Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of the year - the blog

I'm doing these two posts the wrong way round mainly because this is the easier one to right. The premise of these two posts are it's a year since I started in my present job and I started this blog at pretty much the same time. The second post will reflect on my academic development and interests, but this will focus on the blog itself.

In numbers, the popularity of this humble, and rather mediocre, blog has been beyond my wildest dreams. As I'm writing this on the 31 December the blog has had a total of 3,148 hits on its 35 posts. Nearly a third of that traffice has been in the last month with 1,039 hits. It says a lot that the number one generator of traffic has been Twitter. I've luckily had the opportunity to use my twitter account (@urbaneprofessor) to build a strong network over the past year and this means that the links to my blog I tweet quickly get picked up and retweeted by others. For example, my most viewed post is my cyclists' rant on "Child Murder"  which was retweeted by the psychology researcher and specialist on bike helmets at the University of Bath, Ian Walker. It must've touched a nerve with many cyclists groups as it was quickly retweeted and made it back to some other writers who knew a lot more about the "Stop Child Murder" campaign (see comments below). It was also retweeted by cyclists groups in Edinburgh attracting a local audience.

I don't actually understand why my second most-read post is the most read, my most recent post: Why the National Performance Framework is not boring and we should obsess about it and critique it (224 hits and growing by the second). The Blogger stats don't give me much detail about where the traffic is coming from, although I have my suspicions. I mentioned it to a Civil Servant I was chatting to and when the big peak in traffic to the post happened it was mainly from Internet Explorer. Left-wingers and academics being who they are most of my traffic comes from Firefox, Chrome and Safari, and I know the Scottish Government uses IExplorer so I suspect the traffic came from there. If you have read it, can you let me know, as am intrigued. Given I still get fairly small amounts of traffic from Russia and India, I'm presuming it's not bots reading it.

Anyway, given it was the sort of post that I wanted to write when I set up this blog I'm actually quite chuffed that it has been so well read. The other reason I thought I'd get value out of blogging was engaging with other academics. One of the most rewarding examples of this recently was my discussion about a possible final paper I'm thinking of extracting from my PhD thesis, here. If you look at the one comment, it was the productive Twitter exchange afterwards that I really valued. I'm going to make time to write this paper in the New Year. In a similar vein was my third most read post, my hexperiment in crowd-sourcing my Pathways to Impact Statement for my ESRC Future Leaders bid (212 views) which was picked up by the LSE Impact blog (and made a lot less of an impact over there!)

During the year I was also glad that STV Edinburgh picked up on my tweets about the project management farce that is the Edinburgh Tram and led to this comment piece for their website that signally failed to elicit the comments of any anti-tram interwebs trolls. And anyway, it's a high speed light rail system, not a tram.

So, all in all I'm glad I started this blog. I know really understand the power of Twitter in promoting academic blogging and I'm hoping in the New Year that I will still have time to Tweet and blog. It seems the road to academic Hell is littered with the remains of blogs of good intentions. What does the New Year have in store for you, the reader? Well, my PI Annette Hastings and myself submitted our realist synthesis of middle class community activism in time to the AHRC on time. We're just waiting for them to publish our short report online and then I'll probably start blogging about that a lot more. Similarly, if the Gods are looking favourably and my ESRC Future Leaders bid on middle class citizen-initiated contacting is successful then you'll hear more about that. I'm also part of two AHRC Connected Communities follow-on projects, and the project focused on Wester Hailes will definitely be making an appearance on these pages. Finally, I'm teaching two courses this coming semester, so expect some random posts on topics as diverse as equalities, environmental justice and waste management tagged SocSus and UrbanIM that I will be using as teaching material.

We also have some important news stories on the agenda for me that I'll try to mention on here. The most important of which is the 2012 local government elections in Scotland. Two things of specific interest here - will the LibDems be destroyed as a political force in Scotland, even with an electoral system (STV) that favours them? And will the SNP win the major cities (Glasgow in particular) and become the dominant force in Scotttish politics for the next decade. At the moment I suspect the answer to both is yes and yes. As the economy slides into recession again and the coffers run even drier at Westminster and Holyrood, the other big question is how this translates spatially and whether the positive outcomes of devolution, regional policy and regeneration policy will slide backwards to the dark days of 1981-1995?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Why the National Performance Framework is not boring and we should obsess about it and critique it

The Scottish Government’s been busy in its first few months of office. As well as the Anti-Sectarianism Act, which has even made the news in Engerland, we’ve had a budget, this week’s Regeneration Strategy and the Cities Strategy is on its way. However, the Big Thing for me was the announcement on Wednesday of a refreshed National Performance Framework (NPF). This hasn’t received much attention; in fact as one of my Twitter followers put it: “ooh National Indicators *squeee*”

The NPF was launched as part of the SNP minority Scottish Government’s first budget in 2007. I heard the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth (to give him his full title) John Swinney MSP describe it as his “greatest achievement”. It didn’t receive much attention then, but it really matters. To give an idea of this, the central “Purpose” of the NPF is:
“To focus Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.

My emphasis added. Why? Because this is about all public services. Community Planning Partnerships, led by local authorities, including health boards, the Police, Fire and Rescue Service, third sector and private sector have to agree Single OutcomeAgreements with the Scottish Government describing how they will work to achieve the NPF and their priorities within it.  All QUANGOs, NDPBs and other agencies have to include how they will meet national outcomes in their business plans and other strategies.

I worked on the outcome focus a lot in my time as a Civil Servant with the Scottish Government. The “outcome focus” in public management came from experience in America (usually at State level) and New Zealand in the 1990s, where the output focus was making government activity measureable but still wasn’t producing effects on society. The idea now has evangelists; in global organisations like the World Bank; and also policy entrepreneurs like Mark Friedman, who made a big impact in services for children and young peoplein the last Labour UK Government. Scotland itself did the policy transfer from the Commonwealth Virginia and the “Virginia Performs” site; we have the “ScotlandPerforms” scorecard. I understand why it’s so beguiling. As Mark Friedman points out, if you set out your aims in a clear and obvious way, linked to indicators then you will make a difference. Especially as you can measure it. Scotland has actually been at it for years. 

The old Scottish Executive took to using outcome agreements to performance manage ring-fence funding streams, including the BetterNeighbourhood Services Fund (2001), the Community Regeneration Fund (2005-8), and Community Safety Fund. The NPF was being drafted by Civil Servants in Saint Andrew’s House from autumn 2006, before the SNP victory in May 2007. The original just had 14 outcomes (didn’t have the one on national identity), each of which was linked to a target and an indicator.

I have three problems with the outcomes approach. Firstly, it doesn’t work on many levels. For example, in New Zealand the focus on marginal budget changes to fund swanky projects that might produce an outcome led to Government departments forgetting to do things like run schools and hospitals. The move to performance budgeting, or outcome budgeting, was the Holy Grail for the Scottish Government. The Scottish Parliament Finance Committee, among others, kept asking for it. The basic intellectual challenge was how do you buy one “we live longer healthier lives”? It seems, by building an enormous measurement bureaucracy. Scotland kind of went down this line with the vast amounts of time and effort spent on the local indicators project. There’s also a lot of waffle in the evangelists’ literature about how outcomes matter because people understand them. This is why we should have scorecards to engage people. The fact that nobody outside certain groups of public sector workers and politicians in Scotland knows about, or fully understands, the NPF and outcome approach shows what complete and utter bollocks this is. This is still managerialism of the worst sort. 

