Thursday, 19 December 2013

Socio-economic inequality, poverty and place

This blogpost on elearning made me giggle this afternoon. And it's rather apposite as in this post I'm sharing some of my teaching materials and was wondering how to frame them - as "MOOCish" "SPOCish"...None of that; it's just a set of notes.

My postgrad courses are delivered as distance learning and so I spent a big chunk of my first year in the job writing extensive notes of rather dubious quality. Every year I go back to them to update and refresh them (this year I discovered a large section of text I left last year that just said "blah blah blah blah blah"). Every year, rather than cringe, I'm pleasantly surprised with how not-atrocious they are. So, here you go, the first tranche I'm willing to make more public - my notes on socio-economic inequality, poverty and place. All errors and omissions mine and I'm happy to accept that. This covers two lectures I deliver as part of a wider course called Social Sustainability. Once you've read them, if you pay us a lot of money, you can do the assessment and get the credit as part of one of our postgraduate programmes.

/edit: and given the first tranche of notes seemed to have been welcomed, here's another set of notes, this time on "policy responses" i.e. regeneration

Friday, 13 December 2013

Emerging thoughts on social networks, place and poverty

I’ve been very fortunate to have been awarded a research project by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as part of their anti-poverty strategy, to investigate the evidence around social networks and poverty. In our expression of interest we stated our aims as:
  • Review recent international evidence (defined as from the last five years) on the links between social capital and place and household outcomes, particularly in deprived neighbourhoods;
  • Review recent UK statistical and international evidence on the links between equalities characteristics, place and social capital to provide a more nuanced account of the intersection between social capital, neighbourhood and community, and other individual characteristics and their impact on life chances.
  • Review recent evidence from grey literature and evaluations on the success of policy interventions in developing social capital to alleviate or tackle poverty;
  • Review recent evidence on the capacity of online social networking to develop social capital and any specific barriers to digital inclusion people experiencing poverty may have.

I’ve been working on the first and third aims and just thought I’d write-out my ideas so far to clear my head. 

The first bullet point is the crux of the work for me as, being a planner, I’m approaching this from a spatial perspective. So I’m particularly interested as to whether there is a neighbourhood effect on social networks for people experiencing poverty. To explain, a neighbourhood effect, is the effect that living around other people the same, or different, has on an individual’s outcomes. To sum it up even more simply, it’s the theory that it is worse to be poor in a poor neighbourhood than in a mixed neighbourhood, because characteristics of that neighbourhood mean your experience of poverty will be worse, and your chances of leaving poverty will be lowered.

This is a very controversial view, especially because it toes the line on the questionable “cultures of poverty” and underclass arguments that emerged into UK policy discourses with Charles Murray’s work in the 1990s. Tom Slater has written a strident critique of the work here, highlighting how the focus should really be on why do people experiencing poverty ending living in deprived neighbourhoods that are ill-served by markets and public services. I and all the other neighbourhood effects scholars I know would broadly agree with this too, but there’s still something about the neighbourhood that has to be of interest. It’s very telling that the JRF themselves use this stock photo to represent poverty, even though everyone knows the majority of poor people don’t live in poor neighbourhoods.


This has become particularly clear with a literature search I’ve carried out. I was only focusing on literature in the last five years, but searched Web of Knowledge for combinations of “social capital”, “social networks”, “poverty” and “low income”. It was striking how the vast majority of the results focused on communities of propinquity – the neighbourhood or similar spatial units. The other striking thing was how the vast majority (I’d say 80%) of the studies focused on the links between social networks and poor health and wellbeing. These were discounted from our review as the outcome the studies tended to mention was health and wellbeing, not poverty or social networks (although, of course, causation is a complex web here).

So, what do I know now I’ve done quite a bit of reading? Well, I found George Galster’s seven possible pathways of neighbourhood effects to be useful to start as a theoretical framework and have narrowed this down to three possible pathways by which place, poverty and social networks might be linked:
  •           Socialisation – norms and role models, essentially.
  •           Threshold socialisation – that norms and thresholds have to reach a certain level to have an impact
  •           Social networks – direct social contact may have an impact on opportunities to get on, or improve a neighbourhood.

I’ve included the first two, which are very closely linked, because they kept coming up in the research. It’s mainly because it’s very difficult to measure social networks in quantitative neighbourhood effects studies because of lack of data, so you end up researching social norms, really. But in a number of papers a link is made between social norms and sociability. For example, this interesting Dutch paper highlights how parents of children in deprived neighbourhoods cut their children off from local social networks to protect them from negative socialisation.

The socialisation stuff is also useful because of this bit of logic. The negative socialisation thesis, even though there is scant and mixed evidence for it, is used by policy-makers to justify “mixed communities” policies; basically knock down deprived neighbourhoods and introduce tenure mix. It makes your indicators look good, just ask Glasgow.

Now, the thing here is homophilly – not sure how you pronounce it, but it reads like a word meaning someone who really likes Philadelphia. Basically the theory that people like to be around, and socialise, with people like themselves. And it looks like it’s true. So no matter if you mix poor people with wealthier people, chances are they are not going to meet and talk to one another, except maybe at the school gate. There’s also the pragmatic reality of modern neighbourliness; as one respondent quoted in this research said:
“it has taken us two and a half years to get to know our neighbours . . . and we know our neighbour across the driveway very well because he is not very nice.”

So, even if we live around people and know them, it’s not as if we’ll necessarily get along anyway. Also coming up in the literature a lot is the fact that support networks in deprived neighbourhoods are vital for helping people get-by, particularly within kin. People will have smaller networks, but they will be able to rely on them less.

