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.

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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