1. Neighbourhood Warmth – monthnotes #3

    This is the third part in a short series of month notes about our Neighbourhood Warmth project. It has also been cross-posted on the blog of our project partner, Dark Matter Labs.

    A recap of what we’re working on

    Home energy is a major source of carbon emissions in the UK. If we’re going to reach our Net Zero goals, our existing homes need to be more efficient in the energy they use, and need to use energy from renewable sources. This process is called ‘retrofit’.

    The UK government has set a goal to become Net Zero by 2050, and many local authorities have goals that are even more ambitious. Yet most of the homes of 2050 already exist today. If we’re going to reach this Net Zero goal, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) estimates that we need to be retrofitting two homes every minute.

    In previous stages of this project we heard how the current individualised approach to retrofit isn’t working. Technical expertise, access to finance, limited supply, and trust in solutions and suppliers were all listed as barriers to the adoption of retrofit. Neighbourhood Warmth is our prototype of a digital service to overcome those barriers, through a community-led approach to domestic retrofit.

    What does a community-led approach look like?

    As is usually the case with early stages of a digital tool, our understanding of the core purpose of Neighbourhood Warmth (NW) has evolved with the feedback we’ve received.

    Our early versions of the prototype suggested a service that supports not only the formation of neighbourhood groups around a shared retrofit challenge, but then gives some amount of advice and support for those groups as they progress through retrofit projects together.

    As the process has gone on, we’ve come to understand these as two more separate phases in the overall retrofit journey.

    Structuring, coordinating, and delivering community retrofit projects is an incredibly complex challenge in its own right. But when demonstrating our prototype this summer, we were encouraged to discover a few organisations already attempting this – notably Novoville’s forthcoming Shared Works platform.

    It therefore became more clear that a key role Neighbourhood Warmth could play is the bit that comes before that – something that enables neighbours to kickstart action. Something that surfaces and then builds demand, and allows neighbourhood groups to connect with suitable suppliers, coordinators, or support schemes.

    Co-design & feedback workshops

    In the previous monthnotes we named some of the co-design workshops we were organising with various groups to gather feedback on what works and what doesn’t with the current alpha version of Neighbourhood Warmth.

    We hosted several online workshops with community-based groups in Birmingham and Frome, and one with local authority retrofit specialists in UKGBC’s officer forum.

    What did we learn?

    1. Local Authorities see potential for how they could talk to residents and structure funding

    With Net Zero targets in place, but huge gaps in funding and resources, many local authorities are struggling to engage and understand where interest in retrofitting and energy efficiency might be. Having a map of where neighbours are connecting and what they’re interested in organising around could support local authorities to play a convening role to unlock action that is greater than the sum of its parts. Combining that data with information on deprivation, population density or other relevant factors might reveal opportunities for better deploy funding to drive change.

    2. We should be more explicit about the problems Neighbourhood Warmth exists to solve

    In our workshops we heard that Neighbourhood Warmth was both too specific, and not specific enough. Some residents asked for a version of Neighbourhood Warmth that extended beyond just home retrofit, and into shared infrastructure like solar panels, green spaces and transport. Others felt the different types of “challenge” presented in the tool were already too confusing for most users, and that a clearer focus on one specific “ask” would be the most effective way to spur local action.

    One challenge here is that people have different motivations for exploring retrofit. Our alpha acknowledged that by flashing these up on the homepage: “We’re connecting neighbours to… stay warm… save energy… save money… improve health… save the planet…” Common Cause Foundation emphasises the importance of framing in communications. Framing activates different values and impacts on people’s propensity to exercise those in future. More consistent framing could create a more coherent experience for users of a digital service like this, and overcome confusion about its purpose.

    Other feedback suggested that we should consider gauging users’ interests, experience, capacity and preferences upfront to inform a more tailored welcome journey before encouraging them to connect with neighbours?

    3. Giving too much advice could be risky

    The one thing to remember about building science is that it’s complicated, and can go wrong quickly. If we’re enabling people to self-organise  and take home energy action, then what responsibility do we have to make sure that things go well. Because retrofitting is often highly dependent on each individual home and the residents living there, professional knowledge can’t be easily codified and made digital. But grouping people into similar house types in similar locations could reduce the cost of accessing knowledge, increase the chance of people doing so and provide safety in numbers for neighbours engaging with suppliers collectively.

