Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Park Run and Common Pool Resources

As a tri-afflete I run. Or, I ran. I’ve currently got problems with my ITB at the moment, so I’m not running as much as I’d like to. Although from that Wikipedia article, I think I’ve worked out why (I’m a pigeon-toed cyclist). Anyway, among the running community in the UK the decision of the Stoke Gifford Parish Council to charge their local Park Run for use of a park has caused a bit of a furore – a petition has currently reached 20,000 signatures. From a governance perspective, I find this fascinating.

Let’s start up with what I don’t know about this particular case:
  •  It’s not clear from the reporting if there is an issue of conflict, with other users of the park regularly feeling they cannot use this particular park on a Saturday morning because it is over-run with runners (pun not intended).
  •  I don’t know the population of the village concerned, or whether the Park Run is a lot of incomers.
  •  I do not know if the Parish Council considered increasing their precept on the Council Tax to pay for further maintenance of the park concerned.

What I do know is this – it appears to be a classic case of the difficulty in managing a Common Pool Resource. In economics, a Common Pool Resource is one where you can’t easily stop people using it (it’s non-excludable) but where people using the resource deplete it until it cannot be used by anyone (it’s rivalrous). In this case the park is a Common Pool Resource because the Parish Council couldn't stop Park Run in the first place (it's non-excludable) and it create rivalry in two way: you can't easily share a path with hundreds of runners; and all those stomping feet will create wear-and-tear. This is different to an apple (a private good) which is excludable, no one else can eat it at the same time as you, and once you have eaten it, it has gone (it’s rivalrous); or street lighting (a public good) which is non-excludable (my A-Level economics teacher used to have a great skit on coin-operated street lights) and non-rivalrous, unless someone casts a particularly large shadow.

Neo-classical economics suggests that unless common pool resources are brought into the market (made excludable in some way), or are managed by bureaucracies, then the natural outcome will be the tragedy of the commons: every man (I use the pronoun purposefully) will use up the resource to their maximum extent which will mean it is eventually depleted for everyone. It sounds like this is what Stoke Gifford Parish Council believed was happening here. The Park Run was using the resource and it was being depleted to the detriment of everyone. Therefore a market solution was to make them pay.

The only woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for economics, the wonderful Elinor Ostrom, through actual empirical research, not fancy econometric modelling, basically said the neo-classical argument was rubbish. There were thousands of examples across the world where people had got together to manage common pool resources themselves. Close-knit webs of social ties meant that people trusted each other to use just enough of the resource. It also meant people were aware of the needs of others, so that if they over-used the resource then other people would suffer. Management of such resources can be co-produced by communities and government actors.

It sounds like the organisers of this Park Run wanted to get something like this going. The BBC reporting states:
“Geoff Keogh, a Parkrun organiser, told the meeting he did not believe the run had a significant impact on the park, but volunteers would be willing to undertake maintenance activities or litter picks "as a way of offsetting whatever the perceived costs might be to the council".”
The organisers wanted to give a bit, and ensure their event was still accessible, and regain the trust of the Parish Council. But the Parish Council view is that “it was "unfair" to expect non-running residents to pay for path upkeep”.

The fact that “fairness” has been thrown into the argument does suggest that a level of trust has broken down in this case. It also highlights that where there are difference in culture – in the case of my own research I’m interested in social class dynamics – getting collaborative management of common pool resources going can be very difficult. In this case, it would be really good if the District Council could come in and mediate, but I doubt now that they have the resources – as Helen Sullivan commented, such “Big Society” action to deliver collaborative management actually requires a “Big State”.  

Anyway, I don’t have any solutions for the residents of Little Stoke, or those runners. But it’s a fascinating case, and I hope someone is planning some doctoral research on it. What is more, as local authority budgets get cut more and more and basic maintenance becomes a luxury, I think we are going to see many more example of such battles of common pool resources. 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

I'm writing this while chasing the dragon

Someone close to me lost their job not too long ago. In fact they were sacked. The job involved early starts and late finishes; a lot of travel; the remuneration didn’t match the skills and requirements for the post. Ultimately all this got too much and led to mental health problems and the job ending. Given I’m an academic, you might be presuming this was another academic. In fact it wasn’t – it was someone in a fairly hum-drum job in a private sector engineering company.

I write this because us academics are at it again – apparently academia makes us heroin addicts. There are two points I want to make – first on academic exceptionalism; and secondly on the damage this discourse does.

