Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Ferguslie is NOT the most deprived neighbourhood in Scotland

Ferguslie Park is. And even that statement is not right. No news outlet I’ve seen so far could be bothered to go to Ferguslie Park and speak to some of the amazing projects doing really good work in the neighbourhood or even take a photo of the nice homes provided by Ferguslie Park Housing Association and the new primary school.  The Daily Record bothered to use a Google Street View image. STV and the BBC couldn’t even be bothered doing that much, just using library images. The BBC one is particularly crass. No homes in Ferguslie Park look like this, and the woman in the foreground is just horribly stigmatising - the sort of "The Scheme" bullshit that drives the debate on this issue. 

This whole story depresses me because this is the second time “Ferguslie Park” has been the “most deprived” neighbourhood in Scotland. The last time was 2006. It’s not the entire neighbourhood. As Alasdair Rae’s fantastic Google Mapping of the SIMD 2012 shows, it’s one datazone. The ranking of this datazone in the SIMD has gone from 1 in 2006, to 2 in 2009, and now back to 1. Switch on the satellite view on the Google map and have a look at the stats behind the ranking you’ll see part of the reason why - the datazone is depopulated. It’s part of a continuing story of disinvestment, low demand and poor housing management decisions that have characterised Ferguslie Park since it was built. As the Community Development Project in the neighbourhood in the 1970s concluded, this slum clearance housing was “cuts housing neglected before it was built”.

One thing I have to make clear, I think SIMD is a fantastic tool and I welcome the Scottish Government’s continued investment in it. What angers me is this sort of reporting of “Ferguslie” being the most deprived and Craiglockhart the least deprived. It’s just inaccurate. For a start, it’s Ferguslie PARK (it was the park land of the Coats’ mansion which backed onto their Ferguslie Mill). It’s not the entire neighbourhood, it’s one datazone. If you want to give it a name, call it Candren. The index is relative, so as one community activist put it to me (I paraphrase here): “we only came out bottom because they knocked down places in Glasgow worse than us”. And Craiglockhart is not the least deprived. It’s a deprivation index, not an affluence index, so once you get up to the top of the index it’s essentially meaningless (also, see Alasdair Rae's fantastic "what does it all mean" page).

What really angers me is that this sort of reporting feeds into the stigma which helps keep Ferguslie Park a deprived neighbourhood; which isolates its residents and lowers their life chances. As I pointed out in this paper(£*) the stigma towards Ferguslie Park is so great that it is likely that any regeneration programme will be termed unsuccessful. The “feckless feegies” as the other residents of Paisley call them, don’t “deserve” the community centre, new housing and other facilities they have – the real successes of the regeneration programme. If the neighbourhood is misnamed the “most deprived” in Scotland then this is similarly just typical of those “feckless feegies”.

As far as I’m concerned we need to make Craiglockhart the problem neighbourhood. Why does this neighbourhood of horrendous new build flats and bungalows have so few unemployed people – that’s really weird. Why do they have such high educational qualifications – surely some of them have messed around at school at some point in their lives? Why is there so little social housing? Why are there only three children of school age? (and why aren’t those stats anonymised?) Why are there so many young men? Frankly, I think they need to knock down Craiglockhart and start again. Yuppies don’t deserve such nice housing.

There's a very funny book from many moons ago called Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. The politically correct version of Snow White is "Snow White and the Seven Towering Giants" not because the dwarves were, but because they had "towering" personalities. Much as this is satire, it is this change in language that we need to see if we are going to tackle neighbourhood deprivation in a constructive way. If you're looking for bonding social capital, then I can assure you, Ferguslie Park has bucket loads of that compared to Craiglockhart.

* as ever, my paper is behind an academic paywall. I won't get into a debate on open access. If you want a copy of my paper please contact me by Twitter or email and I'll happily send you a copy. In the New Year the University online depository goes live and you'll be able to get a green open access version. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Where’s the community gone?

Back in 1999 and devolution to the Scottish Parliament and government, one of the most impressive range of powers that wasn’t reserved to Westminster was land-use planning. It took them a while to use these powers fully. The problems over the Lingerbay super quarry application seemed to make the first parliaments very cautious so in the end they spent years consulting over the reforms introduced in 2006.

