Impact and Influence on Policy & Practice

We seek to have impact and influence through our research within the following areas of public policy and practice:

  • Planning
  • Housing
  • Local Government
  • Welfare
  • Health and Social Care

Examples of our impact and influence within each of these areas are given below.


Contributing to the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Value of Planning Programme

A failure to build sufficient new homes to match the needs of a growing population has long been attributed to land use planning.  Since the growth in economic and housing market activity from the late 1990s onwards such criticisms have grown louder and have been exacerbated by dramatic house price rises across much of the country that have also been ascribed to an imbalance of supply and demand in housing.  The role of planning in the development process has therefore been heavily criticised as a constraint on the delivery of new homes. 

This view has become a commonplace in journalism and popular non-fiction, having been the focus of urban economics approaches to the analysis of housing in which house prices are inflated by high demand meeting a shortfall of supply.  Its use in framing recent planning reforms for England is a significant step further down a path originally embarked upon by politicians in the 1980s.  But is constrained supply of land for housing the cause of rising prices?  And is planning reducible to the regulation of the land supply?

The first question has been addressed by calls from housing economists to broaden the debate around housing affordability to encompass the capitalisation of low interest rates into prices, as well as the effects of an uneven income distribution on access to a market good.  But the second question is reflective of a widely held conception of the role played by planning in a shrunken state.  However, a series of reports co-authored by Urban Studies staff members Emeritus Professor David Adams and Dr. Philip O’Brien argue that this is a highly simplified and inaccurate interpretation of planning, even in its present denuded form. 

In research published by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Adams and O’Brien make the case for planning as an animator of land and property markets that provides the necessary preconditions for development to take place.  The research recognises planning as a core function of the state, performing necessary roles that the market cannot, but which must be present for wider economic, social and environmental benefit to accrue.

This series of reports has driven a response on the part of the RTPI to the common critique that has sought to diminish the role of planning to that of an unsatisfactory regulatory function.  The RTPI has sought to take on these arguments on their own, economic, terms while extending the debate to encompass a more holistic understanding of value.  This response has been articulated as one of the RTPI’s six work programmes, labelled as the Value of Planning, and has broadened to encompass research addressing planning internationally as well as across the UK.  In noting the outcomes in terms of quality of places and quantity of homes built in contexts where a proactive approach to planning is taken, the work of Adams and O’Brien has contributed to a growing agenda that reframes planning as a vital support to, rather than an inhibitor of, economic development.

Tackling Urban Land Vacancy in Scotland

Scotland’s towns and cities have a long-standing legacy of vacant and derelict land that blights urban areas, and disadvantaged communities in particular.  Such land amounts to c.11,000 hectares across the country, with half of it lying empty for almost 20 years.

Professor David Adams has researched the causes and consequences of urban land vacancy in a number of locations across the UK, and in Hong Kong.  He has shown how valuers as key actors in the development process may deter or delay the regeneration of such land through their calculative practices.  Furthermore, local authorities for various reasons are reluctant to address the problem through Compulsory Purchase Orders.  Professor Adams also demonstrated, through analysis of official statistics, that the situation across  Scotland’s cities had not changed much over the last thirty years.

On this basis, Professor Adams proposed urban land reform as a solution, specifically the use of a new policy instrument, the Compulsory Sale Order (CSO).  CSOs would enable land that has been vacant for an undue period to be sold at auction for development.  The CSO proposal was adopted by the Scottish Land Commission, with the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning confirming that the idea would be considered for legislation following the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021.


Supporting the Case for Social Housing Supply

For two Parliament terms in a row, the Scottish Government had set targets for new social and affordable housing supply: 30,000 units from 2011-16 and 50,000 units for 2016-21. The increase in the target followed a recommendation from the First Minister’s Poverty Advisor in her report ‘Shifting the Curve’; this recommendation for more social housing was informed by a paper submitted by Professor Mark Stephens and Professor Ken  Gibb entitled ‘Limiting the Impacts of Housing Costs on Poverty’. 

As the end of the 2016-21 period approached, the Government had made no commitment to a further substantial programme nor to the continuation of funded housing supply in the short term.  There was a sense among the housing policy community that new priorities across government relating to resource reallocation, child poverty, fuel poverty and the demand of net zero carbon reduction targets had left housing behind as a priority. In addition, Covid-19 had a negative impact on the final year of the 2016-21 supply programme.

