Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: March, 2015

Devolving Housing Benefit?

Yesterday, finally, we published a report that has been evolving (or devolving) for the last 7 or 8 months. The paper, written with Mark Stephens and Janice Blenkinsopp, was for Shelter Scotland and concerned itself with the devolution of Housing Benefit (HB) and the long term rebalancing of housing subsidy. It built on Gibb and Stephens (2012) paper on the future of Housing Benefit after the 2012 Act (following the Calman Commission). We started the work before the referendum and had subsequently to cope with both the Smith Commission proposals and the Draft Clauses of the post-election bill on constitutional change, each of which had direct relevance to the substance of our think-piece. It has not been easy to keep up.

What does the paper say? First, it points to the long term shift that meant that while housing supply-side subsidies to the social sector amounted to 80% of all housing subsidy in the 1970s; today, around 80% goes to housing benefit. This does little to support the supply of new housing. Second, the paper lays out the well-known problems and conflicting objectives of what is both an income maintenance (residual income) policy for the DWP but also at the same time an important engine of housing policy. We set out the weaknesses with the existing system in terms of disincentives to work, the blunting of housing choices and the tendency for its costs to rise with rising rents and lower wages. Much of this has been brought into sharp focus by welfare reform but the underlying structural problems remain.

There are therefore two questions to think about. First, how do we improve the design of Housing Benefit and help shift subsidy more to supply-side assistance? Second, do the opportunities presented by further devolution post-referendum offer new opportunities to devolve HB and take control of it in order to achieve better outcomes for low income households? Devolving HB would mean separating it from Universal Credit (UC) when it is fully introduced but actually doing something progressive with it will require more resources. These would need to come from more taxation either from economic growth or new taxes, greater borrowing or shifting priorities within the existing programmes of devolved spending.

This would also be advanced if the Scottish Government had control over a wider set of means-tested benefits in order to over time move towards a more coherent housing benefit system. However, a progressive shift will require a sustainable financial settlement and wider devolution of benefits – neither are arguably on offer as a result of where we currently stand in terms of the powers implied by the Draft clauses.

The paper recommends that in the short run, HB should be excluded from Universal Credit. Second, we should build up over time a general housing element with the mainstream cash benefit (UC or its successor) with a view to add a separate smaller housing allowance to help with affordability pressures. This will require a wider devolution of means-tested benefits. We recognise the need for careful lengthy transition to protect losers from this process of change. But it can be done if there is a will. We recognise also that Scotland will have a wide range of taxes under its control and this may be widened subject to the outcome of the local tax commission and we would recommend that there is wider shift towards taxing land and property and, to the extent it is sustainable, reducing tax rates on the productive economy.

These proposals are not without their difficulties. Yesterday, Shelter Scotland hosted a roundtable to discuss the implications of this report. Several points were made that struck me as important or at least worthy of further discussion.

First of all, housing Benefit will not be devolved as a result of Smith and subsequent draft legislation. Rather, the Scottish Government is given the power to amend aspects of the housing cost element of Universal Credit – the latter remains reserved. Furthermore, making key changes like abolishing the bedroom tax, which is explicitly identified as a possible power, will still have to be paid for. That is not to say that there are not important powers. There are but these are more about the ability to maintain direct payment of HB to landlords. Moreover, Paul Spicker made the important point that the Draft Clauses significantly weakened Smith by removing the ability of the Scottish Parliament to top up reserved benefits or to create new benefits.

Second, why do we want to devolve HB? Is it devolution for a purpose? The momentum for this policy was the bedroom tax but, despite its justified unpopularity, it is hardly the basis for such devolution. And to reiterate: devolving HB by itself will not produce a radical progressive alternative, let alone a well-designed incentive-compatible one.  Should we not be thinking more about the social security system as a whole (including the social union arguments about pooling risks) and where we want to get to with the housing system as a whole? The argument is often made that housing policy is ostensibly devolved and this should be matched with the key source of funding and income to make housing policy work. I think it is more complicated than that but more widely the case for devolving must be to actually significantly and sustainably improve the housing system as a whole. That case, ironically, has not really been made by the constitutional protagonists.