One of the big issues that came up in the consultation was Third Party Rights to Appeal – that is the right for the community, or another body who are not the developers applying for planning permission, to appeal a planning decision. The Lib Dems in coalition at the time were quite keen on the idea and there was a lot of murmuring about it, so there was a specific consultation on TPRA. In the end it was rejected and Modernising the Planning System which became the 2006 Act reached this compromise – a refreshed plan-led system would engage communities much more in the plan development cycle, which would include neighbour notification of major developments included in the plan. Developers would also have a duty to engage local communities on major developments. By the time I was doing my MSc in Urban and Regional Planning this was the planning policy zeitgeist – not only would communities feel listened to, but the streamlined system would ensure good developments were brought forward speedily. The focus was the community.

In 2007, when the SNP won their first election victory to the Scottish Parliament, there was some concern that their focus on “sustainable economicgrowth” would mean a complete revision of the 2006 Act for a neo-liberal development free-for-all. Luckily, John Swinney was won over to the merits of the reformed system and implementation ploughed ahead. A week ago I was at a two day session with a group of planners at the Scottish Government to learn how things had gone. It was a very good session and, any planners reading this, if you get the chance to attend I would recommend it, however…

Two things struck me. Firstly, and I said this at the time, the community has vanished from Scottish planning. The “line to take” among Scottish Government planners now is that “in these difficult economic times” we must deliver “sustainable economic growth”. To be fair, this focus on delivery economic development through planning (rather than, say, enhancing our natural environment, or engaging communities) in Scotland is a lot more pro-planning than it is in Westminster (HT @Bristol21). The planning system is still seen as a good and effective way to deliver development. However, I’m pretty sure that six years ago the focus would have very much been on engaging the community in the development process, whereas now it is very much planners delivering a “good” plan on time and then helping to deliver development.

This leads me onto the other thing I always find when I go to events with practising planners. As they work within the planning system they are utterly obsessed by it. There’s definitely an actor-network theory study to be done in how the “planning process” is reified by planners into the enabler or thwarter of all development. I think this is why practitioners and academics often talk past each other in land-use planning. While I find the fascination with process interesting in an abstract sense, the actual working of the minutiae of planning law in practice bores me to tears. I’m interested in the abstract theories that lie behind the whole planning system – the sort of stuff that answers the questions “why do we plan”. Reflecting on this on the hoof as I write, I suppose one need for us as planning academics is to highlight how this theory explains why planning processes are the way they are – you’re essentially trying to make a decision (in most cases) weighing up all sorts of difficult ontological and epistemological questions that cannot be answered with a “good” plan or a model policy.

But the process does matter. Previously I’ve blogged about the disaster of Leith Docks and why I chose not to attend a consultation event for a decision that has seemingly been made. A recent contract call from Scottish Enterprise furthers my cynicism. The future use of Leith Docks was, as I understood it, an issue to be discussed in the Main Issues Report of the next City of Edinburgh Local Plan. It seems that the issue has already been decided for us by Scottish Enterprise.

The state of land ownership in Leith Docks, again recently in the news because part of it is not owned by a company based in the tax-haven of the British Virgin Islands, and the mess of the development process really highlights how the process does matter if we want to deliver good development. However, the process does not need tinkering to get away from quirks of law that aren’t working right, it needs much more dramatic reform to place the public interest at the heart of planning. And these reforms, including to land law as well as planning, need to prioritise development where it needs to and should happen, for example in deprived neighbourhoods. But neither is the prioritising of the community’s views over all others a proper aim for the planning system – that way we run the risk of empowering the powerful and producing fruitless debate about development – as some recent development processes in Edinburgh are showing.

With these vague ramblings in mind, I’d advise you to go and have a look at the draft manifesto (PDF) of the Planners Network UK  – a really good statement of positive planning principles at all spatial scales.