In response the housing sector came together to make an evidenced case for continuing with the social and affordable housing programme. This involved three main studies, each with involvement from researchers at Urban Studies Glasgow:

  • A national affordable needs study for Scotland for the next Parliamentary term based around a team from the Universities at Sheffield Hallam, Liverpool and Glasgow (Dr Phil O’Brien) which generated a central need figure of 53,000 units for the 5 years period (research funded by Shelter Scotland, Chartered Institute of Housing and Scottish Federation of housing Associations [SFHA]).
  • An applied economics piece led by Stephen Boyle for Shelter Scotland making the broader economic case for a social supply programme (Professor Ken Gibb advised throughout this project).
  • A large-scale study on the impact of social housing investment and operations on communities and housing (economic, social, health & wellbeing), led by Professor Ken Gibb at CaCHE and James Williams (HACT). The work was funded by SFHA, Public Health Scotland, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Rural & Islands housing Associations Forum. The research reviewed multidisciplinary evidence on impacts, looked at the impacts made by four different forms of housing association and connected the monetary value of these impacts directly through to the new national performance framework’s fundamental goals for public policy in Scotland.

In addition, Professor Mark Stephens served on the Scottish Government’s Post Covid Housing System Policy Circle which recommended maintaining a high level of social house building and was incorporated into the Social Renewal Advisory Board’s report to the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government subsequently agreed to fully fund the final year of the last Parliament’s social housing programme (2016-21) and in the published Housing to 2040 route map (March 2021) agreed to continue the affordable housing supply programme for the next two Parliaments  with a target of 100,000 homes overall.

The Scottish Government subsequently agreed to fully fund the final year of the last Parliament’s social housing programme (2016-21) and in the published Housing to 2040 route map (March 2021) agreed to continue the affordable housing supply programme for the next two Parliaments  with a target of 100,000 homes overall.

Rent Policy in Wales

Professor Mark Stephens was awarded a contract by the Welsh Government to review rent policy for social housing. The report provided the evidential base for Welsh rent policy for a five year period from 2020-21 to 2024-25.

Welsh rent policy aimed to make the structure of rents in local authority and housing association housing more consistent across the country. The Welsh Government also adopted a policy of allowing rents to rise by 1.5% plus £2 a week above inflation (CPI).

The team led by Professor Stephens conducted a detailed analysis of housing affordability in each local authority area of Wales, also taking into account the impacts of the then policy in England for rents to be reduced in cash terms.   The report, published in 2019, recognised the trade-offs between affordability and the way in which rental income affects housing associations’ ability to borrow in order to invest in existing stock and build new housing.

Whilst it argued that ultimately rent policy was a political decision because it involves subjective trade-offs, the report concluded that “An increase of CPI + 1.5% would be highly problematic given the growing incompatibility this would create with rents in England.” It further argued that “The case for a rise of CPI + 1% in future years would be stronger if by then it is clear that the subsequent rent increases would no longer exceed anticipated growth in earnings.”

The research was influential with the Welsh Government’s Independent Review of Affordable Housing Supply, which endorsed many of the team’s recommendations. On the issue of rent increases, the Independent Review concluded:

“The review and [Professor Stephens’ team’s] report have been helpful in building a picture of the current position in Wales and the comparison with England… [T]he Panel believe that there is little justification for anything above CPI +1%.”

In January 2020, the Minister for Housing and Local Government announced that “I have agreed an annual rent uplift of up to CPI+1%, each year for 5 years from 2020-21 to 2024-25 using the level of CPI from the previous September each year.”

Local Government

Garnering Support for Local Tax Reform in Scotland

After the 2014 independence referendum and the change of First Minister, the Programme for Government promised an inclusive all-party commission on the reform of local taxation in Scotland, seeking to reform or abolish the council tax and end the council tax freeze, then in its 7th year. The subsequent Commission on Local Tax Reform was co-chaired by the minister and COSLA and all main parties (bar the Conservatives) plus other experts took evidence for a year and reported at the end of 2015.