Secondly, in classic NPM way, it depoliticises policy making. It takes “what matters is what works” to a terrifying conclusion. What matters is meeting the outcome. For example, the outcome “We have tackled the significant inequalities in Scottish society” is meant to be predominantly met by meeting the Solidarity Purpose Target of increasing the proportion of income earned by the lowest three deciles. However, Alex Salmond believes we can do this without redistributive taxation. The limits to Holyrood’s power also mean that the way we’re going to meet many of the outcomes is through “early intervention” which I’ve already expressed my discomfort at. Technically if you have an outcomes approach you don’t actually need policies and strategies. You just work towards your outcomes. They are your strategy. This has kind of come true in Scotland with the three social policy frameworks, Achieving OurPotential, The Early Years Framework and Equally Well. These are just vague guides as to how the Scottish Government and it's "partners" will go about meeting their outcomes forever more and day. You can’t disagree with an outcome, so you can’t have political debate about them. And what’s worrying is this is why, I think, Civil Servants in Victoria Quay and Saint Andrew’s House like them so much. I also think it's no accident that the biggest governmental supporters of the outcomes approach are Republican Governors in the US and right wing governments elsewhere in the world.

Finally is a lazy Foucauldian argument. Come on, look at it, the Scottish Government want to change the whole country no matter what. In terms of governmentality the critique writes itself. I did some work on national outcome 8: “We have improved the life chances for children, young people and families at risk” (N.B. you’re not supposed to number them, as they’re all equally important) and used to joke with colleagues that we don’t have “NEETs” or “NEDs” but “national outcome 8s”. All policy Civil Servants in the Scottish Government would turn up to meetings with their A4 laminated copy of the NPF to make sure they were meeting outcomes. This is a lazy argument, but it also highlights why it’s difficult to implement – although it is supposed to elide politics, since it is combined with the Council Tax freeze it’s actually acerbating national-local tensions. Basically, if you sorted out health outcomes in Glasgow you’d solve Scotland’s problem with “longer healthier lives”, but Glasgow Council are more interested in a good start for their kids. If you taxed the oil magnates of Aberdeen, Scotland wouldn’t have “significant inequalities” to be tackled. Orkney doesn’t have crime; the local newspaper leads on stories like “local man falls off wall” (can't find the original article, but it did exist). Their SOA entry for the national outcome “We live our lives safe from crime, disorder and danger” just makes me laugh.

Having said all this, I do really like the new, sixteenth national outcome: “Our people are able to maintain their independence as they get older and are able to access appropriate support when they need it”.

This is basically a cut-down version of a paper I wrote earlier this year for a special issue of a journal on Scottish social policy after devolution. It got rejected because I don’t know enough of the “theory” (I wasn’t referencing the most up-to-the-minute articles on the subject) and the reviewers took issue with my “ethnography” of reporting as a former Civil Servant. But I do feel the NPF and the outcome-approach in Scotland does need critiquing from academe. It cannot just be dismissed as “performance management” or another boring incarnation of the NPM. If we’re not careful then the will to “meet outcomes” could become state injustice and violence against individuals and families because it meets Scotland’s ambitions to “flourish”.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Plus ca change?

I popped through to Glasgow this morning to the launch of Scotland’s new regeneration strategy Achieving a Sustainable Future. They got the Cabinet Secretary of Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil MSP to present it. So here’s my initial thoughts. Bear in mind I’m writing this 20 minutes after I left the event and I’ve not read the dotted I’s and crossed T’s.

The good things

Scotland has a regeneration strategy. As my post on my academic existential crisis pointed out, the fact that regeneration is not the flavour du jour in austerity Britain was a concern for me. But Scotland still has the urban problems that regeneration policy, from the launch of the Paisley Community Development Project in 1972 onwards, have attempted to tackle – long-term unemployment, concentrations of poverty and deprivation in poor housing, vacant and derelict land. Chatting to a couple of people afterwards there was disappointment that it wasn’t a strategy – it doesn’t seem to contain much. But I’d argue it is a strategy – it highlights how the other Scottish Government policies, policy frameworks and strategies are contributing to regeneration and focuses the public services and investment on regeneration defined as “the holistic process of reversing the economic, physical and social decline of places where market forces alone won’t suffice.”

And not only do we have a strategy, but we have some money too. Not very much (more of that later) but we do. Another nice thing, although they rationalised the funding streams for regeneration, they have clearly demarcated hat some of that is for “People and Communities” (revenue) and some (most) of it is for capital investment.

The Minister’s speech and response to questions was very positive too. He argued that the present economic difficulties made regeneration even more important, as trickle-down (he didn’t say that, but said the “drip drip down”) doesn’t work and there was a need to get good job into our most deprived communities. In line with this he also highlighted how the coalitions benefit “reforms” (cuts) are going to make things a lot more difficult as they reduce investment in communities without providing the jobs needed for people. The aim of the Scottish Government was to fill the resulting funding gap by helping to create work through infrastructure investment.

In the text of the document there’s some very positive language about not talking about “problem” places as well. However, the Minister explained that he didn’t want to “repeat the mistakes of the past”.  As with Alasdair Rae, and many others, I agree that most of the mistakes of the past have been about very poor definition of the problem to be tackled by regeneration policy.

There was an interesting rhetorical flourish used to define the problem on a national basis. In a typical SNP way, the Minister highlighted that if we can successful “turn around” the communities then all of Scotland’s indicators will be improved.

The bad points

It’s not very much money. It’s been a long-term criticism of regeneration that the relatively small amounts of regeneration funding were never large enough to make sustained, dramatic change. Even the old Scottish Executive Community Regeneration Fund was £345 millions over three years, which was a whopping 0.5% of the Executive’s total managed expenditure for the spending review period. The funding announced today was: £7.9 millions for the People and Communities Fund (combining Wider Role funding and others) although I’m not sure if this is per annum, but I suspect not; £75 million for the Capital Investment Fund over three years, of which £48 millions has been allocated to the Urban Regeneration Companies (including £3 millions found for Irvine Bay and Riverside Inverclyde to stop them becoming complete disasters). Overall, it’s not very much at all, but the strategy contains the usual comments about partnership working and targeted services and investment. We’re in a better place now than we were 20 or 30 years ago in tailoring services to match needs, but we still have a long way to go. And this is in a context where the Scottish Government is estimating £600 millions will be lost to the Scottish economy from the UK Government benefit changes.

There was also something that was deeply problematic for me in the Minister’s speech. He emphasised how the money was going to communities and essentially set up an antagonism between communities, local authorities and the “consultants” – this was the key mistake of the past. I can imagine a lot of people in Scotland thinking this is utterly fantastic news. This was problematic for me as it burdens communities with their own problems. He highlighted how the Government saw Community Development Trusts as a key way to regenerate communities and I presume the new Amber Spruce investment fund is meant to facilitate these. Yet these and similar models require a great deal of skill and resources to get going. They’re not going to help a chaotic drug user to stabilise their lives. We need the big bureaucracies of the public services to deliver the everyday services in deprived neighbourhoods that are desperately needed. My soon to be revealed review highlighted how effective the middle classes are at capturing the state’s resources for themselves. I suspect the likes of community development trusts are going to be of greatest benefit to communities that can benefit most from them.

