‘Digital prescribing’ – could tech provide the solution to loneliness in older people?

Notruf und Hilfe für Rentner und Kranke

The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness could reach two million by 2026. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years.

It has also been estimated that around 1.5 million people aged 50 and over are ‘chronically lonely.’

With an ageing population and increasing life expectancy, it would seem likely that loneliness among older people is set to continue; unless something significant is done. According to Age UK, tackling loneliness requires more than social activities. A new report from Vodafone suggests technology could be the answer.

Impact

The impact of loneliness in older people can be immense, not only for the older people themselves but for those around them. It can also put strain on the NHS, employers and organisations providing support to people who are lonely; and have a negative impact on growth and living standards.

Research has suggested that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness are at increased risk of developing health conditions such as dementia and depression, as well as increased risk of mortality. The damaging health effect of loneliness has been shown to be comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Older people who are lonely are therefore more likely to use health services than those who are never lonely.

The economic impact is also significant. It has been estimated that increases in service usage create a cost to the public sector of an average £12,000 per person over the medium term (15 years). Vodafone’s report suggests that loneliness has a £1 billion a year impact on public services. It has also been found to cost employers £2.5 billion per year.

How tech can ease the burden

According to Vodafone, “new technologies are a key part of the solution” alongside more traditional public and community services. Two key routes through which technology can be used to reduce loneliness are highlighted:

  • by supporting older people to remain independent in their home and community; and
  • maintaining and building networks and contacts.

From wearable devices and touchscreens to personal robots that act as the eyes, ears and voice of people unable to present physically, these are all highlighted as viable and positive uses of tech to ease the burden of loneliness. And there are already a number of examples of innovative use of technology that can benefit older people.

1024px-AV1

No Isolation AV1 robot. Image by Mats Hartvig Abrahamsen, via CC BY-SA 4.0

Good practice examples

One such example is Vodafone’s smart wearable wristband, the V-SOS Band, which supports independent living while also increasing the wearer’s safety. It can directly alert family members via their phone if the wearer needs help. It also uses fall detection technology so that families can be alerted automatically if the wearer falls either in the home or when they are out.

Kraydel is another example. Its smart TV-top hub links elderly people to their carers or family members, through their TV screens, helping people be more independent and remain in their own homes for longer as well as helping them be more socially connected. It provides for user-friendly video calling via the TV and can help people return home from hospital earlier. Via connection to the cloud, the device interprets the data it receives to build up a picture of the user’s daily activities, health and wellbeing. It issues medicine and diary reminders, and alerts caregivers if it sees something amiss, or identifies potential risk.

Although aimed at children, No Isolation’s AV1 – a smart robot designed to reduce the risks of children and young adults with long-term illness becoming socially isolated – demonstrates the positive impact innovative technology can have on social isolation and loneliness. The robot avatar, with its 360 degree camera, acts as the child’s eyes, ears and voice in the classroom or at other events, keeping children closely involved with school and in touch with their friends.

Of course, loneliness is particularly prevalent among people who don’t use smart technology such as smart phones and tablets, one of the reasons cited by Kraydel for using the TV – probably the most familiar and widely used screen globally. This issue also led No Isolation to develop KOMP, a communication device for seniors that requires no prior digital skills. It enables users to receive photos, messages and video calls from their children and grandchildren, operated by one single button.

Another new project recently launched in Sweden – considered one of the world’s loneliest countries – uses a unique conversational artificial intelligence which enables older people to capture life stories for future generations while providing companionship. Memory Lane works with Google Voice Assistant and is able to hold meaningful conversations in as human a way as possible. A pilot test showed that the software “instantly sparked intimate conversations” and led to stories that hadn’t been told before.

Final thoughts

With a significant number of older people lacking confidence in their ability to use technology for essential online activities, support for digital skills is obviously still important. In response to this issue, Vodafone has launched free masterclasses across the UK, as part of a programme called TechConnect.

Many of the above innovative examples bypass the traditional barriers to realising the potential of technology in reducing loneliness as most:

  • don’t rely on older people engaging directly with the technology; and
  • are based on mobile technology that can be constantly connected, whether inside or outside the home.

