Friday, 29 August 2014

More on the Big Society

Just like Lothian 22 buses – you wait for one academic paper on the Big Society to come along and then two arrive at the same time. This time it’s Homo Economicus in the Big Society, not Bourdieu with it: ‘Homo Economicus in a Big Society: Understanding Middle-class Activism and NIMBYism towards New Housing Developments’ in Housing Theory and Society. It’s for a special issue of the journal that came out of the first of a set of ESRC-funded seminars on the Big Society, Localism and Housing. I presented my work on middle-class activism at the first seminar in Sheffield and this became this paper. The final paper ended up being co-authored with Prof. Glen Bramley and Prof. Annette Hastings.

The paper is actually two bits of empirical work brought (smashed?) together. The argument is:
  • British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) data demonstrates alarming opposition to new housing
  • This opposition tends to be in suburban, or non-remote rural locations, the sorts of places stuffed full of middle-class community activists
  • The only thing that would really overcome this argument is if the development offered more local employment, which housing developments very rarely do
  • The logic implicit in neighbourhood planning and the associated financial incentives is that this opposition is driven by peoples’ opposition to costs that affect them individually
  • Actually, we argue that the opposition is driven by the threat to peoples’ identity as it is expressed through their housing choices and sense of home.

The two bits of work were actually done separately. Prof. Bramley had done the analysis of the BSAS data, including modelling at a local level. I’d started to think about the other theoretical analysis. We realised we could bring the two bits of empirical analysis together for this paper.

The trouble is, the paper is based on 2010 BSAS data. Since then, the 2013 BSAS data on attitudes to new housing have been published (pdf) and it shows a bit of a different story. The extremely good news is opposition has dropped from 46% to 31% and support grown from 28 to 47%. Now, if I were Eric Pickles I’d be thinking “woo, neighbourhood planning has worked! Everyone wants new housing!”.

However, I’d suggest that, as I argued a couple of years ago, the problems of never-ending house price rises and the growth of the incredibly poor quality private rented sector, means housing is becoming a middle-class issue and rising up the political agenda as little Sebastian or Tabatha struggle to get a decent home on a professional salary. And we all know that these housing problems are a combination of: a lack of regional planning, meaning the market focuses growth in London and the Southeast; low interest rates and thus the low cost of mortgages and increase in effective demand for housing; as Danny Dorling has argued, the lack of housing supply due to under-occupancy in the owner-occupied sector by older people (my mum in her four-bedroomed house); and a lack of new building.

A couple of the findings of the latest BSAS data do continue to support our thesis. Opposition among homeowners to new housing is still far higher than for renters in either private or social sectors. These are the people we suggest would have most to lose if their sense of elective/selective belonging – their identity – was threatened by 200 Barratt/Bellway boxes turning up on their doorstep. Also, although overall opposition in the highest income decile fell from 49% to 33%, supporting my housing-as-a-middle-class-problem thesis, it remained high, at around a third, in the places we’d expect – suburbs and non-remote towns.


Rather interestingly, this time around BSAS asked questions directly about the so-called “Boles bung”; or to be precise they were asked if they would support new housing if extra money was provided for local public services. Again, I’d argue, the results support our thesis: 47% said it would make them support; 50% said it wouldn’t. If homeowners were homo economicus, making rational decisions based on the immediate costs we’d expect to see much greater support if local public services were improved. These results suggest a much more pyscho-social homo democratus is at work here, positioning themselves in society with their residential choices and having and internal and external debate about anything that would affect this. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Bourdieu and the Big Society

Writing this I’m thinking “if my A Level Sociology teachers could see me now”. I studied sociology in school but really didn’t think I’d return to it, but now it seems a lot of my academic output wrestles with social theory.

The latest output from my work with Annette Hastings on middle-class community activism has now hit the presses – Bourdieu and the Big Society: empowering the powerful in public service provision? In Policy and Politics(£). And very good it is too, in my humble opinion. I really cannot claim that much credit for it. Annette did the hard theoretical work (including all the reading of Bourdieu), and it was a lengthy process of rewriting and bashing it back-and-forth between us. At one point it was a 13,000 word unruly beast and I recall sending an email stating that we weren’t trying to write a book. Editing out a third of it and responding to the excellent comments from Bourdieuan scholar Pat Thomson and from the reviewers has made it a very nice final polished paper.