This brings me back to the Minister’s appeal to national identity to drive regeneration. As with the “Closing the Gap” strategy of the former Scottish Executive, the focus on the most deprived neighbourhoods places blame and burden on them. It ignores our role, in affluent neighbourhoods in producing concentrations of deprivation.

My other issue is the Scottish Government’s focus on early intervention. The Minister cited the work of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Harry Burns on how the stress of poverty affects long term outcomes for children from a very young age – well to be precise about what the Minister was saying, from before birth – and so this is where we need investment. This is very laudable, but like the previous UK Labour government’s focus on child poverty, it avoids the fact that these foetuses being discussed are actually inside a woman. Are to expect women in Scotland to report to their local “Early Intervention” centre when they’re vaguely thinking about getting pregnant? I’d say we need investment in lives throughout their course so the families that these children are part of are stable and supportive environments.

It's interesting as well that there will be a Scottish Cities Strategy launched this year too. I'd like to think this represented the Scottish Government taking urban problems very seriously indeed. However, the political cynic just thinks it's the SNP wanting to win control of Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and possibly even Edinburgh council's in next year's election to shore up their vote prior to the independence referendum.
A final thought – the launch was proceeded by  a networking event. There must’ve been half a dozen women among the crowd of middle-aged, white Scottish men and most of these were Scottish Government staff. And of course all the men knew each other. It was a threatening environment. I’d forgotten this aspect of Scottish regeneration community. One thing has changed in five years since I started my research on Scottish regeneration, these men aren’t all talking about “the match” (usually in deeply, if not implicitly, sectarian terms)  when I entered the room.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Strategic partnership working

Well my post on vulnerable road users is now my most viewed, with 235 hits in three days. Thanks to all who retweeted.

My post on academic navel-gazing was *ahem*, less popular.

But that post was cathartic for me and it got me thinking about a possible last paper from my doctoral research. So, people, would you be interested in this?:

The governance and governmentality of strategic partnership working: interpreting local knowledge of modern local government


It is widely acknowledged that we have now moved to a networked polity where governance networks are required for all levels of government to achieve their aims. One of the key aims of governments now is to develop strategic partnerships solve wicked issues. This paper presents an interpretive policy analysis of strategic partnership working in Scotland – Community Planning Partnerships – to address three issues. Firstly, to demonstrate the historical contingency of “joined-up government”; secondly to explore the practices and meanings used by policy actors to understand strategic and partnerships. Finally the article problematises this culture, suggesting the presumption that joined-up working is part of what we do is actually a barrier to effective partnership working.

The paper would fit into the work on the interpretive stance in political science and policy analysis of Dvora Yanow and (my new favourites) Bevir and Rhodes.

Taking a historical stance would involve me highlighting the continuity and changes between the "corporate approach" of the 1970s, the "strategic approach" of the 1980s and "strategic partnership working" in the 2000s.

The policy actors bit is my empirical stuff about how policy-makers conceive of "partnership" and "strategic" through meanings and some very bizarre practices at meetings. And this would segue onto a critique, drawing in my other two articles in press, as to how this disengages local communities and actually papers over the cracks in the logic of partnership working.

Or has the stable-door been well and truly bolted in these days of austerity, community budgeting, single outcome agreements and outcome budgeting?

Monday, 5 December 2011

Child murder

I've avoided ranting too much about my life as a vulnerable road user - I commute using my bike. Part of this is because I'm scared that the hatred I experience from drivers on the roads will be transferred into trolling on my blog if I'm ever honest about how I feel. When I'm feeling pretty crappy as a road user I basically assume that if I continue to use my bike to commute I will be severely disabled or killed with an "accident" with a car. That my two worst accidents to date have been caused by pedestrians has been fluke.

This post was going around my head on Saturday night as I drifted off to sleep. I was going to avoid writing it today. But this morning the BBC News website posted this map of a decade's worth of road casualties on Britain's roads. Our roads are relatively safe, but still "a total of 36,371 people were killed on Britain's roads between 1999 and 2010". A similar map was posted by the Guardian a month-or-so back. This included the age of the victim as well as what they were doing. It turned out that the slaughter in my neighbourhood of Edinburgh was of elderly women and young people. We regularly allow the most vulnerable in our society to be killed and this is not a national scandal.

The reason I've decided to write this blog post was this story about a seven-year-old in Dalkeith, south of Edinburgh. More of that later.

A wee while back, this Youtube video, on how the Dutch got their bike infrastructure was doing the rounds of the cycling forums and Twitter

The whole video is quite interesting. I'd like to get the inside story from a Dutch transport researcher, but it's an inspiring tale of the campaigning of vulnerable road users creating a very positive outcome for transport policy. What particularly caught my eye was one of the banners a parent is holding a 2'34" "Stop Kinder Moord"; "Stop Child Murder". You can't get much more matter of fact than that?

It's similar to the famous, "Kill Your Speed, Not a Child" road safety adverts in the UK:

Except, it's not. Watching these public information films, if I was a parent I would think "Well, I drive at 35mph to get my child to school on time, so it's not as if I can trust any other driver. I must put my child in the car, so they are safe". Or even, "well, it's the stupid child's fault for running out in the road". So, I don't think these adverts have the right impact. They just make us all scared of the car and run to the car for safety.

It doesn't work for a second reason. "Kill your speed, not a child" avoids blame. I ate a chicken for my dinner yesterday that had to be killed for me to eat it. I didn't kill the chicken. The weasel verb "kill" without a pronoun avoids blame. Anyone/thing can kill by accident. "Stop Child Murder" puts the blame somewhere else - on cars. It is cars that are murdering children. Not their speed. Or an "accident".

And this brings me back to the poor seven-year-old in Dalkeith. The BBC report that he "he ran out in front of a car". If you look at where the accident happened on Google Streetview I don't blame the boy at all. It's a suburban street, surrounded by houses, with a 20mph speed limit, by a bus stop.He was seven. I've seen enough adults walk out in a much busier main road not looking at oncoming traffic, let alone a child who's at the age where if he hit someone so badly they were injured he would find himself in front of a very concerned Children's Panel wondering what had gone wrong with his upbringing. 

Yet it was an "accident". This is what I find inspiring about the Dutch case and the message of "Stop child murder" - it seems to have disrupted and changed the whole discourse around transport policy and stopped it being a car-centric discourse of "accidents" that just happen. No, cars kill people. That's the policy problem we need to solve.

6 December edit:  Well, this is fast becoming my most read post. Thanks all! And do check out David Hembrow's blog and his links in his comment below about the "Stop Child Murder" campaign in the Netherlands.

Friday, 2 December 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front? Academic navel-gazing

Oops, I've not posted for nearly a month. One thing I've noticed as I've ventured into this world of academic blogging is that there is definitely a genre that people (myself included) follow - basically academic insights on current issues, usually reporting some research findings, usually a little bit political and seeking "impact". You very rarely get academic blogs that go for other blog discourse genres, such as humour, or what I'm going to do here - the confessional. For years I kept a blog up-to-date over at the old skool blogging tool Livejournal, which was pretty much set up for the confessional blog.

But that say's a lot about what this post is going to be about - my last post was all about regeneration policy and the CLG Committee report. Since then I've been busy wrapping up my middle-class community activism project and attended a couple of interesting conferences (Urban Geography Research Group in Edinburgh, and a Regional Studies event on strategic housing supply at the University of Manchester).

