Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Delivering a Digital Service at Bristol City Council - Gavin Beckett

I have been supplied with a couple of videos by Gavin Beckett who works for Bristol City Council ( link ).

The first video describes a new digital service that provides residents with parking permits and how that service was implemented:

video 1

The second video describes the experiences and processes that Bristol City have encountered on their journey to digital services:

video 2

Monday, 14 December 2015

10 principles for digital transformation skills Dave Briggs, Independent Consultant, Department of Health

Well this is very good advice in a 24 minute Video:

Dave Briggs spoke and held a workshop at Local Digital's 'Building Digital Capability', one in a series of events that focuses on key topics within local digital public service delivery. Held in Bristol earlier this month, councils' digital practitioners showcased work to upskill their workforce in front of an participative audience of local authority senior managers, heads of service, change managers, CIOs, CTOs and heads of HR. The event aimed to help participants to prioritise learning and development activities and uncover better ways to share resources and good practice.

10 principles for digital transformation-skills

Transformation will come from collaboration not IT says council CIO  Jos Creese  April 2014

transformation will come from collaboration not IT

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Should Amazon run our local services (The Council)?


Now don't get too excited.

Amazon is the internet vendor that most people, who have a device, use to buy "stuff".  Here is an explanation of how this "platform" got off the ground:
Amazon History

The company has a stupendoulsy successful business model:
Business Model

Amazon has virtually annihilated it's competition.  The old fashioned booksellers that it first set it's sights on, have long since floundered.

Now what has this got to do our beloved Aberdeen City Council (ACC).  Well there is "change afoot" as they say.  ACC are in the "digital transformation game".  In a nutshell ACC have an opportunity to emulate Amazon by deploying technology to increase openness, use less proprietary IT services and work in a way that helps the whole business ...what are the chances?

ACC staff are busy preparing a digital change strategy.  Why is this?  I can only guess at this stage.  I have asked the new man in charge link but he was "too busy" to even grant me a tele-conference.  No matter I am very, very determined to get to the bottom of this, as it is much too important to fail.

Just for info. I have been involved in geeky automation stuff for about 35 years and have seen lots of "innovation" and "hype" over the years, but this is different.  We are on the verge of a revolution that could be good or it could be awful.  I am trained as an organic chemist but thanks to the Sinclair ZX80 I am also a geek.  That wee computer saved me a half hour calculation using simultaneous equations and I still smile when I think about it.

Amazon do "Tech." brilliantly.  They may not pay their taxes as we would like, but they sure can get to the nub of what needs done to streamline a service.  ACC is just a platform for services, no more no less.

So I am guessing that the ACC transformation team will first want to change the way they do business.  At some stage they will need to use some technology.  At a later stage, we the punters, may notice that we can do "stuff" more easily.  That sounds simple, but it ain't.

So far the "lack of time" to consider the views of their customer has not inspired me but everyone deserves a second chance :-).

Just to give people a heads up here are some rules for cutting through bullshit.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Planning system must put people before profit

Original article

Planning Democracy is urging the Scottish Government to consider fundamental reforms as part of its wide-ranging ‘Review of the Scottish Planning System’. Deadlines for submissions to the review closed on 1st December. As a charity set up to tackle systemic unfairness in Scottish planning we have set out a series of progressive proposals designed to redress the democratic deficit in planning processes.

We are concerned that the Planning Review may just streamline an already unbalanced system in favour of developers. Planning Democracy contends that measures are now urgently needed to ensure communities can shape developments in their local area and protect places from short-term, non-strategic and often low-quality development.
As part of our detailed response to the recently-appointed review panel, we at Planning Democracy make a number of recommendations, including:
  1. Stronger enforcement of planning decisions: to improve public confidence in the planning system.
  2. Introduce an Equal Right of Appeal – currently only developers have a right to appeal a planning decision. Planning Democracy contends the time is now right for Scotland to have an equal right of appeal for communities to rebalance the planning system.
  3. Improve public access to planning data, for example by creating an ‘opt-in register’ for pre-application consultations, making documents transparently available to all parties during the planning process, and videoing planning committee meetings
  4. Tackle ‘siege development’ by discouraging repeat applications that are designed to circumvent decisions previously taken by planning authorities
  5. Reinvigorate local democracy by securing better involvement of community councils in the planning process, eg via ‘Neighbourhood’ or ‘Community’ Plans
Clare Symonds, chair of Planning Democracy said: “The long-term societal benefits of high quality development are all-too-often an afterthought in the short-termist pursuit of economic growth. This review must not deliver a developer’s charter. The housing industry is profiting from unsustainable increases in land values, often at the expense of build and design quality and the wider health of communities. We have some constructive suggestions about how to change this and if they are taken on board we are confident communities across Scotland can reconnect with a fairer planning system.”
In October 2015, the Scottish Government announced a Review of the Scottish Planning System, open to ‘gamechanging views and ideas’ and sought responses by 1st December. A panel is expected to report in Spring 2016.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Self build cohousing eco-community planned in Norwich

