Knowledge from a distance: recent webinars on public and social policy

During the national lockdown, it’s been impossible for most of us to attend conferences and seminars. But many organisations have been harnessing the power of technology to help people share their knowledge, ideas and experience in virtual seminars.

In the past few weeks, the research officers at The Knowledge Exchange have joined some of these webinars, and in today’s blog post we’d like to share with you some of the public and social policy issues that have been highlighted in these online events.

The liveable city

Organised by the Danish Embassy in the UK, this webinar brought together a range of speakers from Denmark and the UK to consider how our cities may change post COVID-19, including questions around green space, high street recovery, active travel and density and types of residential living accommodation in our towns and cities.

Speakers came from two London boroughs, architectural design and urban planning backgrounds and gave examples of experiences in Newham, Ealing and Copenhagen as well as other more general examples from across the UK and Denmark. The seminar’s website also includes links to presentations on previous Liveable City events in Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Glasgow.


What next for public health?

“Healthcare just had its 2008 banking crisis… COVID-19 has generated a real seismic shift within the sector and I don’t think we will ever go back”

This webinar brought together commentators and thought leaders from across the digital health and tech sectors to think about how public health may be transformed by our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant shift to digital and online platforms to deliver care.

The speakers discussed data, privacy and trust and the need to recognise different levels of engagement with digital platforms to ensure that specific groups like older people don’t feel unable to access services. They also discussed the importance of not being driven by data, but using data to help us to make better decisions. The webinar was organised by BIMA, a community of businesses, charities and academia across the UK.


Green Cities

This project, organised by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), included 3 webinars each looking at different elements of green infrastructure within cities, including designing and planning, assessing the quality of different types of green infrastructure and highlighting the positive impacts of incorporating more good quality green spaces for mental and physical health, as well as for environmental purposes.


Rough sleeping and homelessness during and after the coronavirus

Organised by the Centre for London, this webinar brought together speakers from across the homelessness sector within London, including St Mungos, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Croydon Council to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting people who are homeless or sleeping rough in the city.

Each speaker brought insights from their own experiences supporting homeless people in the capital (so far) during the COVID 19-pandemic. They highlighted some of the challenges, as well as some of the more positive steps forward, particularly in relation to co-operation and partnership working across different levels of government and with other sectors such as health.

They also commended everyone involved for the speed at which they acted to support homeless people, particularly those who were vulnerable or at risk. However, concerns were also raised around future planning and the importance of not regressing back into old ways of working once the pandemic response tails off.


Build Back Better Webinar 1: Poverty, Health and Covid-19: Emerging Lessons in Scotland

This webinar was hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of a wider series that they are hosting.  It looked at how to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic, with a particular focus upon addressing the long-standing inequalities that exist throughout society.

The event included presentations from Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at Public Health Scotland, Dr Anne Mullin, Chair of the Deep End GPs, and Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at University of Edinburgh.

A key message throughout was that while the immediate health impacts of the pandemic have been huge, there is an urgent need to acknowledge and address the “long-term challenge” – the impact on health caused by the economic and social inequalities associated with the pandemic.

It is estimated that over 10 years, the impact of inequalities will be six times greater than that of an unmitigated pandemic. Therefore, ‘building back better’ is essential in order to ensure long-term population health.


Build Back Webinar 2: Returning to Work: Addressing Unemployment after Covid-19

This webinar was also hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of their wider webinar series on the pandemic.

The focus here was how to address the inevitable rise in unemployment following the pandemic – the anticipated increase in jobless numbers is currently estimated to be over three million.

The event included presentations from Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst at Resolution Foundation, Anna Ritchie Allan, Executive Director at Close the Gap, and Tony Wilson, Director of the Institute for Employment Studies.

The webinar highlighted the unprecedented scale of the problem – noting that more than half of the working population are currently not working due to the pandemic, being either unemployed, furloughed or in receipt of self-employment support.

A key theme of the presentation was that certain groups are likely to be disproportionately affected by unemployment as the support provided by the government’s support schemes draw to a close later this year.  This includes women – particularly those from BAME groups, the lower paid and migrants – and young people.  So it’s essential that the support provided by the government in the form of skills, training, job creation schemes etc addresses this, and is both gender-sensitive and intersectional.


Supporting the return to educational settings autistic children and young people

The aim of this webinar, provided by the National Autism Implementation Team (NAIT), was to offer a useful overview of how to support autistic children and young people. and those with additional support needs, back into educational settings following the pandemic.

Currently around 25% of learners in mainstream schools have additional support needs, and it is generally accepted that good autism practice is beneficial for all children.