However, there is still the issue of awareness of such technologies and their accessibility to older people. The Vodafone report suggests that access could be improved through social and digital prescribing and revitalising support for independent living, and calls for a challenge fund to support innovation. It is suggested that these innovative ideas are just the start and that combined action is needed from across all levels of government, business and community groups, amongst others.

Perhaps if such action is taken to address existing barriers, we will see a reverse in the loneliness trend over the next 10 years.


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Housing wealth matters

Houses-on-coins-by-Images-Money

With the widening gap between the richest and poorest across different measures of inequality, there is growing awareness that income is not the only factor that impacts living standards. This has led to increasing interest in the distribution of wealth. While wealth can take various forms, the most visible way households accrue and store substantial amounts of wealth is through property ownership.

Property wealth in Scotland has increased ten-fold over the last 50 years – driven primarily by rising house prices, but also by the increasing number of properties and transfer of public housing into the private sector. However, this wealth is not distributed equally. In its recent examination of the scale and distribution of housing wealth in Scotland over time, the Resolution Foundation highlighted the marked rise in housing wealth inequality over the last decade, which is now twice as high as income inequality.

Why?

The new report shows that the growing inequality in housing wealth is in large part due to the fact that while very few families in Scotland currently have no form of income, over one in three Scottish households hold no property wealth at all and those in the top income decile own around 30% of the country’s property wealth.

Additional property ownership has also increased in recent years, adding to the level of inequality. The biggest wealth gaps were found to be in Scotland’s largest cities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow – where low rates of home ownership are coupled with ownership of multiple properties, concentrating housing wealth in fewer households’ hands.

In addition, the last decade has seen many people struggle to get a foot on the housing ladder and today’s young people hold less housing wealth than their predecessors. Location was also found to have an impact as house prices can differ greatly by local authority, although these variations have reduced in recent years.

As a result, levels of housing wealth inequality are now nearing the same levels as those in England and Wales, although rates of homeownership remain higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

With more people now having some form of income than ever before, it is perhaps reasonable to ask why housing wealth is so important.

The Foundation’s report highlights that owning property has value over and above general wealth effects in that it can also provide a secure home; a source of income; and greater financial security in later life. Indeed, the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) and Policy Scotland’s evidence review, which complemented the Foundation’s analysis, also highlights why housing wealth matters, citing many economic, health and social impacts.

Why housing wealth matters

While it has been previously argued that housing wealth inequalities are of little significance in terms of macroeconomic impact and can therefore be disregarded, there is now a growing body of evidence suggesting that in fact these inequalities do matter. The evidence review notes that:

  • housing assets are of growing importance encouraging household spending and were implicated in the global financial crisis;
  • access to home ownership is increasingly reliant on parental property wealth with negative implications for social mobility;
  • housing wealth is cumulative: e.g. buy-to-let has increased dramatically in Scotland over the last 20 years, often facilitated by the re-mortgaging of existing property by owners;
  • rising house price and wealth effects reduces productivity growth; and
  • different rates of house price change create inequalities across UK regions.

This is not only the case in Scotland and across the UK; across Europe housing wealth inequality has been shown to exacerbate socio-economic differences by segregating households based on income levels.

In relation to health and wellbeing, housing wealth can be a double-edged sword. A rise in house prices can lead to increased physical health of owners but decreased physical and mental health of renters.

Of course, historically, housing wealth has been seen to contribute to reduced wealth inequalities due to increased home ownership, however, there is now also an emerging concern that high house prices and rents may impair labour supply and productivity.

HWI

Main elements of wealth inequality processes within the housing system (CaCHE, 2019)

It is clear that income is not the only important factor in inequalities. This is illustrated by recent figures on child poverty and in-work poverty, which show that despite recent record levels of employment, two thirds of children living in poverty come from working households and more than half the people living in relative poverty in 2017/18 (53%) lived in households where at least one adult was in paid employment.

The Resolution Foundation notes that while the scale and distribution of housing wealth has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, wealth taxation has not.

Indeed, it has been recently argued that policy is widening the housing wealth divide and that the local supply of housing needs to be realigned with local housing demand if this is to be rectified.

