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…