Original article


A group of people have teamed up to deliver a self build eco-cohousing community on a former industrial site in Norwich.
The Sussex Street Cohousing group has purchased the half-acre city plot to build nine houses and eight apartments surrounding an internal courtyard and sitting alongside flexible office space and retail facilities.
The homes will make use of natural light through large south-facing windows and retain the gathered heat through high insulation levels and Mechanical Ventilation Heat recovery (MVHR) systems. A whole-building biomass boiler will provide an efficient overall heating system and flat roofs will store grey water for flushing toilets.
Similar cohousing schemes usually see residents sharing facilities - normally within an 'Common House' - for cooking, eating, washing clothes and socialising. They may also share laundry amenities and might even collectively grow food via an on-site allotment.
The Sussex Street Cohousing group currently consists of supporters and an overarching Community Interest Company (CIC). Once the development is completed, the CIC will sell each home to the supporters. The CIC will eventually manage and maintain the scheme, in a similar way to how a Community Land Trust operates – and the homebuyers will each become members.
An introductory drop-in session to allow people to find out more about the proposals is being held this Saturday (7th November) at The Stage in Norwich from 11am.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Public bodies hiding behind confidentiality

I have been concerned for some time that public bodies hide behind "confidentiality" to avoid critiscism.  It seems this is a global issue.  Firstly though this article is interesting:
original article

"The ruling will affect businesses bidding to win contracts from the Government and public sector organisations. They now cannot expect confidential information they provide during the procurement process to be exempt from public disclosure, even if the confidentiality of the information has been promised, said Laura Gilliespie, a regulatory expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind"

In Australia the rules around confidentiality appear to have been more clearly defined:
original article
"Informing the Public

The first factor requires a balance to be made between private and public rights.

In considering that balance, it is useful to note that the sensitivity of commercial information is not indefinitely uniform. Commercial information is particularly valuable when it relates to the future (to plans not yet implemented or tenders not yet awarded). This is because the benefits attaching to future plans or tenders have not been secured and the benefits are at risk of being usurped by others.

After the potential benefits have been secured by contracts, deeds or agreements, the sensitivity or value of commercial information used to secure those agreements is significantly reduced.

This distinction between ex-ante and ex-post commercial information is evident in a wide range of laws and practices concerning the release of commercial information.

It is evident, for example, in requirements on companies to disclose commercial information (including requirements obliging companies to issue official statements) so that the market can be properly informed of developments that are material to the company (so called continuous disclosure requirements). These disclosure requirements are justified on the basis that there should be an informed market, notwithstanding the remaining sensitivity of commercial information that must be disclosed."

Useful info:

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

£600,000 worse off over a lifetime... The true cost of renting

Original link

PEOPLE in Bristol who never buy a house will be £600,000 worse off over a lifetime than those who can buy in their twenties, new research shows. A study by housing charity Shelter highlights the financial, social and psychological implications of the South West's housing shortage for people who are unable to own a home of their own.
Analysts studied the income and assets of three sets of people: those who have help onto the property ladder in their twenties, those who are only able to buy after years of saving, and "renting lifers" who can never buy.

The study looked at a range of factors, including house prices and rents, earnings, essential living costs and interest rates, and discovered that families that rent for life in the South West end up £603,800 worse off, on average, over their lifetime.

The research also found that renting for life went hand-in-hand with people having less stability in their finances, careers and relationships. And renters also reported feeling alienated, left out or jealous when friends and peers had help from family to buy their own homes, and "looked down on" for not being a homeowner. Some people said they were putting off parenthood because they don't have a stable home of their own.

More than 80 per cent of private renters say they would like to own their own home, according to a YouGov poll carried alongside the research. Of those renters who would like to buy, 41 per cent think it is unlikely that they ever will.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, said: "The housing shortage is changing the face of our nation, with dramatic consequences for those finding themselves priced out and losing out. The failure of successive governments to build the affordable homes we need means that, for the first time in over half a century, millions of young people today face worse prospects than their parents.

"Everyone should have the chance of a stable future where they can put down roots, but for many the reality is a lifetime of frustration that they can't move on in life, coping with expensive and unstable private renting, and feeling alienated from their friends who get help from mum and dad.

"We need politicians to deliver a big and bold plan that will finally get to grips with our housing shortage."

Thursday, 29 October 2015

'flat-pack' computer-generated plywood home

Welsh architect wins design contest with innovative 'flat-pack' computer-generated plywood home

453 welsh architect wins-lead2
8 October 2015

Original article

Related article

Welsh architect Niall Maxwell, 44, from near Newcastle Emlyn in Carmarthenshire, has won the £5,000 top prize in the 2015 Self Build on a Shoestring competition. He was presented with his cheque by Kevin McCloud at the Grand Designs Live exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham earlier today.
Mr Maxwell (main picture: left, with McCloud) runs an architectural firm called the Rural Office for Architecture, which is based in Wales and London. The practice has a strong record of designing simple low-cost homes, and last year won the Royal Institute of British Architects' Welsh Architecture Small Project of the Year award for a £80,000 self build house at Pantybara.
His entry was supported by three of his colleagues – Rhodri Thomas (system design), Kieran Rees (system development) and James Blundall (visuals & presentation).
The contest challenged architects, designers and others to come up with innovative ways of building a modest ultra-flexible starter home that could be easily constructed for just £40,000.
The competition Brief required entrants to show how the house could grow or adapt as the household expanded over the years. And it also called for solutions that looked good and performed well on the environmental front. More than 30 entries were received from the UK and abroad, with submissions from Japan, the USA, Mexico, Germany, Spain and India.
The winning design (pictured, first and second right) was effectively a 'flat-pack' home made of 18mm plywood sections that were stamped out using a computer-controlled cutting machine. The machine automatically generates the plywood sections that form the floors, walls and roof. This results in very accurate cutting, and minimal waste.
The system needs no additional structural support, so is easy to assemble. "Think of it as the building equivalent of flat-pack furniture, but with the added benefits of future extension, alteration or relocation," says Mr Maxwell.
The cost of the initial 40m2 home is estimated at £39,796 (plus DIY labour). The winning team estimates it would take four people a week to construct the house. The design allows the basic 'hub' to be extended at either end, or an additional wing could be added. It could be clad in a range of materials – including timber, metal sheeting or wood shingles.
The judges were impressed that the design was based on an early prototype (pictured, third right) that the Rural Studio for Architecture built last year: "This solution has been based on a similar 'test' building that the team constructed last year – this suggests it is practical to build and the costs data that was provided is realistic and well prepared. If the homes were mass-produced the home could be built for about £840 per m2."
The second place in the competition went to the SplitHouse, designed by London-based architects Matthew Springett Associates, led by Alex Taylor. This entry was produced in collaboration with Price and Myers, and Appleyard and Trew.
Third place went to designer Leila Ferraby for her entry, called 'Bauelements', prepared in collaboration with Hanse Haus.
The top three entries were all very close, with just one point between them.
The competition is organised by the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA) and Grand Designs Live. The judges included Kevin McCloud and the RIBA's self build representative Luke Tozer.
An exhibition of the 16 projects on the initial 'Long List' is currently on display at Grand Designs Live at the NEC in Birmingham (until 11th October), and full details of the top 16 entries are available to inspect on NaCSBA's website.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Debt is crippling us all -Let's build council houses- Really