Essentially the paper riffs from one of the four causal theories we identified in our overall review and published in our paper for Social Policy and Administration.* This was that the alignment between the cultural capital of service users and service providers means that middle class people benefit disproportionately from the state. We return to a richer discussion of how Bourdieu conceived of class interests and how they operate in society and then bring the range of evidence we review to this theoretical structure to demonstrate it in action.

The title including the words “The Big Society” might seem a bit odd or dated, but essentially this was just a policy to hang our ideas off and give the paper salience. However, what did interest us was the continued move towards local empowerment in policy, as implemented in Big Society ideas and practically in localism and the Localism Act in England, without concomitant investment in community development, might lead to greater empowerment of middle class groups. The evidence we reviewed showed pretty conclusively that it is very likely it will.

I remember just at the time we were going to submit the paper a conversation on Twitter along the lines of “does anyone even talk about the Big Society anymore”. And it is a very good point. After the umpteenth relaunch failed the government stopped talking about the Big Society and now the policy is increasingly mired in scandal.

However, as you’ll see from the reference list, for once, when the coalition government, with its commitment to localism and the Big Society, academia actually did quite well at getting a swift response out to these policy moves. I think partly because there was a lot of stuff in the pipeline about former community policies by the Labour government which could easily be changed, but also because community engagement and participation had become such a substantial area of research in the UK, people were ready to step up to the mark fairly swiftly and offer strong theoretical and evidence-informed critique.

Further, I think that the Big Society and the associated localism policies caused such an immediate response because at its kernel there is a lot of interesting stuff to get at. The most shallow level of analysis would suggest that it uncomfortably combines a one-nation Tory belief in the power of civic society in the tradition of the Primrose League and Rotary Societies, and a more Thatcherite, neoliberal redistribution of responsibility and risk to individuals, albeit recognising they are in communities. Because of the coalition it also brings in a liberal attitude to government more generally. Much as the label “the Big Society” has died a death, it’s a good metonym for all of this sort of stuff, including policies such as the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment and Renewal agenda (which I discussed in relation to this research back here).

Further, and this is the crux of our argument in our paper, there is the very real and present danger that community empowerment initiatives just empower the vociferous middle classes. As many of the critiques of the government policy highlight, this is particularly the case in our current period of austerity when, apart from the community organisers programme, very little investment in community engagement is going into the most deprived neighbourhoods. It is an example of middle-class norms dominating policy-making to the benefit of the middle-classes themselves; the middle-class state.

We believe that using a Bourdieusian understanding of social class adds to our understanding of policy-making and the unequal operation of the state. Hopefully our paper will lead to a broader research agenda along these lines, moving beyond education policy, the traditional focus of Bourdieusian analysis.

*as ever, most journal articles by me available in my institutional repository here though in this case you’ll have to wait a year. Do email me if you want a copy though.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

My first book chapter

My first book chapter is coming out soonly. It’s entitled Time, belonging and development – a challenge for participation and research and is part of a collection edited by Nick Gallent and Daniela Ciaffi called Community Planning and Action published by Policy Press.

I was honoured to be asked to offer the chapter by Nick and Daniela. My chapter is one of the front three theoretical thinkpiece chapters and I’m in illustrious company with Nick and Daniela and Yvonne Rydin. The chapter was my first book chapter and I relished the opportunity to do a bit more “blue-skies” thinking and theoretical work in my writing. However, at the start I was slightly paralysed by fear. Some of the book chapters of this ilk I have read and have been some of the most inspiring and influential writing for me – was I up to the job? I’d also only really written my thesis and many journal articles in my academic career. At this time I was particularly into the swing of journal article writing and this style of writing is very different indeed. Luckily Pat Thomson came to the rescue after a plea from me with this very useful blog post that enabled me to frame my chapter as a contribution to a “topic based edited collections”.

The chapter itself moves some of the theoretical work I started doing in my Very Difficult Theory Paper forward. Essentially I play around with the temporal points I was making in that paper – that much as moments of community planning and engagement can be highly antagonist it seems, from my empirical work, that over the longer term debate tends towards Habermasian communicative norms, particularly in land-use planning because the tangibility of the outputs means they become part of the discourse itself; literally buildings speak. They are also imbued with meaning. This is theoretical work I’d like to take further considering the listing of modernist buildings and the controversies around this, but also the meaning-full-ness (I’m using wanky po-mo construction there deliberately, forgive me) of demolition.

