Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Why the Improvement Service is wrong on this one

This morning the Improvement Service, the organisation that is “Supporting Scottish Local Government and its partners to deliver better outcomes for communities” has a lot of coverage in Holyrood magazine for some research it has done looking at the “outcomes” in the most deprived 330 datazones in Scotland, the middle 330 datazones, and the least deprived 330 datazones, according to SIMD.

This has got me extremely riled and angry, but I am going to try and remain reasonably calm as I argue my case. The head of the Improvement Service, Colin Mair, is quoted as saying:
“The relationships examined represent neighbourhoods rather than individuals or households, which raises another significant observation: people born into a deprived neighbourhood in Scotland have a higher chance of being income deprived, of needing emergency hospitalisation, being a victim of crime, and achieving poorly in education. In this respect, the neighbourhood in which you live can have a substantial impact on your future experiences and outcomes.”

Now, essentially, this boils down to the Improvement Service proving that margarine causes people to get divorced. I cannot easily find the full report of the IS’s research to see if these points are addressed in it, but here’s the reasons why the reporting of this report, and seemingly its interpretation, are wrong.

Firstly, the SIMD is an index of measures of things like income deprivation, emergency hospitalisation, crime victimisation and educational attainment. If lots of people do badly in these indicators in a neighbourhood, then it will be low down in the index. That is what the index measures. Basically, all they are reporting is auto-correlation – that something is correlated to itself. If every single person in Scotland had the same outcomes, there would still be a “most deprived” and “least deprived” neighbourhoods in Scotland due to natural variation, it’s just the differences between them would be very slight and down to natural variation.

Secondly, Colin Mair speaks of people “born into” deprived neighbourhoods. The only longitudinal measure – i.e. a measure of the same thing over different points in time – that the SIMD includes is the datazone boundaries themselves. We can say nothing about the individuals within it. Between any two data points of the SIMD, the population of the neighbourhood might have completely changed. We can see this happening as the most deprived neighbourhoods slowly depopulate – by the 2013 SIMD they had about 14% of the population, as opposed to 15% if the population was randomly distributed – and the least deprived neighbourhoods increase in population. In the most recent SIMD the least deprived neighbourhood – Meggetland in Edinburgh – had a population 800 people too high. The Scottish Government know this and are thinking of redrawing the datazone boundaries, the trouble is if you do that the data is no longer comparable over time.

Thirdly, the SIMD is a relative measure of deprivation. This means two things that weaken this study. It cannot measure “affluence”; the indicators chosen mean that once you get into the top of the index it becomes pointless, as all the measures are focused on characteristics of deprivation. You cannot meaningfully say there is something different between a neighbourhood with one unemployed person and a neighbourhood with two unemployed people. Secondly, the datazone rankings move around a lot because neighbourhoods change. The most succinct way of summing this up is the knowledge of the residents of Ferguslie Park that there neighbourhood “became” the most deprived in Scotland not because it got any worse, but because places that were more deprived in Glasgow were demolished and the populations dispersed.

All we can say is that a third of all Scotland’s socially rented housing is in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland making up two-thirds of the housing in these neighbourhoods, and house prices are substantially lower. Subsequently it is housing allocations, spatial planning and housing markets that create deprived communities. Basically, we have historically put all our social housing in large estates; now it is people in greatest need who need social housing, so these neighbourhoods become concentrations of need and deprivation.

If people “born into” these neighbourhoods had worse outcomes, then we would be talking about neighbourhood effects existing – that is, an effect on life chances from living in a neighbourhood, that is over-and-above the effects of poverty, unemployment and other factors on the individual. And it’s fair to say that the evidence for the existence of neighbourhood effects in Scotland is mixed. A few years back Atkinson and Kintrea(£) identified very small effects on education and health, but nothing to justify the sort of language used by Colin Mair. More recently, van Ham and Manley (£) used actual longitudinal data from the Scottish Census, via the Scottish Longitudinal Survey, to look at whether neighbourhood had any impact on the chances of being employed on individuals. They found no evidence for a neighbourhood effect – the higher concentration of poor employment outcomes (i.e. being unemployed) was simply down to people having to access housing in these neighbourhoods.