All-in-all, however, I’m already moving to a view that focusing on social networks within an anti-poverty strategy is not really worthwhile, as there’s plenty bigger fish to fry, particularly around maximising income. But we'll see. Still got a lot more to read...

Friday, 29 November 2013

Teaching deindustrialisation

All our postgraduate courses are delivered as distance learning, so I've had to write a full set of notes for them. These are generally in a chatty textbook style and are available to on-campus students to support the lectures as well. I intersperse the notes with examples from practice and other bits to break the flow of text. I thought I'd blog an addition I just made to the notes for Social Sustainability which I'm teaching next semester. Hopefully you'll see why.

Personal stories or history?

When I teach issues that touch on deindustrialisation I am actually speaking from personal experience. I was born in 1982, just a the UK was in the major recession of the early 1980s and as the industrial regions of the UK descended into full-on deindustrialisation. The trouble is, I look around the classroom and see predominantly young people looking back at me and presume you must know the same. I’ve come to realise from the blank looks staring back at me that you’re all a lot younger than I think (some of you won’t have been born when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister) and that a lot of you are not from the UK. Those of you who are younger will have really just known about our current recession and economic difficulties since 2008. Those of you from outside the UK might not have a clue what I’m talking about at all.

To give an idea of the extent of the change, in my own doctoral research, an officer from a local authority in the west of Scotland described the deindustrialisation as a “psychic shock”. In my own home town I watched very large mills, such as Listers Mill up the road from my house in the city of Bradford, empty out and eventually close. This was also as much about economic restructuring. Bradford was known for its woollen industry. Predominantly it made worsted, a very fine cloth used for suits. In 1994 the Bradford woollen industry produced more miles of cloth than it had ever done in its history, but this was at a small number of very large mills with electric machinery employing very few people.

There is a club in the centre of Bradford called the 1 in 12. It was so named because that was the unemployment rate in the city when it was opened in the mid-1980s. In 1984 the UKs unemployment rate reached its highest ever recorded level of 12%. It’s easy now to think this isn’t that bad. Even during the long boom from 1994 – 2007, unemployment was 4%.  But the unemployment of the 1980s was set against a context where from 1945 to 1976 governments had focused on reducing unemployment. If unemployment started nudging towards one million people then the government would intervene to keep the economy going. The memories of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s haunted the political and social memory. The 1980s changed this.

The whole identity of places was also closely tied to the industries that declined, both in employment and output. Bradford was known as “Worstedopolis”, Sheffield made steel, Manchester was cotton, Glasgow shipbuilding, Dundee the three Js of jam, jute and journalism. As these industries declined, so did the identity and raison d’etre of the towns and cities.

This was evoked in popular culture. One of the most striking portrayals was Yozzer Hughe’s, an unemployed Liverpudlian dockworker in the TV drama Boys from the Black Stuff, with his now famous catchphrase “gizza job”.

The 1996 film Brassed Off and the 1997 film The Full Monty both evoked the destitution and emotional destruction wrought by these processes of deindustrialisation particularly on male working class identity.

This was also picked up in music. Listen to “Ghost Town” by the Specials on the Social Sustainability playlist and this excellent BBC radio documentary The People’s Playlist.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Middle-class nation state?

This afternoon I told a struggling undergrad dissertation to go an write. Just write. Anything. Write, write, write. I also explained I had the idea for this post in my head and had been desperate to write it out all day after reading this paper(£) on the train this morning. So, apologies, it's scrappy and not very hyperlinked, but I needed to get the ideas out.

For some context, you might also want to see my blogs about my middle class activism research here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

So Haugaard argues, via Marx, that the nation state subverted class interests by creating other social structures, in Foucault’s terms, the technologies of governance, schools etc. He frames this in terms of creating a habitus – a being in one’s self – that is being part of the nation state. The symbolic violence that makes this seem natural obscures the activation of power by the state. Now, we can accept this as positive power, as the enabling of good things to happen.

However, we can link this to T.H. Marshall’s concept of welfare citizenship and social rights as a development from civil and political rights. In his framing of the development of the welfare state he saw people gaining greater citizenship as the benefits of the state enabled them to participate fully. Further this developed a social contract across the nation, nation-state reciprocity. This can be seen as the positive power, as just mentioned. However, the obvious criticism is that this was a paternalist state. The growth of the welfare state led to a growth in social mobility through a growth in technical professions, as Mike Savage has argued. The UK, in particular, stopped being a gentlemanly country/state and became an increasingly technocratic one. Goldthorpe and Lockwood wanted technically competent knowledge of the affluent workers of Luton through using cutting-edge sociological methods.

So to argue that the postwar welfare state created a welfare citizenship based on social rights is already looking a bit flimsy – it created a state of the minds of the technically proficient bureaucrats who were managing it: of householders managers by the Corporation Sanitary Inspectress and latterly social workers; of suburbs and city centres of the planners’ ideal type; of hospitals which treated people with the same problems as the consultant’s or GP’s friends. The social mobility associated with these professions arguably created a new social class, particularly as identified by Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s Weberian schema that became NS-SEC.