(There’s also some interesting arts stuff here about “invitations” to participate and participation on a spectrum from witnessing to engagement which I learnt about yesterday, but that I’m still processing that I want to bring into this theoretical debate…)

Of particular interest in writing the chapter, and something I am definitely going to take further, was the idea of critical temporalities, which I got from Michelle Bastian’s fantastic Temporal Belonging project and the outputs of the Power, Time and Agency workshop. This is basically the idea that our sense of time – our temporalities – are highly varied, subjective, and unequal and created by power structures in wider society. These power structures can be conceived in Foucauldian or structuralist ways. If you go back to the old title of this blog – Urbanity and History – this focus on the nuances and experiences of time greatly appeals to me.

A final note of thanks has to go to Nick Gallent, the editor. He was enormously helpful in providing ample and extremely useful critical feedback on drafts of the chapter and has helped make it something that when I go back to look at it again, as I did when I was reviewing the proofs, I actually thought “hang on, this isn’t too bad at all.”

So, if you’re interested in purchasing the book – the other chapters are excellent as well – if you download this flyer you can get a substantial discount. Once I know the rules (i.e. whether I can) I’ll pop a pre-print version on my page of the Stirling institutional repository as well.

Now I just have to crack on and edit my first book with Dr Dave O'Brien. With Nick's example, this will be a very tall order to follow!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

ScotRail have defeated me

So two weeks ago I posted this email that I'd sent to ScotRail. This is the response I got back:

"Dear Peter

Thank you for your email dated 9 July 2014. I am sorry you have had cause to complain.

The specific number of cycle spaces can vary from train to train as we operate different types of trains on the same route. Our policy is clear - that although we welcome cyclists, the space available is limited. Therefore, if two spaces are available and these are in use, we would expect passengers to wait for the next available service. On longer distance and infrequent routes we require cycle reservations to be made in advance so that cyclists can have certainty about their planned journey. Since taking over the franchise in 2004, we have invested in increasing the amount of cycle parking available at stations to make it easier for cyclists to avoid having to take their cycle on the train.

I note your comments regarding the storage of cycles by train doors. We do not generally allow bikes to be stored outwith the designated storage areas as they could cause an obstruction for other passengers on the train and block doorways and aisles. However, the conductor can use his or her discretion to allow the carriage of extra cycles in spaces that would not be considered an obstruction and in this instance we advise customers to stand beside their cycles at all times throughout their journey.

ScotRail welcomes suggestions for improvements and are always keen to incorporate passengers' views and ideas in our services.

Your comments have been forwarded on to our Train Planning department for their attention and ScotRail will be reviewing all customer feedback on a regular basis, to allow us to identify any areas where there is a clear need for improvement.

Thank you for contacting ScotRail."

Which I basically interpret as "sorry, that's the way it is". Well today I've realised ScotRail have won. So here's my reply to them which I won't send, I'll just post here.

Dear ScotRail,

Thank you for your apology, it genuinely almost sounds sincere. I've now done my commute seven times. On the majority of these journeys I've seen cyclists left at the station. The most recent was this morning. Yesterday morning I spent my morning racked with guilt as I'd accidentally taken the spot of a wee lad on the train who had arrived at Waverley before me and then was turfed off and I don't know how he got to Stirling. 

I realised, even over this short time, that I was waking up at 6:30am in a panic even though I didn't need to be up for another twenty minutes, because of the stress of whether I could get on the train. This morning I was first at Waverley. I'd arrived at the station 13 minutes early. And because you don't open the doors until the 8:00am to Dundee sets off, I just stood there staring into space. I then spent the journey with a gnawing stress in my stomach as people were refused travel at all subsequent stations.

When stupid, nonsensical policies like your policies around bikes on trains, impinge on my life I try and fight them, get them changed in some way. But this time, you've won ScotRail. I'm going to do up my crappy old bike and leave it as my heap-of-junk to get me to work at Bridge of Allan. 

I chose to do my 40 mile commute by train and bike because it's the most environmentally sustainable choice. I also thought that with my new commute and work habits I could crack on and get two hours work done on the train each day I'm on campus.

