this year reported on local councils that are selling their assets to generate revenue:

“In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations.”

Brexit means….

Overshadowing much of public policy in 2018 has been the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our blog posts have reflected the uncertainties posed by Brexit with regard to science and technology, local authority funding and academic research.

As we enter 2019, those uncertainties remain, and what actually happens is still impossible to predict. As always, we’ll continue to blog about public policy and practice, and try to make sense of the important issues, based on evidence, facts and research.

To all our readers, a very happy Christmas, and our best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

“The great British sell-off” – losing community assets to balance budgets

Since 2016, local authorities have been allowed to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 (now extended to 2021-22) into transforming frontline services, something they were previously prohibited from doing.  Following years of austerity and the extent of recent government funding cuts, it is not surprising that councils have used such money in this way.

However, the rate at which such assets are being sold has raised concerns over the potential loss of publicly-owned buildings and spaces.  Earlier this year, coinciding with the launch of their Save our Spaces campaign, Locality highlighted that on average more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off every year – “more than four times the number of Starbucks in the UK.”

‘Financial predicament’

This year’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on the financial sustainability of councils highlights the financial predicament facing councils across the country. While it notes that the sector has done well to manage substantial funding cuts since 2010-11, financial pressure has increased markedly since 2014. In real terms, there has been a reduction in government funding of 49.1% since 2010, representing a reduction in local government spending power of 28.6%.

These cuts are coupled with rising demand for services and other cost pressures. For example, demand has increased for homelessness services and adult and children’s social care. The NAO highlights that from 2010-11 to 2016-17:

  • the number of households assessed as homeless and entitled to temporary accommodation under the statutory homeless duty increased by 33.9%;
  • the number of looked-after children grew by 10.9%; and
  • the estimated number of people in need of care aged 65 and over increased by 14.3%.

Other cost pressures have included higher national insurance contributions, the apprenticeship levy and the National Living Wage.

It is perhaps no shock that Northamptonshire county council became the first local authority since 1998 to be issued with a section 114 notice earlier this year, indicating it was unable to balance its books and at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018/19. Nor is it indeed a shock that the NAO have identified other councils that are in danger of following suit in the next three years.

Despite this dire financial situation, it seems worse is to come. It has been recently announced that local services are to face a further £1.3bn cut in government funding in 2019/20. The revenue support grant, the main source of government funding for local services, will be cut by 36% next year – the largest annual deduction in almost a decade.

While the 2018 Budget has made provision for extra funding for adult social care, recent analysis suggests this falls short of what is needed to plug the projected funding gap.

Plugging the gap

In a desperate bid to raise finances, councils have been trying to find alternative income streams. A growing reliance on the use of reserves to offset funding reductions is an approach highlighted as unsustainable by the NAO. Most councils plan to increase or introduce charges for various services and many have also been making use of the government’s flexibility offer of using capital receipts to make improvements to services.

According to the NAO, in the year to April 2017, £118.5m of such capital receipts were used in this way. Locality has reported that the rate of asset sales has been consistently high for the last five years, with an average of 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces being sold off each year. Many councils are hoping to sell off their historic town halls to save much needed money. But it’s not just buildings that are under threat; council-owned parks and other land are also at risk. A recent parks survey, published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), found that 85% of councils surveyed expect a cut in parks and green space funding in the next year. In January, Knowsley council voted to go ahead with proposals to sell 10% of its parkland to fund the running of its remaining parks, since funding for its green spaces is to end in March 2019.

Locality warns that selling such assets on the open market could result in them being lost to the community forever as they have no real influence over what they will be used for; and could potentially lead to social, economic and environmental decline.

Indeed, concerns have been raised over the programme of disposing of council assets by Norfolk County Council, which has recently been reported to be looking to save £10m by selling its assets.

Locality suggests that community ownership is the answer to saving such assets under threat. Community Asset Transfer, set up in 2003, enables councils to sell assets to community organisations at below market rates in return for demonstrable community benefit.

In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations. However, the Locality report shows that less than half of councils have a Community Asset Transfer policy. It also notes that while community ownership is a ‘powerful alternative’ to losing public buildings and spaces, it is not straight forward, and community organisations face a number of barriers, including:

  • funding;
  • lack of expertise;
  • limited time; and
  • a lack of clear process.

