Friday, 30 August 2013

Demolish Morningside!

That was the controversial title of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show I was involved in, the fantastic Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas organised by Beltane Public Engagement Network. Yes folks, after my most popular blog post ever on cycling and the Niceway Code (1244 hits so far...) we're back to me blogging about academia, which I know you all love...

So, what was the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas? Well, it was a range of academics speaking for an hour in the afternoon on a range of subjects to a paying audience. In our case, it was me, Professor Richard Williams of Edinburgh College of Art and the wonderful compère skills of stand-up Susan Morrison.

I've uploaded a sound recording of it to SoundCloud for you to listen to:

I've got some videos that have been given to me as well, including one where I explode with rage about the way Forth Ports have treated Leith and Edinburgh - I'm told this was quite the moment in the show!

Basically, the premise of my argument was one I've kind of rehearsed here - that we're more than happy to demolish deprived neighbourhoods and disrupt the lives of vulnerable working class people to delivering "mixed communities" but we'd never dream of doing the same to affluent neighbourhoods, like Morningside. Indeed, Edinburgh Council's accidental introduction of Moving to Opportunity when homeless people were housed in private-rented housing through a contract with a company, led to widespread opposition to the hoi polloi being moved into nice areas (often quite rightly, as the tenancies were not managed properly and there were many incidents of distressing anti-social behaviour).

Myself and Richard only spoke for about 15 minutes in total and then we moved onto discussion with the very informed audience. This was very interesting indeed it also allowed me to progress my argument a bit more - particularly introducing the complicated idea of "neighbourhood affects" and highlighting the complexity of understanding them in a Scottish context; and also my main argument that rather than demolishing neighbourhoods, maybe we should invest in them and deliver very good public services in them? That way we can move away from the situation where local authorities think that this is a good way to manage green space in a deprived neighbourhood:*

Two quick reflections on the experience. Firstly, the discussion ended up containing a lot of statistics and a lot of complex ideas. What was really impressive for me was the depth of this discussion. The audience members were very good at providing critical insights, particularly to the stats, highlighting for example, how Edinburgh's population stats are skewed because of the city's boundary and because people are increasingly living in West Lothian, Falkirk and Fife due to housing affordability issues.

Secondly, the audience response was quite amazing. We had an audience of 32, only 11 of whom were our friends and family (including my mum and my partner). Somebody came up to me at the end and suggested I should run for office. I declined politely as I think my role is best served in the academy. And, if I can do more things like this, then maybe I'll start to change how some people think. One of my mum's friends said to her afterwards that it was the best festival show he had seen that day, and the discussion and ideas that were being bounced around left him thinking for the rest of the day and distracted him from the concert he was seeing. 

So, in a little way, we were helping to create a bit of a Habermasian discourse. Of course, because we had the power imbued upon us as being "academics" it did not meet the conditions of the perfect public sphere. But the audience definitely didn't hold back from being engaged in the debate! And I can't tell you how nervous I was beforehand. I've heard that Immanuel Kant was never paid, but left a bucket at the exit to the lecture theatre for students' contributions. This experience felt very much like that! 

All in all, I'm very glad I did it.

* a bit of background here, this is what the City of Edinburgh Council have been doing in Wester Hailes, a neighbourhood I work closely with. They basically tarmaced over areas of grass and shrubbery they couldn't be bothered maintaining. The Council say this was due to "community demands", but from what I hear the community demanded the spaces be tidied up and they were offered the opportunity to get some tarmac. It gets me so angry. The evidence is that this will literally shorten the lives of the people living around these areas. In terms of partnership working, I think the Council should be expected to fund local primary care for the increase in prescriptions of anti-depressants that will result. Further, the grass and plants are already growing through the tarmac and the trees are dying because they don't get enough water. And not to mention the increased flood risk. And this, after Scottish Enterprise spent hundreds in the 1990s putting in the landscaping in the first place! Luckily, the community is equally as angry and in some other neighbourhoods in Wester Hailes these areas are becoming community gardens.

Monday, 5 August 2013

I am not a horse

When I was in primary school, in creative writing classes, my teacher always told us to never used the word "nice" - there were far better more descriptives adjectives available. Alas, this lesson was not heeded by Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government came up with their latest "Nice Way Code" campaign. Yes, #racistvan may be the main social media policy getting a backlash in the UK, but up here we have our own fine mess.

I've held off commenting until the "policy" was launched in full, but for some reason they had a soft launch last week. As I pointed out at the time:

Truly a policy launch could not have gone any worse. First of all, their press photo showed a driver breaking the law by stopping over a stop-line. After a day of full-on attacks on twitter from cycling and road safety campaigners they were forced to write this blog post about all of us "vocal people". Pretty swiftly the spoof twitter account had more followers than the official one, and it's been joined by a second spoof account.