If we turned to a Bourdieusian conception of class we can get at this a bit more and bring the debate back full circle to consider habitus and symbolic violence. I am using the shorthand here of “the middle class” to describe these professionals who were created by and created the postwar welfare state, and also those with the social capital that links to them, and similar cultural capital. As myself and Annette Hastings have argued, the middle classes, so conceived, are particularly effective at extracting gain from the welfare state, especially in terms of services that suit their needs and demands – a subtle form of Tudor-Hart’s inverse care law. We can suggest that in the period 1945-1979 the growth of the state, the high social mobility, and increasing equality led to a devaluation of economic capital in securing class positions. Instead, a large group of people gained an enhanced class position through social and cultural capital – the 11+, investment in the arts and culture (National Theatre, Arts Council etc.). They then created a middle-class state in their own image; a state where middle-class habitus, the being in one’s self, helped you get on. It helped you get into the right school; it helped you get on in that school; it helped you get the best treatment from your GP or consultant; it helped you oppose that social housing development that might detract from your neighbourhood; it enabled you to get your street swept more regularly than the inner city neighbourhoods; it meant you felt comfortable in the plate glass university you went to; increasingly now it means you have the means to shield your assets from being used to pay for your care and being able to use your personal budget to buy absolutely excellent care or get you into the best care home.

Obviously there are exceptions to this, but the evidence suggests that to suggest that we created a middle-class state in the UK is not that far-fetched an idea. This is acceptable during a period like that from 1945-1979 where we had large amounts of upward social mobility. There was lots of space, for people like my parents, to be in this middle class. But this social mobility has stalled. What is more, a lot of these people (with a household income of £60k - £100k based on two professionals working full time) are in the top quartile, decile or even percentile of the income scale yet they do not recognise this. So this group are sailing away from the rest of society who have very little chance of joining them and yet they are still creating the state in their own mould because they expect or presume everyone to be like them. Their habitus and symbolic violence makes it seem natural that, for example, you should work very hard to get your child into the best school. As a result non-middle-class parents begin to feel guilty about making a choice based on family connections, or just what school is nearest and easiest to get to.

So where does this leave us? I feel uncomfortable in our middle classes work because if you follow the logic to its conclusion you can argue that state resources should be withdrawn from the middle-classes as it just entrenches inequality and be focused solely on those poorer in society. But for me that leaves us with the problem that services for the poor are poor services. However, if we conceive of the modern welfare state as a middle class state, then what is important is to reduce inequality and make sure there is social mobility. Then we can return to Marshall’s model of social citizenship as it will be something all can benefit from. Further, to link Marshall’s point about reciprocity to the Wilkinson and Pickett Spirit Level argument, and particularly their point that is does not matter how you get your equality either by having equal incomes, or progressive taxation what matter is equality. Then what we need to ensure the welfare state does not entrench and exacerbate inequality is to produce equality so that everyone is paying in equally, or that the wealthier are paying in more but seeing the benefit to all around them.

I think.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

After my last hopeful post, the Evening snooze in Edinburgh have changed their tune:

The Police Scotland team in Edinburgh were hot on their social media and pointed out to me that the actual campaign was more balanced.
But let's go back to the starting point of a policy process - problem definition - as I did with the mostpointlesspublicinformationcampaigneverthattheScottishGovernmentshouldbeashamedof. So, what is the problem? Police Scotland say what it is in their press release, it's "road safety" - too many people are being killed and injured on Edinburgh's roads. So, let's divvy up the danger to vulnerable road users between drivers and cyclists. Here is a list of things I see drivers doing every time I get on my bike: 
  • Going through red lights - both "amber gambler" and just going through a light, while it's been at red sometime. Quite often this is when the driver has been sat at the light and then just decides they can't be bothered waiting. Or drivers crossing into the advanced stop zone while the light is at red. According to the highway code, they have passed a stop line while the traffic light was at red - aka they've gone through a red light.
  • Illegal parking - including double-parking, parking on double-yellows, on no-loading areas, on greenways and in loading bays on greenways (I see the same cars parked every evening in the loading bays on greenways. They are not loading).
  • Dangerous overtaking - including overtaking on blind corners and the brow of a hill, overtaking and giving insufficient room to other traffic, overtaking when there is quite obviously a vehicle coming in the other direction (this is a head-on collision I'm waiting to happen).
  • Not signalling, or using mirrors. Ever. 
  • Using mobile phones while driving - and these days, to do your shopping with and chat on Facebook using your smartphone, not for phone conversations.
  • Driving down the wrong side of the road at oncoming traffic (oddly common, that one).
  • Speeding. All the time. And if not speeding, not adjusting speed to the road conditions. There's a reason every time it rains the city comes to a standstill, particularly the bypass - people are driving too fast to stop safely.
  • Every line of traffic I join because I can't cycle past to get to the ASL zone contains a car with brake lights not working.
  • Over behaviour that isn't that dangerous but is contrary to the highway code including: revving your engine and honking your horn in anger or frustration; swearing at other road users.
Here's what I see cyclists doing:
  • Rarely they will go through a red light at a pedestrian crossing, or a crossroads which is at the all-pedestrian phase. I see this about once a month, if that.
  • About once a week I will see a cyclist going down the pavement, usually this is a teenager who doesn't (but should) know better, or someone from a country that has decent cycling infrastructure and is quite rightly scared shitless by cycling on Edinburgh's roads. In the latter case, they are usually going very slowly and carefully.
  • I've had a couple of cyclists emerge out of the dark since the days have shortened and given me a surprise. But then, as I'd not used my lights all summer, I did a couple of rides with insufficient lighting as my batteries had gone flat. You can get caught out quite easily at this time of year unintentionally. And if you've picked up your bike for £30 as cheap transport, then another £15 for decent lights might be the difference between eating and not.
I've had the misfortune to hit pedestrians twice, when they just stepped out in front of me. As a result I've half a tooth missing, another tooth so sensitive it acts as a thermometer and some scarring on my right hand. Of the two pedestrians, one had a slight bruise on their thigh. If there is a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian, the former invariably suffers far worse injuries.