With 95% of councils surveyed expecting the sell-off of publicly owned buildings and spaces to play an increasingly important role in the next five years, it is surely paramount that something is done to protect important community assets from being lost.

Way forward

Locality has called for the government to create a Community Ownership Fund and for a change in legislation to make it easier for community organisations to gain control of such assets.

Or perhaps councils could follow the example of others who, instead of selling their assets, are using them to generate revenue. Lewisham Council for example, is planning to raise £500k through hosting large commercial events in its parks.

Whatever route local authorities take, it remains to be seen if others will follow in the  footsteps of Northamptonshire or succeed in counteracting continuing cuts to maintain services and balance budgets; and indeed protect important community assets.


If you enjoyed reading this you may also like our previous blogs on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of green spaces.

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Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


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The private rented sector: meeting demand and improving data

The private rented sector (PRS) has grown recently, to become a more than significant part of the housing market in the UK. A shortfall in social housing availability, and extortionate deposit costs for first time buyers has meant that demand in the private sector has grown exponentially since the 1990s, the sector now taking in clients from across the demographic spectrum.

But research has shown the demand for private rent housing is not just about finance. Increasingly, many young professionals actively choose to live in the private rented sector because they like the flexibility and locational benefits of private rents. Renting privately can mean they are able to move freely for jobs without being constrained by a mortgage, and live in city centre locations, with short commutes and close proximity to amenities like shops, restaurants, gyms and cinemas.

Despite the growing “young professional” market, the sector also (in some areas) has something of an image problem. Characterised by rogue landlords charging extortionate rents for poor quality homes, with the ability to remove tenants without reason or much notice. This negative aspect, which centres on the issue of tenant rights and security within the private sector, is something which has been discussed widely at a number of events recently, for example, at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) event we attended in Glasgow last month. It is also something which last year the Scottish Government legislated to try and mitigate.

Ensuring quality in a place people can call home

One of the other major issues that is often highlighted with PRS is the need for a minimum quality standard, bringing private lets into line with the minimum standards (supposedly) adhered to in social housing. The legislation and policing of this element of the PRS is proving more complicated to navigate, although it is something which is being discussed within the Scottish Government.

There is also the growing issue of the short-term rented sector. You cannot have failed to notice, whether you work in housing or not, the rise of sites like AirBnB and HomeAway which allow individuals to list entire properties or spare rooms out on a short-term basis. Concerns as to the growth of this market have been raised the world over. The major issues are the impact on permanent residents, who can find having new neighbours each week disconcerting, and on the local housing market more generally, as the rise of short term lets then reduces the pool available for longer term private lets. Cities like Barcelona are, however, beginning to look at how regulation and use of permits can address the negative impacts, and are being watched the world over to see if their actions will work.

How can we meet demand?

It is often said that housing is a complex flux of different sub-sectors, and that, more often than not, one cannot function effectively without the other. The PRS, the housing market and social housing are all reliant on each other to help control demand and prices and ensure that everyone, regardless of circumstance, has somewhere that they can call home.

One of the major issues with meeting demand is space and land to build; another is funding and another is understanding exactly who needs homes, and what type of homes they need. In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.

Understanding these trends will be key to meeting demand. In order to do this the data on housing, particularly within the private rented sector needs to improve. Research from the Urban Big Data Centre and CaCHE found that data is lacking, and that we need to improve it if we are to improve the PRS more generally.

A recent evaluation by the Welsh Government of Rent Smart Wales found that Rent Smart Wales and its database of registered landlords has provided good quality information and guidance to local authorities and landlords, as well as driving up standards within the PRS in Wales. Learning from how data collected on the Rent Smart Wales database can be maximised to provide an accessible source of information on the PRS in Wales is very important going forward, and this is something we are seeing increasingly across the sector – the desire for more data, to help those within the sector make better decisions.

What next?

A report released by LSE in June 2018 found that while the PRS has grown significantly, projections suggest that it will start to level out, and reach a state of stasis, or even decline in the coming years. Other reports have contradicted this, however, stating that unless there is an intervention or significant change in house prices, more people than ever will be forced to live within the PRS.

What does seem to be agreed upon is that better data and understanding of the sector and how to manage it is necessary and that ultimately, standards will improve across the board, with or without government intervention, but the way we view private rented sector accommodation will also change.

PRS properties will not only be buy-to-let houses, converted into HMOs, or tiny bedsits where 5 people share 2 rooms. Instead the market for sectors like build-to-rent are growing, and changing the expectations of the new generation of renters about what to expect from PRS accommodation.