Third, rebalancing housing subsidy is worthy but difficult – it needs long term consensus (my regular refrain) and a willingness to run a policy that will have transitional damping of the losses many might face. This is precisely why we need a wider long term strategy for the housing system as a whole – it cannot be done piecemeal.

Fourth, doing research in real time can be a little bewildering in the context of devolving social security. What is more, we are now in a general election period and even after that we will then run into the Scottish election next year. It is certainly a lively and engaged time in terms of policy aims and the political discourse but this does not unfortunately equate to better long term coherency of policy making.  It just might be a necessary condition for better policy to the extent that it helps create an environment where people are more willing to think about policy more creatively. Perhaps? Similarly, as a result of the income tax and VAT proposals, Scotland will be fiscally highly-decentralised – who knows how these powers will actually change the policy positioning of those soon to be responsible for revenue as well as spending?


Gibb, K and Stephens, M (2012) Devolving Housing Benefit to Scotland – Discussion Paper. Chartered Institute of Housing (Scotland): Edinburgh


Sanctions, Evidence and Impacts  

Yesterday morning the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published a report on its work concerning benefit sanctions policy. Here I report the main findings of the committee’s inquiry and reflect on their recommendations, particularly with respect to evidence and the need for future research.

The Committee notes that unemployment benefits have always been conditional and that forms of benefit sanctions have been with us for four decades. They recognise also that the stringency has greatly increased in recent years but that such ‘active’ labour market policies are the norm internationally. The report summary argues that ‘despite the apparent political consensus, sanctions are controversial, because they withhold subsistence-level benefit payments from people who may have little or no other income’.

They go on to say that ‘we agree that benefit conditionality is appropriate and necessary, but it is essential that any system draws on robust evidence on the efficacy and impacts of sanctions, has clear and coherent rules, has strong safeguards to protect the vulnerable, is fair and proportionate, and effectively mitigates the risks of severe financial hardship. The sanctions regime, as currently applied, does not always achieve this…’.

The Committee’s work takes place in the context of the earlier Oakley Review of JSA sanctions. Reporting in July 2014, Oakley focused mainly on Work Programme sanction schemes. The Review found that while ‘not fundamentally broken’, several flaws were identified in terms of how the system was explained and communicated and that more had to be done to help vulnerable clients.

The UK Government responded to the 17 Oakley Review recommendations and accepted them all to different degrees. However, several months later and having heard one of the evidence providers to the House of Commons committee (David Webster) map out the nature and impact of the JSA sanctions system including how appeals work (or not), one is struck by how little reliable evidence there really is. Unless, that is, you undertake the stentorian efforts that an individual researcher like David Webster has had to do in order to collect meaningful numbers.

It is in this context that I want to focus on certain recommendations (8 out of 26) made by the Committee in their report yesterday. I think they speak volumes.

Recommendation 8 says that we need an evidence base to assess the efficacy and impacts of longer minimum sanction periods compared to shorter ones. There is also very limited evidence on the deterrent effect of financial sanctions. There needs to be evidence to assess whether or not the ‘use of sanctions is purely punitive’.

Recommendation 10 argues that DWP should use the implementation of universal credit to implement systems to allow it to monitor the onward journey of sanctioned clients, particularly those at risk of destitution.

Recommendation 17 follows the evidence of professionals in the field the committee argues that the sanctions regime should be much more targeted at the sub set of clients for whom the requirement for behaviour or attitudinal change is evidenced. This would also protect the more determined to get work and the more vulnerable. The committee recommends a pilot to trial this approach.

Recommendation 20 concludes that there is a strong case to review the underlying legislative framework so that sanctions are clearly defined and vulnerable groups protected.

Recommendation 22 notes that there remains a lack of evidence that financial penalties through sanctions move people with long term health conditions and disabilities closer to work. The Committee believes voluntary programmes are evidenced as being more appropriate and should be piloted as part of the DWP’s willingness to experiment with different models.