So, let's get this straight. Drivers kill people with their motorised vehicles. That's your road safety problem there so stop treating bad driving and bad cycling as equal problems in policy. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

Cycling in a city with trams

There's some good news on the cycling front. Edinburgh City Council might be investing a record amount in cycling in its transport budget next year; and London and Bristol are going Dutch/Danish, it seems. However, in Edinburgh the latest transport news is the slow unveiling of what's been built of our difficult tram project. The line is complete and roads are reopened.

Unfortunately, at one key junction, Haymarket, this is happening:

The road has been "redesigned" with very little thought for cyclists coming out of town. They're supposed to go down the taxi rank to the right there, and then wait an age at the lights, and then cross the tracks at a less acute angle. Taxis often block the entrance to the rank (they were doing so again this evening) and so cyclists are forced to use this lethal bit of road.

As soon as I cycled through the reopened junction I realised another danger, that got me a close shave this evening. I come out of Dalry Road, to the right of that video, and turn right to head down Shandwick place - I have to cross the tram tracks. To do so, I have to cross the entrance to Grosvenor Street - the "straight on" of the junction. Now with the tram tracks, I have to swing out left to cross at a less acute angle, and then swing back right across the entrance to Grosvenor Street. I make sure I'm in the Advanced Stop Area and signal right to make sure any car going down Grosvenor Street has half an idea of the daft manoeuvre I'm about to be forced to do. Until tonight, every car has also been going along West Maitland Street so I've been vaguely safe. Tonight two cars were going down Grosvenor Street and were very closely to killing me. I knew this was an accident waiting to happen. 

To make it safe, a simple solution would be to paint an mandatory cycle lane over the tram tracks and then loop it behind a small traffic island with a "Give Way" sign at the entrance of Grosvenor Street and then continue the path on a raised surface across to West Maitland Street and Shandwick Place. What we'll probably get is a few more pointless cycle/tram signs. 

But what really depresses me is the utter lack of strategic thought in the tram road designs. In remodelling the roads for the trams they had the opportunity to completely remodel the roads to make them safe for active travel. At Haymarket we have what it was before - basically a very large roundabout distributing traffic in and out of the city centre - with some tram tracks across it. The presumption is you'll be on four wheels or a tram. If you're not then you might as well be dead. The lost opportunity just leaves me despairing.

However, one good thing is, the farce of road design at Haymarket did actually make the front page of the local newspaper calling for the Council to do something about it. So there is some hope. In the meantime, as far as I'm concerned, if the Council leave the junction open then they're failing in their duty of care under health and safety legislation. The junction needs to be closed and temporarily remodelled to remove these dangers and more permanent solutions put in. Otherwise someone will die.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Research conversations

Hmmm, it seems that being too busy to write and not having much to write about at the forefront of my mind, I'm resorting to a lot of audio blog posts. And also blog posts about teaching.

Anyway, the feedback I get from my distance learning (and on-campus students for that matter) is that they love the wealth of materials, including my teaching notes (which I'll make OA this year, all being well) but that they really like the small bits of more multimedia stuff I do and would like podcasts. Now, the trouble being I really don't want to record my lectures. This is for two reasons. Firstly, Tara Brabazon's horrific account of poorly recorded lectures in the University of Google and secondly my classes are reasonably small, and thus very interactive, which doesn't lend itself to recorded lectures.

However, I had a bright idea. I bring in colleague's research expertise to help teach my course, so I figured I could interview them, or have a conversation with them, and other colleagues who are research experts, and record these as podcasts. I did recorded my first two over the summer and have only just got round to editing them. The first is with my colleague Dr Jenny Roe, now predominantly at the University of York. In listening to it while editing it I was struck by how good and interesting it was, IMHO. So, I thought I'd share the pleasure and upload it for you all to enjoy:

Friday, 11 October 2013

Reflections on teaching practice - seen exams

In a continuation of my series of dull, quickly written, Friday evening blog posts that get very little attention, I thought I'd include this. A lot of my colleagues are having to move to exam-only assessment in their courses (don't ask). When I started here I was given a course to teach which included an exam. I didn't realise I could change the assessment method, so stuck with the exam. However, to assess a broader set of learning outcomes I used a seen exam instead.

I discussed my experience of using seen exams in a short talk as part of the research institute seminars I organise recently. Now, firstly, I'm not clever enough to match up the audio recording to the slides (or have enough time to do it) so you'll have to listen to the audio, listen out for the pauses while I change slides, and follow the slides here. Secondly, I was last of four speakers and we were running late, this is why I'm talking so fast it's like my life depends on it.

Enjoy! (you also get to see what I look like and hear my voice)

Friday, 4 October 2013

The paper that never got there

The very wonderful Kean Birch, (well worth following on the Twitter) does something very interesting. On this page on his blog he puts up PDFs of papers that were rejected by journals and the referees comments.

When I first came across this I was quite inspired to follow, but also a little bit scared. To be frank, I was ashamed of my rejected papers as I could see they had been rejected on valid grounds.

But, I'm not with it this afternoon, so I've created a PDF of one of my papers that was rejected entitled "Ways of Seeing". It's on Google Drive, help yourself, but drop me a line if you want to cite it (don't know why you would, mind). As you'll quickly gather it was heavily inspired by this paper co-authored by my PhD examiner Dvora Yanow. Basically, I took their painting metaphor, which I thought was useful, and certainly helped me a lot, and took it further to also explore reflexivity through a metaphor of art appreciation.