Well the policy has now had it's official launch today. It includes this leaflet and these adverts. There has been a helluva lot of verbiage on the policy, brilliantly brought together here. I would particularly recommend the posts by Beyond the Kerb on the ludicrous advert and make sure you read the comments on this post where some of the policy-makers try and defend it.

I pretty much agree with everything that's been said, so what I thought I'd do here is offer some speculative policy analysis here. I'm going to focus on two areas: problem definition and "lines to take".

Problem definition

A key step in policy-making is defining the problem to be solved. In "traditional" policy analysis this is presented as a fairly rational process. My own research often focuses on how problem definition is a highly political act, especially in neighbourhood policy. Invariably, regeneration policy (particularly in Scotland) fails to recognise the main reason deprived neighbourhoods exist is that we put all our social housing in certain neighbourhoods (an argument I'll be making in a Fringe show next week).

Quite often analysis doesn't have to be quite as in-depth as it is in my usual research. The Nice Way Code is a case in point. The policy problem is we don't have enough active travel in Scotland. The Scottish Government has a target to increase the number of journeys by bike to a pitiful 10%. There are a whole host of reasons why we want more active travel.

The evidence from countries with very high levels of cycling, and from studies that ask people who don't cycle, is that safety is the main barrier to promoting active transport. Our roads are designed for big metal boxes that go fast and cause massive blunt force trauma to people when they hit them, quite often resulting in death, particularly for children and older people. As I've said before on here, you've got to be bloody stupid to be a vehicular cyclist in Scotland.

However, the Nice Way Code defines a problem where nine cyclists have been killed by drivers on Scotland's road this year as "not perfect" and where we just have to be "nice". It doesn't take a genius to work out why there might be a bit of dissonance between problem definition and the experience of road users.

Being fed sugar lumps is not going to make me feel much better after my internal organs have been rearranged by being hit by a driver going 30 mpg or more. I am not a horse.

Lines to take

And this brings me onto lines to take. For those of you who have the fortune not to be former civil servants, a "line to take" is what the UK civil service comes up with when a new policy is announced. I was a civil servant and was trained to always revert to the "line to take" that way you won't get in trouble.

It's fairly clear what the "line to take" with the Nice Way Code is: "we know the road's aren't perfect, but they'll be better if we just get along". Subject to the barrage of criticism, they've had to come up with another line to take: "it's only 1% of the total budget". If you scroll down to the comments on this blog post by Nice Way Code, you'll see that I was a victim of the line to take. Interestingly it seems that they've now shut down comments, but just so you know, in response to their last comment to me, government can convert revenue expenditure to capital expenditure, and regularly does. It can't do it the other way round. The Scottish Government even tell you how much local government does this.

The problem with "lines to take" is really revealed by this policy. To get this problem, you have to know a bit about the UK civil service. In this book the political scientist Rod Rhodes uses ethnography to reveal how the hierarchy of the UK civil service means that ministerial office is like a Royal Court. This very much chimes with my experience of the Scottish Government. You are accountable to the Minister, not parliament. The minister is turn accountable to parliament. This is why "lines to take" are used - you cannot speak to the political and policy priorities of the government, all you can do is "objectively" implement them. So you fall back on your "line to take" so you don't actually have to have a view.

This means that once a policy has been decided (and often before) you cannot have a public discussion about the policy. It embeds the "decide and defend" approach in the policy process. As a result, it seems the Nice Way Code is in lock-down mode. It's only posting positive stories about the policy. It is no longer engaging in debate. Even comments on the videos on youtube have been locked down.

And what really frustrates me is it is an utter waste of money. I've put a ministerial correspondence in asking what research was used to come up with the campaign (I have an inkling it was a The Thick Of It style back-of-fag-packet job) and whether a cost-benefit-analysis was carried out, or similar. I await a reply. 

Like Beyond the Kerb, I do recognise that attitudes of road users have to change, but I was also expecting, hoping, for something like this Irish film:

Or, given the extent of the problem, even something hard-hitting like the Scottish Government can do:

Instead, I get a video which my partner excellently summed up as "so, they're asking drivers to treat cyclists that they see all the time, like something they hardly ever see and that they don't treat with respect". I am not a horse. I am a human being and I don't want to be killed by a blunt force trauma to my body. I want decent cycling infrastructure which I have seen implemented very cheaply and easily in Germany, and even better infrastructure in the Netherlands. The infrastructure has to come first to deliver modal shift.

The bit of the Nice Way Code blog post where they comment:

"A lot of research was conducted to develop the campaign, all of which told us keeping the tone light, speaking to all roads users equally and having messages for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians was the only way to get people to consider changing their own behaviour."

Is very telling for me. This has come straight from the stable of "nudge" policy. In an era of austerity, where politicians are terrified of taking bold decisions that might alienate voters (who are middle class and drive cars), policy "research" is reduced to PR not actually what works.