In the future the ambition is for high quality, stability and housing which is suitable for a range of different tenants and their needs from young professionals and families with children, right through to older people living in retirement villages managed by a corporate landlord. It is hoped this will help stabilise rents and improve standards across the board, creating affordable places that people can plan to live in long term, with security and quality at their heart.


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

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Crowdsourcing in smart cities: a world of best practice

By Steven McGinty

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

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

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

Scottish Government

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

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

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

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

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

Milton Keynes

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

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

Madrid City Council

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

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

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

Reykjavik City Council

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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


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

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:

The kids are all right? Embedding children’s rights in town planning policy and practice

 

A survey undertaken by YoungScot to accompany the Scottish Government’s Places, People and Planning consultation concluded that the majority of young people felt that they should be involved in planning in their local area and that their local councils should look at ways to support children and young people to do this.

The current Scottish Planning Bill contains a number of provisions that aim to do just that – including enhancing the engagement of children and young people in shaping their local areas through the statutory development plans, and the requirement for planning authorities to use methods that will secure the engagement of children and young people.

The right to participate

This focus upon children’s participation in the planning system can be viewed as part of a wider move towards the greater acknowledgement of children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC sets out the fundamental rights of all children and young people across the world.  It states that the best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children.  There are, therefore, many aspects that are directly relevant to the planning system.

Indeed, the right to participate in decision-making (Article 12); and the right to participate in play, rest, leisure and culture (Article 31) are particularly pertinent.  These include:

  • The right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.
  • An environment secure from social harm and violence, and sufficiently free from pollution, traffic and other hazards that impede free and safe movement.
  • Space to play outdoors in diverse and challenging physical environments, with access to supportive adults, when necessary.
  • Opportunities to experience, interact with and play in natural environments and the animal world.
  • Opportunities to explore and understand the cultural and artistic heritage of their community, participate in, create and shape it.
  • Opportunities to participate with other children in games, sports and other recreational activities, supported, where necessary, by trained facilitators or coaches.

Child-friendly cities

Children’s rights are also at the heart of the Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI):

A child friendly city is the embodiment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the local level, which in practice means that children’s rights are reflected in policies, laws, programmes and budgets. In a child friendly city, children are active agents; their voices and opinions are taken into consideration and influence decision making processes.”

Four key principles of the UNCRC are considered to be particularly pertinent to the CFCI initiative:

  • Non-discrimination – a child-friendly city is friendly and inclusive for all children
  • Best interests – putting children first in all decisions that affect them
  • Every child’s right to life and maximum development – providing the optimal conditions for childhood, including their physical, mental, spiritual, moral, psychological and social development
  • Listening to children and developing their views – promoting children’s active participation as citizens and rights-holders, ensuring their freedom of expression

Awareness and understanding of children’s rights among planners

However, in her research on children’s role within the town planning system, Dr Jenny Wood found that there was little acknowledgement or understanding of children’s rights under the UNCRC.  Indeed, planners commonly believed that the provision of schools, parks and designated play facilities were all that was required in order to meet children’s needs.

Dr Wood argues that if public spaces and the planning process are to become more inclusive, then planners need to develop a better understanding of children’s rights.  In a separate blog, she sets out five key steps to help embed children’s rights in the everyday work of planners and other practitioners:

  • specific children’s rights training for planners
  • government guidance on, and suggested methods for, engagement with children and young people
  • the creation of a robust and routine feedback mechanism between planners and child participants
  • encouraging networking, collaboration, and skills exchange between planners, play workers, and youth workers
  • the collation of an accessible evidence base on children, young people and their relationship to, and use of, the built environment

Future directions

There are some wider signs of progress – including the introduction of Children’s Rights and Well-Being Impact Assessments (CRWIA), which are now required for all new policy developments in Scotland, and new measures that require specific public authorities in Scotland, including all local authorities and health boards, to report every three years on how they have progressed children’s rights as set out in the UNCRC.

The current reform of the planning system offers an ideal opportunity to further advance children’s rights by encouraging and supporting local planning authorities to involve children and young people in planning as part of their everyday practice.


Feeling inspired?  Why not read our previous blog posts on involving children in the town planning process and the creation of child-friendly cities.   

Idox Information Service members can also download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city via our customer website.