The reason I recounted the story above is to demonstrate that the damage that work does is not unique to academia, as many seem to think it is. In a low-productivity, low-wage, economy like that of the UK or US, stress and long hours are the norm for most workers. And that stress is worse – it’s the grinding, drudgery stress that the work of Michael Marmot showed slowly kills you. As academics we are far more likely to experience the fight-or-flight stress that actually helps you do your job better.

So, this genre of complaining frustrates me because it makes academia seem exceptional and does not fully acknowledge we are in a much wider economy that needs much broader reform to make it a better place to work, for everyone.

It also frustrates me because of the patterns it recreates in our labour and the damage this does. When I was a doctoral researcher my supervisors made me take leave, made me work normal hours because that is the right way to work. I completed my thesis on time. Their advice is still important to me now as I work to ensure my weekends are free for me to do my own activities and that I can keep up to my six hours of fitness training a week.

Some of the doctoral researchers in my Faculty put a funny sign on the door of their office about stress. This depressed me greatly – they shouldn’t feel stressed at this stage. Yet it seems normal for doctoral students to expect to work weekends, to burst into tears in the office, to take on far too much because that is what they think is expected of them. While we complain about the working practices of the academy, we recreate them in our apprentices and don’t teach them better coping strategies or support them in working with, and against, the institution to excel.

So, in this basic way this “openness” to the stresses of the job causes more damage – it creates patterns people then think they are expected to recreate. But it also prevents a lot of positive action. One thing I find interesting is the way “academia” or “the university” is nominalised within this discourse – it gains agency which it simply does not have: “academia” creates metrics we have to meet; “the university” is now an audit regime controlling our lives. No – a university, one institution, the one you work for, in your labour relations, creates these things. And that, for me, should be our focus for action.  

Thinking in this way – bottom-up – produces a space for change for organised labour, and also institutional processes, such as Athena SWAN. Universities, as employees, have specific statutory duties, primarily around health and safety. If your work is making you mentally unwell, the university has a duty of care to support you. If it does not do this, it is breaking the law and can be sued – this is the everyday casework of our union officers. We also need to explicitly recognise that we work in large, multi-million pound institutions that employ hundreds or thousands of staff. Thus, if something does not get done because we did not have time to do it, it is not our fault. It is, ultimately, the Vice-Chancellor’s fault. In reality it is the fault of the institution. The whole point of large bureaucracies is they should be structured so that if something goes wrong, there’s another bit of the bureaucracy ready to take over. We need to stop feeling guilty and damaging our mental health. It is not our fault.

As managers (I’m now taking line management roles) we also need to manage better – recognise that our staff have families and other pressures and give them the slack to do what they want to do. We need to recognise the excellence of our staff and stop talking about how “we all cope in this situation” and say “we all work really hard, perform excellently, and look at all the brilliant stuff we manage to do”. We also need to recognise the expertise and skill of all our staff, get away from the stupid division between “admin” and “academia”, and recognise the professional skills to support us in excelling at our academic roles.

After, yet another, horribly negative “anonymous academic” piece in the Guardian, I emailed them and asked if they would like a positive one. After an email was exchanged I never heard anything again. It seems we want to share the stories of the damage the bogeyman of “academia” does, but we don’t want to share the ways to cope, the ways to make things better. If you share the positive stories, you’re pilloried for being a slave to the neoliberal university, or for not fully recognising your privilege. But many of us are not superstars, we’re just trying to create better ways of working in better institutions.
edit/ After 48 hours this post has had over 900 hits which has been quite a surprise. So I feel I should embellish it with this, which was made for me by Pat Lockley as part of our banter on teh Twitterz.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Trapped - "at least the locals got a payout for appearing as extras"

Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

Apologies - my mum's final update on Trapped has been rather delayed. But here goes:

I found a map of Iceland (dated 2007) in a charity shop, presumably bought by someone who was about to lose all their savings in a bank and they were thinking of going over there to draw them out in cash. Anyway, I can confirm that it is a long way from Reykjavik - overland there is a lot of white stuff and the coastline is just lots of fjords…not easy terrain for the cops, or indeed for someone trying to find their savings in a bank. 

Well, what can I say?  Does the snow ever melt? Did I think that our hero’s father-in-law was a pyromaniac? No, no more than he did. But was he going to throw the key in the sea? He probably realised that it wasn’t worth it as someone would be bound to dredge it up, but now it would have his fingerprints on it, not his father-in-law’s. 