Recommendation 24 argues that people are not applying for hardship payments and discretionary hardship payments are not preventing people from experiencing severe financial hardship, in part because it takes 15 days of a sanctions period before they become available. The Committee therefore recommends better communications of these payments availability.

Recommendation 25. goes on to conclude that hardship payments should be made available from day one of a sanctions period. This is a particular issue where there are dependent children or other vulnerable groups involved.

Recommendation 26 is about suicides. The committee acknowledge the work being done by DWP to better understand individual cases but recommends that a body similar to the police complaints commission should be established to conduct reviews where an individual in receipt of an out of work working age benefit dies – and that lessons can be learned at every stage of policy and policy delivery by all agencies involved. The Committee notes that suicide is multi causal but that since February 2012 there have been 49 peer reviews of individual cases, 33 of which resulted in recommendations for further consideration.

To put these recommendations in other more direct terms – we don’t know what the effects are of longer-term sanctions. We do not know, second, what happens to people after they become sanctioned. Third, there is a profession/practice concern that the sanctions regime is blunt and untargeted catching many of the vulnerable and genuine job searchers: so much so that the underlying legal framework should be fundamentally reviewed. Fourth, there is little evidence that sanctions around ESA help get people closer to employment. Fifth, the system for the provision of hardship payments appears to have multiple flaws and should be available sooner. Finally, there is a need to do more to better understand and act upon suicides that may be linked to the sanctions regime.

We seem in conclusion to be a long way from the Committee’s definition of what a well-functioning sanctions/conditionality regime would look like. But to be honest, I found this to be a thoroughly depressing account of what is a massively disproportionate conditionality regime, which profoundly lacks evidence on its impacts, weak safeguards and wider consequences. To paraphrase Gandhi when he was asked what he thought about Western Civilization he replied to the effect that a civilized west would be a good idea.

The OBR and Welfare and Housing Benefit Spending Trends

The intrinsic difficulties facing agencies tasked to produce reliable forecasts for future years spend and caseload across different policies, are well known and understood. In the present debate over how future cuts in welfare spending will be achieved and the all too frequent implementation gap between planned savings and actual outturn spend, a degree of skepticism about deliverability is appropriate (before we get to questions of desirability or otherwise).

While scanning through the Budget’s supporting documents, I happened upon the OBR’s Welfare Trends Report, published in the Autumn of 2014. Of course, this turns out to be part of the immediate political narrative about welfare spending cuts following from the Chancellor’s statement, but I am actually interested here more in what it says about underlying factors and expected trends in welfare spending and their ‘forecast-ability’. In particular I want to look at the figures for Housing Benefit. I may be rather late to reading this report but I thought it was still worth exploring a little.

OBR argues that past data on a small number of drivers explain long-term trends in welfare spending (and implicitly will continue to do so in the future). The main candidates are: demographic trends, labour market trends, inflation & earnings growth, and, housing market trends. We can also point to successive incremental and then non-marginal policy changes especially after 2010. How policy change impacts on spend and caseload is of course far from straightforward, particularly in terms of assumptions made about second round behavioural changes conditional on benefit policy changes e.g. on labour supply or landlord behaviour. We return to this below.

Future welfare spending trends are forecast of the period 2013-14 to 2018-19. OBR expects welfare spending to rise in cash terms by 12.5%. However, this is less than the forecast growth in the economy. Thus, as a percentage of GDP, welfare spend will fall from 12.8% to 11.6%.

The forecasts are of course subject to risk. The chief risks are seen to be, first,  the uncertainty associated with the future of Housing Benefit, which may vary as a result of how the economy performs (jobs, wages and rents are the key variables). Second, policy change associated with disability and incapacity benefit is also viewed as an important source of risk to the forecast. Third, and believed to be less significant than the first two, the introduction of universal credit is also identified as a risk to the accuracy of future welfare spending forecasts.