Friday, 16 November 2012

PCCs and local accountability

I got an email from my mum this morning. When I was a wee boy I was always taken to the polling station by one of my parents to be with them when they voted. Eventually if I missed out on the chance to vote I’d be upset. This was part of my civic education and led to that excitement that me and Adrian Mole felt when we first when to vote (2001 General Election for me – Gordon Brown had engineered for me to get a hefty tax rebate in my April pay packet, so I happily voted for them). This morning’s email from my mum said, regarding the PCC elections in England and Wales:

“I spoilt my ballot paper by writing on it “This is a waste of public money.”  I overheard two older women on the bus talking about it, and one said she was not voting, as it was a waste of money and all the candidates were just out to get money from the public purse and would be hand in glove with the police.”

To my knowledge this is the first time my mum’s ever spoilt a ballot paper, and that the PCC elections drove her to this made me very sad indeed.

And it’s looking like the PCC elections are a complete disaster, with extraordinarily low turnout (no votes in one ballot box) and a very high percentage of spoilt ballot papers, such as my mum’s – this tumblr s keeping a record of some of them. A lot of political scientists are saying very practical things about what’s gone wrong and how turnout could have been increased.

Ironically, at this very moment I am reading the Conservative Party document Control Shift - Returning Power to Local Communities produced before the last election where they announced PCCs. On page five of the document they also make the point:

“The inevitable result of this relentless centralisation has been disenchantment with the local political process.
  • In 2008 only 38 per cent of people felt they could influence decisions in their local area, a figure that has fallen since 2001.
  • Local election turnouts have been consistently below 40 per cent, and in the most recent council elections in May 2008 turnout was just 35 per cent.”

Now it seems that their attempt to re-enchant people with the political process has backfired as people resist this sort of politicisation.

I also want to suggest another reason for apathy, or what could more rightly be referred to as ignorance. I’m reading this document because I’m co-authoring a paper on localism. I wanted to find some of the consultation documents relating to the localism bill. Then I came across what a lot of people are finding. (the Department of) Communities and Local Government are one of the first departments to move across to the generic UK government portal It is now impossible to find most things you want and a lot of the links just go to 404 screen without even links to the archived versions.

The logic of single portals like this from many in ecommunications is that people don’t care who delivers services or has control over a policy area, just what’s being done about it. The Scottish Government were one of the first to embrace such an approach with their “thematic” website. Admittedly this means they don’t have to change the website every six months when the directorates are restructured, but basically the only way into information on the site is through a google search. It seems enabling access for the “uninformed”  means that the likes of me who actually know what we’re looking for get completely lost trying to fathom out what “theme” our cross-cutting policy document might be under.

The other interesting, and I’d say shocking, thing about is that on the main “how government works”  page is just a gurning photo of Cameron. You have to scroll down quite a way to discover that most policy is actually delivered by local authorities and a recognition that devolution has even happened. The Scottish Government had a similar idea to create one portal for all public services in Scotland. I think, and hope, they’ve been abandoned because the response from local authorities was “oi! No! We do exist and do things, you know”. There was a real, and I’d say correct, fear that the institutions of government would get forgotten as they were so hidden. The justification for this approach was the good old Scottish, “what matters is outcomes” not who delivers them.

I think the PCC elections show us that this is rubbish. Actually people really do care about who delivers services and how those services are accountable. They do want services to be accountable to democratically elected representatives, not just performance cards or tax rates. Ironically, I agree with the Tories, people are not voting in local government elections because they feel that it has little control over services. But the government at both a UK and Scottish level are not improving the situation, and websites like need to be recognised as part of a wider problem of the managerialism of politics for the sake of a version of engagement.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Is Leith a gentrified neighbourhood and does it matter?

This is the second of my posts for the Greener Leith blog, where I ponder my role as a gentrifier...
Gentrification is a very ominous word. It is also a very contentious issue and an area with a wide amount of scholarship and research.

It is generally understood to be the process by which a less advantaged neighbourhood that has experienced local house price drops, shops closing down and industrial vacancies becomes a much more advantaged neighbourhood, with sky-rocketing house prices and young professionals moving into the now fashionable small homes.

The usual story of gentrification is that earlier on in the process new people, such as artists, would have moved to the neighbourhood and these “gentrification pioneers” made the neighbourhood attractive to others. Often now the process is so rapid, led by big developers, that this stage barely registers. The term was coined and process first described in the USA in the 1960s, but in places like Islington in London, and closer to home arguably in neighbourhoods like Stockbridge and Newington the same process has happened.