And I'm left in a bit of an existential crisis. I've spent the past two months bashing out course notes for distance learning and have probably written more (some of which is of dubious quality) over the past few months than I've ever done in my life. I've had two papers rejected. I've got two papers I'm waiting to hear back about. And I've got three research council proposals and a government grant I'm waiting to hear back about. I'm in limbo, but the CLG committee report, the latest stuff in academic journals, and the conferences have left me thinking that my particularly topic of greatest research strength, urban regeneration (specifically programmes like the New Deal for Communities) is dead. In fact, this was why I did my doctoral research on it and a point I make in a paper I have actually had accepted. Government no longer has the money, nor wishes, to invest in programmes like this any more. I'm sure in a few years time when the spatial concentrations of unemployment that the current coalition is creating become unmanageable we will see the return of area-based initiatives, and the likes of me and other academics will do what us academics have done since 1975 (at least) and point out they don't work.

So, what to do with myself? Part of this is due to having my confidence knocked by the paper rejections. I do just have to find the time to rework these and submit them to a couple of other journals. I also think I need to do one more article from my PhD; this would untangle what is meant by "strategic" and "partnership" from a governance and governmentality perspective (Mark Bevir [my new favourite] recent paper has helped inspire this). I also need to keep banging my drum and keep the ball rolling on focusing our research gaze on concentrations of affluence as well as deprivation. I'm also increasingly interested in marine renewables and marine spatial planning, and transport policy and discourses and meanings within that. But to get up to speed on these areas I'm going to have to read a helluva lot more and I just don't have the time.

So here ends my confessional. Like all good confessionals I actually feel better for having emptied my mind onto the page. By the way, if you like the paper idea above please let me know, it'll will encourage me to start writing again. So, to return to my original point, why don't we get confessional academic blogs? I've just been doing a piece of coursework - my reflections on teaching practice - for my postgraduate certificate in academic practice. In it I highlight how modern, managerial discourses of higher education frame our approach to teaching and learning even though we actively resist them. And I think the same insight applies here. The discourse of academia is the heroic early-career researcher working 18 hour days to carve their niche, never admitting that they've actually just not got the time to do things, or that they want to have a life outside of academia. Being honest that "I don't care if you've got more research grant income or more citations than me" isn't really the done thing in academia, is it?

Friday, 4 November 2011

A social democratic regeneration policy?

So, my adoring fans seem to want the second blog post. Well, Tony Bovaird and Dr Dave O'Brien do, anyway.

Picking up from what I was saying yesterday, the thing I did find most concerning that was mentioned by the CLG Committee was the fact that the poor communities that were "selected" for Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (HMRP) now find themselves in half demolished neighbourhoods with little prospect of new development any time soon. The HMRP was controversial and became quite the cause célèbre, for example with the campaigns to save the various homes of members of the Beatles. It was trying to do something quite bold - in areas where local housing markets had completely collapsed and very was extremely low, or no, demand it was attempting to renew the area, and the housing market, through comprehensive rebuild. In many respects it was a modern day version of 1950s slum clearance through Comprehensive Development Areas. Like the CDAs, they involved the difficult and controversial process of demolishing homes, uprooting households and communities, to upgrade the value of the property.

It's difficult to cut through the myth of cohesive working class communities to fully get at how disruptive CDAs were to people's lives. However, it is entirely wrong to ascribe all the problems of "sink estates" to the CDA policies. Concentrations of deprivation exist because of the circuits of capitalism and cycles of disinvestment and investment in our cities and, in the UK in particular, because social housing has become marginalised and we like to put all our social housing in one place. This is how I define the problem and because of this, I kind of agree with this Conservative Councillor from my home city of Bradford. N.B. that moment, because I doubt it's going to happen again any time soon!

Regeneration will never "turn around" neighbourhoods. But does that mean we should give up on it? My answer would actually be a firm no. And my reasoning links back to the poor residents of HMRP areas who have half their built environment missing. My doctoral research was into a regeneration policy called New Life for Urban Scotland that was very much of the knock-down and rebuild variety. The policy evaluation was as ambivalent as most evaluations of similar policies - it made some difference, particularly to the built environment, but overall its attempts to "turn around" neighbourhoods had failed. And the evaluation suggested that the gains of the policy in the four neighbourhoods would be temporary once funding was withdrawn. However, going back to two of the neigbourhoods a decade after "regeneration" ended demonstrated that these gains actually meant a lot to the communities, especially long term residents. In both neighbourhoods the housing had been in a shocking state, whereas now two community based housing associations could be rightly proud of the homes they let. This achievement was trivialised by so many people who were not residents as "all it did was provide new homes". And? What's wrong with that if that is what was desperately needed?

So, I particularly agree with Simon Cooke's point that we need to differentiate between regeneration (probably impossible) and renewal (often needed). On the latter, this should be achieved with minimal disruption to households and communities. Communities should not be left in the state of the HMRP's which were, effectively "state-led gentrification", but now are in a worse situation than when the policy began. Generally policy needs to take a much more nuanced view of the functional role of deprived neighbourhoods in wider economic systems if we are actually to value them as neighbourhoods and not dismiss them as "sink estates".

Oh, and I ordinarily loathe the phrase "state-led gentrification" after someone suggested that had happened in one of the neighbourhoods that was a case study for my PhD. If the policy had managed state-led gentrification I think the residents would have been amazed, and probably pleased.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

On home turf - regeneration policy

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee published a report on the coalition government's regeneration strategy, or lack thereof to be more precise. The story was quite high up on this morning's Today programme and is still on the front page of the UK BBC news website as 'MPs criticise 'disastrous' cuts to regeneration schemes'. A tweet on my stream suggested this should be front page news. I sort of agree, the issue is important, but I sort of don't.

My main beef is with regeneration policy more generally. It's always been an absolutely piddling amount of government expenditure. The old Scottish Executive spent £345 millions on community regeneration over three years, out of a total managed expenditure of £100 billions. The cuts to the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder that this report criticises amount to a reported £10 billions a year, out of total managed UK government expenditure of something around £400 billions. This is why regeneration will never be successful in "turning around" deprived neighbourhoods. One metaphor to use to describe this funding might be a pebble in the face of a tsunami of problems. I think I prefer the metaphor of pissing in a swimming pool.

The attention that the Select Committee are giving to this issue is the latest example of the extraordinary attention provided to such a piddling amount of money, dating back to the fantastic critical Gilding the Ghetto evaluation of the Community Development Projects; the Inner Area Studies that led to the Policy for the Inner Cities and the National Audit Offices fantastic unpicking of the Urban Development Companies in the early 1990s. Yet, as Michael Edwards noted right back in 1997(£) - is all this focus on processes management and policy actually making us miss the substance of the issue: poverty and inequality? But then regeneration policy is always going to be the focus of political interference, as Peter Hall argued, again back in 1997, because politicians like it because it provides tangible benefits (new homes, new community centres) that win them votes. More cynically, it will also always be the focus of attention because of a big strand of public discourse that basically says that these communities don't deserve extra investment and additional service provision. And if an article I've written gets accepted then it will be me arguing that point.