    4. There are group projects in the UK that we can learn from

    Levenshulme Area Based Retrofit by Carbon Co-op – “Homes will be offered a set package of retrofit works, similar to the other houses in the scheme, but with small adjustments to fit the home and household’s priorities. The scheme’s approach is based around learnings from Carbon Co-op’s Retrofit for All Toolkit to ensure householders are centred in the process.

    POWER in Walthamstow -”a ‘show and do’ project building a solar POWER STATION across the rooftops (streets, schools, community buildings) of North East London via enacting a grassroots Green New Deal – working with art and infrastructure to tackle the interlinked climate/energy/cost of living crises.”

    HUBBUB’s work -”In partnership with OVO Energy Solutions, we’ve begun a trial to explore ways that residents of a selected street in Glasgow can make collective changes to tackle increasing costs of energy to retrofit homes at the scale needed. We aim to work with approximately twenty households to make individual and collective home improvements from ‘try-it-now’ behaviour changes to insulation and renewable energy measures. The project will also test how economies of scale can cut the cost of retrofitting.”

    Novoville – “Our ambition is clear: to be the countrywide platform for energy efficiency and decarbonisation of homes in Britain. Crucial to our ambition is building on our existing collaborative platform: retrofitting 26 million homes will not happen flat-by-flat, but block-by-block. Buying a heat pump will not be done home-by-home, but street-by-street.”

    What’s next?

    With this early alpha phase of work coming to a close, we’re a bit clearer on the research questions described in earlier monthnotes. But we haven’t got to the bottom of them yet. That said, there’s consensus around the idea of broadening our collaboration in order to do that.

    In particular we’re keen to collaborate with an organisation that engages directly with householders to help them take home energy action. This should allow more rigorous testing of the next version of Neighbourhood Warmth, based on whether householders and other actors behave differently when a digital service exists to support their efforts.

    And while we continue to grapple with the scope of the service and delve into the value it might provide to different stakeholders, some interesting avenues are emerging. Recent conversations with potential collaborators have led us to consider the potential for Neighbourhood Warmth to broaden participation in flexibility markets and heat networks. And with that, a whole new set of research questions suggest themselves. We’ll hope to share more on that in our next set of monthnotes, but we’d love to hear from you in the meantime.

    Please get in touch to share thoughts or suggest a chat – especially if you provide home energy services and have thoughts on how this work could help!

  2. CE UK and mySociety are using people power and Freedom of Information to bring transparency to local climate action

    A story in this week’s Financial Times [paywalled] has brought the EPC ratings of council-owned properties into the public conversation. This story was based on data obtained through FOI requests as part of the Council Climate Action Scorecards project, which we’ve been working on in partnership with Climate Emergency UK (CE UK).

    What you can read in the FT is one story pulled from a wealth of data, but there’s more to come. Our WhatDoTheyKnow Projects tool allowed CE UK’s team of volunteers to conduct a nationwide survey of every council through well-placed FOI requests covering the use of renewable energy, plans for retrofitting, green skills training, road expansion and more. 

    The data they gathered has allowed for the understanding of councils’ action on a nationwide scale. This level of oversight has not previously been possible: as with so much about the Scorecards project, it is allowing councils to take more informed action on climate, and individuals to clearly understand what is being done.

    Why local action matters

    In the UK, it is estimated that around one third of carbon emissions are in some way under the influence of local authorities. 80% of UK councils have declared a ‘climate emergency’ to indicate they recognise the scale of the problem of climate change, and are in a position to take practical steps to be part of the solution. To help local authorities achieve the goals they set themselves (and to push them to go further), we need to engage with the plans that local authorities are making, and the actions they are starting to take. 

    In 2021, CE UK and mySociety worked together to produce the first Council Climate Plan Scorecards. CE UK’s upcoming launch is the second iteration of the Scorecards. It is much bigger and more ambitious in scope than the last: it scores not the plans, but the climate actions of every local authority in the UK. 

    FOI requests were just one part of the process. As well as giving CE UK access to WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, we developed a crowdsourcing tool for volunteers to use while marking across the 90+ datapoints collected for each council. 

    How do you score action?

    CE UK moved from scoring plans to scoring actions. That required new approaches to gathering the information. 

    The questions CEUK used in the new Scorecards are the result of a long and thorough process of research and refinement. Building on their own research and expertise, they conducted one-on-one consultations with approximately 80 organisations and sector-specific experts. An advisory group of environmental and local government experts provided further discussion and refinement, to help build a list of questions that would practically be possible to answer, and that would reveal important information about the climate actions of councils. 