One of the most contentious issues around gentrification is the displacement of previous populations by higher-income new arrivals. I’m not going to talk about this here; what I will discuss is the question of whether Leith is a gentrified or deprived neighbourhood and from my own perspective of research in public service provision, whether this matters.

It is obvious to most people that live in Leith that the neighbourhood has changed and that most of these changes could be characterised as gentrification. The new developments in the Docks were clearly built for people with professional salaries to move into as owner-occupiers. At the same time, general house price inflation across the UK, but particularly in Edinburgh, have meant the traditional tenement properties are increasingly out of the reach of many.

But as was pointed out in my previous post, Leith contains some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. I’d say Leith remains, and will remain a mixed community. Mixed communities have been a political ideal for centuries – going right back to Aneurin Bevan’s post-war dream of the doctor living next to the butcher and the miner.

A common social justice argument about mixed communities and living with different people is that we learn to get along better creating a civic democracy. A more practical argument for mixed communities is that if you have wealthier, or middle-class people living in a neighbourhood they will complain about local public services more and thus the standard of these will improve for everyone.

The evidence on this is mixed. However, it’s also deeply problematic in two other regards. Firstly, it presumes that it is only the more affluent, more vocal and more middle-class people that have the suitable education and civic-mindedness to complain to public services.

The long history of community activism in more deprived communities, such as those in Wester Hailes, Muirhouse and Greater Pilton, and even Leith shows this is just not the case.

More of an issue is whether public services listen to less-advantaged communities in delivering services. The other problem with this model is the behaviour of middle-class people themselves. It’s a very beguiling policy idea because the social stereotype is so strong. There’s a wonderful episode of the 70s sitcom The Good Life where the middle-class neighbour Margot goes to pay her rates at the District Council and refuses to pay some of them because of daft excuses like “the attitude of the bin men”.

The so-called NIMBYs who hold up wind farm developments, are, in many people’s mind middle-class homeowners (and often incomers to the areas they’re trying to protect, at that). And I’m as bad as anyone else middle-class – I was invited to do these two posts because I’m a regular pest with Edinburgh Council about the state of Leith.

But a recent research review a colleague and I carried out shows a more troubling pattern to this stereotype. We looked across a wide-range of evidence, around 69 studies in total, that looked at middle-class interaction with public services.

In this we found four key mechanisms by which middle-class, or more affluent, people and groups have a disproportionate impact on public services: They are more likely to form and join groups and also join groups that matter, like the Community Council or the School Board; They are more likely to complain, and when they do so are more likely to get a positive response and complain again; They, as middle-class professionals are speaking to other middle-class professionals so are more likely to be understood and taken seriously – we refer to this as an alignment of “cultural capital”; Lastly, most policies and the delivery of public services, such as school choice in England, are generally beneficial to the middle classes.

What is more, we found no evidence of “spill-over” effects that other members of the community benefit from the actions of the middle-classes. In fact, what evidence we could find was the very opposite – this was selfish activity that took away resources from those more needy. This is one of the reasons why I’m ambivalent about the current policy agenda for community empowerment – you could end up just empowering the more powerful.

This is a very difficult finding and one us as researchers have struggled with. It also troubles me as a relatively affluent incomer – a gentrifier – in Leith. I want to complain about local anti-social behaviour, the state of the streets, and the other problems that are worse in a more deprived neighbourhood. But I also don’t want to take resources away from, say cleaning out the corridors of Cables Wynd House, just so my street can look a little bit tidier.

The research has made me reflect much more on this. Often when I’m talking about living in Leith I have ended up saying “I am a gentrifier and I’m not ashamed of it”. I say this because it’s true and impossible to deny. However, it also allows me to reflect on my position in a very mixed community and turn what could be a very negative thing, displacing people less advantaged than myself, can become more positive.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Is Leith a Deprived Neighbourhood

This post was written for the blog of a local community organisation in my neighbourhood Greener Leith. They very kindly describe me as someone "who knows what they're talking about". I leave you to judge that...

This is the first of two blog posts where I will discuss how I, as a planning academic interested in spatial inequality, understand Leith and the changes that have happened in the neighbourhood over the past twenty years.