I also submitted it to Organization Studies. And, well, basically, it didn't even get to peer review. The editorial board knocked it back, primarily because I'd missed a load of papers in OS about reflexivity that I've never found the time to read. I was also getting quite rusty on the literature by then. Frustratingly, I do wonder if it would have got published if I'd got it to the journal in say, 2009, straight after my PhD, rather than in 2011.

Anyway, make of it what you will.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The weird and wonderful world (or World) of peer review

I'm now getting to be quite seasoned at the process of peer review. So far this year I've managed (somehow) to submit four papers for review and I await commentary on all of them. But, to be frank, it's a very odd process. I've been joking on Twitter that I've been making sacrifices to the gods of peer review, because, well you might as well. I really do have my tongue firmly stuck in my cheek when I tell students they must use academic journal articles because of the "gold standard" of peer review. The problems are well rehearsed, especially blind peer review: many reviewers are just unhelpful and rude, hidden by the anonymity of the "blind" process; it's not blind at all and could never hope to be – I've raised concerns that I've seen papers before to editors and they've just said go ahead; and the editors have said go ahead as they struggle to get reviewers; you can submit a paper and get rejected and then resubmit it and be accepted. In the social sciences and humanities in particular, peer review also seems to be much more about giving essay feedback than going through findings with a fine-toothed comb (although the scandals of forged results and plagiarism in the natural sciences suggest the process isn't going well there either).

I've had a mix of experiences. Two of my papers accepted so far went into, or were intended for, special issues, so they had lighter-touch peer review. Of my other two papers, my difficult theory paper got the best peer-review I could ever imagine – reams of helpful comments and references to read it up on. The other paper eventually got published in Environment and Planning C after a nice wee peer-review process; and I've discussed before how helpful peer-review was in getting the difficult theory paper out. However, the EPC first got submitted to another journal and I got the worst set of comments I've ever received on anything (until just the other week). In particular this pair (edited down to make them sound particularly horrendous and preserve some vestige of anonymity):
Although this paper covers an interesting area and attempts to tell a convincing story, its failure to follow basic research standards in reporting and contextualisation means that it is not suitable for publication.It does not recognise other ABI approaches which act as benchmarks and alternatives to 'New Life'; critically, several of these pre-date this central government entry into the field. So GEAR, Area Agreements, APTs, etc. were already established along partnership lines, had spawned their own community involvements and fora and with some degree of success had been addressing the regeneration issues this paper discusses. NL was a political project, therefore, to counter the [other authorities] successes.This paper denies that history; apart from a scant few, does not offer any of the many references on … There are other errors of fact or omission.
Were one to use the standard criteria for publishing in an international Journal – clear originality of the main questions posed, a rigorously presented paper likely to appeal to an international audience etc. – this paper would be a reject.It is not:(1) clear what is original(2) why the findings of the paper are agreed around the 2 themes introduced on page 15(3) presented in a way such that the findings have been sufficiently conceptualised – most the front end has been devoted to a review of well known territory…
To add a bit of context – this was a difficult paper. I wrote it in a few evenings, in between my thesis corrections, while working full time for the Scottish Government. One of my supervisors supported my writing and helped a bit and he knew we would be asked for major corrections, but even he said it was the worst set of reviewers' comments he'd ever received. They were so vituperative, bitter and unhelpful that I actually presumed the journal had rejected it based on them. I was quite shocked when I received an email from the editorial assistant, after the paper had been accepted for EPC (in much revised form, but with the same central argument and evidence base), asking why I had not resubmitted it.

In the course of drafting this blog post, I've since received a further rejection from a journal. One of the reviewer's comments were similarly helpful to these. I was so hurt and angry by them I immediately emailed the editor back suggesting they should not have bothered forwarding it on as they were utterly unhelpful. Rather wonderfully, the editor got back very quickly suggesting:
"Reviewers have different styles and some can come across as rude as you observed. However, I think it's often because they are so pressed for time and still trying to be of service to the journal. I thought it was a bit ironic that this reviewer criticized your article for being stream of consciousness when that is what the review itself very much appeared to be. But I hope there are still valuable comments you can take from it."
For the first 18 months of my full-time academic career I managed to stay off the editors' radars for peer review, but papers now roll in about one every two months. I use this horrible experience to try and be a good reviewer. I'm even tempted to do what I know a colleague has started doing: finish the review with their name, to end the pointlessness of the anonymity. Two experiences recently have made me reflect a bit more on my role as a reviewer. Firstly, I recently reviewed a paper that was very much in my research specialism. It needed a lot of work to bring it up to publication. But, if I was horribly uncooperative and frankly evil, I could've rejected it out of hand and used the ideas it contained, with my own knowledge and reading, to produce a very similar paper. But that would have been grossly unfair, especially since it was fairly easy to work out who the authors were from the reference list and they didn't need to be treated like that. I provided about half a page of feedback and comments and a handful of references to help them on their way. In the brief format of a Twitter direct message one of the authors said (once the farce of anonymity had completely broken down): "Thanks, comments very fair & constructive. We knew it needed work but decided rather than miss the opportunity to submit and then revise it". Pretty much what I was doing with my EPC paper.