With a bit of luck this will be the first of two posts - the second I plan to grapple with the thorny issue of what sort of regeneration policy we might want.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Planning for the Digital City

In a previous post I suggested that planners might need to get involved in planning the digital city, as many of the issues of the digital world (infrastructure, congestion, social inclusion, sustainability) are all things planners try to deal with in the built environment.

Thanks to @suchprettyeyes I've just come across New York's Road Map for the Digital City. Only skimmed it, but I think this is what I was getting at.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The mess of housing policy

Housing policy across the UK is in a right mess. I'm on the management committee of Prospect Community Housing in West Edinburgh so this is having an impact on my everyday life as a committee member. 

The committee got a presentation about the changes to the benefits system that is going to start from 2013 and culminate with the introduction of the Universal Credit. I'll be entirely honest, I'm not completely against the Universal Credit - the idea of providing tapered welfare support depending on income and ending the massive increase in marginal tax that occurs when people on housing benefit move into work should be welcomed. And that's about it. To get how stupid these changes are you have to understand that because social housing has become so marginal in the UK the majority of residents get housing benefit. The security of income from housing benefit paid directly to the landlord makes social housing providers very attractive to lenders. This means that grant can be topped up with cheap loans and houses get built. Basically we subsidise our housing in two ways - grant for the house itself, and housing benefit for the tenant who lives there. 

The Tories don't like housing benefit, because if you live in a large, privately rented property in London you can get lots of Daily Mail Headline Inducing benefit. So they're trying to cut it. I thought this only really affected London and the south east, but how wrong was I. Firstly, the non-dependent deductions. At the moment, if you have a non-dependent resident (i.e. grown up child, other relative, friend) with you and you receive HB you get a deduction on your HB for the income they should bring in. From April this year this deduction has increased by 28% and will continue to increase until 2014. So, if you have an unemployed dependent living with you, this is an incentive for them to become unemployed and declare themselves homeless and move into a home on their own as this will maximise their benefit. Really clever that one. Next is the cap on benefits to £500 p.w. for a family from April 2013 - likely to effect large families in the social rented sector who will end up homeless if they cannot top-up their benefit to pay their bills and rent. 

Now, the really, really stupid ones are under-occupancy and the Universal Credit itself. Firstly under-occupancy. Now if you live on your own you will have to live in a one bedroomed property, for example. If you under-occupy your benefit will be cut. For landlords like the City of Edinburgh Council that have a lot of two-bedroomed flats and routinely under-occupy this will have a massive impact. Tenants will be expected to find the difference to pay the rent, which could be £10 p.w. Also, at the moment the rules define a bedroom as needing a window, so watch this space for people bricking up windows. Unless we have a massive increase in the supply of one-bedroomed properties overnight, this is going to be a homelessness nightmare. What is more, do you recall people squealing about that think tank report that suggested that owner-occupiers should be encouraged not to under-occupy - how could you take my mum's spare bedroom away? I won't be able to come home for Christmas etc. Now, if you happen to be disabled, ill, or out of work, you can't have anyone to stay ever.

The Universal Credit. The problem with this is it will be paid directly to tenants. This sounds good in practice but the sad fact is that when tenants accidentally receive HB themselves due to a mix-up, they always go into arrears and landlords never see that money. And, with the Universal Credit, as it starts to get withdrawn, it will be the housing portion that reduces first. 

On top of all this, in both the Westminster and Scottish Governments (see, for example the Adaptations Budget cuts), housing association grant is being massively reduced and social housing providers are expected to provide homes in a much more market-based fashion using loans from banks. For example, the City of Edinburgh Council's 21st Century Homes programme is using the Scottish Futures Trust, National Housing Trust to lever in cheap private finance to build new homes at very low grant levels. Meanwhile the Council is thinking about putting itself forward as one of the authorities to pilot Universal Credit. If their rent income drops and arrears levels rise then the finances of the NHT start looking very ropey indeed.

All in all, the only way this can lead is to increased homelessness, a decrease in the supply of affordable housing and massive increases in relative and absolute poverty. And today it's being reported that the reforms are bringing about yet another perverse incentive. Changes to the way the Housing Revenue Account works in England are actually providing an incentive to Councils to knock down homes.

Friday, 28 October 2011

More cycling good news...

In an update to my previous rant about cycling in Edinburgh I'm going to bang Edinburgh Council's trumpet a bit more. Just a couple of wee, helpful things.

Thanks to news that flashed through my Twitter feed I recently discovered the the neighbourhood partnership local to Portobello (East, I think) had agreed to allow cycling on Portobello promenade. I'd been cycling down here every Thursday night for two years so, that I was technically breaking the law, came as a bit of a surprise. All well and good. However, for the past six months the street lights at the far west end of the Promenade, for a distance of about 300 metres, had been out. I'd presumed this was some problem with electricity supply, things being washed away in storms, and that someone had reported it but it just couldn't be fixed. This was becoming an increasing problem as I stopped cycling home in those beautiful, long Scottish summer evenings we have. Eventually, after nearly cycling into someone last week I thought I'd let Clarence know. Lo and behold, let there be light! I'd be intrigued to know what had gone wrong.

In other news, I got yet more feedback from my very helpful Councillor who sent me a set of maps of cycling routes that Edinburgh council have produced and forwarded on an email that stated:
"Part of the training requirements for new taxi drivers is that they receive training from a Lothian and Borders Police Road Safety Officer. I will speak the Taxi Inspector to see if the content of the course requires to be modified to account for the presence of cyclists in the greenways [bus lanes]."
A small victory, I feel.

I've suggested that Edinburgh Council's City Development department bang their own drum about this sort of thing some more and improve their cycling web page, that at the moment looks like this.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Middle class places, normal places?

We're coming to the end of our AHRC Connected Communities research on middle class engagement with public services now and it's proved very interesting. In line with the realist synthesis methodology we've employed we have four mid-range theories which explain quite a lot of how the middle classes might be able to capture a disproportionate amount of the benefits of the public services.

We've workshopped the findings at my old department in Glasgow and will be presenting them at the Urban Geography Research Group conference at University of Edinburgh on 10/11 of November. We'll also be presenting a seminar at Heriot-Watt on 16 November (details to follow). Finally, I've been invited to talk about middle class places to the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (I think that's what they're called these days...) next Friday. Which is what this post is about.

My doctoral research focused on "so-called deprived neighbourhoods" and a great deal of my critique of regeneration policy stemmed from the way so much of the problem is the social construction of deprived neighbourhoods as a "problem". I've got an article(£) in Housing Theory and Society about how, over nearly 40 years of regeneration policy in Scotland, policy documents still stigmatised deprived neighbourhoods and all that changed was the terminology used. All of it was still pretty negative. One of my research findings was also how residents of "so-called deprived neighbourhoods" felt this stigma on a day-to-day basis in terms of feeling looked down upon and treated differently, especially by service providers like the local authority (some of the comments I overheard from officers while I was waiting to go to interview participants certainly showed how widespread this problem is).

I think indices of deprivation are really useful in targeting resources at those neighbourhoods that need them most (see the nifty new ONS Atlas of Deprivation) but every time an index is published there's the endless discussion in the press about the "poorest" neighbourhood and the "wealthiest" (the latter ignores that it's an index of deprivation, so it's not the wealthiest, but the least-deprived). This reinforces this stigma and also completely ignores that the fact of very wealthy and very deprived neighbourhoods existing is linked and also ignores the majority of neighbourhoods in the middle.