One of the reasons people like Leith is it has character. Part of this character is the characters in the neighbourhood – the faces you see in the Kirkgate and on Great Junction Street; the diversity of the neighbourhood.

It is rightly said that Leith has changed massively in the past 20 years as the housing developments in former warehouse and port areas have brought in a new, more affluent, young population. If you look at the statistics though Leith is a deprived neighbourhood. This is quite a dramatic thing to say, but it’s official.

If you look at the mapping provided for the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) two datazones in Leith are in the bottom 15-20% of the SIMD, one datazone is in the bottom 10-15% of the SIMD, two datazones are in the bottom 5-10% of the SIMD and one datazone is in the bottom 5% of the SIMD, one of the 325 most deprived datazones in Scotland.

What does all this mean, what are they measuring here? The SIMD uses a unique geography that has broken Scotland down into 6,505 “datazones” with an average population of around 1,000. A basket of indicators from survey and administrative data – covering employment and unemployment, household income, education, health, housing quality and neighbourhood quality – are then used to rank these neighbourhoods from 1 (most deprived) to 6,505 (least deprived).

It is important to recognise that the index is relative. Even if all neighbourhoods in Scotland were equally affluent there would be enough variation in the data so that you can still rank them 1 to 6,505. However, the level of inequality in Scottish neighbourhoods is such that, as the Scottish Government statisticians demonstrated when the SIMD was first published in 2005, you see indicators in the SIMD dramatically improve after the bottom 15% of datazones.

These areas have a significant concentration of deprivation that makes them quite different from the rest of Scotland. The data from the 2011 census will be available in 2013 and it will be very interesting as to how this informs our picture, especially regarding things that are difficult to measure such as ethnic diversity.
Leith shares this national pattern of being a deeply divided place. The datazone roughly bounded by Great Junction Street, Leith Walk, Balfour Street and Bonnington Road is ranked 2,537 in the 2009 SIMD – in percentage terms, at the top of the bottom 40%.

The datazone next door, bounded by Great Junction Street, Cables Wynd, Henderson Street and the Water of Leith is ranked 630 in the 2009 SIMD, in the bottom 10% of the index. It is one of the most deprived datazones in Scotland.

Looking at the mapping, what you essentially see are “islands” of concentrated deprivation covering the predominantly Council housing areas in central Leith, surrounded by much less deprived neighbourhoods in the new build housing and the old tenement areas that are increasingly home to private-renters and young owner-occupiers.

I’m setting out this point in this way for a specific reason. Debates around deprived neighbourhoods very quickly tend towards stigma - blaming the residents for the deprivation they suffer and assuming cultures of deprivation and poverty exist; most famously recently used by David Cameron with his discussion around “Broken Britain”. This is the sort of lazy, ill-informed judgement I rail against in a lot of my research . In fact I’m increasingly trying to stigmatise more affluent neighbourhoods as being the weird ones.

Anyway, I understand neighbourhood deprivation as coming about because, basically, we put all our social housing in one place. As social housing has increasingly become a tenure of last resort, as opposed to a tenure of choice, the individual challenges faced by tenants in terms of worklessness, ill health and disability have increased – this is the only housing they can access. And the vast majority of these tenants will be perfectly normal. Probably wanting to escape the poverty and deprivation that circumstance has found them in, but just living their lives.

Some will commit anti-social behaviour. Tales of student parties in Newington and the New Town show to everyone that anti-social behaviour is not the monopoly of the poorest in society. Similarly with drug addiction and other problems.

However, with the collocation of problems, these individual problems become more obvious, problematic and difficult to manage at the neighbourhood level. Pathological explanations based on stigma and prejudice that blame the neighbourhood and “community” become an easy way to explain them.
But the statistical description of Leith above does demonstrate that the place has been changing, and arguably gentrifying. In my next post I will discuss this with a particular reference to my own research interest in public service delivery.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Ooh, Byker!

As a child of the 1980s from The North a couple of children’s TV programmes captured my fascination because they included regional accents. One was Jonny Briggs (“My mum, who’s a nurse…”):

And the other was Byker Grove (“Spuggy, I’m blind…”)

In the days when the latter programme was being broadcast I was studying GCSE geography. My education just missed the New Labour investment package, so my textbooks were so out-of-date they included odd case studies, like the Eldon Square Shopping Centre as an exciting new development in Newcastle city centre and also the Byker estate and Byker Wall. The estate has always been famous because of its architecture, but not infamous because of its architecture like, say, Hutchesontown C. In fact my GCSE Geography textbook included Byker because of how famously different it was.