From this though, I do not want to say that the neighbourhood does not matter at all. It just does not matter in the way the Improvement Service argue. Services should be targeted at deprived neighbourhoods, but not because if we “fix” these neighbourhoods we suddenly will solve the problems of inequality – we will not as the majority of people experiencing poverty do not live in the most deprived neighbourhoods. But you can make specific useful interventions: there is evidence that targeting employment initiatives at people living in deprived neighbourhoods gets you a bit more “bang for your buck”; the concentration of socially rented housing in these neighbourhoods means a third of all disabled people in Scotland live in these neighbourhoods, so you’d disproportionately help those people. Also, we do need to recognise because of the specific concentration of poverty and deprivation in these neighbourhoods they do need greater investment in basic services like environmental services (street cleaning etc.). The inverse care law is still in place.

What worries me is that the language used by the Improvement Service does two very bad things. Firstly, as I’ve argued here, it continues the pathologising of deprived neighbourhoods – blaming them for the problems that other people have lumped on them, without recognising the broader structural causes, especially the operation of housing allocations and markets. Secondly, it feeds into the deeply problematic “early intervention” agenda that has been the rage since the “cycles of poverty” literature of the 1960s, and as I highlighted last week was utterly demolished in the 1970s. Like the idea that there are “families with three generations of people who are workless” this idea that if the all-powerful bureaucrat sails into households and communities and tells them to pull up their socks and behave in a good, middle-class way, then they won’t be deprived keeps coming back again and again. To borrow a phrase used to described intergenerational worklessness myth, it’s like shooting zombies(£). But it’s a zombie I’ll keep shooting. As I argue here, yes we need a focus on place in Scottish social policy, but we cannot pretend this is going to solve wider structural problems in our whole society regarding wealth and income inequality, poor public services and entrenched spatial inequality as a result of historic planning decisions.

Finally, if we were serious about changing outcomes in neighbourhoods in Scotland then we would stop focusing on the bottom and focus at the top – demolish Morningside and Milngavie and turn them into mixed communities.

I’ve included a lot of links to paywalled academic papers in here – do get in touch if you want copies. 

And I’ve written this in a rage and quite quickly, so apologies for any egregious errors; as I say I could not easily access the Improvement Service’s actual report, so this is more of a reflection on the way it was interpreted by Holyrood Magazine.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Why I'm not a planner, nor proud of planning

I'm having second thoughts about writing and posting this because of the terrible events at the Glasgow School of Art this afternoon.

But, I feel I should. There's been a wee bit of a hoo-ha in planning circles, much of which I agree with. A group called NOVUS/Public Planners has developed, and you can read their manifesto here. On a mailing list of a progressive planning network I'm a member of - Planners Network UK - we were discussing how we might make links with them. If you want to join the list you can quite easily through the JISC service. I chipped into this debate saying that the Public Planners was an excellent development, and it's something that I've seen in my own students as they question why planning has to be in constant hock to development interests and solely about enabling development, no matter how bad it is, or "sustainable economic growth".

The rest of this post is going to be a blogpost I put on the virtual learning environment for one of the courses I teach. I didn't make it more public as I didn't want to incur the wrath of the Royal Town Planning Institute. I'm now minded to post it here, firstly because of Public Planners raising the profile of progressive planning; secondly because I have now resigned from the RTPI myself. And lastly, because I received an anonymous email alleging that the RTPI had investigated a member for breach of the code of conduct because they were involved in activism around progressive planning. This final alleged incident makes me ashamed I was ever even a member of the RTPI, and make me very angry at their "proud of planning, proud of planners" nonsense.

So, here goes. Here's the post I wrote for my students. Quite a number of them came up to me in the weeks after posting it to say thank you to me for writing it, and saying they wholly agreed with what I was saying. So thank you to those students.