Way forward

The research suggests that a number of actions could be taken to address the growing housing wealth inequalities in Scotland:

  • Firstly, support for sustainable home ownership, especially for those on lower incomes or in the younger age bracket is highlighted as one obvious response, although it notes that policies such as Help to Buy risk stimulating demand to the point that house prices are driven up. As a result, it is suggested that policy action to lessen the demand for holding additional properties would be a more sensible strategy.
  • Second, it is argued that there is a strong case for substantial reform in the area of the property taxation to address the current mismatch between the value of housing wealth and taxation.
  • Third, it is suggested that the Scottish Government could give consideration as to how the benefits of holding housing wealth can be provided to those who are unlikely to ever be able to support home ownership, with more efficient taxing of housing wealth. In addition, the government could also build on their recent reforms which have provided tenants with greater security of tenure and more predictable rent increases, and look to provide more support to low-income families via further supplements to benefits.

With the current system of council tax described as “highly regressive”, “inequitable” and “inefficient”, the research calls for much needed reform.

Both reports acknowledge that radical change is a political challenge but while the Resolution Foundation’s report states the case for action is clear, the evidence review advises caution, suggesting that a more equal housing system is a long-term aspiration rather than something practical and realisable in the short to medium term.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in some of our previous posts on housing topics.

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Better outcomes for children, parents and society – why ‘family learning matters’

mother reading to her son

Improving the circumstances of families from deprived backgrounds has been a key policy focus of government in recent years, with large amounts of resources and funding having been allocated to trying to improve families’ outcomes.

One approach to achieving this, which can lead to positive outcomes for both adults and children is family learning – the importance of which is receiving increasing attention.

What is family learning?

Family learning has been described as “any learning activity that involves both children and adult family members, where learning outcomes are intended for both, and that contributes to a culture of learning in the family”. It can involve both formal and informal provision, such as engagement with programmes such as Booksmart or attending events at libraries and museums.

Parents may not even be aware that activities such as reading to their children from an early age, or singing with them, constitutes a learning activity. Unfortunately, research indicates that a large number of parents do not engage in these activities at all, despite evidence that a home environment which encourages learning and communication is as important an indicator of a child’s achievement as parental income and social status.

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”.

With real concerns raised over children’s basic skills in recent years, family learning could be part of the solution.

Lack of basic skills

Last year, the National Literacy Trust highlighted analysis which showed that 86% of English constituencies contained at least one ward with “urgent literacy need”.

The latest edition of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showed there was a seven point drop in P7 pupils who can write well or very well between 2012 and 2016. And in November 2016, 79% of Reception teachers in Wales surveyed for Save the Children reported seeing children starting school without the ability to speak in complete sentences. One primary headteacher highlighted the huge need for parental awareness and engagement”.

In comparison, primary schools in Northern Ireland continue to rank among the best in the world in maths. The latest edition of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that Northern Irish children are the best in Europe at maths, and sixth best in the world.

The education system in Northern Ireland prioritises a policy of Parental Involvement in Numeracy (PIN), and government policy is to impress upon parents the role that they must play in the development of essential basic skills. The government has also just launched its ‘Giving your child a helping hand’ campaign, which is aimed at increasing parental involvement in the education of their children.

As children spend only around 15% of their time involved in formal learning activities, i.e. in school, there is substantial scope for them to be involved in more informal learning activities that will benefit both their academic and personal development.

Benefits of family learning

Research has shown that family learning interventions could increase children’s overall development levels by up to 15 percentage points for those from deprived backgrounds, and induce an average reading attainment improvement of six months.

Survey findings published by Ofsted also found that participation in family learning courses improved children’s behaviour in class, as well as their relationships with their peers and teachers. Teachers also reported noticing improvements in their pupils’ confidence levels, and their communication and interpersonal skills.

For adults, family learning offers two key positive outcomes for parents: the development of their relationship with their child, and personal skills development.