If you don’t know the story, the architect Ralph Erskine was brought in by Newcastle City Council because they were well aware that the previous approach of slum clearance and high-rise flats for redevelopment was not working well. The shine of the new homes swiftly wore off as people realised they didn’t offer what their previous terraced homes had. After leaving the UK for Sweden as a conscientious objector, Erskine took a very different approach to doing architecture. He set up his office in the Byker neighbourhood and the slums were cleared slowly and each community worked closely with Erskine to deliver what they wanted. The design of the estate is striking, with the high Byker Wall to the north, following the topography of the area and protecting the low-rise homes and maisonettes to the south from the northerly weather. Supposedly the climate on the south side of the wall is on average 2 degrees warmer than the rest of the city. It was upgraded to Grade II* listing in 2007. 

So Byker is famous as a model of fantastic architecture and community involvement in architecture, planning and urban design. So when I first had the opportunity to visit in 2008 I jumped at the chance. However, when I got off this visit, I discovered my digital camera had not recorded all the photos, but I got a couple:
The estate was looking very run down at this point and one section in the south, Bolem Coyne, was earmarked for demolition But I fell in love with the neighbourhood and its unique design. It was very sad and it felt like the council had just decided to disinvest in it. On a student fieldtrip two weeks ago I arranged to go again and was shown around by an incredibly enthusiastic housing officer who loved the estate and its design. Luckily this time my camera did work. The transformation was stunning and I was very pleased to see Bolem Coyne had been recently renovated and saved and was looking absolutely fantastic: 

Byker 14 

Quite a few things struck me. First, like many neighbourhoods, including my two PhD case studies (£), although it is very deprived (in the most deprived 1% of the English IMD) this deprivation was inadvertently locked in from the start. The neighbourhood had and continues to have very high rents because it is very good quality housing and was expensive to build. It was developed around the same time housing benefit emerged. Therefore any tenants who received housing benefit in the estate are effectively locked into a benefits trap worse than if they were living in more affordable housing elsewhere. Whereas in London I imagine Byker would have been gentrified long ago, in Newcastle to less buoyant local economy means that most residents are unemployed and therefore very few people have had the resources to exercise the Right-To-Buy; that and also the non-standard construction methods mean it’s very difficult to get a mortgage for a property in Byker. 

Secondly, the estate now shows that neighbourhood management and place-based investment work. The housing officer explained that the listing meant they had access to more money and so began renewal works across the estate. Prior to this Newcastle Council had attempted to run it like any other neighbourhood, and with a complex interesting neighbourhood like Byker, this just did not work. The really exciting thing for the future is now owned by a Community Land Trust, so hopefully it will go from strength to strength. 

Finally, much was made of the problems of anti-social behaviour on the estate. The estate’s urban design is Radburn to the max. The idea was people would park their cars next to the dual carriageway to the north of the wall and walk to their houses on the south side. The streets are therefore very much like rabbit warrens and brilliant non-car urban design. Unfortunately, they also do absolutely everything you shouldn’t do if you want to “design-out” crime. This got me thinking: it is a striking, wonderful neighbourhood, with a fantastic sense of place, and the streetscape, as much as the buildings, are central to this. Does designing out crime mean we never achieve such striking neighbourhoods that are so pedestrian friendly because we always need wide streets with sight lines? 