"I've mainly used the blog [on the VLE] as a bit of a one-way street - just to get information out to you all in a way that isn't announcement. However, if you've bumped into my personal blog you will have seen that ordinarily my blogging is more thoughtful and reflexive. So, this is time for that sort of blog post on here.
Yesterday I emailed the Royal Town Planning Institute to resign as a licentiate member and cancelled my direct debt. I am no longer a planner. I was very struck by the comment in the stop-start-continue of "what are the links between this and planning" and that, for me, is why I'm no longer a planner. I veered away from land-use planning during my PhD which focused on community planning as the spatial coordination of all public services and if you look at my publications list you'll see that my focus has been predominantly on policy analysis, housing and public policy. 
But as I've drifted away from planning in my research interest, I feel planning has drifted away from me. It now seems entirely about delivering development, no matter what the environmental or social cost. There are political, contextual drivers for this. In England planning is under assault from a neoliberal government that wishes to see it end. Neighbourhood planning is actually about disempowering people. In Scotland, the desire for "sustainable economic growth" (North Sea Oil and wind turbines) drives everything. Mention those three words and anything gets built. PLanning has been left to become a "yes man" to new development, with a vague inclination to "good" design, which increasingly just means making photocopy places that look a little bit less bad than they used to.
I've mentioned in class, if you studied planning in Scotland ten or 20 years ago, it would have been all about the sort of stuff you've learnt in Social Sustainability. The massive urban regeneration programme New Life for Urban Scotland sought to transform disadvantaged communities and was driven by people from a planning background. Even when I studied at Heriot-Watt in 2005-6 I specialised in Urban Regeneration which was all about the social side of planning and ensuring we didn't forget the needs of the worst-off and deprived communities when we delivered new development. For me, now, regeneration is just about putting shopping centres next to peripheral housing estates and using city centre sites to drive gentrification and prettify the urban environment by forcibly excluding those we don't like (the poor) through forcible eviction or creating homes and places solely for the wealthy.
A chink of light for me is the Scottish RTPI's best places competition. When this was launched, I rolled my eyes and suspected it would consist of "places" like Polnoon, or The Drum in Bo'ness basically glorified lollipop stick housing estates with funky Scandinavian housing. However, I was really impressed that East Kilbride made the final list. East Kilbride was designated a new town in 1947 and nearly 70 years later it is now Scotland's sixth largest settlement and a successful place where people want to live. It's a diverse town too. They weren't just planning a nice housing estate, they were planning an entire community, with everything it needed.
That we can still recognise the great work these planners did fills me with hope that we can rediscover the social purpose of planning. That the RTPI officials feel the "viability of development" must be the most important thing planners focus on fills me with disenchantment and despondency. 
If you want to focus on the social side of planning, and you are going to be a planner in the UK, I really would recommend membership of the TCPA which lives on the fulfill the dreams Ebenezer Howard hard over a century ago (and who's journal is a superb resource) and get involved in Planners Network UK."

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Plus ca change?

Just re-read Gilding the Ghetto, the angry critical report of the Community Development Projects published in 1977. Far too much of it rings true today (click the links for contemporary policy in Scotland):

"Despite being urged to 'cover new ground' the various projects embody the now very familiar thinking: self-help, participation, surveys of needs, mechanisms for reducing dependence on the welfare services, assistance to socially handicapped families, pre-school compensatory education and coordination of services".

Friday, 16 May 2014

Community planning in action - Leith Community Conference

So, I took this afternoon off as annual leave and went to our local neighbourhood partnership community conference as it was in the church hall across the road and there are quite a lot of issues in Leith, that are basic service-level issues, that need attention and can be solved fairly easily. These are the sort of things a good neighbourhood plan (NB. COMPLETELY different from an English neighbourhood plan – this has nothing to do with land-use planning). I went to the event very sceptical given the my experiences of community planning during my doctoral research – I always use my mum’s aphorism to describe these: “councillor, where do you stand on dog shit”, “I don’t stand on it, I slide in it”. Also because I generally think community planning has a long way to go before it is effective in doing what it says on the tin – see here and here.

Actually the event was quite good. So here’s why:

It was organised well and wide range of people attended – with crèche facilities for parents and a free lunch (if I’d known the “refreshments” were going to be that good I’d have been keen to attend!). The only things they could have done better would have been microphones and an induction loop. What’s even better was the extra information and consultation they are going to bring in, including attending the “soup kitchen” at the church on a Sunday morning to hear the views of the people who attend that.

Poverty – obviously this is not a good thing. We were broken up into discussion groups of around eight and we first of all had to see whether we agreed with the list of priorities established from a previous self-selection questionnaire (which I had already completed). From two of these groups, one being the group I was in, came a focus on poverty in the neighbourhood. This continued with the discussion of another group during the next phase where we had to discuss what actions we should do. Now, arguably, at a neighbourhood level there’s little we can do to tackle poverty, and problems such as the Bedroom Tax and benefits sanctions. However, it really impressed me that we were talking about it openly and there was no question that it was a horrendous thing that the foodbank at the church has 1,000 clients and that people have been seen scavenging in bins in desperation for food.