Chapter 9 is the Housing Benefit (HB) chapter. Spending on HB in 2013-14 was £23.9 billion (more than £20 billion of which counted within the benefit cap). The OBR forecast that HB will rise in cash terms to £27.4 billion by 2018-19 but that because of forecast larger economic growth this will constitute a falling share of GDP – from 1.5% to 1.3% between 2013-14 and 2018-19.

There are some striking facts in this chapter. The remarkable rise, for instance, in those in employment on HB. This was 0.4 million in 2008 but had risen to 1.1 million in the middle of 2014 (i.e. 3.5% of all employed adults). Second, the important drivers of trend growth in HB has been real rent increases over time, the shifting caseload by tenure into the private rented sector (with its average higher rents) and also the impact of being the recipient of other benefits associated with HB. In this case the forecasts also assume an impact from the cumulative effects of welfare reform and that includes the retention of the bedroom tax.

OBR disaggregates the source of the increase in HB spend up to 2018-19 and much of it is the result of what they call HB only cases – almost entirely, renters in employment. They also point to the importance of the expected growth in Incapacity Benefit caseload linked to higher HB average awards. The growth is offset by expected falls in JSA through anticipated falls in unemployment, and also as a result of a decline to come in the pensioner HB caseload as a result of shifts in their treatment via benefits like pensioner credit.

However, OBR recognises that they have systematically underestimated the growth in HB spending in the (recent) past, and, while they think they have corrected for this, we should be cautious. It turns out that much of the risk or uncertainty in their forecasts will depend on the future pattern of tenure change and in particular how much home ownership grows relative to renting.

The home ownership tenure change  outcome is construed as the net effect of different policy impacts on home ownership rates: between help to buy schemes like the new ISA package versus the restrictive impact of the Mortgage Market Review condition.  I think there are several other tenure choice variables and market processes, not least likely rising future mortgage rates, that will shape this home ownership figure and perhaps, in the end, housing policy is actually less important to that change than the commentariat believe but that is another story. OBR also recognise that the future path of rents and the way the labour market evolves (in terms of wages and employment) will also matter. It would be helpful and very interesting to see how the model builders at OBR conceive of and operationalise the underlying housing and mortgage market within the wider models they use to construct these key parameters for welfare spend forecasts.

International Evidence on Housing Booms

This post authored by Alex Marsh and Ken Gibb

A recent NIESR paper by Armstrong and Davis (November 2014) compares the last two booms and busts in major OECD country housing markets. The authors present a thoughtful macroeconomic analysis of national housing markets and from there conduct panel data analysis of the determinants of house prices focusing on financial, debt and related variables.

The authors argue that comparison of the two most recent housing market cycles (1985-94 and 2002-11) can test the hypothesis that there was something unique about the most recent boom and its aftermath. They state that the housing market is widely considered to be the main cause of the global financial crisis (quoting such authorities as the IMF). However, the authors come away from overall reading of the data for the two cycles unconvinced. In their view the two cycles are sufficiently similar that it difficult to draw the conclusion that the most recent cycle is different in meaningful ways: it is certainly not unique. The implications is that if the received wisdom is incorrect and other factors were important in causing the crisis then macro-prudential policies in countries like the UK may be incorrectly targeted at the control of house prices and mortgage lending.


We are interested in this broad area for several reasons: why did economists miss the bubble nature of the housing market and its departure form fundamentals? Why did they miss the downturn in national housing markets? How plausible are the microfoundations of the models being used to analyze the housing market and explain what is actually going on? What do these analytical weaknesses tell us about the health or otherwise of economics and its capacity to evolve and learn for future challenges?

On reading the Armstrong and Davis paper we were struck by several points that we felt warranted comment. First, is there something of a straw man at the heart of this paper – do we really consider the house price boom to be the source of the GFC? Second, while the descriptive analysis is valuable and the technique is sound and well-derived from the literature, might it have been done differently? Third, does the principal policy inference, regarding the greater regulation of house prices and mortgage lending, stand up on the basis of this analysis?