"When I were a lad", I bought my first house on 2.5 times my salary and 1/3 my wifes income on a 20 year mortgage.  That ain't how it is any more, people!

So we are now hearing that we need mass building of council houses.  Great I say.  Please explain how that is going to happen.

Well, we will use current legislation and just compulsorily purchase agricultural land and make it available for developers to build council houses.  That's great so far.  Hang on a minute though, a council house in Aberdeen rents out for about ‎£350  a month.  So lets us say for instance you get the serviced plot for ‎£50 K, you build the house for ‎£130 K including all labour and materials.  That means you have to recover the ‎£180 K at 350 pounds a month (no current new houses in Aberdeen are that cheap)

If you had a 40 year payback at 3% interest it would take 40 years to get that 180K back and that is paying ‎£644 a month.

 It is not possible to use a developer and a bank to finance such a scheme unless you get the cost below ‎£100K.  No developer is going to do that unless the land is free and even then I do not think it is going to happen.  It is not possible to expect a nurse on 23K a year to rent a council house for ‎£644  a month.  Rent relief just means we are all paying for the scheme so that is subsidising and maintaining high social costs.

The other major issue with council houses is the rent has to get paid for ever.  So as an example my mum in law moved into a council house in Aberdeen in 1959.  When Thatcher allowed her to buy the house she did.  She now lives on an old age pension and just scrapes by.  Imagine if she had not bought that house.  She would have to find ‎£350  a month that she has not got from the age of 60.  She is currently 84 and going strong.  She worked hard as did her husband but their personal pensions are almost none existent.

Let's say she lives until she is 90.  So 30 years at ‎£350 a month is ‎£85K  of subsidy the state would have given her.  Even worse if you compare buying a house  to renting from age 25, the mortgage is paid off age 45 so from age 45 to 90 you pay rent.  That is almost double the ‎£85K some of which they pay some of which the state pays.

Then consider that the current youngsters who cannot get on the housing ladder.  There is no way the majority of them  are going to have the pension our generation had.  How are they going to pay their rent?  Are we expecting people to work until they are 90?  Get real.

Whatever way you add it up, buying a house is a far better proposition than renting.  We have to get cheap land and use technology to allow self builders to get the shell up quickly.

We have no spare builders, guys.....we need to change the model.  We cannot expect commercial banks to wait 60 years for payback on council houses.  It is no good building council houses and then renting them out for 650 pounds a month or more that does not help.

Do the maths.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Land Reform Review Group

The Land Reform Review Group was an independent review group established by the Scottish Government in 2012 and the report was published in May 2014.  This is what it said about self build in Scotland.

Land Reform report

page 134

As the levels of private housing output have increased over the past 30 years, the housebuilding sector has become increasingly dominated by a smaller number of larger firms.  To give some sense of scale, one of the UK’s top three house-builders sold almost 9,500 houses alone in 2010.  The business model of volume house-builders is essentially speculative and involves the need to continually land bank. In addition, the volume house building model does not suit much of rural, and particularly remote rural, Scotland, and this is reflected in the limited involvement of these companies in many rural areas. In general, fewer and larger sites, controlled by fewer and larger companies is unhealthy in terms of competition, local placemaking, design and quality standards, housing choice, house prices and local production and supply chains – all of which are essential elements for creating sustainable communities.

Unlike the UK, many European countries have a much more diverse house building industry with significant levels of ‘self-build’ being commonplace. The term ‘self-build’ refers to small scale housing development, where houses are built or procured by the people (acting individually or collectively) who will actually live in them. This includes the kind of community-led, co-operative or mutual home ownership initiatives which have been so successful in mainland Europe. Crucially, the self-build model removes the speculative element which characterizes the dominant volume housebuilding model. Because people are building homes to live in, rather than houses to sell, self-build also leads to more energy efficient houses, which tend to be designed to a higher standard.

In the UK, self-build currently accounts for between 10% and 15% of the market. In many EU countries that figure is nearer 50%.  In terms of land supply, the Office of Fair Trading, in their 2008 Report on Housebuilding, point out that“in terms of ensuring that land which is already available for housing is used efficiently and output maximised, it is important to maintain a vibrant self-build sector”

However, in terms of land reform, a strong self-build sector is also essential if we want to diversify home ownership and encourage the development of community-led initiatives and alternative housing models such as mutual home ownership and different forms of co-operative housing. efficient use of land and in encouraging different forms of home ownership.