    The aim was to identify areas where information was publicly accessible; but also where gaps existed, especially in operational matters that aren’t often made public. Additionally, CE UK wanted to investigate whether councils are truly implementing the actions outlined in their climate action plans, including aspects like lobbying for additional powers.

    Making use of Freedom of Information

    Freedom of Information laws means that a huge range of information held by public authorities (including local councils) can be requested by any person who asks. This provides a legal tool to create greater transparency where information is not being published proactively.

    For CE UK, the potential of FOI for the Scorecards project was clear – but there were concerns. In consultations with council staff, there was pushback regarding the use of FOI requests due to the potential time and financial burden on council officers who work on climate – with some requests for a more informal survey approach to be used. But the drawback of that would be making good data dependent on goodwill everywhere. FOI requests provided a way to make sure the scorecards were not just effective for councils who engaged with the process and provide an approach that was fair across the country. 

    To balance a process where they want to encourage positive engagement from councils, with one that works without that, CE UK’s approach was to plan out the most efficient and least burdensome use of FOI requests. 

    Based on feedback from the advisory group, and trial runs to a small number of councils, they eliminated questions that were less important and useful, made more ‘yes/no’ or ‘single number’ responses, and learned where certain questions weren’t relevant to certain areas or groups of councils. 

    The subsequent FOI requests became more streamlined, and this resulted in quicker response times for the final requests than they had in the trial – as the information sought was more direct and concise.

    In the end, CE UK submitted a total of over 4,000 FOI requests to councils across the UK. The questions were divided into 11 categories, with some being specific to certain types of councils, such as district councils or combined authorities. The next stage was taking these 4,000 requests and getting them into a form that can be used for the scorecards. 

    Crowdsourcing and review process

    CE UK used WhatDoTheyKnow to manage their FOI request process. mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow acts as a public archive for requests – requests made through the site have the responses shown in public to bring more information into the open  – making it more discoverable by other people interested in the information, and reducing the need for duplicate requests being made. As of 2023, a million requests for information have been made through the site, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of information being released. 

    A feature we are trialling with a range of organisations is WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, which integrates crowdsourcing tools into WhatDoTheyKnow, and allows the task of extracting information into a new dataset to be spread out. The goal is that this helps organisations be more ambitious in finding out information and helps people work together to create genuinely new and exciting datasets, that no single organisation has ever seen. 

    As CE UK’s approach already made heavy use of volunteers and crowdsourcing, this was a natural fit.  Alongside a wider group of 200 volunteers working on getting answers to the other questions, 15 volunteers specifically worked on the FOI requests. These volunteers were a mixture of people with prior experience or professional interest in FOI requests, campaigners well-versed in FOI processes, and individuals new to the concept but eager to engage in activism.

    After the crowdsourcing of FOI data was complete, it joined the rest of the data in the new tool mySociety had developed for helping volunteers crowdsource information for the Scorecards.  

    From here, councils were given access to the data collected about them and given a right of reply to correct any inaccuracies or point towards information not previously discovered or disclosed. The results of this process will then be reviewed to produce the final Scorecards data, which will be launched this month.

    But the Scorecards data will not be the only useful thing that will come out of this process. Because of how WhatDoTheyKnow was used, to see evidence supporting the final Scorecards, people will be able to click through and see the original responses, for instance, to see what councils have lobbied on support for their climate work. 

    Some of the FOIs are being used to construct datasets that have a broader impact, and here we come back to that FT story on the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings of council-owned houses. Building these new public datasets will be useful for councils to understand their own situation, and as we see with the news story, more broadly to understand the challenges ahead for local governments to meet net zero emissions goals. 

    Onwards

    The original Scorecards project has already been influential on how local governments understand their own plans, and how organisations like the UK’s Climate Change Committee understand the role and progress of local government in the challenges ahead. When the next generation of Scorecards is released, we hope that they continue to be useful in shaping and improving local government action around climate change.

    mySociety believes that digital technology can be used to help people participate more fully in democracy, make governments and societies more transparent, and bring communities together to address societal challenges.

    The Scorecards project showcases how the combination of digital tools, people power, and the right to information produces powerful results. We hope that the impact of this project can inspire and make possible similar approaches for other problems, or in other countries.

  3. ICO advisory note on publishing spreadsheets

    Following the PSNI and other recent data breaches, the ICO has issued guidance to public authorities. This guidance suggests a temporary stop on publishing Excel-style spreadsheets in response to FOI requests made via online platforms like WhatDoTheyKnow. The full advisory note is available online

    The advisory note emphasises that this is not a reason not to disclose requested information. Instead, the ICO says to release the information from original source spreadsheets as a CSV file – a simpler format than Excel Workbooks, with less potential for including hidden sheets or metadata that can lead to an accidental breach.

