Friday, 9 April 2021

Edinburgh Council Want Poor Kids to Die

 I’m extremely angry. I’ve been ranting on Twitter; so I thought it might be an idea to write a blog post.

This time last year, across the world, people looked at their empty city streets and thought “this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to remake our cities for people, not cars”. In the UK, local councils sprung into action laying down new cycle paths and widening pavements. Us residents in Edinburgh got a bit restless though.

The Council here have been, slowly, trying to make the city’s streets better. Though they have good intentions, they still seem to get stuck with the road traffic engineers’ obsession with “flow” (the disastrous Picardy Place gyratory, that went from a “cyclist blender” to a horrific two-lane motor system) and the overly bureaucratic system (the Roseburn to Haymarket cycleway that’s been stuck in the statutory consultation system for over a decade). But the Council had been making some dramatic plans, including basically closing off the city centre to motor traffic.

Us Edinburgh residents wanted some of their more dramatic plans to come to fruition. Glasgow – the city that had a new motorway ploughed through the inner core a decade ago – was even laying out new infrastructure quicker than Edinburgh. Eventually the Scottish Government got a funding package together and in May cones started springing-up across the city to make the streets slightly better places to be with Spaces for People.

Where we used to live – in Leith – it was good. The road closures due to the tram works, combined with these measures, made the place really nice to walk around. However, I started to notice something was afoot. As the first wave of temporary measures were reviewed, I noticed our local measures – pavement widening on Great Junction Street – were slated for removal. It seemed that if you were a middle class shopper in Stockbridge and Morningside, then you deserved space to walk past a queue for the game butchers, or sourdough bakery, but if you were working class and wanted to walk past a butcher in Leith, then it didn’t matter if someone coughed the rona all over you.

However, we moved in November 2020 and that’s when I realised quite how egregious the inequalities in road safety provision in the city are. We now live in the north east of the city – Pilton to be precise. Our nearest Spaces for People provisions are the new cycle routes on Ferry Road and Crewe Road South. Both are really nice and I use them regularly, but essentially are just cones on existing paint.

We live just off Crewe Road North. It’s a lovely 1930s suburban avenue, surrounded by four-in-a-block housing, and mansion-style interwar tenements; a mixture of council tenants and owner-occupation. At the bottom of the hill there is a nice row of shops. The only pedestrian crossing is at the southern end of the road to control traffic onto Crewe Toll roundabout. Just across the road is social housing which is in the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in the city.

Not long after moving in, I noticed how fast vehicles shot down Crewe Road. At the southern end, it narrows under the former railway bridge so the pavement is only one paving slab wide with a railing alongside. With the Kent variant of coronavirus surging through the city, if you wanted to socially distance, you had a choice of stepping into the road and risk facing-down a HGV travelling over 30mph; wait patiently for another pedestrian to pass; or don your mask, hold you breathe, and walk quickly while apologising profusely. We thought the traffic was going quite fast, especially since most of Edinburgh’s roads are now a 20mph limit. Surely this residential street had a 20mph limit? And then we spotted the 30 sign.

It got me angry. We’d been living in a very walkable neighbourhood, but now walking to our local shops was difficult because it felt very dangerous. I watched the terrified school crossing patrol officers for the local primary school tentatively step out into the road, just hoping that drivers would stop. I contacted one of my local councillors with my concerns – asking why the road wasn’t 20mph and had so few pedestrian crossings. It was passed onto the Council’s Road Safety Team. They replied that their last survey, in 2019, showed the average speed was 29 mph, so they didn’t feel a 20mph limit was warranted (a quick google shows that puts the kids at the local school at seven times the risk of being killed by a driver) and the same survey showed that very few pedestrian cross the road. I replied pointing out that this was no surprise – as a fit and healthy young man, I find it difficult to cross the road safely. The reply to that (which I eventually got after chasing) just fobbed me off into a bureaucratic process of the review of the 20mph limit that will happen some time in the future.