Another recent incident was when I paper was sent back to me to peer review for the second time. This time, when I logged into the journal submission website* I could see the other reviewer's comments. And, well, basically, they were a lot more detailed than mine and gave me a massive thwack of self-doubt. Am I a good reviewer?

With this in mind, and with the permission of the editor, I thought I'd post my most recent review here:

"First of all, I hope the authors take these comments in the spirit they are intended - as constructive criticism. There is a paper here (if not two or three) and the authors are clearly skilled scholars, but the paper is far off publication as it stands.I will start with two broad comments. Firstly, the paper has been submitted as a "Research Article". As a reviewer I cannot accept it as such as it is a review article. Secondly, the paper really lacks structure - the best word to describe it is "baggy". As a reader it felt like I was being bounced around like a ball in a pinball machine. The paper leapt from policy area to policy area and from theorist to theorist. The abstract, I think, is testimony to this. It could be an abstract to anything - it certainly does not inform the reader as to what to expect from this paper. I certainly was not expecting the conclusion when I got there. To move forward, I think it would be really useful to sit down and get the conclusion nailed, so you know the direction you are writing towards. This means the paper can then have a very thorough edit to give it a strong focus.Some specific comments to pick up on:- the introductory section (pp1-2) makes some sweeping generalisations (some of which you contradict almost immediately) with very light referencing. It also essentially repeats the section from page 2-7 which with editing would make a better introduction - the statement on p7 of what the paper will do and focus on is excellent - keep hold of this and use it to direct your writing- you do need much more clarity on policy areas and what you mean by "science" throughout the paper. It is a bit too sweeping at the moment, and one of the most interesting things across the globe is how different policy areas are amenable to different ranges of evidence and vice versa. This would help support your point made on p7.- throughout you introduce big ideas, like "[theory in here]" and big theorists ([theorist] on p16 was particularly striking) without fully explaining the term/what the theorist says, or justifying why you are using them."
I've edited it down slightly and hidden a couple of bits to preserve anonymity, but I want to know, would this be helpful peer review for you? Am I evil and unhelpful or would you be pleased to receive this sort of feedback, particularly if you're an early career researcher?

In closing, I want to return to my recent rejection. The other very nice, worthwhile thing that the editor said in their reply email was:
"By the way, we also rate the reviews we receive for timely response and helpfulness. While we don't produce a "hall of shame,” we do present annual awards for the best reviewers for the journal. We hope this encourages reviewers to do the best jobs that they can, and also provides them with something they can put on their C.V.s to receive credit for an anonymous service."
This is not the first time I've heard of this – a colleague won a journal award for being their top reviewer. But perhaps this is a way to improve the quality of review and something more journal editors should consider? Or do we need something more radical like open peer review or move to a wiki model of academic publishing?

* I could rant about how crap manuscript central and the like are, but I'd be writing for weeks!

Friday, 6 September 2013

We are all complainers now

I'm quite interested in those little, boring bits of policy and governance that often go overlooked in the big stories of the day - like my interest in Community Planning in Scotland. One aspect of this is the public service reform agenda in Scotland. Public sector managers are all over it, but I think outside of their bubble, even politicians aren't that up to speed with it. This includes big things like the creation of the Police Scotland, where it looks like, just as the critics said, the service is being cut and standardised across Scotland. 

As aspect of this I've bumped into is the Public Service Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 (stay with me here, it will get marginally more interesting). This was mainly to do with the creation of Creative Scotland and getting rid of another few commissions. It also gave Scottish Ministers rather sweeping powers to create or destroy various public services in Scotland, but that was kept a bit quiet at the time. However, Part 8 of the Act is now coming home to roost - Scrutiny and Complaints. As you'll guess I'll be focusing on the latter bit.

I first came across this when the the housing association I am on the management committee of had to change its complaints handling procedure. Why did we have to do this. Well, if you scroll down to section 119 you'll discover that the act gives the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman power to create "Complaint Handling Procedures" for services which then have to be adopted. Last year the SPSO "consulted" with housing associations on this. By consulted, I mean they told us this was the procedure we must have. The higher education sector is now waking up to the fact the SPSO have done the same for us and so I spent 45 minutes this morning being told about it.

Basically, this complaints handling procedure is three stage - level 1 deal with it there and then; level 2 escalation to management, level 3 ombudsman. At all levels complaints have to be recorded and then reported. Where this gets interesting is the SPSO's attitude. They've been saying that they expect a lot more level 1 complaints and a lot more complaints ending up with them because of the simplified procedures. This is what a lot of people struggle to understand, but what I find particularly interesting.

The beguiling management logic behind this is the view that "complaints are the best thing we get" which I've heard said by quite a few managers in the private sector and public sector. The logic is that, if we get complaints, we know where our processes and service are not right, so we can improve it. In their attitude to the new complaints procedure the SPSO are applying this to all public services in Scotland. We are all now expected to identify and record level 1 complaints, and the SPSO will be all over us if our reporting levels are low. That their website is says everything you need to know. As such it's another governance tool being applied in a managerial way; another facet of that suite of targets, outcomes, that are meant to make us all pull our socks up and deliver a better service. The trouble is, the SPSO does not seem to have realised the immense administrative burden on organisations, reeling from staff cuts, that this will cause.