    A focus on file formats is a blunt measure, and one that will need to be superseded by better procedures and technical processes.

    We support authorities releasing data in the most appropriate format for the information being requested. This may sometimes mean an extract from a table, and sometimes a complete document. Excel spreadsheets are legitimate public documents, and information released in this format can be hugely valuable. It’s important to develop processes where they can be released safely. 

    Significant data breaches involving Excel files clearly show the risks when data management and release processes fail. These include not just breaches we see through WhatDoTheyKnow, but through disclosure logs and releases made directly to requesters. This is an opportunity for public authorities, the ICO and us at WhatDoTheyKnow to reflect on how we can best deliver the huge benefits of public transparency while safeguarding personal data. 

    Modern authorities need to be good at handling data. Data breaches happen at the intersection of technical and human processes. The FOI team can be the last link in the chain of a data breach when they release the information, but the root cause often goes back to wider organisational issues with the handling of sensitive data.

    In the short run, the ICO has recommended training for staff involved with disclosing data. Many teams already have excellent processes and do excellent work, but all authorities should take this opportunity to consider their responsibility on the data they hold, and have appropriate processes in place.

    Long term progress means developing good universal processes that keep data safe, regardless of the format of the data or how the data is released. All FOI releases should in principle be treated as if they are being released to the public, because the authority’s ability to stop a data breach ends when the information is released. Making FOI responses public produces huge efficiencies for the public sector, increasing transparency in practice, and multiplying the benefit to society of the information released. 

    Technology can also be part of the solution – we need to understand more about why existing technical ways of removing hidden information from Excel spreadsheets are not being used (as described in the ICO’s established guidance on disclosing information safely), and how new tools or guidance can make it easier to release data safely. 

    A core part of our work at WhatDoTheyKnow is dealing with the practical reality of promoting public transparency while protecting personal information. We take data breaches seriously and have processes in place for dealing with them as promptly as possible. We continue to plan and work to help reduce the occurrences and impact of personal data breaches through both our procedures and technical approach. 

    By monitoring how authorities respond to requests on WhatDoTheyKnow, we will seek to understand how this guidance is working in practice, and engage with the ICO and other organisations to promote effective long term approaches to this problem. 


    Notes on the content of the advisory

    Below is our understanding of the advisory note by subject matter:

    Freedom of Information requests

    • Continue to comply with FOI responsibilities. This guidance is about releasing information in a way that reduces risk of accidental disclosure. 
    • Temporarily, do not release original source spreadsheets to online platforms like WhatDoTheyKnow. Instead – convert and release to CSV files.
    • If that is not possible, then:
      • Ask if the Excel sheet can be sent to a separate (non-public) address. Proceed with the original address if they ask for this. 
      • In all releases, go through processes to ensure there is no data breach in the material. 

    General data management

    • Excel files are unsuitable working environments when they become very large (hundreds of thousands of rows). Authorities need to switch to appropriate data management systems that are more appropriate for managing larger amounts of data.  
    • Staff who use data software and are involved in disclosing information need continuous training.  
    • Understanding of pivot tables and their risks should be incorporated into data management.

    The ICO plans to update their guidance on Disclosing Information Safely

    The checklist released accompanying the advisory has several useful steps on checking for hidden data in Excel sheets. However, on the ‘considered alternative ways to disclose’ step, refer back to the steps in the advisory note. Information converted to CSV can be released to WhatDoTheyKnow in compliance with the advisory note. The advisory note says that the source dataset should continue to be released to WhatDoTheyKnow if it cannot be converted, the requester does not want to use an alternative route, and the authority is confident it does not contain a data breach.

  4. mySociety recommendations in new ‘The Future Is Local’ report

    Over the summer, we were invited to be a part of the Local Mission Zero Network consultation, and we’re thrilled that our key fragmented data policy recommendations have been included in the new report, as well as recognition for some of our wider work on climate. 

    Rt Hon Chris Skidmore OBE MP, former Net Zero Review Chair and one of the co-authors of the report, said:

    “The Local Mission Zero Network’s first report, The Future Is Local, sets out over thirty recommendations to further the Net Zero Review’s local delivery mission. It’s clear that if central government won’t step up, it should get out of the way and allow local and regional leaders to forge ahead with their positive vision to achieve local Net Zero in partnership with communities up and down the country. Unleashing their ambition is the most effective way to harness the economic and regional growth opportunities that Net Zero can unlock.