Towards the end of my doctoral research, and even more now I've completed this review, I'm much more interested in what makes perfectly dull neighbourhoods, those suburbs we all hate, so perfectly, mind-numbingly normal. I suspect that many private organisations like Tesco, the credit reference agencies and tools like the ACORN Classification can tell us more about these neighbourhoods than a lot of social science research because these neighbourhoods matter to these organisations as customers. What I'm getting from the review we've done of middle classes and the public services is the hard work carried out on a regular basis by people in normal neighbourhoods to keep them perfectly normal. This extends from joining formal groups like the Parish Council or PTA to activities in co-production like attending parents evenings as an active parent or being an active patient in interactions with health care practitioners. A lot of policy targeted at deprived neighbourhoods suggests they need community development because they lack this sort of activity, but there was not a body of evidence to support this.

More worrying, however, if that the broader context of public service delivery supports this sort of activity, specifically from middle class people with their cultural capital. Therefore, if you did increase participation from deprived neighbourhoods to be on a par with affluent neighbourhoods they'd be struggling between two competing tides: the greater severity and range of problems to be dealt with in their neighbourhood and their middle class neighbours are more likely to get a positive outcome from service providers.

Even more worrying is how this is treated as the status-quo. The usual reaction when I say "I'm researching whether the middle class complain more and get more" the reaction is a laugh - we all know this to be true, so why bother researching it. There's nothing we can do about it. Well actually, we don't really know it to be true and if we do know more about it maybe we can do something about it? But, as a middle-class academic, living a comfortable life supported quite remarkably by the welfare state, do I really care? 

And if you want my article, drop me an email and I'll send you a copy. Details here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Cycling in my home city

Well, it's been all quiet on the blogging front from me. I was tempted a couple of weeks back to do a big rant about how crap road conditions are for cyclists in Edinburgh. In the great "separation" debate in cycling ideology, for the record, I'm pro going Dutch, e.g. shed loads of separation to encourage the novice cyclist to carry out short journeys, but then leaving people (idiots like me, mainly) the option to hurtle along a dual carriageway if they want.

Anyhoo, a while back (when I was doing this post, actually) I emailed one of my local Councillors because the Council is the majority shareholder in our fantabulous, wonderful, couldn't-be-better-if-they-tried, [insert further superlatives in here] bus company Lothian Buses. Lothian Buses have been publicising the fact that they train their drivers very seriously about driving around cyclists, since we share bus lanes. And boy can you tell the difference. Plenty of room given when overtaking, patience when stuck behind you. So long as you do nothing stupid like undertake just before a bus stop, I'd be gob-smacked if a Lothian Bus ever grazed a cyclist. I sense things are a little different elsewhere. I suggested to my Councillor that since they are the majority shareholder they could encourage the company to offer their training to other employers of drivers - the Council itself, taxi drivers, utility companies etc.

And I didn't hear anything. Until last week when I got the most fantastic reply from my Councillor who thought it was a "very good idea" and forwarded it onto officers for investigation. I got three emails back that told me lots I didn't know. 

Taxi-driver training - includes driving round cyclists. Now, Edinburgh cyclists, try not to fall off your chairs laughing or die in shock, the "meter-obsessed, wheeled black boxes of death" do get training. I'm presuming this is one slide, after the lunchbreak, which must include "the pink bit of roads at stop lines are for you and not cyclists", "if you see a cyclist in a bus lane, try and mow them down" and "cyclists should be killed". It is good that this training is included, but really, it doesn't seem to be working as well as Lothian Buses.

Cycle-safety week - I didn't even know this was happening. But apparently it was and included interventions with drivers and cyclists. Lothian & Borders Police put out a press release about it, picked up by STV local (watch out for the ads). This angers me. Both stories start off with "247 cyclists" being stopped. Note that only two of the things listed as cyclists being stopped for are actually illegal - going through red lights and cycling on pavements, neither of which I'd condone (Greener Leith have had a couple of interesting posts on pavement cycling here and here which I think illuminate this debate a lot). The actual story here is that "Six drivers received a fixed penalty notice or were reported to the Procurator Fiscal and three cars were seized". And it's me on my little ol' bike that is the safety problem on the roads! The really good news they're keeping quiet is that this is going to continue and will include advertising on the back of buses. I'm presuming this will be of the "keep your distance" variety. If so, then woohoo! When I no longer have a near-miss with a car driver doing something illegal every night when I cycle home (last night's was someone going through a red light. Not running a red light, but just proceeding through the junction while it was at red) then I'll start taking cyclists as a safety problem seriously.

Cycling infrastructure - the emails also included a lot of information about new cycling infrastructure the Council are building down in Leith. This is all good grade-separated stuff and needs to be applauded. I've suggested the City of Edinburgh Council do a news blog post on this to take some of the cyclist's flak. This is a start, but we do need more. A recommendation from me would be to put some tarmac grade-separated paths through the national cycle route that goes through the New Town - cycling on those setts is back-breaking. If LA can manage more cycle infrastructure then I don't see why a compact city like Edinburgh cannot.

Overall I was quite pleased by the response I got. It is good that some of these issues are now being taken serious, although clearly anyone who has cycled in Edinburgh will know that implementation gaps still exist. There is clearly a communication issue here and the Council needs to be blowing its own trumpet a bit more. But still, as I said in an exasperated email to the Council's tram teams regarding the roadworks for the trams, it still feels like the City is managed for the car and pedestrians and cyclists are always an after thought. If we're serious about sustainable transport then we have to accept that not thinking about the car, or only considering it a problem, will be effectively demand management and push people into more sustainable transport modes.

Friday, 30 September 2011

the e-City

It's been a week of e-participation for me. Earlier this week, the majority of local authorities in Scotland took part in the #whatwedo experiment, including my own the City of Edinburgh Council. Their corporate Twitter account is outwards facing mainly - they'll interact with you if you badger them enough (like me). But the neighbourhood team twitter feeds (my local one here) are a really good experiment and I've had some good conversations with them (looking forward to the Calder Road being resurfaced anytime soon *ahem*).

I also discovered twitter widgets, so here's one which includes the #whatwedo feed:

Although, just looking at this, clearly the hashtag has been hijacked by people are bit more disgruntled with local government than me!

I also had a really interested meeting yesterday with Ella Taylor-Smith at Napier University (@EllaTasm). We chatted about eparticipation, which I'm interested in, particularly if it opens up new avenues for inclusion and/or exclusion.

This got me thinking. Essentially now, we have two cities. We have the city of the built environment and the digital city that mirrors it. Like the built city, the digital city has fixed points - telephone exchanges, grey boxes, wifi hubs, server farms, mobile cell transmitters - and mobile traffic, like me with my smart phone. Like the real city, the digital city gets congested, when you're thrown out of your mobile cell because it's over capacity, or your internet connection slows to a snails pace at 8pm when everyone's using the iPlayer. Like the built city, it also has inequalities. People like me at work have a ridiculously fast internet connection, whereas others will struggle to ever afford an internet connection, or will be too geographically remote to get a decent connection. 

This makes me think what is the planners role in the digital city? Is it just to get involved in the built bit? Give planning permission for phone masts and telephone exchanges? I'd hope not. Planners could be much more active in promoting the digital city and visioning new, exciting possibilities and offering the capacity to achieve these. 