However, three weeks have made me realise my initial plan would not have been sustainable to me and my health. The stress of not knowing whether I could make that train in the morning or evening would just eat away at me and make my life miserable.

So this is how you've defeated me ScotRail. I'm now going to stick to lobbying my MSPs for improved provision for cyclists on the next franchise.

Yours,

Peter Matthews

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Why I'm a swithering yes voter

I accidentally spoke at a Yestival event yesterday. I say accidental, I agreed to the gig invite, which I was honoured to accept as it sounded very interesting, without fully looking into the background. It was good, but I felt a little bit of a fraud as I’ve not explicitly “come out” as to which way I’m going to vote on 18 September. Partly this is because I think it’s no one’s business, and partly it’s because the tenor of the debate means I was likely to be called “UNIONIST SCUM” or “EVIL CYBERNAT” depending on which way I swithered. But the Yestival speaking event and a few other things (ahem) have made me think I should nail my colours to the mast. Well, I say nail; more pin with rusting drawing pins in hurricane force winds…

So, yes, at the moment Better Together have the unique accolade of being the only political campaign to ever actively lose my support. I even still vote Labour (I’ll come onto that below). I have never voted SNP; they’ve not even had any of my lower preferences in the STV elections in local government. In opinion poll question style, if the referendum was tomorrow I’d vote yes. Back in 2011 when the SNP won their surprising majority at Holyrood I was a no voter with inclinations to a yes. I thought that in a neoliberal, globalised world, independence would offer Scotland few extra powers or abilities and in fact could leave us more vulnerable. Basically I was just waiting for the no campaign to present their argument to reassure me of their views. But they have utterly failed to do this. To structure this post I’ll go through some of the big issues in turn.

But what about the pound and Euro membership?

Better Together lost this argument as soon as David Cameron started to be a full-on posh nob with EU policy and promised a referendum in 2017. As far as I’m concerned, there is now more risk of Scotland leaving the EU if it stayed part of the UK then if it went separate. Of course Spain and other countries with internal independence struggles are going to question Scotland’s membership, but Scotland’s law at the moment is very closely aligned to EU legislation. In fact, because the UK follows EU Directives ridiculously slavishly, we’re probably more aligned than other countries. I cannot see why there would be impediments to Scotland being a member of the EU, even if it was a process that took a few years via EEA membership. We might lose the rebate, but hey, we’d be losing something that I’m frankly embarrassed about and reflects firstly the grand-standing of Margaret Thatcher and Eurosceptic loons in the Tory party, and secondly the utter failure of the EU to properly reform the Common Agricultural Policy.

And as for the currency. This reflects a wider problem I have with the whole referendum which I will discuss below. For all the Euro’s problems, if the independence White Paper had actually gone for Euro membership then I would have been a firm yes voter. I think keeping the pound is actually slightly daft as it does leave most of the economic levers of a modern capitalist country in the hands of the Bank of England. I think it would have been fun to say we’d have our own currency – an ‘Eck divided into 100 Sturgeons perhaps? It would tank on global currency markets on independence day, sending Scottish exports shooting up, then everyone would realise it was a petro-currency and it’s value would soar and we’d be plunged into a brief sharp recession, and then things would balance out.

I also think it’s a bit daft to presume that the UK will keep the Pound for eternity. I recall the debates about Euro membership back in the late 90s and the CBI and other business organisations being strongly in favour of membership versus a horrifically Eurosceptic Tory party. My dad made the point that if the Tories had won the 2001 election they probably would have been forced by the business interests that back them to introduce the Euro by the back door – peg the pound at 1-1 against the Euro and call it the “EuroPound” just like Ted Heath had “stopped” decimalisation by keeping the sixpence coin. Given the UK is one of the greatest supporters of the TTIP I think it’s as likely that we’ll end up with the US Dollar as our currency if we stay in the UK.

But won’t big business move away?