Professor Ken Gibb played an advisory role to the Commission, meeting them formally on four occasions (once with a group led by Professor Mark Stephens), and also convened an international roundtable for them.  Professor Gibb and Dr Linda Christie wrote a commissioned international evidence review on property tax reform (published in the Commission evidence report). Gibb and Christie also made a formal submission to the Commission under its call for reform proposals. This paper, submitted by Policy Scotland, proposed a regularly revalued property tax based on capital values alongside a modest local income tax supplement.

The Commission’s conclusions incorporated Gibb & Christie’s suggestion as it, proposed ending the council tax freeze and replacing council tax with a percentage of capital value property tax regularly revalued, supplemented by a small local income tax element. Parties were then invited to put their own proposals into manifestos for the 2016 Scottish election and the returned SNP government then enacted their own proposals  which included ending the council tax freeze, increased tax rates on higher property bands, some additional protection of ‘losers’, but not revaluation.

While the eventual outcome did not correspond with the proposals put forward by Professor Gibb and Dr Christie, there have been other steps forward, for example the recognition by more political parties that property taxation is the eventual solution, as well as the fact that the Commission’s work has informed the ongoing Scottish local governance review.

Mitigating the Impact of Local Government Budget Cuts on Poorer Households and Communities

Local governments in the UK experienced almost a decade of real-terms cuts to their budgets following the advent of austerity in 2010.  Many observers and charities were concerned that the effects of these cuts could fall unequally on poorer households and communities.  In response, research by Professor Annette Hastings, Professor Nick Bailey and Research Associate Maria Gannon, in collaboration with colleagues at Heriot Watt University, demonstrated that ‘pro-poor’ services contributed the largest proportion of budget savings.

The research examined the pattern of budget cuts and savings plans across councils and services in England and Scotland and developed a Social Impact Framework and Social Impact Tool that councils could use for their own self-assessment of the impacts of cuts on communities. The tool has been downloaded for use by half of all Scottish local authorities and a quarter of English councils.  In Scotland, a partnership with the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) has led to scrutiny of the local government funding settlement in equality terms at two parliamentary committees: the Local Government & Regeneration Committee and the Equal Opportunities Committee.

Perhaps the most enduring impact of this research will be the Fairer Scotland Duty, which came into force in 2018

This duty, which Professor Hastings argued for on the basis of the research to Scotland’s Independent Poverty Advisor, who in turn recommended its implementation by the Scottish Government, requires all public bodies in Scotland to assess the impact of strategic decisions upon poorer groups.  There is now political interest in the introduction of a similar duty in England in Wales.


Supporting Young Disabled People to Transition into Adulthood

The difficulties many young disabled people face as they move into adulthood have long been recognised. The transition from school to employment, training, further or higher education is often problematic. Many also experience difficulties in community participation, transition services are often uncoordinated and young people are excluded from the process. To help tackle this problem the Scottish Government launched a transition scheme for young disabled people aged between 16 and 21 in December 2017: ILF Scotland Transition Fund. This scheme is administered by ILF Scotland and provides cash payments to young disabled people to purchase items or services which would help facilitate independence.

Dr Charlotte Pearson and Professor Nick Watson conducted an evaluation of this scheme in its first year of implementation, from 2018-2019. The study found that the scheme was universally welcomed by applicants and filled some of the gaps which would have previously been met by social care packages. However, the resources available through transition services are very limited and the funding gap could not be met solely by the ambitions of the ILF Transitions fund.

Key recommendations from the evaluation were for the Scottish Government to continue with the scheme and extend the upper age limit of the fund to at least 25. There was no evidence from the study to show that payments were being used to facilitate independent living over the longer term and transition is a long, drawn out process which for most young people continues well into their twenties. It was argued therefore that by extending the eligibility period from 21 to 25, more young disabled people would be able to pursue post-school employment, training and education goals more fully. This change was announced by the then Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman in November 2019.

Reforming Universal Credit

Universal Credit (UC) is the UK working-age benefit first introduced in selected ways in 2013, and subsequently rolled out across the four nations.  It combines means-tested out-of-work benefits with earnings top-ups and payments for children and housing into one benefit.  UC also involves on-line applications and a stronger regime of sanctions against claimants for a variety of ‘transgressions’ that have drawn criticisms from many quarters.