Do analysts really generally view the housing market boom as the cause of the GFC? It is surely more that the sub-prime securitization and its exposure in the market for US mortgages in 2003 or 2004 onwards left the housing market vulnerable. Accelerating default contagion both collapsed the US housing market nationally (and that was different from the previous cycle) and spread through those exotic mortgage securities to stifle the wholesale money market and create the credit crunch which negatively impacted in many national housing markets across the OECD. Housing, and more particularly lending for housing, triggered a national market downturn which undermined wider international banking and thereafter fed back into other national housing systems.

Unfortunately, the data and analysis offered by Armstrong and Davis does not allow for this type of argument to be tested. In some senses, it requires a reconceptualisation of the housing (finance) market to recognise interdependence and network effects. It certainly requires a stronger focus on institutional innovations that is possible with the data available. To be fair, having presented their analysis, Armstrong and Davis note a range of factors and hypotheses ripe for further investigation. These include some of these institutional changes. So from our perspective it feels a little like the paper stops before it has a chance to grapple with some of the most interesting questions.

The analysis, understandably, constrains itself to using standard periods in order to attempt to capture national housing market cycles. Yet, despite the widely recognised increase in the synchronisation of housing market cycles cross-nationally, there is no reason to think that the OECD countries examined had similar period market cycles. The UK for instance moved into housing market downturn much later than the US. Moreover, downturns had different implications because of different default laws and bankruptcy implications. Getting a stronger sense of the timing of the turning points of these national cycles would itself be a useful contributor to the causal story being constructed.

Finally, the paper draws the policy inference that greater caution may be justified regarding the strength of the macroprudential case for regulating house prices and mortgage lending. It is important here to be clear what macroprudential regulation is seeking to achieve. Setting aside the macroeconomic stability arguments for a moment, isn’t there a housing-specific case for moderating the volatility of house prices and reducing market cycles? Whether macroprudential policy instruments are the right levers to use or are effective in damping price cycles are separate – and bigger – questions.

It may be that financial instruments are less effective than more direct housing policies in stabilizing the housing market. Or it may be that such policies can be complementary and work in tandem. Yet, in reality we face a context in which there is a willingness to consider active macroprudential regulation but a reluctance to intervene directly to generate greater housing market stability – if not an inclination among politicians to introduce policies that are more likely to increase volatility. Macroprudential tools can have more or less targeted impacts on housing markets. We should be cautious about bypassing them as a policy option. There is, of course, much more to learn about the most effective design for macroprudential policy instruments. This is an area in which a number of countries are experimenting with different approaches and there is undoubtedly scope for cross-national policy learning.

Alex Marsh is at the University of Bristol and is the purveyor of Alex’s archives at

Housing, the Economy and the Election

I was a late stand-in at the Scottish Chartered Institute of Housing conference in Glasgow this afternoon. The session was about the economy’s uneasy relationship with the housing system. Also speaking were a business economist (Lloyds chief economist Donald MacRae) and a leading business and economy media representative (Douglas Fraser from the BBC). I was the filling in the middle.

We all agreed on the need for more homes and that housing supply should be much more responsive permanently (and I echoed the RICS Commission’s suite of land supply, planning and national land agency proposals, as well as many of those ideas that came out of the Lyons Review in England). We also agreed that there was an opportunity in Scotland  to reshape property taxes more positively but that it would be far from easy. There was surprising (to me) common ground about replacing the council tax with another form of property taxation such as a land value tax (although I am still unsure about whether it should be a national rather than a local tax). There was also some common ground about the inefficiency of any kind of transaction tax but at the same time the recognition that we cannot realistically cut the overall tax take in the present fiscal context of austerity. There was also a shared assumption that short run volatile but long term rising real house prices made no sense for the economy or for the people living there.

And there is the rub, We kind of know what the problem is and can see a set of different combination of progressive policies that might help us get where we want to go to but the politics, institutions and incentives operating make it awfully hard to get started.