The other interesting aspect of this is what it does to citizenship. The SPSO also expect public services to publicise our complaints procedure, using their standardised wording, and enable complaints to be taken. The three-stage procedure also short-cuts many traditional governance institutions within organisations that had a role intervening in complaints - the Council or a committee; management board; University Court etc. Complaints are now a matter of business administration to be adjudicated by the ombudsman. This is creating us a citizen-complainers. We are all expected to read our standardised complaints leaflets and immediately leap to the nearest person and complain heartily. And you'll no doubt guess what my feelings are about this

Beyond those questions of equity though, there is a bigger point about governance in the Foucauldian sense. Now, the SPSO are very clear on what is not a complaint - for example matters of academic judgement are not a complaint, although there may be elements of complaint in, say, a student's appeal. Fair enough. But their definition of a complaint is staggeringly broad:
'An expression of dissatisfaction by one or more individuals about the standard of service, action or lack of action by or on behalf of the Institution'
As with my views on the outcomes focus in the National Performance Framework, I do worry that this is depoliticising what should be political decision-making. The standard of service may be a political decision and to not offer it may be a political decision with implications for equity and outcomes. Reducing these to managerial procedures and processes is very dangerous. Yes, an organisation should listen to the views of service users, but our citizenship should not be based on whether we complain about something.

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.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Modern design in Austria

If you'd not gathered from my previous post, I'm not long back from a holiday in Germany and Austria and I've been meaning to write this post for a while. Both countries were fantastic and the Bavarian bit of Germany was suitable littered with gorgeous Baroque churches and cuckoo-clock wooden farmhouses, but what was most striking about Austria was the absolutely stunning modern design, absolutely everywhere. We were not far from the city of Bregenz on the Bodensee/Lake Constance so we went there for a day trip. The historic square down near the lake is dominated by the brand new museum and the Kunsthaus, the latter designed by Peter Zumthor:

Austria modern 9

Austria modern 6

And that was the least of it. There was also this amazing ticket hall for the local ferry company (I particularly like how the white triangles painted on the glass look like sailing boats on the lake):

Austria modern 4

And the Festpielhaus where the annual opera on the lake is based is quite a striking building too. What I found particularly striking about these buildings was of course the stunning modern design, but mostly how, although they are striking and imposing, they are excessive and try to obliterate the rest of the urban form. They are just there as natural a part of the city as a medieval tenement block or a baroque chapel.

Now this modern design was not limited to Bregenz - we were staying in the rural hinterland, the Bregnezerwald - and every single little town or village had a substantial number of beautiful modern houses that just fitted in seamlessly to the countryside (just about).


Thanks to our very nice hotel we discovered part of the possible reason why there is all this beautiful modern design. The hotel had a fascinating history, but the essential part here is that each generation of the family who took it over did a massive refurbishment of it. The most recent was carried out by an amazing craft workers cooperative, the Werkraum Bregenzerwald. This is a collective of over 80 local crafts people who are just committed to Good Things: using local materials; keeping traditional crafts alive; training apprentices; and very good design. The hotel manager had basically employed the whole collective to refurbish the hotel and it was truly, heart-achingly beautiful, simple modern design. Basically the whole setup seems like a very good model for sustainable economic growth in a rural area - high value-added and local.

When we visited the Kuntshaus in Bregenz there just happened to be an exhibition of Peter Zumthor's architectural models, one of which happened to be of the Werkraum's showroom and work space in a wee town called Andelsbuch. Using the effortlessly well-timetabled and cheap Austrian buses, we got there on our last day. It was an amazing building:

Austria modern 22

Yet again though, in this wee town the fire station looked like this (note the green roof):

Austria modern 24

The town hall in a village that could not be bigger than somewhere like Callander, looked like this:

Austria modern 21

And even the bus stops are fantastically designed (although still replete with graffiti and vomit from the previous evening):

Austria modern 32

As a planner, the most depressing part of all this for reflecting on how badly we do things in the UK was when our bus back from Bregenz stopped outside a new development under construction:


This is mass-market rural housing, Austrian style. Note the striking modern design; the images of children and older people (not a smiling family in a car); if you zoom in on the image you can see the even more striking thing. These homes are built to Passivhaus standard, with photo-voltaics and batteries for energy storage. If only Barratt and Belway could build stuff like this in Edinburgh.

But, there's always a but. One thing did concern me. Most of this development did seem to be very new indeed. In fact much of it was just finished or barely complete. Reflecting this I pondered something a Dutch researcher explained to me about the Dutch economy. Basically the Netherlands has an almighty housing equity bubble that's on the very edge of bursting. There are many reasons for this, but one of them, it was explained to me, was that the Dutch joined the Euro with a relatively devalued currency (Guilder) compared to the Deutschmark (everything was given the strength of the German economy). This meant the Dutch economy looked artificially more productive than it actually is and this has produced a post-Euro boom in the economy. This has continued as the economy looks very productive compared to the peripheral Euro economies. I'm happy to be proved wrong on this, but this is my recollection of a conversation helped by some nice Dutch beer and bar snacks. Anyway, I was worried about whether the same is true in Austria and the economy is still artificially inflated and there's a property boom waiting to burst. To be sure, there was much more new, private, development in Austria than Germany. Can anyone else enlighten me?

Anyway, if you want to see more photos of the striking modern design, I've put them all into one set on Flickr.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

I DID attend a consultation event

This morning I was right riled up by ever excellent reporting by Greener Leith to do a big ranty pro-cycling, cycling infrastructure blog post about the state of Leith Walk. After all, the day of the Ghost Bike protest at the Scottish Parliament, cyclist deaths on Scotland's roads were very sadly increased to the same number as last year, and we still have five months to go. And the BBC (and other media) still use shorthand headlines like "Cyclist dies in collision with car" - those amazing driverless cars we have in Scotland now. No, the cyclist died being hit by a driver. Leith Walk at the moment is so bad it's a road I never cycle down. It's not just bad at the moment for cyclist. On buses, the road is so potholed it actually hurts to be a passenger. On the pavement, loads of flagstones are loose and many have been replaced with awful looking bits of tarmac.