As with children, the basic skills of adults in the UK remains a cause for concern. In 2016, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published analysis which suggests that around five million adults in England lack the basic reading, writing and numeracy skills required to complete everyday tasks. Similar deficiencies have been found in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Less quantitative evidence exists of the impact of family learning engagement on adult literacy levels. However, it has been found that the average portion of adult learners achieving a qualification on family literacy programmes is higher than those on standard programmes. An evaluation of the Family Learning Impact Fund (FLIF) found that 85% of learners taking part achieved some sort of progression through taking part in a FLIF course, such as going onto a higher level of learning, or new or improved employment.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has also highlighted a wider societal impact arising from adults taking part in family learning activities, in terms of participation in volunteering and community activities.

In addition to better outcomes for children, adults and society, family learning can also benefit the government. It is relatively low cost, as it draws on many existing resources such as libraries and museums.

Sheffield City Council, for example, has estimated that for every £1 they spend on family learning, a return on investment (ROI) of £7.58 is generated. This is down to the fact that family learning is a single intervention with the potential to achieve multiple outcomes – not only for parents and children in the present, but for future generations

Final thoughts

It could be argued that the socioeconomic benefits of family learning could help to ease the burden on government resources at the same time as improving families’ outcomes.

Clearly, the benefits of family learning to society and the government can’t be ignored – particularly with increasingly tight budgets.


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Supporting those who serve – but what about the children?

By Heather Cameron

The valuable contribution made by the British armed forces is widely recognised and this Remembrance Sunday, thousands will pay an especial tribute to them.

In recent years, the government has taken encouraging steps to support Service personnel, particularly those returning to civilian life. However, there is also a need to address the effects of military life upon families and children, in particular.

Unique challenges

A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) highlighted the many unique challenges that military families face, including extreme mobility, inflexible work regimes, frequent separations, and the consequences of mental illness on the entire family. Children can be particularly affected, with significant effects upon the way they lead their lives both during the time of service and in the future.

Evidence suggests the demands of serving in the armed forces can put relationships under strain, leading to substantial demands on both spouses and children.

Children can be particularly affected by frequent moves that can disrupt their education and affect their friendships.

The CSJ report highlights a number of worrying impacts on children, including:

  • increased behavioural, emotional and disciplinary problems;
  • having to grow up too early;
  • lower academic attainment; and
  • social isolation.

The number of children affected by mobility is sizable. According to a study by Ofsted, the average mobility for Service children in primary schools is around 70% every year. Indeed, this figure may be even higher as there is no accurate record of the number of Service children in the UK.

The study also indicated that many Service children who move frequently do not perform as well as their peers and are less likely to achieve higher grades if they miss or repeat parts of the curriculum. There was evidence to suggest that the learning of many children had slowed or receded by continual moves and that they needed additional support to catch up.

As the CSJ argues, “education is one of the most important factors that will help military children after their family leaves the Armed Forces”. It is therefore vitally important that they receive the support they need.

Support

Some positive steps have been taken to provide service children with additional support.

In June 2014, the government introduced a Pupil Information Profile (PIP), which provides some basic information for teachers about children from military families making the transition between schools. It is suggested that these, along with Moving Schools Children’s Activity Packs (filled in by the child and sent to the school) have gone some way to addressing the alarming lack of communication between schools.

However, it is also noted that the poor transfer of information between schools remains a problem as the PIP still only requires very basic information and both the PIP and Activity Packs rely on parents and teachers being aware of their existence.

A number of important outcomes have been achieved through the government’s Armed Forces Covenant, including a Service Pupil Premium (SPP) in England so that 60,000 Service pupils in state schools get extra support. The SPP acknowledges that Service children need more assistance. Thus, since 2013, in addition to the Pupil Premium, the government has also offered a SPP of £300 a year per child of Service personnel on the school roll.

Similarly to the PIP, this also relies on parents informing the school that one of them is in the Service. With no accurate record of the number of children in need, it is therefore not possible to know whether children and schools are receiving the extra assistance required.

Looking forward

Clearly, important steps have been taken and the CSJ applauds the government’s commitment to do more on children’s education. However, it is also clear that “the government has further to go to support the service family as a unit.