The Group recommends that encouraging and supporting the development of a vibrant self-build sector should be an explicit aim of housing strategy in Scotland

Saturday, 22 August 2015

We need to encourage people to "self build" houses

Local building firms are struggling to get staff and this means less houses will get built unless other ways to build houses are found.  Aberdeen city council should follow Glasgow and encourage self build housing projects.

Financial times article

"A lack of bricklayers, electricians and plasterers has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to overcoming Britain’s acute shortage of housing.

An estimated 240,000 houses a year need to be built to meet demand according to one estimate by the Town and Country Planning Association, but in the year to September only 117,000 were built. 

Housebuilders slashed the number of workers when the recession hit in 2008 and many of those tradesmen have since left the country or found a new profession."

Construction enquirer article

"The number of firms reporting shortages of bricklayers has peaked again as the industry enters its seventh consecutive quarter of growth."

Dailyrecord article

"Gordon Nelson, Scottish director of the FMB, said: “Small Scottish construction firms tell us that it’s often difficult to attract skilled workers back into the construction industry once they have left – many find completely new careers and a significant proportion are not willing to return to an industry which dealt them a hard blow.

“This has certainly been the case since the most recent economic downturn.

“In order to tackle the construction skills crisis, we’ll need to focus our efforts on attracting new entrants such as ex-military personnel and young construction apprentices.”

The latest figures from the Scottish Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) predict nearly 6,000 additional tradespeople will be required every year in Scotland over the next five years to meet demand, notably in housebuilding.

However the FMB said construction firms “are already experiencing a skills shortage in the SME sector”."

This is money article

"For some highly skilled individuals – notably in information technology and construction – inflation-busting gains of 10 per cent or more are not uncommon."

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A renewable way to Travel

Sundowner electric bike

So we decided to get some gentle exercise and due to sore knees we chose cycling with some "help".  We first of all tried to buy electric bikes secondhand but that proved difficult due to poor battery status on old electric bikes.  The batteries degrade, especially if not used or overcharged.  Also Aberdeen is hilly so we wanted bikes that could go up the hills without killing us.  After a few weeks of using the bikes I can definitely say they are brilliant.  We did have a few teething problems but now both bikes are doing great and we are also much safer and less wobbly on them.  Neither me or my wife Kate are yet ready to take on Aberdeen's roads so we cycle on a disused railway line that has been turned into a road.  We chose our bikes with 15 amp batteries to give us plenty of "ooomph" up the hills.

The bikes come with 5 settings that "assist" the rider.  Setting 1 is the lowest form of assist.  We ride normally on setting 3 which gives you between 10 and 12 mph with pedalling.  It will do that speed up hill too.  The speed is limited to 15 mph otherwise it would be classified as a moped....

Hopefully one day we will use the bikes to get around the city but for that we need more safe cycle tracks.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Possible self build technologies

The house my wife and I built in France used mostly traditional building technology, cement blocks for walls, wooden roof timbers (engineered beams for 8m span) and cement floors with underfloor heating embedded.  We did everything but it was slow. 

However times are a changing and now Computer Aided Design (CAD) Systems are being linked to machines to produce framing/building systems.  This is very important for self builders and particularly for Aberdeen.  In France we got 300 days of sun every year.  So almost every day was a building day.  Not so in Aberdeen.  So speed of erection of the shell is paramount and also so is simplicity.

Here are a couple of videos, one using steel framing, we used some in France for internal walls but never for a whole house:

Steel framed house

More Information on the Steel framing system

Then there is the open source Wiki house system:

Wiki open source house

More information on the Wiki House system

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Affordable housing supply in Aberdeen

So just how much affordable housing gets built in Aberdeen?  The quick answer is less than I thought.....This Guardian article is maybe a bit London centric but:

This report gives the need for houses on Page 58:

Aberdeen city annual housing requirement  1,094 houses
Aberdeen city affordable housing                    415 houses

Clearly Aberdeen City is failing to build enough affordable housing with a 10% rate cf to a 40 % need.

I had a quick look on Google and found references that hinted to large scale housing developments having to factor in 25% affordable housing which I thought seemed reasonable.  So a series of questions were put to Aberdeen City Council for a recent development and it turns out that the percentage of affordable houses available now has not really reached 25% yet even though recommendations for 25% affordable housing have been around since at least 2003 (SPP3: Planning for Housing: Scottish Executive: February 2003).

I asked specifically about the new housing development at Cove sanctioned after 2011:

"This site was agreed before the implementation of the 25% affordable housing requirement, and has a requirement to deliver 10%.  Affordable housing can be delivered in a variety of ways and not always as low cost units for sale.

In this particular case there was a requirement for 70 affordable units.  This was delivered as 43 properties for mid-market rent under the National Housing Trust scheme, 20 low cost home ownership units (2 x 3 bed houses, 6 x 1 bed flats and 12 x 2 bedroom flats) which have been sold to qualifying purchasers, and a financial contribution for the remaining 7 units.  These funds are then used to assist the provision of affordable housing on other sites."

"The original legal agreement for Cove (Wellington Road) covered planning application numbers 110063, 110064 and 110065 for a total of 737 units.  There was a subsequent application number 111305 from Persimmon Homes, but this was for the same piece of land as 110063.  We received an additional financial payment at this point which again will be used to contribute towards other affordable schemes in the City.