Anyhow, instead of ranting into my blog, I decided to attend a consultation event run by the Council this evening at a local library. I was actually really impressed. First of all, it has to be said, the plans are in no way perfect, but they are a massive improvement on how the road is or has been. The other really good thing was chatting to the officers they were also massively ambitious and open to new ideas. They genuinely wanted to co-produce a fantastic new space in the city.

Specific very positive things for me were:
  • Zebra crossings! Lots of them! I presumed roads engineers in the UK had forgotten how to paint black and white lines on roads that make cars go slow.
  • Some good cycling provision, including a long section of grade-separated path.
Things I had question marks about were firstly planting - the plans did not fully detail what planting would be (re)introduced (the trees they ripped up for the trams were getting to a nice stage of maturity. It was explained that there would be trees where there could be, but because of the utility diversion work because of the tram (which is why we're in this mess) there is limited space for planting. However, they are keen to put flower beds along the road and to have these as community-managed space, hopefully like London's new edible bus stops and I had a great conversation with one of the officers about the possibility of retro-fitting sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDs) during the renovation, like Portland has done so fantastically well

Secondly, I do think that non-motorised transport should be prioritised right down the road. That means in the narrow bits not ditching the segregated cycle paths, but ditching the road space and making cars wait - like they do in the Netherlands. When I asked about this, the reason given for not doing this is they don't want to make it so difficult to drive down that Bonnington Road and Easter Road end up overwhelmed, and they don't want a modal shift away from buses if they become too slow. I can see why they have these concerns - Leith Walk is a major bus route to the north of the city and also a major distributor in the road hierarchy. But why be so cautious? Why not just prioritise pedestrians and cyclists over other modes and see what happens? If surrounding roads get too busy, then invest in them in the next wave of road improvements. The Netherlands and Denmark (see slides in particular) got their cycling infrastructure N.B. the tense. It didn't magically appear overnight. It took decades of investment and improvement and they continue this improvement today. Making Leith Walk a truly road for pedestrians and cyclists would be a fantastic start to making Edinburgh a city designed for sustainable transport.

Thirdly, the top and bottom of Leith Walk at the moment are just blank spaces. At the southern end (the top) the proposed (or even better, the more improved) cycle paths do need to be linked up to decent east-west grade-separated cycle paths across the city centre. Hopefully the plans for the city centre will go some way towards that. At the Foot of the Walk the Council need to stick to their guns and go for a proper shared space to improve the town centre. The traffic will already be slowed greatly by the plans as they stand. There is no reason why they can't go for a really nicely designed shared space.

Finally, the other constraint that was raised was, of course, money. I don't get this fully myself. Even the basic plans mean basically digging up the entire road and relaying it - surely relaying the pavements slightly bigger or smaller and painting markings a bit differently on the road can't cost that much more? Also, as I mentioned to an officer as I left, perhaps they could ask the Scottish Government to spend some of the £400k that's being pointlessly wasted on the utterly non-evidence based "Mutual Respect" campaign? Or even some of the £3bn making us more car dependent dualing the A9?

It was striking cycling in Germany on a very recent holiday. The Germans do have good cycling infrastructure and some absolutely superb shared spaces (including 10km/h zones). But the cycling infrastructure in particular is not up to Dutch or Danish standards - it's much more pragmatic. The German's will happily send you off on a slightly round-about trip down a quiet suburban road to keep you away from a main road. But they still work because of simple things - they're very well signposted and joined-up; you're not dumped at the end of one wondering what to do, they'll be a very clear white a green signpost telling you your various options. It's even the simple things like this we get so wrong in the UK.

I want to end on another positive point. I was very impressed by the consultation event - it is clear Edinburgh Council are keen to engage and want to get people's views. It wasn't perfect community engagement by any means, but they are trying. And just like the plans themselves, this is a massive improvement on what's happened before.

I just wanted to add another point to this that I couldn't do last night because my interwebs stopped working. My mum, aged 65, learnt to ride a bike this year. She sent me a wonderful photo of her wobbling down a path in a park helped by her instructor. She's not a confident cyclist and could never go out on Britain's roads at the moment. What struck me in Germany was that in all the small Bavarian towns we passed through it was exactly people like my mum who used the bike - because it was cheap and convenient for short journeys. People exactly like my mum, and even older, would happily cycle along a mandatory cycle lane, shove their hand out left, wobble a lot and then veer across the road in front of the traffic to turn without a care in the World. Coming back from holiday, I thought I'd use my fitness to cycle into work (at the moment I take the train in, because it's uphill all the way). Even as a very confident vehicular cyclist the main thing that stops me now is the knowledge of all the dangerous right hand turns I would have to do to get from Leith, through the city centre to Dalry. 

Getting off the train at Edinburgh Park to come out to the Riccarton Campus here I can use off-road cycle path just about all the way. It is very striking that in the opposite direction, every day, I'm passed by about ten other cyclists happily and confidently cycling to work in Edinburgh Park and South Gyle. This is the difference that safe cycling infrastructure.

I want people like my mum to be cycling in Edinburgh. I want a mother of a four-year-old who goes to Lorne Primary to feel confident she can cycle up Leith Walk with her kid on a wee bike tootling behind her. The proposals for Leith Walk are an improvement, but they can be so much better.