Every now and then there’s a scare story that one of the major “Scottish” businesses will move if we’re independent. Then the Yes campaign find a business person who supports independence. It’s a pretty facile tit-for-tat. But ultimately, for me, large businesses with growing profits are going to be inherently conservative. Any change to market conditions is something they will worry about as it could erode the profitability of capital. It’s why big businesses campaign against things like weekends, annual leave, flexible working, equal pay, health and safety not killing your workers on a regular basis. Sorry, I’m a socialist, so big business can go and fuck itself up it’s ear with a Donkey’s nob. Excuse my French. Capital in a modern world is flighty. This argument also misses the fact that Scotland still massively suffers from branch-plant syndrome, with very few businesses actually headquarted and registered here. They can bugger off elsewhere in the world whenever they want.

We also have absolutely no idea of what the economic policies of a post-independence government might be. If the SNP were to form that government, then it looks like it will be hell-for-leather, deregulated, low taxed neoliberalism. I’d be fighting against this with every political bone in my body. I suspect the Chief Executives of quite a few global companies would support them quite handsomely.

One argument Better Together could use is a fear I have – that an economy as small as Scotland’s could become far too corporatised like the economy of Denmark, which is dominated by Maersk shipping, Arla dairies and pig farmers. I’d be extremely concerned if we ended up with an economy dominated by oil companies, banks, Scottish and Southern Energy and A.G. Barr.  Free Irn Bru and Tunnocks teacakes in an independent Scotland!

You do know Scotland won’t be a socialist utopia

No shit, Sherlock. One of the things that angered me most about the independence white paper when it came out was many of the headlines from it, such as the expansion of childcare, were actually a manifesto for an SNP government. We have no idea what the political complexion of the government of an independent Scotland could be.

There’s a tired joke that there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs. This ignores how awful the electoral system for Westminster is, and also the Tories reasonable levels of representation in the Scottish Parliament and across local councils. And I might be a diehard socialist, but the one thing that concerns me about Scottish politics, particularly since 2007, is the fact that we have a government and opposition that are both largely of the centre-left. There is a vast constituency of natural Tory voters in Scotland who are disenfranchised by geography (they’re disparate) and the shame that is attached to the party in here. It’s why I wished Murdo Fraser had won his bid to become Scottish Conservative leader with his plans to separate and rebrand the party, in the manner of the old Ratepayer’s Parties and Progressive Unionists of days of yore.

So, I’d welcome a strong, new conservative party in an independent Scotland as every representative democracy needs a health, pluralistic opposition.

But an independent Scottish Government would be broke!

Well, that depends. It depends on how you cut up the tax and expenditure figures currently produced by the UK Government. As the referendum debate has demonstrated, these numbers are basically the financial equivalent of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure; they’ll tell you want you want them to tell you. It also depends on how much of the UK debt an independent Scotland takes on, and it’s currency – both complete unknowns at the moment (Better Together won’t give us a definitive, sensible answer on either, despite the scare tactics of the Osborne-Balls-Alexander unholy triumvirate). It also depends on the tax and expenditure policies of an independent Scotland. Again, we don’t know what the political complexion of an independent Scottish government will be, so we might as well just be pissing into the wind.

But an independent Scotland could never have bailed out the banks!

Yeah, because that’s worked out so well for the UK. Socialising risk and cost and privatising profit. Go UK.

And you do know that the sun won't always shine in an independent Scotland?

Oh, but in the Independent Eckdom of Caledonia the sun will always shine! Sorry, I'll start being more serious now.

But what about the north of England?

Right, we’re moving away from the #projectfear nonsense arguments now, and onto ones that actually don’t just anger me in their pointlessness. I do worry that I’d leave my socialist parents in the north of England, and fellow left-wing northerners in a perpetual Tory state. Just like they’ve left us in a perpetual SNP state, I suppose. What I’d actually hope is that Scotland going independent might be a bit of a wake-up call to the UK that the status quo at Westminster cannot remain.  Parliamentary politics at Westminster is entirely broken and needs vast reform. Maybe independence for Scotland would bring about a drive for that sort of change to happen in England?

But what about solidarity with the workers?

Right, I’m going to stop being utterly facetious and try and be serious about this one, as it’s the best argument I’ve heard. Gordon Brown did one take on it, with the idea of a British mission, including some great institutions as the NHS, which Scotland should continue to be part of. It’s been covered better by @how_upsetting and Socialism First. I could completely buy into the argument if…A big if. I think the people who share this view would disagree with this, but it does seem based on the assumption that the current constitutional settlement in the UK can either accept radical change to allow socialist solidarity to flourish in the UK.