This was the essence of my presentation. In a recent Knight Frank post there was a helpful matrix summary of the UK parties’ housing policies prior to the launch of manifestos. While they individually made noises towards more supply and a range of ancillary and sometimes plain ideological proposals, the parties’ proposals generally lacked two key things. One, it was not always clear how stated claims were actually to be achieved. Second, there was simply no recognition of the long term nature of the housing problem, and that it is not doing it justice simply to call it a crisis. Rather, it is an endemic, chronic set of underlying problems that periodically flare up into specific panics.

Economists talk about time inconsistency problems and I think that is what we have here. As I have said many times before: housing policy, tax and social security reform require carefully developed and transitioned policies that protect and compensate losers. This will take more than  one Parliament to achieve so there has to be credible buy-in to a broad consensus about policy aims, means, resources, timescale and what success looks like.

There are only two ways to get this sort of positive situation. One is something like a New Labour one party state for three Parliaments, a situation which led to comprehensive social rent restructuring introduced over more than a decade (even it was undermined by the knock on effects of the Coalition’s remaking of affordable homes programmes). The alternative is to build an all party, civic society coalition, as was the case with homelessness in Scotland which is then phased in over a decade.  

So, it can be done but why should it? One good reason that is not articulated enough is to stress the upstream preventative benefits of more supply-side interventions (shifting the balance back from the demand side over a period of years). Better quality low cost housing stock can improve health, reduce carbon emissions and energy costs, encourage people into work because they have security in their home, and it can be used to provide more tailored solutions that can keep older tenants safe in their homes and communities for longer. Of course, we need better evidence about these effects (and a plausible theory of change to bring it about) but one does not get the sense that the housing sector is clearly making this case in a unified way but rather is doing it strand by strand in separate sets of intervention narratives. The Scottish Government wants a decisive shift to prevention. Might this be part of the way that the housing sector makes the case for the long term refocusing of its policy framework?

A final thought. I reprised the argument this afternoon that it is simplistic to describe Scottish housing as wholly devolved because of  the UK mortgage market, the rules governing public finance, most of social security (and also post-Smith) being run by DWP and the fact that plenty of the taxation (and non-taxation) of housing remains at the UK decision-making level. I believe this is this both true and significant. It means that the Scottish Government  has surprisingly little influence over the home ownership sector as a whole, for instance. Social housing, and to a lesser extent private renting, is diverging from rUK but it is constrained by this underlying hybridity. I worry that UK and Scottish governments’ housing policies can all too easily come into conflict or simply not work together well. Incomplete devolution of housing is perhaps inevitable in our present constitutional settlement (and perhaps would also have been under the Yes campaign’s economic independence lite) but it could be a real constraint to progress. Unless we believe that a future UK Government does the right thing. Holding one’s breath is not an option. 

Shifting public services to focus on prevention: impediments & implications

This post was written by James Mitchell and Kenneth Gibb and also appears on the What Works Scotland website 

There is a consensus that the Christie Commission’s emphasis on shifting to prevention is the right direction of travel if outcomes are to be improved for people and communities and reduce future demands on public services. There is also a consensus that this is not happening at the pace desired. What stands in the way of progress? How can it be overcome?

We have found that the well-established public-policy framework of ‘Ideas, Institutions, and Interests’ [1], is a useful way to frame this discussion. In developing work in this area, we have also interviewed practitioners across a range of services. Taking each of the three ‘I’s in turn we can identify key impediments.


The academic literature distinguishes between different forms of prevention: primary, secondary and tertiary or upstream and downstream [2]. Practitioners often do not see these distinctions as important – preferring early focus on a problem or issue and how it can be addressed at this stage. It is not so much the idea of prevention that is contested as where prevention sits alongside public service activities.

Prevention is only one amongst a number of public service ideas and not always the priority in service delivery. Prevention competes with policy enforcement, prioritizing between short run policy choices, responsive policy, and crisis management for the attention of policy-makers. Each of these is important and no serious policy-maker, at local or national levels would place more emphasis on prevention if it meant abandoning any of the others. In many cases, these distinctions break down. Almost all policies can be presented as having a responsive element.