As for the poor little kid: father is a psychopath and rapist, mother is a mad knife murderer, but worse than all of that, he has red hair. And there was no evidence that the teachers had any better understanding of bullying at the end of this sorry tale than at the beginning. The teenagers looked happy, I suppose, but then they will grow up and become as depressed as the adults. 

I noticed that the house that he is building is looking more and more like the house behind Bates’ Motel in Psycho. And as he turned to go up the steps to go to live in it (in-laws now thinking at last he is going to go and live in his own house instead of kipping here all the time. What more do we have to do to get him out?)

I realised that from behind he doesn’t look like Orson Welles, but like the bear in We’re going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen. At the end of that book the bear has to return to his cave alone, and his shoulders droop and he looks really depressed. So it was all very sad really, despite the yokels having done better than the smart guys in Reykjavik. 

I guess I am rather sad that it is finished. But at least the locals got a payout for appearing as extras. 

Saturday, 12 March 2016


Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

My mum is sending my weekly emails summarising the plot and offering a review, with a certain je ne sais quoi, of the Icelandic drame Trapped. I've posted the previous three after asking her permission. This is the first one she sent me after I said I'd be making them public.



(or is this series really an elaborate “knocking copy” advert from rival firms?)

There is something in the air in that small port. However smart you are in the big city, when you arrive there you become as dim-witted as the locals. This particularly applies to policemen, who develop an alarming facility to lose bodies  - dead or alive – sometimes in spectacular fashion.

Our local hero – who each week resembles more closely a middle-aged Orson Welles – appears to be patching up his marriage, which up to now has looked as dead as …well, the torso or the local mayor… by luring his estranged wife to his own house which he is building himself (no mean feat when you consider the hours he works) which has no central heating in the middle of winter. I am no house builder, but really, if you have got the outside walls up and the interior ones, wouldn’t you then put the central heating in, rather than a few shelves and cupboards? Then, oh my god, there they are taking their clothes off, getting into bed, and we assume having sex. But hold on, your breath would show coming out of your mouth if there was no heating, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t have your head out from under the blankets, let alone your shoulders. Oh, just let it go Lesley…

More puzzling to me is the body shape of our local hero. He works night and day AND IS NEVER SEEN EATING A SANDWICH, LET ALONE A MEAL. To get into the shape he is you would be stuffing doughnuts and junk food down you as if there was no tomorrow, wouldn’t you? He rarely drinks either. Last night I observed him holding a cup of coffee a couple of times, but the mugs were put down without him taking a sip, let alone a slurp. He sipped one cup of coffee, once. YOU WATCH, next week I’m right. 

So, he doesn’t eat, rarely drinks and rarely sleeps. Is this going to develop into some sort of zombie horror?

Now, the credits – I’ve worked it out. Ever since the banking crash, the Icelanders are desperate for income. The film company is multi-national, including the financing. Someone local asked the finance guys whether the local extras would get paid. Yes, says the outsider, if their name appears in the credits then they get a payment. “I’ll give you a list of their names,” says a local. And he hands over the electoral register. 

Oh, and what’s happened to the kids?  Even the teenagers seem to have disappeared.

That’s all for now folks!


Thursday, 10 March 2016

Trapped - "As I was taught on my social work training course: ARSONISTS ARE VERY DANGEROUS PEOPLE"

Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

This is my mum's review of eipsode three of Trapped, the Icelandic drama on BBC4.

"At least they found the body – sorry, torso – just before the crack squad arrives from Rejkavik.  I haven’t followed Icelandic economics since the banks crashed, and clearly I should have - it’s all to do with building a large port, I think…and there is something about the clash of cultures (which The Bridge did, but rather better) which I am trying to understand.   

I continue to have sympathy for those officials in Reykjavik: there they are, taking panicky phone calls from this lot of hicks demanding a doctor (and more) when anyone can see that if you try to put a helicopter up in those weather conditions all aboard will die. Just to save some old eccentric who deliberately set off an avalanche which engulfed him, well, serves him right. He has lived there all his life, so presumably knew the risks. 

Do you think that if you get your name in the credits you get some sort of financial reward, even if it is only a voucher to spend at Iceland? But do they have Iceland stores in Iceland?

On this philosophical note I will end this email,

All the best,


Wednesday, 9 March 2016

This is the hyperlinked text of a talk I gave at the annual Built Environment Forum for Scotland Conference in Edinburgh on 9 March. 