And I just cannot see that happening. As far as I’m concerned the non-constitution of Westminster is completely broken. It’s completely unrepresentative, the fact we still have the House of Lords is a farce and this week’s events around civil liberties infringements really show it up to be the corrupt, venal place that it is. And the Gordon Brown line of argument also stems from a bizarre argument from the left, that I heard most often from Tony Benn and Betty Boothroyd, that because the Commons is elected “democratically” (to be incredibly unrepresentative of the views of the electorate) it is somehow sacrosanct and above criticism.
I want international solidarity for socialism to continue; but I see the UK as hindering this not helping it and I cannot foresee it being stopped by Scotland becoming independent.

So why are you swithering to voting yes?

Well, yes, you might be wondering that; I’ve not exactly convinced myself with my list of might-bes. Basically it’s the constitution question. I’m a republican socialist. Ever since I first learnt about the French Revolution age 17 I’ve also been a constitutionalist. Every time we have yet more obsequious fawning over the royal family on TV and I’m referred to as a “commoner” I just want to hurl bricks at the TV. The UK constitution is a joke (do read the pdf behind that link, it’s superb). So when the Scottish Government produce a document which states in section two “In Scotland, the people are sovereign.” my heart swells with the giddy excitement I had as a naïve 17-year-old wearing red socks to be rebellious.

Yes, we don’t know what the constitution of an independent Scotland would look like. We cannot presume it will be socially, economically radical. We can’t presume it will not be weak and changed continually. But we will have a constitution. We will have a basic document that asserts the sovereignty of the people, protects human rights and enshrines subsidiarity for tiers of government and governance for the country. It will defines the powers, and the limits of powers, of the executive, legislature, judiciary, and the sodding leeching royalty we’ll be left with. We will not have the utter mess of Westminster. Institutions of government do not create politics – the US constitution is an amazing model of radical constitutionalism, and it’s politics is utterly broken. But, when I go to constitutional democracies elsewhere, you just get that sense from speaking to them that their constitution makes them the better country they are.

And, as the Guardian have commented on the most brilliant thing about this time in Scotland is the vast number of conversations happening all the time about politics and really big existential things. They’re happening in pubs, in meetings, in general polite conversation. People are asking really big questions about the nature of politics and power and having really good debates about it. And for that reason, if we do vote yes on 18 September, I really think that the process of constitution building will be exciting, interesting and inclusive.

Postscript

The debate between the official Yes campaign and Better Together/No Thanks has been utterly appalling, however. In fact the thing that annoys me most is how awful the whole campaign has been. As all the “what ifs” and “buts” in this post make clear, we are voting for nothing. If we vote yes, we actually have absolutely no idea what we’ll be getting. If we vote no, we have absolutely no idea what we will be getting. This point was made by the Electoral Commission back in 2012. To be fair on them, the Scottish Government did then produce their White Paper. However, as I’ve already stated, much of this contained policies that might be possible in an independent Scotland. And the response of Project Fear was “naa naa na naa naa. We’re not playing so we’re going to sulk with our bat and ball”. If the two sides had actually sat down and come to an agreement – just a loose agreement – in advance, then at least we’d have some idea what we were voting for. There’s absolutely no point in debating further many of the points in the blog post because we just don’t know.

This is why, for me, it just comes down to the constitutional question. No one can pretend that independence = radical constitution = socialism and the end of capitalism in Scotland. But a constitution can allow us to elect governments at all levels to make decisions for us. Westminster, and Project Fear and their devomax alternatives, are not offering me this.

And I just want to end with a comment on Project Fear. It has been a woefully run campaign. Whenever they make an announcement, like the one on the currency, they immediately have to back-track when it’s pointed out to them the flaws in their argument, or when people in the campaign brief against them. It strikes me they were very complacent and just thought “all we have to do is frighten people to death and they’ll accept the status quo”. But the yes campaign cannot help but be filled with positivity and nice, so that really isn’t working, still. And No Thanks need to get their grassroots sorted. Back in 2012 Yes and Better Together took it turns each Saturday morning to leaflet the Foot of Leith Walk. Labour No Thanks were at the Foot of the Walk last week, which is the first time I’d seen anyone pro-union there in a year. Yes have been there every week, very enthusiastic, smiling, engaging people in debate and thrusting leaflets into people’s hands. A Better Together leaflet sent through the post by the UK Government with photos of terrified looking families is not going to make me vote no. It just makes me think “fuck off David Cameron you tit”. No Thanks/Better Together need that grassroots personal touch to get a positive message out there and win hearts.