I’m reading a fantastic book to review at the moment about place-making and it really struck me that if you want a definition of a place then Byker is it. It looks fantastic and the pride the community now have for their neighbourhood means it is looking fantastic. The housing officer told a nice tale of how the kids from Byker think they’re better than the kids from the other estates in the east end because, although they’re poor, they’re from Byker. Although, I do think some of the Ralph Erskine community engagement stuff is a myth – the estates he built in Scandinavia look an awful lot like Byker…

Friday, 19 October 2012

Freedom of information

Back in August a mattress had been laid by the bin store outside where I live for weeks. Given that we live on the boundary of one of the five per cent most deprived datazones in Scotland, and with my colleague Annette Hastings’ work on disparities in environmental services in mind, I was sick and tired of calling the council to get fly-tipping like this cleared away. When I say a gigantic rat running down the street I figured this was the last straw and that it’d be good to know how often my local neighbourhood office:
  • Sent around environmental wardens to inspect the street for cleanliness and report fly-tipping (once in a blue moon, apparently.
  • Swept the streets.
This information was not publicly available, so I put in an FOI request. Actually, it was accepted as a request for Environmental Information under that EU Directive I need to learn about to teach next semester.
The information has arrived. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. They had to ask me to clarify my request and that reset the 20 day clock ticking. The information is actually ridiculously unhelpful and I sent an email asking for clarification, particularly why one but of information (the regularity of sweeps) was not included. Oh, and in the meantime another mattress has been dumped and has so far been there for a fortnight. The council seem to have a problematic attitude to “street furniture” in Leith.

I also popped in an FOI request to my local police force asking why cyclists riding on pavements had suddenly shot up their priorities to seemingly become the greatest criminal threat to all of Edinburgh (in ten years in Edinburgh one pedestrian has been recorded as being seriously injured by a cyclist, and from my experience I can’t imagine the cyclist was unscathed). I got an email the other day from them saying “Unfortunately due to a technical fault with our website your enquiry has only been received today.” This led to an interesting exchange on twitter as to whether the 20 day countdown starts when I hit submit or when they realise their website’s broken. The conclusion was the former.

But all this got me thinking about FOI. I’m not a serial FOI requester. These are in fact my second and third requests ever. I was working for the City of Edinburgh Council when FOI came into force on 1 January 2005. I didn’t have enough leave left so I had been in the office between Christmas and New Year and we had a bit of an information “clear out” of odd bits and pieces like old notebooks. And that’s the cynical side of FOI – public authorities deliberately thwarting the public getting access to information.
In the run up to the act coming in we had some fantastic training led by the Council Secretary at the time John Sturt – a man passionately committed to using local democratic processes to achieve positive ends. In this training two things particularly struck me:

Firstly, under the act, all requests for information given to anyone who works for a public authority, so long as it includes the name and address of the person requesting the information is a request under the FOI Act and has to be treated as such. You could give a sheet of paper to a passing street sweeper and the authority would have to respond within 20 working days. This could also be used within organisations.
Secondly, he asserted that, particularly in local government that had been subject to access to information legislation for quite a while, the Act should have little impact on day-to-day business as most information would be in the public domain anyway.

Both of these points suggest a complete change in organisational culture that would lead to a very transparent organisation. If we compare this to the reality as I have experienced it, something very different has happened indeed. The legislation has led to special units in organisations that treat each request very much by the letter of the law. They act as knowledge brokers within complex organisations that we outsiders can’t get easy access to. The general discourse is around FOI being a burden on organisations.

So how might it look different? Well for a start in the two cases I’m involved in the information could be publicly available. The Police could publish the briefing notes by which they make policing priority decisions. The Council could publish a schedule of local street sweeps. I could then ask “why didn’t the street sweeper who came by last blahday report this mattress to be collected?”

I presume we have not reached the level of transparency because of the political difficulty. A paper by Annette will shortly be being published based on her clean sweep work where she highlights those good local authorities that prioritise spending and change working patterns to ensure high levels of street cleanliness in non-affluent neighbourhoods have to do this by stealth. If affluent neighbourhoods found this was going on then they would vociferously complain and previous unequal distributions of resources would return. 

Similarly, if the police had to admit that they didn’t give a toss about cyclists on pavements because it’s not actually a problem, but people read about it in the paper and complain about it and they have to look like they’re doing something, it would be quite tricky to defend. But, as I mentioned before in my critique of the Community Empowerment agenda this can be done, it just takes bravery.

This also touches on something that is increasingly interesting me but I don’t know where to take it – the need for authoritative decision-making in democracies. My work on equalities brings this to the fore as to really drive an equalities agenda needs leadership. Similarly, leadership and authoritative decision-making is needed to counter middle-class NIMBYism. This very interesting article about the case of homeless hostel locations in Rotterdam (£) begins to unpick some of these ideas. In my PhD thesis I ended up relying on Richard Sennett’s concept of respect to argue that you could have authoritative decision-making while meeting some of the social justice outcomes of an inclusive democracy.