You can view the planning applications on our website using the link below

Mid-market or intermediate rent levels are currently set at up to 100% of the Local Housing Allowance in force at the time, I've given some further links below which may help you.  As the properties at Cove were let at different times there may be variations in the rent charged.  These properties are managed by Aberdeenshire Housing Partnership. 


 It turns out that the Cove development followed rules from a 2008 report that required only 10% affordable housing:

"Aberdeen City Council implemented 25% affordable housing contribution as part of the Local Development Plan which came into force in 2012.  Prior to this we were working within the terms of the Aberdeen Local Plan which was adopted in 2008 and used the 10% figure.  The Cove applications were lodged in 2011 so fell within the period of the local plan, therefore were subject to a provision of 10%.

I've attached a link to the LDP information and on that page there is a link to the 2008 Aberdeen Local Plan.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

The true cost of high house prices.

It is plainly obvious that Aberdeen has a housing crisis.  House prices are too high for many of Aberdeen's residents and rental costs are also sky high.  A January 2015 Aberdeen council study looked at  Skill Needs and from that study it is clear that public employers and certain lower pay employers are really struggling to get staff ( Skills Audit )

High house prices make it difficult for people to come to Aberdeen when a city like Glasgow has cheaper house prices but a teacher will get paid the same in either city.

This video talks about  The UK's idiotic house prices .
This presentation tackles land prices: Land Value

This article, rising house prices, has this to say on the negative effects of high house prices:
  1. Wealth/ income inequality. Rising house prices are good for those who own a house (often the older generation) It is bad news for those trying to get on the property ladder.
  2. Rising house prices increase inter-generational wealth inequality. Homeowners see a rise in wealth. Those unable to buy experience higher costs of renting.
  3. Social change. One problem with high house prices is that it is contributing to social changes. Many people are struggling to buy houses in areas where they were brought up; therefore, they need to move to more affordable areas.
  4. In the UK, the rise in house prices doesn’t reflect strong, sustainable demand, it reflects a shortage of supply in the market, therefore it is misleading as a sign of the underlying strength of the housing market and economy.
  5. Rising house prices mean first time buyers have to take increasing risks to buy a house. The size of the housing debt means that homeowners are vulnerable to future rising interest rates.
  6. Evidence shows that the housing market is particularly vulnerable to booms and bust in house prices.
  7. Geographical immobility. Expensive house prices makes it more difficult for people to move around the country.

This article  Unaffordable house prices points out that high house prices:
  • force families to become increasingly reliant upon two salaries to service newly acquired mortgage debts thus increasing the financial risks should one parent become ill or unemployed.

  • makes it difficult to attract key workers to areas where prices have risen highest.

  • The rises inevitably lead to an over-concentration of investment into housing rather than in more productive areas such as investment in companies or the local economy.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Why do people buy houses ?

In my last post I examined the true cost of houses.  Now I want to explore why people buy houses.

I was employed as an apprentice in the fine chemical industry straight from school.  At age 20 I bought my first house.  It was a new, 2 up 2 down one bathroom linked house (terraced) in a Lincolnshire village.  It cost about 6000 pounds and was 2.5 times my earnings plus a one times my wife's earnings.  We had a 5% deposit.

I tried getting a mortgage from the building society that I had saved with from age 16 but they refused (Halifax).  I used a mortgage broker.  Anyhow I managed to get a mortgage with an endowment .  The house was garbage but it was our garbage.  After a few years my wife gave up work to raise our first child.  That was possible then.  I have never rented because I saw it as dead money.

Now living in Aberdeen that would be an impossible dream.  Even with two professional salaries from non oil related companies couples really struggle to buy a house.  Here is why:

Cheapest 2 bedroomed new house 250,000 pounds.
Joint salaries say 58,000  pounds.
3.5 times salary =203,000 pounds so need at least 50,000 pounds deposit...not easy but let's say they go for it.  So a 203,000 pounds mortgage costs 1,000pounds a month for 25 years. 

Take home pay for each person at 29,000 pounds salary is about 1500 pounds.  So both definitely have to work.  Obviously getting a 50,000 pound deposit is never going to happen.  It would take  a decade.

So let's go with the  a 5% deposit and a mortgage of 237,000 pounds that puts repayments up to nearly 1200 pounds a month making two salaries vital.

What if the same couple built a house for 50,000 pounds.  What if they were able to buy the land for a further 50,000 pounds for a 500m2 plot. So a total debt of 95,000 pounds over 25 years for 475 pounds a month.  One person could take a year off work and the couple could live on one salary and then continue to (if they wanted to).

So what Aberdeen really needs is building plots that young couples can buy and then self build houses either alone or as a group.

Average rents in Aberdeen for a 2 bedroomed house are at least 800 pounds pcm and as such are unsustainable.  Over a 60 year life that would cost 576,000 pounds. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

How much does it actually cost to build a house in Aberdeen?

In Aberdeen an ex council 3 bedroomed house costs about 160,000 pounds.  These houses tend to be about 90m2.  So that is a cost of 1777 pounds per m2.

As I understand it Aberdeen city council has a great deal of land that could be used for building houses.

So what is the cost breakdown in a house build:

The build cost is 82,000 pounds for a 100m2 house if you project manage it yourself.  Obviously there is a land cost.  Of the build cost quoted at least half of that is labour so essentially if you do the building you would pay about 50,000 pounds for the materials.  After that you decide what labour you need.  If you have a main contractor  to do the build, it will cost you a further 20,000 pounds.