Health services – twice it was pointed out that GPs services are massively overstretched in the neighbourhood with people having to wait three weeks for an appointment. I also added my experience of how overstretched local pharmacy services are, even though we have three within 25 yards of each other at the Foot of the Walk. This is an issue that’s been raised by our regional MSP Sarah Boyack, yet given it’s nearly 35 years since The Inverse Care Law was published I was shocked to hear how overstretched services are, and evidence of inequality compared to less deprived neighbourhoods. However, given how poorly the NHS has engaged with neighbourhood-level community planning structures across Scotland, I do really wonder whether this is something that the neighbourhood partnership can do anything about.

We won! – at the end we had to put sticky dots onto the actions we liked most and two of our group’s suggestions won. This is good because….

Cleaner air – one of the suggestions that got 17 dots was to make the air cleaner in Leith by planting trees and encourage walking by improving the built environment. This was prompted by someone from Greener Leith who have been leading a campaign on the issue. Even they admitted it was a niche issue, but as soon as it was explained people agreed with it. Which was fantastic to see.

Better environmental services – we weren’t the only group to suggest this, but the way we framed it got it the most votes. I drew on the Clean Sweep work the JRF funded to highlight that in a neighbourhood: with the highest population density in Scotland (as per the 2011 census), with a high rate of income poverty (so people can’t afford £20 for a pick-up of rubbish), with massive problems of trade waste, and footfall for an extremely busy town centre; we need very high density good environmental services across the board – bin emptying and barrow beats – to keep the neighbourhood clean and tidy. This also got nods from one of the local councillors. Frustratingly, chatting to council officers they still slipped into negative stigmatising views of residents that completely ignore these massive structural reasons behind the problems of neighbourhood cleanliness.

Community empowerment – another surprising theme that kept coming up in discussion was moving away from community planning as it is, towards community empowerment. Leith neighbourhood partnership does it’s £eith Decides community budgeting event which is very good. However, I suggested, if we’re going to do the sort of fancy coproduced, partnership policy making that cuts through complexity (the sort the Christie Commission dreamed of) we’re going to need more community power over local budgets and local priorities. We’re going to need something that aims to be like what Our Place aims to be. The good news is, it seems in Edinburgh, we need to watch this space. However, depressingly, an idea along these lines from our group got dismissed out of hand. This was the suggestion that the £20 cost for a waste uplift should be removed in deprived neighbourhoods, as it does seem to cause fly-tipping as people cannot afford it. The council then spend more money doing reactive lifts in response to resident complaints. It got dismissed because of the view people would then think they can just throw things out for free. I pointed out that’s what they do at the moment anyway…

My only minor disappointment with the day was the broader way it was organised. The independent facilitator was very good; however it was limited to two hours and was very structured – we had to obey what we were told to do. I think I would have preferred it if it was a longer event with more deliberation allowed. In particular, I have a thing about sticky-dot voting. It’s easy, but it closes down debate and ignores that most people probably agree with all the points. What was telling for me was that as people stuck their dots on and stood back from the flipcharts, they then began to chat in small groups. I could help but think that the officers should have been ear-wigging these conversations to find out even more.

I ended the event chatting to the neighbourhood partnership convener, Councillor Deirdre Brock*and brought to her an idea I’d had at the end. A student at Heriot-Watt did their dissertation on the charetteplus process done by Planning Aid for Scotland. One thing this highlighted was the process mopped up a lot of information of the sort collected here – concerns about local services and problems – which then went nowhere as they were not planning concerns. I suggested that running a charette focused on Leith central and the Foot of the Walk could bring in some really valuable information on making the area better in a place-making way, turning the Foot of the Walk in particular into a place, not a road junction, and also place-keeping, maintaining the neighbourhood as a nice place to live in future. It looked like my idea fell on fertile ground.

Finally, we were asked to write anonymously on flipchart paper what we would do after the event. I wrote that I would keep an eye on how clean the neighbourhood was to see whether we had been listened to. And that is the key thing here – there were very good ideas, and many practical things that the Council and other service providers (the NHS and Police Scotland mainly) can do, with very little expense, to make Leith better. Now we just have to see them do it.

If you want to see a bit more about the event, see the tweets here.

* you might recognise her from her life as an actor.