Monday, 27 April 2015

I attended a community action event

Some organisations I'm involved with in various ways, primarily through research (namely: WHALE Arts, Prospect Community Housing Association and SCORE Scotland, along with the City of Edinburgh Council) organised a community action event in Wester Hailes on Saturday and I went along. It used Open Space - a technique I'd never seen before, but that I was very impressed by. Here are my random thoughts on the event in no particular order.

It was diverse! As I said to many people on the day, it was the most ethnically diverse room I've been in since I moved to Scotland. The 2011 census showed that only four per cent of Scotland's population is from a Black Minority Ethnic background (BME), which means most events in Scotland are as white a ream of photocopier paper. Also, SCORE brought along their youth club, so it was diverse in ages too.

A lot of issues that really matter to people were discussed: the kids complained about being bullied on buses or of being made to carry out religious worship that was not part of their faith; BME people spoke about racial harassment and intimidation; people spoke about massive delays in getting an appointment at the GP; people spoke about cyclist/pedestrian/motor vehicle conflict; people spoke about dog shit; they spoke about dog shit some more; they also spoke about youth anti-social behaviour.

Cultural differences: the cultural differences also became apparent, in two key ways. Firstly, as Pinkster and Droogleever found in the Netherlands, there were different cultural expectations of parenting among new-migrant communities (often from a Muslim or Evangelical Christian background) and the white working class community that was leading to tensions around youth anti-social behaviour. What was seen as "kids being kids" by some people was seen as appalling behaviour and disobedience by others. 

Also, the new migrants were clearly quite committed to the neighbourhood and wanted to make a difference by doing things. However, a lot of the longer-term activists had seen the same issues repeatedly over 30-40 years, seen many solutions thrown at them and were a bit world weary: "we've talked about this all before and nothing's been done" was a common refrain. I'll be writing a journal article on this it was such an interesting dynamic.

People found their own solutions: a brilliant example of this was a group that spoke about what could be done with a particularly bad local problem around legal highs. They agreed three actions: to work more closely with Police Scotland and the Council (fair enough) but also to organise a petition to give to the local shop telling them to stop selling legal highs; and a wee lad was also going to make some posters about the dangers of legal highs. This was asset-based community development working very well.

Evidence: related to my previous very sweary post, in just about every bit of discussion, or problem raised, I could put my fingers on a piece of academic, or good quality, evidence that would either illuminate the problem or provide a very practical solution. At the end of the day when the agenda was turned into a set of action points, I could have gone down the list and said "this is what the evidence says, this is what you should spend your resources on to do something about this". There is a crying need for universities and the academics in them to be providing this sort of knowledge for local communities and local authorities, not just using them as research objects. 

I tried to keep my input to a minimum as I don't live in Wester Hailes, but I suggested that there should be more, very cheap, experimental interventions run in the neighborhood to try and make some of the little quality of life changes that are required. You're not going to cure poverty, but you might make your immediate neighbourhood a wee bit better. The whole Open Space event could easily be joined up with a community budgeting initiative like £eith Decides

And, in the spirit of my last blog post (warning, contains copious swearing) I also put my money where my mouth was yesterday and spent a tenner on some random bits and bobs and dabbled in some guerrilla gardening in my local park, including doing a wee litter pick. I might do some guerrilla maintenance next - repainting the play equipment.

What really impressed me about Open Space was its openness. It is specifically designed to be very agenda-less and open up debate and discussion and move people towards practical solutions to problems very quickly. It was far better than anything involving agendas and Post-It notes I'd been to before. Sadly, very few people from local public services were there - three people in total. No local teachers or neighbourhood workers. If the City of Edinburgh Council is going to have 21st Century Public Servants(PDF) then they need to be working with communities at events such as this.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The death of the university

I wanted to do an erudite exposition on the nature of the contemporary university. Instead I ranted and swore. 

OH FFS, SHUT THE ACTUAL FUCK UP. Expecting “good teaching and learning” is NOT the commercialisation of the university – it’s being accountable as producers to what service users want. It’s what you’ve all been telling EVERY SINGLE OTHER PUBLIC SERVICE TO DO FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS. When you do an irate blog post, or snarky journal articles about other public servants not listening to service users (and you), you’re expecting from them exactly what you’re not willing to provide yourself. And doing a “Pathways to Impact Statement” does not make you a fucking “neoliberal slave”, it means that the government can actually just demonstrate, in a really poor way, that it might actually get some value for money from its research funding, rather than paying you to piss around in your office all day doing fuck-all. If you expect it from the person on the other end of the phone in the council, you should expect it yourself. Oh, and I’m terribly sorry that you find teaching disabled working class students, or students with English as a second language, slightly more challenging than the middle-class kids from comprehensive schools (who are just like you). Maybe it’s because YOU’VE NOT BOTHERED MAKING THE ACADEMY ACCESSIBLE TO THEM FOR THE PAST 1200 YEARS. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Is the right-to-buy a bad thing?

The housing world is frothing with vituperative arguments - and quite rightly so - at the launch of the Conservative Party manifesto today and the pledge to extend the right-to-buy to housing association homes. Now, we all know that the original right-to-buy was a Bad Thing. I don't disagree with this assessment that wildly: it reduced the supply of affordable rented homes; it led to the residualisation of social housing as a tenure of last resort; and it led to spatial segregation as the best housing was bought at substantial discount and was now out-of-reach of many lower income households. Finally, and for me most problematically, it left local authorities with an enormous burden of historic debt and no income stream to pay it off. I'm on the board of a housing association with properties with the preserved right-to-buy and I see the impact of this once-in-a-while when one of these properties is purchased and our balance sheet takes a small hit. The mess that local authority housing revenue accounts were left in by the right-to-buy doesn't bear thinking about.