And then I started getting out-and-about in the city again. I noticed in Barnton, on a very quiet suburban road, where the house price is basically the phone number with a pound sign in front of it, there were some lovely Spaces for People cones out widening a very wide pavement. Meanwhile I was stepping out into the road to walk past people waiting for a bus. In the New Town, there was a quiet residential street which didn’t have a pavement on one side because that was where the shared private garden was, and in the early-nineteenth century you didn’t need pavements to save yourself from being killed by a Range Rover. I noticed there were some lovely Spaces for People cones marking out access to the private garden. Meanwhile, tenants of the Council’s housing don’t have safe access to the Council’s schools.

Frustrated by this visible inequity, I popped in an access to environmental information request, asking for details of how the Spaces for People provision was distributed across the city according to deprivation. It got rejected because the information was already in the public domain. The Council expected me to sit with a map of the hundreds of datazones in Edinburgh and plot on the Spaces for People provision myself. I have appealed this decision, pointing out they can do this with a couple of clicks of GIS.

And this all just leaves me angry. It has been known for decades that children in deprived neighbourhoods are far more likely to be killed by drivers. And I’m using active language because I loathe the passive language of driverless cars accidentally mowing down vulnerable pedestrians. It really feels like Edinburgh Council just do not care about the safety of residents in deprived neighbourhoods. Because our houses are worth less, so are our lives. My research has focused on middle class activism, so I know a lot of this is down to the active, able communities in these neighbourhoods campaigning for improvements. But it is also down to officers and councillors just not caring, or thinking, about deprived neighbourhoods. They should have actively suggested improvements in these neighbourhoods, not wait for residents (who are probably rather busy dealing with losing their jobs to worry) to respond to a consultation. Given this is a brilliant opportunity to make our roads safer temporarily, we should not be forced to have to wait until a review in the future to make our lives safer. Unless Edinburgh Council want poor kids to die.

Monday, 1 February 2021

A paper I'm very proud of

I’ve not blogged in a while because of 2020, but a paper I wrote with a researcher colleague Chris Poyner is now out in Public Administration Quarterly and I want to summarise it. I’m also extremely proud of it. It emerged from my research on LGBT+ homelessness and housing which I’ve written about before, and in it I valiantly attempt to set a new research agenda based on a very simplistic use of queer theory.

It had a pretty torrid time getting published. It was eventually (after three rounds of revision) rejected by one journal I suspect for disciplinary reasons – I think they had a very fixed idea of what social science theory, and queer theory, which is essentially a collection of ideas and concepts you can use to look askance at society and culture didn’t really fit that model. However, the editor and reviewers for PAQ were extremely helpful and it was published.

The paper focuses in on one particularly finding from the research: while housing and homelessness organisations were never explicitly homophobic, they were implicitly homophobic. To unpack this I used the concept of heteronormativity from queer theory to demonstrate how, in incredibly mundane ways, they reinforced compulsory heterosexuality.

A key way they did this was to completely ignore sexual identity. None of the organisations involved in the research regularly collected sexual identity data. I know this is a very tricky subject. If they had been LGBT+ identifying people talking critically about it, I would have been less critical. But this was cisgender, heterosexuals, saying they didn’t want to put sexual identity on a standard monitoring form for fear of insulting people (straight people). Ironically, these forms of equality then became forms of ensuring heterosexuality: you could be any ethnicity, gender, race, impairment. But you could not be non-heterosexual.

This became a real problem because the organisations then didn’t know if there were problems that needed to be tackled. The most obvious, and worrying, of these would be homophobic or transphobic abuse by neighbours. The tenants we interviewed talked in graphic detail about the impact this had on their lives (as discussed in this paper) but the organisations didn’t think it was a problem as they never sought to ask their tenants.

The bigger point I make in the paper though, is that if you look across the literature on LGBT+ people and politics and policy, quite rightly and understandably, this is focused on achieving basic legal rights, or combating direct discrimination and violence. This is still the case for the vast majority of places in the world.

However, the UK, and many other northern European countries, now have a legal framework that is largely progressive. In the UK, thanks to the Equality Act, this should also mean policy is progressive and inclusive as well. Therefore, we suggest in the paper, the focus on these contexts needs to be turned much more to these everyday ways that policy and administrative processes reinforce heteronormativity and make the lives of LGBT+ people more difficult. Therefore public policy, and public administration research needs more queer theory.

You can read the paper here or drop me an email for a copy of the pre-print version.