In policing, for example, the enforcement of a law may ensure that future infringements are prevented. Triage nursing, as with any triage approach in public policy, is defined as early assessment in order to identify priorities. Done well, it involves preventing the deterioration of an existing condition. Crisis management is similar.

The emphasis on prevention needs to be set alongside these other ideas and demands.


It is long well established that institutions have path dependent properties ie it is very difficult for any institution to change course once working practices have been established. Institutions adopt practices that become deeply embedded. A significant change of emphasis may sound simple but exhortation is not enough. Familiar practices become engrained norms.

Not only are practices engrained but we currently set short- to medium-term goals and targets that place little, if any, emphasis on long-term prevention. As the long-term is little more than the combination of short-terms, then we can hardly be surprised that our long-term goals are not met if short-term goals are different from long-term goals

A fundamental shift to prevention will not be easily achieved even when a consensus exists to move in that direction.

Adopting or giving greater priority to prevention when public services are already under pressure raises questions as to how this shift should occur and who will take the lead. Prevention may be the better approach in the long term but Keynes’ famous comment is apposite, ‘in the long run, we are all dead’. In the short and medium term, public services must address immediate challenges. Public service is judged by the immediate. Punishments, plaudits and promotion are all awarded in response to recent past and immediate activities. Prevention will often involve a shift across a range of public services and it will not always be easy to identify culpability for the failure to make the shift or credit when it is achieved. Our public services are judged in terms that make it very difficult to prioritise prevention.

To put it crudely, there is little credit for prevention.


This brings us to interests. It is in the collective interest to shift to prevention but not necessarily, at least in the short term, in the interest of any single institution. In a world of tight public finances, a shift in resources (whether money, time or effort) involves a cut elsewhere. Everyone looks to everyone else to make the shift and progress is not realised. We face the familiar prisoners’ dilemma.

And the game-theoretic ideas can be extended usefully. A non-co-operative structure of inter-institutional relationships may be frowned upon, but it would be naïve to think that this never can occur. Nor would it be sensible to ignore the possibility of non-altruistic behaviour by senior bureaucrats in such circumstances. How do we move towards a co-operative game, one in which opportunities for prevention and collaboration are encouraged and rewarded?


So far, the message is bleak. We want a shift to prevention but are unable to effect it, at least at pace. But acknowledging what appears to be a bleak situation is the first stage towards addressing the challenge.

Three responses are proposed:

  1. Ideas and mindsets in training and workplace.
  2. Incentivise a shift to prevention and disincentivise other practices.
  3. Force the pace by removing institutional impediments.


There remains a remarkable lack of emphasis on prevention in recruitment and socialisation. Consider the job descriptions and training in a range of public services. How often is prevention emphasized or even mentioned? Leadership plays an important part in this. If the message from the top is not on prevention then the behaviour through any service is unlikely to give it priority. There is a need to consider the extent to which the very idea of prevention is given anything like the place it ought to be given.

All public services would be well served by conducting an audit on prevention in its internal messaging. This should include an internally managed but participative mapping of the types of spending and activity undertaken by the organization to encourage creative thinking and identifying prevention organically.


Our institutions operate in silos in which each looks to others to lead on prevention. This is most evident in the financial silos that operate within public services. It is frequently asserted that a shift in resource towards prevention by one institution will only benefit others. This relates strongly to the above observation on short-termism and non-co-operation.

Current institutional arrangements rest on the hope that different institutions will find common cause in pursuing common long-term objectives. This might happen but it runs contrary to immediate rational behaviour.

There needs to be an examination of short- to medium-term goals and targets. If the emphasis here fails to permit space for prevention then we should not be surprised if there is no shift to prevention. From the outset of collaborations, inter-agency activities and joint projects, the mindset and priority of prevention needs to be embedded by leaders and in the work of their staff. It should be a fundamental aspect of any inter-organisational working. This, rather than focusing on outcomes over a defined period, is where the decisive shift to prevention may actually occur – in the embedding of processes that will, over time, achieve a range of prevention benefits.