Professor Sharon Wright and Dr Alasdair Stewart studied the impacts of UC from 2013 to 2018 as part of an ESRC large grant research programme led by Professor Peter Dwyer at the University of York.  Their research involved fieldwork in England and Scotland, including interviews with over 50 policymakers and practitioners and with nearly 500 benefit ‘users’ (at three time points).  The findings showed benefit sanctions to be ineffective and counterproductive and UC procedures and benefit rates to exacerbate poverty and destitution among claimants.

A concerted effort was made to impart the findings to policymakers and others in the welfare policy community.  This included direct engagement with elected members of the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales, as well as the research being cited in formal responses to government consultations and in official reports at UK level. Professor Wright presented evidence directly to a number of government committees and groups of officials. 

The research evidence informed UK government decisions to reduce the maximum benefit sanction from 3 years to 6 months and to remove call charges for claimants using the UC helpline.   In Scotland, on the basis of the research findings, Scottish ministers opted to introduce sanctions-free Scottish employment services and to offer greater flexibility of benefits, with the option for UC payments to be made fortnightly rather than monthly, and for the housing element to be routinely paid directly to landlords.

Health and Social Care

Investigating Financial Abuse in the Banking Sector

Financial abuse is a form of domestic abuse, whereby one partner controls the other partner’s ability to acquire, use or maintain economic resources.  It is a little known or talked about phenomenon for which relevant services often lack suitable responses.

PhD student Jenn Glinski investigated financial abuse in the banking sector while on a three-month internship with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), organised through the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences (SGSSS).  Through her internship, Jenn aimed to establish the level of awareness of financial abuse across RBS, learn about the impacts upon customers, and make recommendations for improving banking procedures for vulnerable customers. Her research comprised interviews with staff and victims as well as a staff survey. 

As a result of her findings and recommendations, RBS has formed a partnership with domestic abuse charity SafeLives, introduced specialist training for frontline staff and debt management teams, hired a financial abuse specialist to lead on customer support, and undertaken a national awareness campaign.

Improving Domestic Abuse Notifications from Police to Primary Care

General Practitioners are often concerned about raising the subject of domestic abuse with patients who have not made explicit disclosures. A notification scheme was co-developed by NHS Health Scotland and Police Scotland to address this problem and an evaluation co-designed by Professor Mhairi Mackenzie and the national agencies.

This evaluation investigated the notification pathways and gathered evidence from specialist and frontline police officers, general practitioners and women victim/survivors of domestic abuse. It found that system-wide, technological and individual factors impeded the effective implementation of the scheme and recommendations were made to improve its functioning.  At the same time, approaches to supporting and responding to disclosure within primary care were identified.

Recommendations were accepted by Police Scotland as the basis for redeveloping the notification scheme and evidence to support and respond to domestic abuse disclosures was used to inform social worker training.

Encouraging Structural Competency in Primary Care to Address Health Inequalities

General practitioners play a key role in addressing the health of those living in areas of multiple deprivation where health is poorest. For this reason, interventions purported to address inequalities in health are often located in primary care. Research by Professor Mhairi Mackenzie as part of the wider evaluation of the Scottish Link Worker Programme (led by Professors Stewart Mercer and Sally Wyke) considered the reasons why these kinds of initiative cannot fundamentally reduce inequalities.

The research highlighted the fact that health inequalities are driven by unequal distributions of wealth and power which lie outside the control of frontline health care professionals; but also, that not all GPs understand the social determinants of health – this can result in negative stereotypes of patients will the potential to further disempower those living in already difficult circumstances. The research called for improved health care education on the social determinants of health and greater clarity at a policy level about the extent to which interventions can really be expected to reduce health inequalities as opposed to mitigating the effects of the social determinants of poor health.

Early organisational and individual practitioner responses to the research indicate its potential role in shifting medical education practices and health improvement strategies – this will be explored further in already planned further studies. Public Health Scotland managers have said ‘This is an important paper for health improvement strategy - equitable and effective mitigation is important but we need different actions to reduce health inequalities’ and ‘This is a really important paper which describes the ongoing misunderstandings amongst health professionals about the causes of #healthinequalities. It's a challenge for all of us that contribute to teaching’. Colleagues in primary care education have said that the paper is essential reading for teaching the Social Determinants of Health. One individual GP with an interest in health inequalities described the research as causing him to reflect on ‘lazy’ assumptions about causation.