And I won’t go into the possibly illegal spamming of academics email accounts by Academics Together/Blether Together (see the Twitter thread attached to this tweet). That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this.


In conclusion, at the moment I’m swithering to yes. Better Together are offering THE FEAR and pretty much nothing else of substance that makes me want to vote no. I’m not going to rush out and join Academics for Yes, but I have considered this (the fact that Academics for Yes contains people of a variety of ages and TWO WHOLE genders means they automatically beat Academics Together). It might be that in the polling booth on 18 September I get cold feet and vote no; it is a very big step. But right now it’s an exciting step I want to see happen. 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Bikes and trains

I was involved in a stramash at Edinburgh Waverley. My survivor's guilt at being one of two people who managed to complete their journey has resulted in this email being sent:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am on my third day of a new commute from Edinburgh Waverley to Bridge of Allan, having spent £218.20 on a monthly season ticket. I live in Leith and work at the University of Stirling, so cycling to and from stations and putting my bike on the train is the most convenient way for completing my journey. Across the five journeys I have so far done:
  • On 8:03 to Dunblane on Monday the train was a two-car class 158 with a compartment previously used to store a catering trolley refashioned as a space for two bikes. Six bikes ended up on this train and the guard was very jovial and allowed people to stand with their bikes in the vestibule.
  • On the 16:31 Bridge of Allan to Edinburgh Waverley the train was a three car 170 with space for six bikes.
  • On the 8:03 to Dunblane on Tuesday the train was a class 158 with space for at least three bikes in a proper bike rack, and an very understanding guard who allowed all the bikes to travel.
  • On the 17:01 Bridge of Allan to Edinburgh Waverley on Tuuesday the train was a class 170 with space for three bikes and a former buffet/shop space that took up much of the middle carriage.
  • This morning, Wednesday 9 July, the 8:03 to Dunblane was again a class 158 with the compartment formerly used to store a catering trolley. This also contained the disabled access ramp. The guard only allowed two cyclists on board, this left passengers waiting for the next train at Edinburgh Waverley, Haymarket and Falkirk High.


Given this service is only every half hour and people needed to get to work people were very angry. Your guard suffered verbal abuse because she was doing her job and keeping the train safe. I completely understand that the guard’s job is to keep the train safe and that they are individually criminally liable for any injuries.

However, this brief experience of this commute suggests there are systematic problems in management of rolling stock and staff. Can I please ask that, firstly, you are consistent in what trains you put on services. On busy lines such as this at peak times, you should be prioritising having trains with the greatest amount of cycling space – the class 170s with six spaces. Your class 158s should also have the old storage compartments removed to increase the amount of cycle space – this is a case of unscrewing a few screws as far as I can make out. Secondly, can you please be consistent in training of guards. It is either unsafe to stand with your bike by a door, or it is not. This cannot be left to discretion. If it is not, then you need to provide a system for people to book bikes onto trains so they are not left stranded.

Yours,

Friday, 4 July 2014

Doing impact

So, I’ve spent the last week at the European Network for Housing Research conference hosted by my former employers, Heriot-Watt University, at Edinburgh University. There’s loads I could blog about, but I want to focus on the final plenary that ended up focusing on the policy impact of housing research. The plenary was by Duncan MacLennan of Saint Andrews, with Ian Winter as the respondent.

To summarise Duncan’s plenary somewhat radically, he basically argued that housing policy is in a mess as we are a world of rentiers as homeowners in Thomas Piketty’s world of growing inequality. There are inherent dangers that this will reduce economic productivity and growth and there’s big questions of inequality that won’t be challenged. He ended by suggesting that the esoteric nature of housing research meant it was not talking to these big housing policy debates and that it needed to be more embedded in policy-making.
This final point was what Ian Winter focused on in his response and was focused on in the discussion afterwards. The debate frustrated me greatly because it broadly had a simplistic view of universities, knowledge, policy and policy-makers. To try and order this blog post I’ll take my points in turn and see where the argument goes.