There needs to be a closer examination of the goals and targets set to ensure an emphasis on long-term at the expense of short- to medium-term efforts.


Aligning interests and objectives may seem obvious but currently there is little effort to do this. The suggestion is that we need to think again about the set of rewards and incentives for pursuing prevention that are used to encourage public service workers, organisations and collaborations between agencies. Is there a public sector equivalent to something akin to a private sector consortium savings pool where contractors can share in savings made by cutting costs against targets.


  1. link here to Giandomenico Majone, ‘Public Policy and Administration: Ideas, Interests and Institutions’ in Robert E. Goodin and Hans-Dieter Klingemann (1998), A New Handbook of Political Science,

  1. See: P.Hardiker, K. Exton, and M. Barker, Literature Reviews: Crime Prevention and Prevention in Health Care, University of Leicester, Report for the Department of Health 1986.

Fractals, Community Planning and Place-based Geography in West Dunbartonshire

This post co-authored by Kenneth Gibb and Claire Bynner

A core part of our work at What Works Scotland involves working with our case study partners in four Community Planning Partnership (CPP) areas, one of which is West Dunbartonshire. In our first meeting with local officers from the local authority we were struck by the complexity of the long-term challenges in the area as well as the knowledge and tenacity of its staff. The work of local officers spans a vast range of policy areas from economic regeneration, education, unemployment, long- term ill health and comorbidity, equalities, as well as local history, tourism and culture (Dumbarton Castle sits on the site a pre-historic fortress and has a longer history than any other site in Britain; at the same time the council area borders the southern end of Loch Lomond).

According to the 2014-17 Single Outcome agreement, West Dunbartonshire is the tenth smallest Scottish local authority by population (circa 90,000) and the second smallest in terms of land area. It is due west of Glasgow, has many of its neighbour’s socio-economic challenges (and West Dunbartonshire’s share of the worst 5% of SIMD datazones has doubled in the last eight years). West Dunbartonshire combines a high density settlement (Clydebank) with a more rural hinterland beyond the market town of Dumbarton. In addition to struggling to manage the post-industrial economic context, West Dunbartonshire has relatively high levels of ESA and JSA claimants and employment or income-based deprivation. Structural determinants also probably account for high measured levels of health inequalities.

Fractals are naturally occurring phenomena characterized by possessing the same fundamental shape at different scales. A well-known example is a coastline, which has the same jagged shape close up in detail or in terms of its larger shape measured by satellite. The beginning of the community planning partnership case study collaborative action research appears to in some ways demonstrate similar issues but this time in terms of governance challenges of similar kinds re-emerging at different spatial scales.

As in Glasgow, the West Dunbartonshire community planning partnership network is proposing to establish a place-based neighbourhood approach to public service reform. In Glasgow, the similar policy is Thriving Places. In many respects, both cases involve replicating partnership ideas and mechanisms down to local level from the CPP. The intention is that resources, partnership working and integration will be focused on local priorities that can deliver improved public services and better community outcomes.

The initiative is taking place at a time of immense budgetary pressure, which is manifested across the Council in multiple ways. These cuts have implications for both staffing in the Council and the CPPs but also of course for services. CPPs have to deliver and integrate improved services with fewer funds and less backroom capacity (e.g. analytical and research functions). This is against a backdrop of competing pressures across the CPP landscape (e.g. health and social care integration, and new responsibilities for areas like community justice, etc.).

It is clear that strong leadership from the senior officers in the West Dunbartonshire CPP will be needed to ameliorate the worse effects of austerity whilst devolving power to local areas. Yet, perhaps an even more significant challenge will be finding a way to shift from an incremental approach to improving public service towards an integrated preventative agenda. We are looking forward to working with officers and communities in West Dunbartonshire on taking that agenda forward.