This 3 bedroomed house costs 41,000 pounds (without land):

The Grand Designs house for first time buyers: How you can get on the property ladder with a £41,000 three-bedroom home

  • Low cost design is based on modern steel farmyard hay barns
  • The Barnhaus steel frame is lined internally with lots of insulation
  • Home is 100 square metre home; much bigger than most starter homes
  • House came top in a competition judged by Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud
Why then do new houses cost so much in Aberdeen....
Land costs ?
Labour costs ?
Shortage of supply ?

All of the above.  I know for a fact that experienced builders get just 10 pounds an hour as an employee in Aberdeen so someone is making a lot of money...

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Book Review AFTERBURN: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels, Richard Heinberg

Here is my brief summary of this book:
Man made climate change is real and happening now. We have to drastically cut usage of carbon based fuels and fast.
Fossil fuels are very energy dense and any other energy sources we use are likely to be less dense so we need to reduce our energy usage drastically.
We have lost our sense of community and in order to weather the challenges posed to us by climate change we need to have a strong and adaptive co operative community structure.
It is very likely that western economies will not be able to grow because current carbon based energy sources will be increasingly expensive to refine having a major effect on developed economies.
It is unlikely that business as usual corporations and governments will be able to change anything. Only grass roots movements can change the status quo.
We need to pursue localism, sustainability, community, co-operatives and aim for happiness not consumerism.
This is a tough gig for Aberdeen……
Below are some of the references from the book:
Unlike conventional fossil fuels, where nature provided energy over millions of years to convert biomass into energy-dense solids, liquids, and gases–requiring only extraction and transportation technolgy for us to mobilize them–alternative energy depends heavily on specially engineered equipment and infrastructure for capture or conversion, essentially making it a high-tech manufacturing process. However, the full supply chain for alternative energy, from raw material to manufacturing, is still very dependent on fossil-fuel energy for mining, transport, and materials production. Alternative energy faces the challenge of how to supplant a fossil-fuel-based supply chain with one driven by alternative energy forms themselves in order to break their reliance on a fossil-fuel foundation.

 Need Jobs? US Solar Industry Provides Employment for More People than Coal and Oil Combined
 Consumption Makes Us Sad? Science Says We Can Be Happy With Less
We are all part of a community in one way or another. Often it is our commitment to improving the community we live in that leads to us starting up a Transition group.

 Living for the Moment while Devaluing the Future

 David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst

 A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables

Powering a Green Planet: Sustainable Energy, Made Interactive

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

How do ordinary people in Aberdeen buy a house?

Aberdeen has a buoyant economy but because of high salaries in the oil industry property prices have rocketed.   This has had several negative effects on recruitment of public sector workers and those not employed by oil and gas.

The effects of the wage disparity has been magnified by several issues to do with the supply of houses in Aberdeen.  Firstly the sale of council houses with no replacements being built. Secondly a lack of affordable housing on those private housing schemes that have been built.  Thirdly and most importantly a lack of land being released for the  building of affordable housing.  

So we have high house prices, rapidly rising private rents  and very little affordable housing or council housing.  This means that young couples on ordinary salaries really struggle to get decent accommodation.  The young couple then spend a large chunk of their money just on accommodation and this means they have little to save or spend on luxuries.  This has a knock on effect on the local economy.

Local employers not in the oil and gas sector struggle to recruit staff.  Schools are short of teachers and the council outsource work to other areas and to the private sector.

More on this can be found here:

Perhaps one way forward would be to encourage couples to self build affordable homes but so far Aberdeen City Council are quiet on this subject. 

Others areas of the country have encouraged self build projects and new house designs can be very cost effective:

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

PWC website: People power: an interview with Nick C Jones on Citizens’ Juries

What is the background to the Citizens’ Juries?

 It all started with our response to the consultation on the Spending Review when the Coalition Government first came into office in 2010. It was clear that it had some pretty tough decisions to make about where and how to make the spending cuts. We felt the public really needed to be heard in this process, particularly in terms of what criteria government should be using when making its choices. We felt that given our expertise on the public finances we were in a good position to make this happen. However, these are complex questions often with no right or wrong answer. So we partnered up with Britain Thinks to develop a Citizens’ Jury where people could really deliberate on the issues and get some meaningful responses. Since then, we’ve used this method in other research areas such as good growth, health outcomes and, most recently, the issue of risk and failure in public services.

Why did you choose to do this type of activity?

There are two characteristics of Citizens’ Juries which made them a really appealing method for us. Firstly, they offer the chance for informed deliberation. Although the things we debate are in the news all the time, the information isn’t always presented in a way that makes it easy for the public to really understand. In particular, we spend a lot of time helping people to understand the nature and complexity of an issue, such as the scale of the national debt and its implications. One of the things that really differentiates a Citizens’ Jury from some of the other methods that we’ve used in this context is the use of experts. We brought in a number of experts on public spending and fiscal issues who presented issues from different points of view. Just like in a court of law, it was then up to the Jurors to consider the evidence and come up with their own opinion. Secondly, a Citizens’ Jury offers a chance to explore trade-offs. For instance, you can’t ask the public questions about spending cuts and expect to get simple ‘yes, no’ answers. This is an incredibly complex issue, which involves trade-offs and which needs careful consideration. 


Have the Juries had any influence on policy makers?

The Juries and their results have definitely gained a lot of visibility in the centre of government. For the Jury on the Spending Review, the MP Danny Alexander came to hear the views of the Jury directly. This was before the Spending Review was announced so there was real scope for the public to have their views heard. We also held a follow-up Jury one year on, and the Jury again briefed the minister directly on their views. What we’ve found is that it’s most powerful if politicians and policy makers come along to the Jury’s discussions so that they can really hear what the public say in their own words.