Doing impact

Duncan MacLennan criticised the “RCUK” view of doing impact as being comedic – the idea that you would publish a journal article, some policy maker would read it, and then contact you and do exactly what you suggested. I agree wholly that this is naïve and comedic, but it’s also the view of HEFCE, not of RCUK, who’s Pathways to Impact framework is more nuanced, and even more nuanced in practice.

However, I also find his call for us to engage with policy makers, and invite policy makers to conferences, similarly naïve. At its most basic level it ignores the fact that because attending academic conferences is not part of the day job for most policy makers, therefore they are very unlikely to have the time to attend a conference for four days (tellingly I saw a civil servant I knew fighting the emails in her inbox on her BlackBerry at every possibly opportunity). Academics get paid to do this stuff, civil servants don’t. They probably should; but at the moment they don’t.

Similarly, it presumes every researcher is an experienced policy entrepreneur like Duncan is, with strong links into policy-making, with a background of roles, including being employed by governments, who has had the time to develop these networks. Not everyone has had the time, the ability, or inclination to be this sort of policy entrepreneur.  I’d quite like to be this sort of policy entrepreneur, but I’m only three years into my career and have to do things like teaching which prevent me from attending things where I might be able to forge these networks and this embeddedness. It might also be easier for a white middle-aged, middle class man to forge these networks than for a woman, a disabled person or an ethnic minority individual. We don’t talk about this in impact enough.

Let’s not do impact

Unsurprisingly the “impact is research council rubbish that stifles academic freedom” debate came up in the questions after. Before I say what I say, I need to make clear, I do believe there is a role for blue skies research. But… The moment the question was raised I read this tweet:


And I couldn’t help but make parallels – basically, in a world of shrinking research budgets, can we really get away with paying people who are already paid rather handsomely, to sit and think in their offices and have absolutely no impact on society at large? Is this really a politically viable argument especially among people who might suggest defence spending would be better spent on the NHS? Much as I value the university as an institution and research broadly, I cannot countenance this argument.

As suggested by someone else in a research project I’m involved in, it’s smacks of self-protection by a profession that’s under threat from people asking the very basic question: what is it actually that you do? This is the question of scrutiny that’s been shone on virtually every other public service since the 1970s. The lack of such scrutiny means embedded monopolies in academia, like the dominance of Oxbridge and the wider Russell Group continues, without being challenged more broadly.

Others doing impact

Ian Winter suggested we need specific organisations to broker knowledge between academics and policy-making. I can see why this idea is beguiling, but I’m not sure it’s right for a number of reasons. Firstly, in my experience of such organisations in universities they can’t cover all specialisms in the university, and all the different ways different knowledge can be translated into policy-making. In Heriot-Watt’s case, the university was a technical university that had had many successful spin-out companies, so the resources were focused on developing this. Brilliant for engineers; no use at all for me.

Also, I fear these organisations presume knowledge can be packaged up neatly for brokerage into policy-making, like any other product. Knowledge is not like this, it’s partial, it’s produced through discourse and deliberation. My worry with such brokerage services is that they would lose things in translation. This is particularly problematic when the knowledge then has to be re-translated in the policy organisation it is going into. And you also lose policy entrepreneurship as well – that knowledge can be produced through academics and policy-makers rubbing up against each other, sharing ideas and experiences.

Being realistic about impact

So, where does this leave me? What’s my view? Well, I think Pathways to Impact is not a bad thing. In my first research grant training at Heriot-Watt we were told to write our Pathways to Impact statement first. I think that’s very wise advice and I’ve followed it. Pathways to Impact makes you in the UK at the moment is likely to get you ignored at the moment, not cause policy impact.

At the moment I’m falling back on two ways academics can hope to make impact. The first is as the hyper-connected policy entrepreneur. Only some people are ever going to manage that. The second is to create moments of thoughtfulness – deliver seminars, have meetings, be in expert panels etc. In my experience, as both a policy-maker and academic, is these moments do not deliver evidenced impact. What they do offer is chance for policy makers to think differently and do exciting important stuff like, perhaps, define a policy problem differently. These events have to be on the policy-makers terms though; inviting them to academic conferences is not that answer. A point made by Ian Winter, which I joined-in in applauding, is that academics need academic conferences for us to do our stuff, to do the blue skies research.