But, was the right-to-buy a Bad Thing in its entirety? I'd say we need some caution and nuance here - and we can end up with a much more radical policy. First of all, to be clear, the right-to-buy was not an invention of the Thatcher government. Local authorities since the 1950s had been building homes for purchase. In Tucker's cracking book Honourable Estates he gives the example of local authorities where you knew the Conservatives, or "Progressives" had won the local election because the "To Let" signs on the shiny new homes they'd built were replaced by "For Sale" signs. My uncle and aunt bought such a property, built by the LCC with a cheap mortgage through the Public Works Loan Board, in Harold Wood in Essex in the 1960s. Further, I can't put my finger on a source for this just right now, but as I understand it the right-to-buy in this format was extended in the 1970s. But the key here is an implementation detail - under these schemes the debt that the local authority had incurred through the construction was paid off by the purchaser. The discounts that have left local authorities strapped for cash since 1981 were not in place.

Further, in my research, and I've spoken to others who have found the same, in deprived neighbourhoods the right-to-buy is actually quite important for long-term residents in two ways. Firstly, it means that if their family wish to remain close by, but become homeowners, they can purchase property, often resold RTB properties. Secondly, for many long-term, committed residents people exercising the RTB is a very positive symbol - it means that their neighbourhood is now good enough that people are willing to invest a substantial amount of their money in property. Of course, the stigma towards such neighbourhoods should not be there in the first place and is exacerbated by the RTB and associated residualisation, but this is where we are and I cannot discount the evidence from the interviewees in my research. Also, that the RTB is being scrapped in Scotland has led to a surge in people taking advantage of it does suggest it's still a popular policy with individual tenants.

So, if we dare to say the RTB is not necessarily a Bad Thing what do we do about it? Well, from a more radical but pragmatic standpoint, I'd say we should do two things: firstly, the discount should be properly calculated as that bit of debt remaining, once maintenance costs have been factored in through depreciation, that the housing authority still has. This might actually mean the RTB is removed from some properties as this is incalculable. Secondly, if individuals can have the right to take property of one institution, then they should have the right to take it off all institutions - that is the RTB should be extended to the tenants in all private property. As the infamous (on twitter) loveandgarbage pointed out, the only person to do this was a (very) Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland in 1997.

This, for me, is the more radical way to deal with the RTB and would also open up new, exciting forms of property ownership in a collective way if tenants in blocks of flats could collectively exercise the RTB. But, of course, as Alex Marsh has excellently exposed, the Conservative policy for the RTB is not thought-free. It is radical, but it is radical in terms of an attack on the neediest in society. It is a radical attack on the state and the idea that some people might be dependent on others for help. It is not a radical way to change housing policy or delivering new social housing. But then, that is also why the Conservatives are proposing to change inheritance tax making wealth even more poorly taxed in the UK. But that's a whole other blog post.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Contemporary coproduction

Back in March - 18 March to be precise - thank you very much to the generous support of my School, my research group, Governance, Participation and Inclusion, hosted a seminar on coproduction. The seminar was a short full-day and, recognising that coproduction is very much the "buzzword" of the moment in public service reform, it aimed to take a critical stance towards exploring coproduction. I hoped to record the presentations and make them available online, but the tech didn't work on the day, so I've pulled together this, and Stuart Muirhead of IRISS has also done this excellent summary for their blog.

The day started off with an excellent presentation by Catherine Needham of the University of Birmingham, who discussed how we might evaluate coproduction (slides here [pdf]), recognising that traditional "gold standard" methods of evaluation (RCTs etc.) might be beyond the reach of small coproduced activities and do not fit into the ethos of coproduction. Tony Bovaird then followed with his thoughts on coproduction from extensive experience of public service transformation (slides here). We then had three short presentations on the theory of coproduction (Richard Simmons, University of Stirling), the policy of coproduction (Julie Christie, University of Stirling) and lastly Julia Fitzpatrick from Horizon Housing Association discussing the practice of coproduction.

After lunch we took our coffee into a Conversation cafe. Stuart put his notes on his blog post above, three other scribes also kindly sent me their notes after the event - available as pdfs here, here and here.

After this we broke into different activities. I joined a fascinating session on coproducing professional learning led by Unity, the group that the School of Applied Social Science at Stirling leads to bring in service-user experience to improve learning in social work. Other people played with Lego (see the photo on Stuart's blog post). Katherine Phipps, University of Stirling, also led a group coproducing some knitting (including teaching a few people how to knit) in response to Brooks Newmark's comment when he was Minister for Civil Society  "the important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others". This was the end result:

I got in a bit of trouble for a foul-mouthed rant in the middle of the seminar when I decried the poor engagement of professionals in coproduction and the lack of realisation of what it really means to renegotiate one's professional role when coproducing something. Picking up on this, the theme of the event was to move the seminar itself towards coproduction, and away from the broadcast-receive model of academic practice as the day went out. Interestingly, in the feedback I got back after the event this is the bit of the day that the participants felt was least useful. And with that thought I shall leave you. 

And there's a few more photos taken by my colleague Vikki McCall in this Flickr album.