The webinar set out eight key messages for supporting a successful return, which included making anticipatory adjustments rather than ‘waiting and seeing’, using visual supports, providing predictability, planning for movement breaks and provision of a ‘safe space’ for each child.  The importance of listening to parents was also emphasised.


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Ellisland Farm, Dumfries. “P1050381.JPG” by ejbluefolds is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Burns at Ellisland

Our Research Officer, Donna Gardiner has also been following some cultural webinars, including one that focused on the links between Scotland’s national poet and the Ellisland Farm site. The webinar was led by Professor Gerard Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

Robert Burns lived at Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire between May 1788 and November 1791, and is where he produced a significant proportion of his work – 23% of his letters and 28% of his songs and poems, including the famous Tam O’Shanter and Auld Lang Syne.

The presentation looked at how Robert Burns was influenced by the farm itself and its location on the banks of the River Nith.  It also touched on his involvement with local politics and friends in the area, which too influenced his work.

It was suggested that the Ellisland farm site could be considered in many ways to be the birthplace of wider European Romanticism. The webinar also included contributions from Joan McAlpine MSP, who is chair of the newly formed Robert Burns Ellisland Trust. She discussed how to help promote and conserve this historic site, particularly given the impact of the coronavirus on tourism.


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Controlling the urban landscape: the pros and cons of putting public spaces in private hands

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A 2007 report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) described the growing private ownership and management of the public realm as a “quiet revolution in land ownership”.

The study included a handful of early examples, such as the Excel Centre and Canary Wharf in London, and Liverpool’s Paradise Street development (later rebranded Liverpool One). Since then, more of these privately owned public spaces (POPS) have been appearing across the UK, including Granary Square and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, and Brindleyplace in Birmingham.

The evolution of public space

Until relatively recently, local government owned, managed and maintained streets and squares in the UK’s towns and cities. But over the past two decades, budgetary constraints have diminished local authorities’ ability to maintain the public realm. Increasingly, the gap has been filled by the private sector, which has created new POPS.

On the face of it, the redevelopment of previously run-down areas with no cost to the public purse would appear to be a good thing. But there are concerns about the private landlords of these spaces who have the power to restrict and control activities of the public using these spaces.  Alongside these new private-public developments, the rise of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) has increased private sector influence over town and city centres.

A bridge too far?

The issue of privatised public spaces was given renewed prominence with the proposals for a new “Garden Bridge” across the River Thames. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick  the project envisions a pedestrian bridge with its own elevated garden.

Supporters say the Garden Bridge will enrich London, providing economic, environmental and aesthetic benefits. But opponents have expressed concerns about a list of rules prohibiting activities on the bridge, such as busking and cycling. Restrictions of this kind have been applied to other POPS, sometimes resulting in awkward encounters between members of the public and security guards representing the property managers.

As things stand, the fate of the Garden Bridge remains uncertain, following the decision by the Mayor of London to set up an inquiry into the project’s use of public money, and a warning from the National Audit Office that the money may have been wasted.

The pros and cons of POPS

But does it really matter if urban spaces that appear to be public are actually privately-owned?

No, say POPS supporters. Without private funding, spaces such as Brindleyplace and LiverpoolOne might not have been developed at all. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining these privately owned public spaces can be borne by the private sector, instead of local authorities (and the taxpayer). They also point to Liverpool One as a successful example of town centre regeneration, and suggest that private ownership of public space can be a catalyst for renewal of neglected spaces.

But others are unhappy with the creeping privatisation of public spaces, arguing that they sacrifice community spirit and historical identity for the sake of a sterile, monotonous, corporatised spaces. Opponents of POPS are also concerned about the restrictions land owners place on such spaces.

The view from Aberdeen

One city which has recently bucked the trend towards private control over public spaces is Aberdeen. In 2010, the city council planned to hand over the historic Union Terrace Gardens in the city centre to a consortium of business interests – Aberdeen City Garden Trust – under a long lease. The trust released its plans to redesign the Victorian park, raising the sunken gardens to street level. Campaign groups mounted opposition to the scheme, but it was narrowly approved in a city-wide referendum in 2012. However, a new Labour administration came to power shortly after the referendum, and the scheme was finally scrapped. During the summer of 2016, the council announced new plans to redevelop the site, which will remain in public hands.

Final thoughts

The Aberdeen example shows that moves to put public spaces in private hands are not universally popular, or inevitable. Even so, many local authorities are struggling to maintain public spaces, leaving the way open for private developers. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, in the borough of Newham, is one of the most recent POPS to appear in London. Sir Robin Wales, the elected mayor of Newham would have preferred the park to be maintained using public funds, but has accepted that his borough could not afford to manage it: “We know we don’t have an income stream.”


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