And if that sodding mattress is not cleared away soon then Edinburgh Council are going to get the full onslaught of my middle-class rage...

Friday, 12 October 2012

Housing benefit – a disaster waiting to happen?

I’m on the management committee of a community based housing association. We had a meeting on Wednesday at which was agreed the association would have a short five-year strategy, as well as annually reviewed triennial business plans, to get us through the tough years ahead. One of our strategic objectives for the next five years had to be to cope with the changes to Housing Benefit and introduction of Universal Credit in the next two years. In the spirit of business jargon and positivity I suggested a positive spin on this objective. In the end it was agreed that there is nothing whatsoever positive about this so the strategic objective will be something along the lines of “dealing with the benefit changes”.

With this, and the Public Accounts Committee report on “affordable rent”in mind (also so these strong words about Uncle Eric) I thought I’d do some depressing crystal-ball gazing as to where I think the welfare benefit changes are going to lead us in a couple of years. The changes I am specifically talking about are:
  • The reduction in housing benefit for under-occupiers (aka “The Bedroom Tax”);
  • The introduction of Universal Credit and the housing part of this being paid directly to tenants;
  • The cap on Universal Credit;
  • The introduction of mid-market and affordable rent; 
  •  The changes to Council Tax benefit.

I can only write based on what I’ve been told by housing managers and what I’ve read online. But here goes. 

From April next year with the introduction of the bedroom tax housing associations (HAs) will see a slow increase in rent arrears as tenants struggle to make ends meet. About a year later this will start to feed into increased levels of intentional homelessness as tenants is large amounts of arrears are evicted. Shortages of suitable smaller (one-bedded) properties in places like Edinburgh mean this will probably mostly affect young single people, throwing them into cycles of homelessness, including street homelessness.

As people are made homeless through rent arrears they will increasingly resort to the already highly pressured private rented sector for suitably sized properties and the housing benefit bill will skyrocket. For those lucky enough to be in areas where their rent will fall within the benefits cap, they should be more stable. For those in places like London, forced displacement or street homelessness probably beckon. Mid-market rent in Scotland and affordable rent in England will also put a further upward pressure on the housing benefit bill, although the ending of the right-to-buy in Scotland may reduce this marginally here (see this paper on the estimated cost of the RTB on the housing benefit bill).

HAs will increasingly struggle to finance their debt as arrears grow and I think in the next two years a large HA will go bust. We might also see more consolidation among smaller HAs that have overstretched themselves. The initial results from the Universal Credit direct paymentspilots are not brilliant, so when this is introduced we are likely to see a further uptick in arrears and more HAs struggling to keep their business afloat. In Scotland I can specifically imagine one of the fancy new financing deals going badly wrong, especially if housing for sale in developments is not sold, and what limited capital expenditure there is in housing will be swallowed up bailing out risky developments  where the sums just didn’t add up. I don't understand local authority housing revenue accounts, but I can also see some local authorities, particularly those in Scotland building a lot of new homes through debt finance, being hit hard and having to cut services to pay debt repayments.

In England, the widely underreported changes to Council Tax benefit will probably mean a lot of vulnerable households losing even more of their income and being thrown into debt. As families are plunged into fuel poverty their energy bills will be greater than their rent and they will end up in debt to energy companies as well or living in dark, cold homes. So you’ll have poor homeless people with rent arrears debt and Council Tax debt, which I’m sure everyone will want to house. 

So, that’s about it. I foresee an absolutely staggering and shocking increase in homelessness and the housing sector being utterly mangled. This is kinda why we thought we should have five year strategy to weather the storm.

Of course I could be completely wrong. Alternatively, the economy could suddenly leap up to a 3 per cent growth resulting in a massive increase in the delivery of housing, especially in pressured areas where the planning reforms have (of course) meant that NIMBYs will throw open their arms to massive housing allocations. The booming economy and benefits changes will incentivise everyone to work, the lame will walk thanks to ATOS, and the new Britain will emerge.