Sunday, 12 April 2015

People's panel pitches in to advise Melbourne City Council where it should spend $5 billion

"It was a bold experiment in democracy: asking 43 citizens to help shape the Melbourne City Council’s $5 billion, 10-year financial plan. How did it go? Michael Green reports.

When Shuwen Ling received the letter from the City of Melbourne, she thought it was spam. Or maybe it was a fine? "It was on good quality paper," she says. "But when I read it carefully, I thought: 'This is pretty cool'."
Ling is nearly 20 years-old and it's three years since she left her hometown, a few hours from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She studies finance and civil engineering at the University of Melbourne and lives in an apartment near the Vic Market.
“If I hear one more person say Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city, I’m going to scream.”
Bruce Shaw
She was one of 6500 people who received the letter, 600 who responded, and finally, 43 who were randomly selected to reflect the city's demographics. Their task? To make recommendations on the council's budget for its first ever 10-year financial plan – spending that is worth, in total,  up to $5 billion.
Citizens' juries, such as this one, are being used increasingly often around the world. They're another kind of representative democracy, one that steers policy making away from the entrenched positions of political parties, lobbyists and squeaky wheels, and towards the considered voices of ordinary, well-informed citizens.

In Melbourne, the "People's Panel" was coordinated by the newDemocracy Foundation, a not-for-profit research organisation that says it's aiming to move our democracy out of "the continuous campaign cycle".

Friday, 27 March 2015

Mini Public in Scotland on Windfarms

You may be wondering if anyone has ever used a "mini-public" in Scotland.  So here is a great example:

Citizens’ juries on wind farm development in Scotland, Interim report, June 2014
Dr. Jennifer Roberts and Dr. Oliver Escobar.

In this report they say:

"The citizens’ jury is the smallest and most commonly used type of mini-public. It typically involves a group of 15-25 citizens who are assembled for 3-5 days to learn about and discuss an issue, and then produce a collective recommendation to address that issue. Due to their small group size, citizens’ juries are intended to be demographically diverse rather than statistically representative of the population.

Like all mini-publics, once a citizens’ jury is assembled it goes through a deliberative process. Deliberation is a form of communication that enables people to reach informed and public-spirited decisions on an issue after having considered and discussed existing evidence, perspectives and arguments. To enable effective deliberation, mini-publics usually feature two phases:

Phase one is a learning stage in which participants are supported to become more knowledgeable about the topic under consideration. This can be done by combining time for individual learning(e.g. information packages), with time for group learning where participants are exposed to a range of evidence, opinions and testimonies covering the issue from various points of view. Depending on the topic, this may include experts, officials, politicians, activists, and various stakeholders (e.g. business, community and voluntary sectors). During the process, participants work together to interrogate these ‘witnesses’. The preparation of information packages and the selection of witnesses are typically overseen by a Stewarding Board to ensure that the mini-public is exposed to a balanced range of evidence and views.

Phase two is a decision-making stage in which participants deliberate in small groups aided by impartial facilitators. Here they reconsider their initial ideas on the topic in light of the evidence and testimonies from the learning phase, but also with respect to the arguments and experiences of their fellow deliberators. Depending on the topic, and the type and purpose of the mini-public, this may lead to a particular recommendation or decision which must be articulated through reasoned arguments in the final report or statement. Once this is achieved, the mini-public is dissolved. Together, the learning and deliberative work in these two phases is intended to enable participants to engage in considered judgement as a basis for informed decision making. Participating in a mini-public takes considerable effort, and citizens are usually compensated for their work. This helps to make the process more inclusive by removing barriers to participation – for instance, for those who may need to make arrangements in order to attend (e.g. carers, parents). Hundreds of mini-publics have been held around the world since the 1970s to deal with a range of complex policy issues  (e.g. science and technology, health, justice, planning, and sectarianism). The latest research on mini-publics seeks to assess whether, and how, these methods may be institutionalised as part of a more deliberative form of democracy at the large scale."

We have had a flawed public consultation that has very little detail, no data on who has responded (and so no idea if it is truly representative of the population) and uses leading questions.

Lets run a mini public on the Aberdeen city centre masterplan so that we get a REAL idea of what the great public of Aberdeen want.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

First steps to Improving Local democracy

You might think that Aberdeen is the only council having issues with projects it has delivered, that is far from the truth.  
In April 2012 the Jimmy Reid foundation produced a report entitled : The Silent Crisis, Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland. In it they said:
There is a clear democratic deficit in Scotland at the local level and to resolve this the Scottish Government should set up a Commission” All the evidence suggests that democratic representation is failing badly.
 You see the thing is although we have Audit Scotland who oversee council activities, they do not get involved in how the people see the projects that are delivered.  In effect there is no oversight of any council body in Scotland when it come to "customer satisfaction".
The Commission on strengthening local democracy,setup by the president of COSLA, was established in autumn 2013, and operates independently of any organisation. It brings together key figures from across civic Scotland including senior councillors and specific experts with a common resolve to understand why local services and local accountability matter. The Commission has based all of its work on an open conversation about Scotland’s democracy and how it might change. Its call for evidence from across Scotland and Europe resulted in over 200 written submissions, telephone surveys with 1000 representative Scottish households, 13 evidence panel sessions involving 70 expert witnesses, and 5 public listening events.
On page 28 of their August 2014 final report they wrote:

We therefore recommend that all Community Planning Partnerships develop an approach to community scrutiny to complement their existing scrutiny approaches. While the specific format of how this is done will need to fit local circumstances, we would expect that this would result in a regular (potentially biennial) citizen review being undertaken that is focused on how effectively community planning is working for its local communities. Working alongside local elected representatives, we suggest that this would need to be undertaken in a highly participative way, potentially by bringing together a local ‘mini-public’ or similar approach.”