And the excellent Graham Ogilvie drew this as I was speaking: 

In the first draft of this talk I aimed to be provocative but conciliatory. However, in the end this version is just provocative; in fact I would go as far to say it is combative and it’s a good job I have to run off and catch the train to Stirling as soon as I finished otherwise I’d probably need bullet-proof armour to get out the room. What I am going to suggest is that the main trouble with heritage protection is that it is an example of middle class self-interest. People do not protect heritage for some transcendent, higher reason, but because it is in their own class interest.

In my research with Professor Hastings at the University of Glasgow we demonstrated that the middle classes are particularly good at getting resources from public services because they take advantage of four different mechanisms. Firstly, they join groups that policy-makers listen to, often because they have statutory duties; the classic example being the Community Council. Secondly, they are just much more likely to engage in policy-making on an individual and group basis. What is more, when they do engage they are more likely to get what they want which is a further incentive to engage. Thirdly, they have greater access to people with the necessary expertise, and also the ability to understand complex technical language, to have influence in policy-making. Finally, policy-makers just make policy to suit the middle classes; because they vote more, but also because they know the middle classes are likely to complain if policy is not made to suit them and their demands.

You are now probably bristling and thinking “I’m not middle class!” or the more sociological question of “what does he mean by middle class?” There is a lot of evidence behind this talk that is available free to access; but also the greatest revelation of this research for me is quite how middle class I am, and then using these mechanisms to get what I want.

Let’s apply this model of middle class influence to heritage. On the first mechanism, heritage groups are archetypal of this type of activity. Many started off as small groups of the great-and-the-good who used their influence to protect heritage – such as civic amenity associations – and then have gradually become a formal part of development processes and people who expect to be listened to.

We just need to look at the most controversial development decisions recently to see evidence of the second mechanism. I could reel off a list of controversial planning applications in well-to-do neighbourhoods in Edinburgh, but this would be unfair to my fellow citizens of this city. But it’s rather telling that the controversy over the proposed demolition of the Red Road flats in 2014 was largely one of the lack of taste in demolishing people’s homes during the Commonwealth Games ceremony, not uproar that we have housed people so poorly that the only sensible thing to do is to demolish their homes after 40 years.

In terms of the third mechanism – I lived in a listed building. It is listed because it is a unique collection of early nineteenth century industrial buildings, with a restrained classical fa├žade, with dressed stone and proportional fenestration to the road elevation. Do I need to say any more? Most people don’t even know what fenestration means – it sounds more like something you’d see your doctor about rather than windows. Further, far fewer people who know someone to contact to tell them what fenestration is so they can get listed building consent and planning permission to do something about their windows. As the story of the Tinker’s Heart movingly showed, you are in a system that actively excludes people who can’t “talk heritage”.

Now the fourth mechanism. “Ah” you’re probably thinking, “look at the Royal High School! The St James Centre! Caltongate! There is no way he can say development policies are suited the interests of middle-class people!” Yes I am. Because the evidence is fairly obvious. As Dr Madgin suggested, we value places based on judgements of taste that come from a specific cultural background. When we afford an untouched neighbourhood of working class council housing the same level of protection because of its social value as we afford Edinburgh’s New Town, then I’ll accept that policy is not made in the interests of the middle classes. But it seems we struggle to even have a reasoned discussion on this. The only suggestion is that we merely continue to expand existing protection systems, slowly allowing different kinds of heritage – industrial, working class, associated with a specific minority group – because we expand the definitional envelope of what should be protected very marginally. We need a discussion about whether we have the right envelope at all.

Why is this all class interested? At its most basic, itprotects house prices which are the largest asset for most people. But all this social capital – the links to people of influence; and cultural capital – the valorisation of certain aesthetics and the language used to describe them, puts middle class people in positions of power and influence. And they, you, we, are not going to give up that lightly.

So now I’ve revealed myself as the, self-described “envy-driven author trying to pass off as an intellectual” I’ll don my flak jacket and tin helmet and beat a hasty retreat. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Trapped - "At least the children turned up safe and sound"

Spoiler alert - don't read if you want to watch Trapped but haven't caught up yet

My mum's review of episode two was briefer, but still amusing:

Well, if you were the Chinese would you invest in building a massive port in that area? Old madmen going out setting off avalanches…police who can’t even store crucial evidence properly, or indeed keep files in alphabetical order, and who question suspects in a public bar about a murder…you wouldn’t believe it. I guess it’s their version of Midsommer Murders. At least the children turned up safe & sound, though that was a miracle.