The report therefore sets out a series of recommendations for improvement in support for military families, including several targeting children’s education. In particular, it calls for increased stability of education for Service children and greater support for transitory children, their parents and the schools.

If implemented, the CSJ describe their recommendations as an opportunity for the government to build on the good work already done, which “would provide a great service to the men and women who, in turn, provide a great service to us.”


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Tourism – is it “killing neighbourhoods”?

deck chairs at the seaside

By Heather Cameron

Today is World Tourism Day (WTD), the aim of which is “to foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.”  (United Nations)

Commencing on 27 September 1980, WTD is celebrated each year with fitting events based on themes selected by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly. The theme for 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The UNWTO says tourism can contribute to all three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – as well as the 17 UN sustainable development goals. It argues that in addition to driving growth, the tourism sector also improves the quality of people’s lives.

However, a recent wave of anti-tourism protests across Europe suggests some disagree.

Anti-tourism sentiment

Much of the focus of anti-tourist sentiment during the summer has been in Spain, where a record 75 million foreign tourists visited last year – up 10 million on 2015. Catalonia hosted more visitors than any other. Estimates suggest an extra 30 million people descended on Barcelona, where radical groups have been reported slashing tyres of rental bikes and a tour bus. The tour bus was also reportedly adorned with the slogan “tourism is killing neighbourhoods.

As the number of tourists has been growing exponentially, so too have the tensions over this surge, coupled with the impact of holiday lets on the local housing market and thus local communities.

Majorca has also experienced protests from citizens against mass tourism. Here concerns have been raised over the number of drunken visitors and the rental of apartments to non-locals, reducing the number of places for locals to live and driving up house prices.

Rising rents and the impact on the environment have been cited as of particular concern among local communities.

Social and environmental impacts

Such concern is by no means a new phenomenon.

A 2012 report on the impacts of tourism on society found that while tourism generates both wealth and jobs, it has also been seen to have negative impacts on socio-cultural values and environmental assets of host communities.

At the same time as bringing people from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions together, due to globalisation, it is argued, tourism has led to many communities losing their cultural identity and giving way to a ‘Disneyfication’ of their town or village.

And while tourism has contributed to the creation of national parks and protected areas, it has also been blamed for increased pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the three main environmental issues of tourism are the depletion of natural resources, pollution and physical degradation.

It is suggested that the main problem emanating from these impacts is that the host community picks up the tab for any damages to the environment and local culture.

Tourism clearly generates a variety of consequences, both positive and negative. It is therefore something that requires careful management.  As the 2012 report concludes, “Tourism development should be part of an economic development and must be done in a manner that is sustainable.”

Sustainable tourism

The focus of this year’s World Tourism Day therefore seems particularly apt. As the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has highlighted, this provides a unique opportunity for travel and tourism to come together to address the challenges set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals, and for the sector to address the issues of climate change, physical degradation and disruption that leaders from both inside and outside of tourism consider to be of the highest priority.

Progress has certainly been made, as the WTTC has reported:

  • travel and tourism companies were 20% more carbon efficient in 2015 than they were in 2005;
  • the sector is on course to reach a target of cutting CO2 emissions by 50% by 2035; and
  • the sector is on course to reach the target of 25% reduction by 2020.

However, as the recent anti-tourism sentiment indicates, more needs to be done to manage growth in a sustainable manner.

Final thoughts

Sustainable planning and management is clearly important to ensure the long-term viability of the tourism industry. And as the sector represents 10.2% of global GDP and supports 1 in 10 jobs globally, it is too important not to get right.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like to read some of our other tourism-related articles.

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Supporting markets to survive and thrive

For around a thousand years, the London Borough Market has existed in one form or another.  It has survived fire, flood, plague and war – and on the 3rd of June this year, a terrorist attack.  The market has since reopened, with traders determined to continue their work and serve the local community.

Although many markets are a historic part of their host towns and cities, they are far from being relics.  Indeed, in recent years markets have experienced something of a revival.  In London alone, since 2010, the number of street markets has grown from 162 to over 250.

There are clear reasons for this – markets offer consumers and traders a number of benefits, and they make significant contributions to the economic, social and political health of towns and cities.