To switch the question around slightly - does the internet need planners? The original ethos of the internet - basically an equitable free-for-all - suggests that it should not have planners. Surely we're the mercenaries of capitalism that control everything? But given the internet is now so dominated by commerce, and issues such as bandwidth strangling, are coming to the fore, I really think that there might be scope for positive planning in the internet. Using the planners skills to protect the equitable free-for-all from the encroachments of capitalism and not just leave it to IT guys building server farms.

I'm thinking off adding a vague, vision-y, class on "planning digital infrastructure" to a course I teach in 2013. What do you reckon? Am I onto something?

Edit: speaking of

Friday, 23 September 2011

What I see in pretty pictures

I "pimped" my blog recently to make it look slightly less like I'd set up it one hour, one afternoon in January. I've added a sidebar which includes some of the blogs I follow, just over there>>

One I really like, and one of the reason's I started this is Under The Raedar the hilariously titled blog of the very nice, very intelligent Alasdair Rae, down at Sheffield. Not long after I started, his blog got picked up by the Guardian data for some mapping he did of the English Index of Multiple Deprivation. This impressed me, so I thought I'd have my own go. Alasdair does amazing things with data and images I could only image doing. His recent post about relative Chinese, US, and European population densities will definitely make an appearance in one of my lectures.
I can't say I'm as good with data, but I did find the recent Scottish Government housing and regeneration statistics interesting, especially demolitions since 1991. Here's two graphs what I did copy and pasted out from Excel (clickify to embiggen):

The first includes Glasgow (largest authority, largest landlord, largest number of demolitions) and the other top 10 demolishers. The next one takes Glasgow out to show some more of the noise at the bottom. If you read the notes with the data, you'll see this is mainly demolitions of local authority housing or social housing as it's very difficult to record demolitions of private dwellings, even though you're supposed to apply for planning permission.

Doing these, and linking this with Alasdair's work, I was wondering how you'd "read" this data. You might be shocked that so many homes have been demolished over the past 20 years in Scotland. For me, it's a story of regeneration strategies. If you look, Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, peak in demolitions in the early and then late 1990s. These local authorities were the site of the four New Life for Urban Scotland partnerships between 1989-1999, which prioritised housing renewal. So this represents this activity. Across the board there's a pick-up in most local authorities from the mid-1990s as the Conservative Scottish Office started Programme for Partnership, with Priority Partnership Areas (a bit like the New Life Partnerships). Just after devolution, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, activity picks up again as capital spending is prioritised to social housing by the new Scottish Executive and its Social Inclusion Partnerships. Finally, after 2003 Glasgow's demolition rate shoots back up every now and then as the Glasgow Housing Association starts its housing renewal work. I also see quite how big some multi-storey blocks of flats are, as I imagine some of those massive peaks in the major cities are just two or three blocks coming down.

What do you see?

Monday, 19 September 2011

I'm a planner and I want to see development

I just want to quickly bash this post out as it's been on my mind over the weekend, after I got a negative comment about planning.

As my research has been on regeneration, focused at deprived peripheral housing estates, I've worked very closely with researchers in housing. The recent debate about the planning system in England seems to be pitting housing against planning, so I wanted to clarify where I stand.

I commented in the middle of last week to someone via a tweet that I was pleased that the debate about the proposed National Planning Policy Framework in England had produced a refreshed political debate about planning in England. This was a pleasant change to the utterly tedious technocratic discussion that surrounded Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks. However, it's fair to say, the debate about the NPPF has not been the most positive.

Both good ol' Eric Pickles and the likes of the CPRE and National Trust have made stupid, unhelpful assumptions about what planners do and what the NPPF proposes. As a result, I've seen planners caricatured by some people with a housing focus as full signed-up members of the CPRE who want to stop everything being built. The RTPI have (unlike them usually) bothered to start the "Five Planning Myths" campaign to add some planning perspective to the debate.

So, here's my planner's perspective. As I urban and regional planner I do not want to stop development. In fact I want to encourage development in the right place. I fully recognise the shortage of housing in the UK. I also recognise that releasing more land for housing is only one solution to the problem. As a regional planner I also recognise that this cannot all be in the centre of London. We need more effective regional rebalancing in the UK if economic development is not to put too many pressures on the south east. I want a plan-led system. To put it bluntly, as a planner I don't want to see five million people continue to be homeless. I want them to be housed in decent housing, in economically and ecologically sustainable communities. Maybe even a bit like Ebenezer Howard's garden cities.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Banging the devolution drum...

I’m trying to revise a paper I completed the first draft of in April 2010 in response to the referees comments. I am failing. I’ve got as far as putting in some stuff about problem definition and a light sprinkling of references from the wonderful Deborah Stone and my very influential (for me) supervisor Annette Hastings.

So, I thought I’d bash out this blog entry while it was on my mind. I'm not going to comment on Politics with a big P much, but just now I will. Yesterday two important things happened in the world of politics in the UK. Alex Salmond, our First Minister up ‘ere (affectionately known in The Herald as “oor ‘eck”) outlined the Scottish Government’s programme of for the next year (summary here)and set the scene for their four years in Holyrood. Darn sarf, the UK Government voted through the NHS Bill in the House of Lobbyfodder Commons. From what I gather this got a lot of LibDem support, and when I heard a LibDem MP on the news last night saying they would never allow the 50% income tax band to be got rid of, I commented that I’d look forward to seeing him vote for its abolition.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not followed the NHS debate, or the debate about free schools that closely because it just doesn’t matter to me up here. These are devolved areas. England can ruin the NHS down there as much as it wants. Up here, we can keep it free at the point of delivery and even get our lovely free prescriptions. To beat the devolution drum, it's the English NHS and the English education system.

But to maintain the fantastic achievements of devolution we do need to be bold* to deliver services in this period of Westminster enforced cuts. We need to cut expenditure in many places and make difficult choices; our "free" things mean cutbacks elsewhere in Scottish public service provision. And that’s what really impressed me about yesterday’s announcement from oor ‘eck. He used his amazing skills as a politician (like many, I don’t agree with much he says, but I recognise his talents) to set out a different course for Scotland. I’m not sure I agree with the single Police force and single Fire and Rescue Service. If this was going to make a difference it probably should have been done in 2001 when the Scottish Executive (as was) could afford the costs of restructuring. But it will make a difference and produce efficiency savings. Similarly, I have serious issues about the early-intervention, preventative-spend agenda, but they are going about it seriously and in a committed way.

In my former job as a civil servant in the Scottish Government many people commented how they were really surprised, and quite pleased, when the 2007 minority administration came into government with a strong programme of what it wanted to do, including the overarching National Performance Framework. It made a change from the car-crash of bringing together manifesto commitments into coalition agreements that had been the experience in 1999 and 2003. I’m just left wondering what my former colleagues are thinking now as the new Government can be so decisive and is slowly moving Scotland towards greater autonomy and a confident future.
* writing that, I’m just imagining Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne commenting that he’s “so bold”

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Tram Lines: The Love of Solutions

Scottish Television got in touch with me yesterday asking me to comment on the trams. I did so, with reference to Aramis and Aalborg. Original article here.

It was with a wry sense of irony that I read the other day that the company that runs the Paris Metro, RATP, had offered to run the Edinburgh Tram.