The idea of mini-publics was first proposed in 1989 by political scientist Robert Dahl. Inspired by democratic ideals and social science principles, Dahl envisioned an innovative mechanism for involving citizens in dealing with public issues. The purpose is to assemble a microcosm of ‘the public’, a mini-public, with each citizen having an equal chance of being selected. Mini-publics seek to answer a fundamental question: How would ‘the public’ deal with an issue if they had the time and resources to learn and deliberate about it in order to reach an informed decision? As a method, it counters the criticism that survey research only provides snapshots of uninformed opinion by members of the public who may know little about an issue, or may not have even thought about it. It is basically informed due diligence by a subset of the electorate for the electorate.

Here are a couple of ways a mini public can be carried out:

Planning Cells
A number of cells of 25 randomly-selected citizens meet over a few days and are provided with information on a policy issue. They deliberate and prioritise potential courses of action. Moderators prepare a final report for the commissioning body.

Citizens’ juries –
Similar to a single planning cell, 12 to 24 citizens, typically selected using quotas or stratified sampling, deliberate over 2 to 4 days and produce a report of recommendations

Is public participation in Aberdeen being seen as an obstacle to be overcome, through restricting those able to participate or by some other means, rather than as a valid part of the process?

This is what a consultant based in London had to say on Mini publics:

Over the years I've done Juries and then larger scale events around big, complex planning project in a major city in England. This had been turned down twice and had gone to a Public Inquiry. We then ran a Citizens' Jury to develop the brief for the masterplan and then evaluated the emerging masterplan against those criteria. When it went to planning it was unanimously approved - and the atmosphere in the city had changed substantially. The area has now been built and is very popular."

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

How are ordinary people supposed to attend Aberdeen City Centre Masterplan (CCM) consultations?

I went to attend the meeting advertised (In the citizen) at Inchgarth community centre at 11am on Monday 16th March.  When I got there I asked Paul O'Connor MBE where the meeting was and he said "not today Bob".  Strange I went home and phoned the council,"Oh yes that was an error see the website".  I heared from Paul later and he said 30 other people showed up for the none existent display on Monday 16th March. 

Nobody in the council thought to tell anyone that the date was wrong in the newspaper.  Anyhow I went the next day to Inchgarth community centre and there were 2 council officers manning a display and handing out the brochure.  My questions about the CCM mainly met with a redirection to the display in the centre of Aberdeen at the Academy where I could talk to the consultants that had some more detail.

I got to thinking then about how the demographic of Aberdeen would be represented by these displays.  Most of the consultation are scheduled in the daytime making it very difficult for most ordinary working people to attend.   So I then decided to attend the Academy and I talked to a council officer and two consultants.  I asked about who attended and was told that mostly it was elderly people in the weekday as they had the time. It has to be said some students were at the Academy that day.  At the weekends a different demographic attended.  Attending the Academy was definitely better as there were more experts on hand and there were displays mirroring the contents of the brochure.  However the questionnaire in the brochure does not attempt to ask for any demographics data e.g. respondents age, income range, education, ethnicity etc.  So the survey that is being done has no data on it's relevance to the demographic living in the city.

Is this more evidence that the consultation is "just spin and hot air" with no desire to actually ask a representative cross section of the people of Aberdeen what it is they actually want to see in their city centre?  Where is the science here?

How on earth are people supposed to take in the complexity of  any of the projects presented in the brochure?  

I asked what projects would be delivered when?  Sorry that information is not available yet.  How then are people supposed to know which projects to look at in more detail.  Why is this information not in the public domain.

I will talk more tomorrow about Improving Local Democracy but it is clear to me that the public are not being engaged in a fair and comprehensive manner by ACC on this CCM.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Aberdeen city centre masterplan

The current Aberdeen city centre masterplan brochure contains a questionnaire that is wholly biased towards driving a YES for the projects. Many thousands of these questionnaires have been issued at great expense.

Here is the killer punch though, the questionnaire was designed by an experienced consultant in partnership with BDP.  Did the consultant merely want a white wash? 

The language used in this questionnaire is complex with leading questions.  There is not enough room for comprehensive feedback. There are so many projects described at a very high level but no detail with which to make a considered evaluation. 

Judge for yourself.... 

"Make sure the questions are unbiased When developing your survey questionnaire, you want to make certain that you are asking the questions in a neutral way, ie that you are not leading them toward a particular answer. This may seem simple, but when you are writing questions you will often find that the way you phrase the question may reflect your underlying opinion.

Here is an example of a leading question: 

Example of a Leading Question and How to Correct it 

Bad Question: Leading
Do you think that the new cafeteria lunch menu offers a better variety of healthy foods than the old one?
( ) Yes
( ) No
( ) No Opinion

Good Question: Neutral

How do you feel about the new cafeteria lunch menu compared to the old one?

( ) The new menu offers a better variety of healthy foods
( ) The old menu offers a better variety of healthy foods
( ) The selections are similar
( ) No opinion

The Aberdeen city centre masterplan questionnaire only contains the choice YES, no and don't know  ...classic leading questions then...

I have written to Audit Scotland about this copying Kevin Stewart MSP  and Maureen Watt MSP.