Economic impact of markets

Indeed, in 2015, the Institute of Place Management (IPM) conducted a comprehensive review of the impact of markets and found that markets not only have a significant turnover, they also impact indirectly on the wider economy – meaning that the £3.5 billion turnover directly attributable to retail markets is actually worth around £10.5 billion to the UK economy.

The Portas review in 2011 hailed markets as a potential saviour of the high street.  Indeed, the IPM review supports this, reporting that markets can help to increase town centre footfall by up to 25%.  This has significant economic potential.  In London, market visitors spend around £752 million per annum in nearby shop-based retailers.

Markets were also found to:

  • act as a significant employer, both nationally and at the local level
  • support intergenerational economic mobility (through family-owned businesses)
  • support the development of entrepreneurial skills in young people through ‘youth markets’
  • act as business incubators and support business formation due to their low barriers to entry, for example, enabling migrants to set up their own businesses
  • enable small businesses to reach larger businesses whom they can supply, and support other local businesses, such as farmers.
  • encourage high street diversity and create a distinct ‘identity’ for high streets
  • promote high street resilience, as they are flexible and able to respond quickly to changing demands.
  • help to utilise vacant and underused spaces within high streets
  • attract tourists, who are drawn to them because they are “unique, quirky, unusual”

Wider benefits

Markets also have a number of social purposes.  They are important places of social interaction, which facilitate community cohesion and social inclusion.  Markets can also help to improve public health and quality of life through the provision of fresh, quality produce at lower price points, which may be particularly beneficial for low-income families.

From an environmental perspective, there are also a number of benefits arising from the sale and purchase of locally produced products, including reducing pollution associated with high ‘food miles’ and reducing the need for consumers to travel to out-of-town sites, such as large retail parks, in order to make their purchases.

Challenges

Although there is overwhelming evidence that almost every street, food and farmer’s market is an invaluable asset to its local community, markets still face a number of very real threats.  These include:

  • the rise of out-of-town shopping centres, the dominance of big supermarkets, and the popularity of online shopping
  • planning and regulatory regimes that do not allow for, or restrict, the expansion or establishment of markets
  • a lack of support for markets or poor management by local authorities
  • high land values making it difficult for markets to be established

As many markets are a lifeline for areas experiencing deprivation, it is important that they receive the support that they require to survive and flourish.

Promoting and supporting markets

So, what can be done to support markets?  Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to establish the London Markets Board – a team of experts tasked with delivering a London markets strategy, and work to preserve and promote London’s increasing number of markets.

On a wider scale, NABMA (National Association of British Market Authorities) and the National Market Traders Federation recently published a ‘five-year manifesto’, which made a number of recommendations for ways to support markets.

A key recommendation is that local authorities work to raise the profile of markets.  There are many market-focused national initiatives such as Love Your Local Market, the National Youth Market, and the Great British Market Awards, which local authorities can become involved in.

The Love Your Local Market campaign, for example, is an annual event, established in 2012, which brings together markets across the UK.  It aims to build affection and support for markets in local communities, and offers free or subsidised pitches to start-ups to test trading conditions.  In 2013, it increased footfall in participating town centres by 10%.

Other recommendations to support markets include:

  • greater recognition of the role of markets in local economies, jobs and growth, as well as in civic local society
  • ensuring that retail markets have a voice in policy making that affects them, including planning and town centre management
  • further lifting the current burden of business rates for SMEs
  • supporting greater awareness of the sector’s employment opportunities including apprenticeships, platforms for self-employment and training hubs
  • developing and supporting sector-led initiatives that aim to support entrepreneurship and increase the amount of businesses on markets, and support them digitally
  • encouraging schools and further education establishments to work with market operators to enable people entering the labour market to embrace markets as a possible career

There are some promising signs.  Around £90 million has been invested into improving markets since 2014, and an increasing number of local authorities are making them central to town centre plans and regeneration activity.

By promoting and supporting markets in this way, the economic, social and environmental benefits can be maximised. As the 2015 review of markets underlines: “markets are an important asset to a location, and their future cannot be left to chance.”

Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


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Planning for an ageing population: some key considerations

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On average, the UK’s population is becoming older and living longer, healthier lives.  This is due to historically low fertility rates and reduced mortality rates.  Between 2014 and 2039, the government predicts that over 70% of UK population growth will be in the over 60 age group. Although this trend is partially countered by migration, by 2037 there will be 1.42 million more households headed by someone aged 85 or over.

The implications of population ageing for society are so complex and far reaching that they are impossible to fully predict. However, a key priority is the provision of age-friendly environments.  This is where local government, and planning departments in particular, have a crucial role to play.

In this blog post – the first of two on the implications of population ageing for planning – we highlight some key areas for consideration.

Some areas will be more affected than others

While headline-grabbing statistics paint a very clear picture of the significant growth in the number of older people that is predicted, often they obscure the subtleties of the way in which population ageing will occur across the UK.

In reality, it is likely that population ageing will not occur equally in all areas of the UK.  The degree to which some local authorities – and therefore planning departments – will be affected varies considerably.

The impact of population ageing is measured by a ‘dependency ratio’ – the number of people aged over 65 for every person between 16 and 64.

Recent research has found that coastal localities are likely to have higher dependency ratios than urban areas.  Urban areas will, however, experience a larger overall number of older people.

Dependency ratios will vary considerably between local authorities.  On average, it is predicted that by 2036, there will be over four people aged over 65 for every 10 people aged between 16-64.  However, local figures are likely to vary – from just over 1 in 10 in Tower Hamlets, up to 8 in 10 in West Somerset.

You can see how your own area is likely to change in an interactive map created as part of the Future of an Ageing Population Project.

Differences between the ‘young old’ and ‘older old’

And while there is awareness of the growth in the overall numbers of ‘older people’, another complexity is that ‘older people’ are not a homogenous group. 

As life expectancy increases, the differences between different age groups become more significant.  For example, there are variations in the needs, tastes and lifestyles between the ‘older old’, i.e. those aged over 80, and the ‘young old’ who are just approaching retirement age.

Some planning departments are already taking this into consideration.  Northumberland County Council – who have a higher than average number of older people within their population – use a three phase definition as part of their strategy to prepare for the ageing population. They categorise ‘older people’ into three distinct groups: older workers; ‘third agers’; and older people in need of care.

Understanding social impact and interpretation

The physical environment is commonly understood to be a ‘societal context’ in which ageing occurs.  This is reflected in the term ‘physical-social environment’ – it suggests that there is no physical environment without social interpretation.

However, recent research has found that while planners were reasonably aware of the physical needs of older people, they were less aware of the social and economic contexts of older people’s lives.  This included the links between wellbeing and attractive environments, green space, activity and health, and the positive impact of place attractiveness on social interaction.

Related to this, older people’s social interpretation of the built environment – including the importance of place meanings, memories and attachments ­– is likely to become an increasingly important consideration for planners.  As too is the potential effect of redevelopment on older people – which may include feelings of insecurity and alienation, disorientation, loss of independence, and social exclusion.

Involving older people in the planning system

How to effectively involve older people in the planning system in an increasingly technology-dependent age will pose a number of challenges.

Planners will need to think creatively about options for engagement.  Increasingly, social media platforms and other online media have been used to engage with users.  However, these technologies may not be readily accessible or easily used by older people due to a lack of technological skills or access to the internet.

Older people may also need certain adaptations to support them to become involved – either online or in person – if they have physical or other disabilities.

Negative assumptions about technology’s usefulness held by some older people may need to be challenged or worked around.

Supporting healthy and happy lives

There is no way to fully predict the impact that population ageing will have across all sections of society.  Developing our understanding of the way in which the built environment can help to support and enable older people to live happy and healthy lives – and the implications of this for planning towns and cities across the UK – is increasingly important.

In our next blog post we will look at some of the ways in which planners can help support the creation of age-friendly environments through their influence on the design of the urban environment, transport, housing and the wider community and neighbourhood.


For further information, you may be interested in our other blog posts on the creation of age-friendly towns and cities and the economic opportunities presented by an ageing society.

The positive paybacks of clearing the air

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by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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