Back in the 1970s, the company along with French multinational Matra, spent billions of Francs on a project called Aramis.

This was to be a wonderful modern transport solution for Paris. A cross between a tram and a taxi. You’d hop into a car at your local stop, press a button for your destination, and Aramis would whizz off with no stopping in between. Funnily enough, Paris is now still renowned for the Art Nouveau Metro signs, not super-modern Aramis. Something similar has just opened at Heathrow Airport. It will deliver you to your car park.

In a study of the “death” of Aramis (subtitled, Or the Love of Technology), the French sociologist Bruno Latour described how the engineers, managers and politicians around Aramis almost literally fell in love with the idea. This blinded them to the massive technical challenges of the project and a basic social challenge – when asked, Parisians were rather worried about being sat in a driverless car with strangers. If you’re wondering what did happen to Aramis, if you’ve ever been in a Renault Espace you’ve driven in it. And if you’ve ever been on the TGV you’ve been powered by its motors and stopped by its control system.

Similarly, when the Edinburgh Trams were first getting stuck in late 2008, I was reading a book about a very modest transport project in the city of Aalborg in Denmark by the planning academic Bent Flyvbjerg. Rationality and Power describes how a project to close and pedestrianise some streets and build a bus station ended up taking well over a decade and was wracked with controversy.

Everyone agreed that Aalborg needed a transport solution and the plan was Very Good. Supporters and detractors of the project could marshal all the rational arguments they wanted to but what mattered was the messy business of politics and power. The traders blocked it because they feared the loss of business and had the ear of the politicians. The project stalled as municipal politics swung in one direction and then the next. At one point work stopped due to an economic crisis and reductions in government spending.

All sounding very familiar. Many commentators have caterwauled about Edinburgh’s inability to complete the project compared to European cities. I wonder how many of them were residents in these towns and cities during construction and listened to taxi drivers stuck in congestion. Or read decades of local press cuttings in French or Spanish to understand what the local conflicts and arguments were. I have not, which is why I’m using these two texts that have been published in English. And from these, it seems Edinburgh’s problems are almost universal – we “love” the tram, but are having a lot of difficulty giving birth to it.

I don’t want this to read as “I told you so”. But back in the early 2000s when the grand transport strategy of three tram lines, congestion charging and underground car parks was being dreamt up, I wonder if people would have been quite as ambitious if they had delved into this literature. Or even looked back at the difficulties Edinburgh had with Colin Buchanan’s 1971 Transport Study for the city. Big projects are difficult, complex and expensive.

I’m just enjoying sitting back and watching rather than saying what the “right” solution is.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

My rambling thoughts on them there rioty things...

I’ve been away on my holidays to Canada and while I’ve been away some riots have happened. So I thought I should jump on the bandwagon, now it has passed completely, and blog about them.

Firstly, I always speak about riots in a personal way. In 2001 I had a job at a bookshop on the edge of Bradford city centre. That fateful Saturday in July I was leaving work in the evening. Customers have been suggesting that something might have been about to kick-off all day. I had to cross the city centre to get to Forster Square train station to get home. I walked down towards Centenary Square and my way was blocked, so I ducked around the back of the City Hall through Norfolk Gardens and as I again tried to turn towards Market Street I was faced by a charging crowd with a lot of riot police and horses pushing the crowd towards Broadway. I fled in panic across Hall Ings up to the Interchange and jumped on a bus to my dad’s house on the other side of the city. It was a truly terrifying event.

But the broader context says a lot about what happened that weekend. I was going to get the train to escape to the broadly white suburb of Baildon, which my parents have chosen to move to, to get out of inner-city Manningham. The bus I got to my dad’s house would have ordinarily gone through Manningham, down Lumb Lane where a lot of the rioting took place. It was diverted around the edge of the area through decidedly working class peripheral housing estates. The suburb my dad lives in was/is slowly becoming more culturally mixed. A house around the corner has a Pakistani flag flying from it. And the affluent white workers who originally bought the houses in the 1960s are dying or moving further out of the city.  So, there was a major incident of mindless violence, and a broad context of 50 years of difficult socio-economic change in a city with a lot of inequality, spatially reflected and exacerbated by racism.

As a result of this personal experience, I found the disconnect of being 5,000 miles away while the present riots were going on particularly weird and difficult. I wanted to know more. I eventually gave up on Twitter as my Twitterstream matched the joke tweet that was doing the rounds along the lines of “[insert political view in here] caused the riots”. I ended up relying on the BBC to filter my information, using their old school skill of “editing”. But, the impact of rolling news and social media are the two things I do want to know more about and wished I could have been in the UK (or at least not eight time zones away) where I could have experienced these “live”, so to speak.

Linking to my experiences of Bradford, probably what caused the riots was the mindless violence in and amongst broader context. As a social democrat, I actually put the blame for the mindless violence at the very Conservatives who espouse moral values. It’s their selfish liberalism that has led to a decay in civic virtue, in my humble opinion.

A couple of extra thoughts for. Comments on geography and the riots have confused. People have commented that it’s not surprise that people in London rioted when they live cheek-by-jowl with such obvious affluence. I don’t necessarily disagree with the statement. But others have gone onto suggest, for example, that the riots didn’t happen in Scotland because we’ve been more successful at shifting people out to peripheral social housing estates. That doesn’t really explain what happened in Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham. I wonder how “included” in the fabric of the city people in Wythenshawe or The Meadows feel? And I think this overlooks something I’ve always found very striking in London – yes you may live next door to those experiencing poverty and social exclusion, but in terms of planning and design, these are still quite “peripheral”. Many of these estates literally look like castles – turning their backs on the (now) luxury Georgian and Victorian houses in the rest of the neighbourhood. The main reason London doesn’t have peripheral estates is Abercrombie’s County of London Plan. This put the affluent worker out in the New Towns and rebuilt the inner city, so that before the gentrifiers came in, the grand houses of Notting Hill and the like, were the Rachman slums and the new Council estates were the luxury new housing for the “respectable” working class. Sixty years later and the places have swapped. So, all-in-all, not entirely convinced by the geographical proximity argument.

I want to say something more controversial and I think I’ll get trolled for this. I’ve only ever seen one blog that has also broached this issue. The one thing that really troubled me about the riots was the treatment of the clean-up afterwards – specifically all the broom-wielding people. I remember after the Bradford riots the many interviews on the local and national news with local businesses and homeowners clearing up with their “brooms”. The questions in these interviews with predominantly Asian community members were searching for “the answer”; it was almost implicit that they were partly to blame. There was no valorising of their brave “British”. They were part of the problem population. They were as much to blame as the rioters and barely deserved sympathy or support. They should be more like “us” (in our safe white suburbs). (Following added after a tweet pointed out I'd not made my point) On the other hand, the broom brigade (arguably local gentrifiers) were portrayed as the vanguard of community in the face of the riots. Communities will have to clean up after riots. This difference in media presentation troubled me. After the dust has settled I'd like to see some content and discourse analysis carried out on how these different events have been portrayed over time.

And I write all this as someone who was brought up in a safe, white suburb and is now a gentrifier, who finds the anti-social behaviour of local kids and the methadone ‘scrip queue in the local Boots very difficult to deal with. I have some thoughts about “solutions”, inequality and the Moving to Opportunity programme linked to that. But I’ll save them for now.