    I’d like to thank MySociety for their involvement in the network and also for their input in making key recommendations on the need for better data and information to achieve Net zero.”

    The report, co-authored with Lord Ben Houchen, released today, is “intended not only to highlight the continued challenges facing the local delivery of net zero, it also seeks to frame these challenges into a new framework for ensuring local authorities and regions have the certainty to achieve their net zero ambitions”. It is a much needed intervention, and makes clear that “in the current policy environment, and ahead of the next General Election, greater certainty over local net zero is essential”.

    Within Recommendation 1, Introduce a Local Net Zero Charter to agree responsibilities and enhance partnership between the UK government, devolved governments and regional, city and local authorities, there are three specific recommendations relating to our fragmented data work:

    1f) A Local Net Zero Data and Reporting Framework should be established, in order to provide consistency and increase integrity for reporting across local authorities.

    1g) The Net Zero Review recommended that ONS should collect more forms of net zero related data, and this network maintains that net zero will be better delivered the more we know, and where we know action needs to take place.

    1h) The need for open source and operable data is also important, if we are to encourage better uses of AI and future systems thinking. This data to be held in a central repository, supported by a central government data convenor.

    In the Unlocking the value of fragmented public data report we published last year, we stress the importance of local climate data being published in a way that is useful, ultimately creating positive feedback loops across the economy. It’s great to see the report emphasise this:

    “The challenge of fragmented and inoperable data standards is not merely a matter for more effective local authority performance. The future of energy system planning could be better forecast if several datasets were better aligned.” 

    The body of the report also highlights our conclusions about the kinds of climate data we need:

    more about how  local authorities reflect on their own progress. In these instances, free text which we can semantically search, is often most helpful. We need data around:

    • Personnel, systems & processes to manage climate monitoring and reporting. This helps us to understand who is doing the work, and how resource allocation happens. 
    • Progress since the last reporting period, and key areas of focus for the period ahead. This gives a vital sense of context and perspective from inside the reporting body, and helps situate the scale of work undertaken against work yet to be done.

    Finally, our CAPE project was mentioned as “effective monitor[ing]”, and we were so pleased to see the work we do with Climate Emergency UK to create the Climate Scorecards recognised: “By simplifying complex data, it allowed stakeholders to identify gaps and progress in climate initiatives, empowering communities to advocate for change”.

    If you’d like to read the report in full, you can find it here. You may even want to share some of the recommendations from the report with your MP, which you could do using our service WriteToThem

    Any questions for our policy team? Get in touch: policy@mysociety.org 

    Image: Minku Kang on Unsplash

  5. WriteToThem supports local campaigning

    In Plymouth, a determined group is fighting to save trees from being cut down in the city centre. They’re called STRAW, an acronym for Save the TRees of Armada Way.

    A small and local campaign it may be, but we recently noticed that it was sending a significant number of people to our ‘contact your representatives’ site WriteToThem. Curiosity piqued, we got in touch to find out more.

    Ali from STRAW was glad to talk to us. “The campaign started last September”, she explained, “when I learned that Plymouth City Council planned to regenerate Armada Way, a wide pedestrianised area which was covered in trees and runs through the heart of the city. It’s an area I live near, and was very fond of.

    “It was clear that some of the trees would have to be cut down in order to implement the design, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard about this plan before, since it looked like it was definitely going ahead, and quite soon.”

    A campaign is born

    What do you do when you find out that an unwanted change is planned in your own neighbourhood? Gather other people who feel the same, and go on a fact-finding mission, that’s what!

    And indeed, Ali explains: “I realised that I had no power on my own, so I decided I’d try and find out if other people knew about the plan and whether they were happy about it. 

    “Not long after, we discovered it wasn’t the case that some trees would be felled in order for the council to realise their new design. It was 99% of the 137 trees! 

    “Most of them were healthy, and most had been planted in the 80s, so they were trees which people had a real connection to. They’d grown up with them. They were like a little green oasis from quite a harsh urban landscape – an urban forest.”

    Democracy in action

    Once these startling facts had been pinned down, the group needed to take action. Their website provides multiple opportunities for activism: posters you can print out, a chance to donate, a petition to sign, and facts about the trees. Oh, and that link to WriteToThem!

    “The campaign was really one of public awareness”, says Ali. “But we also asked the people of Plymouth to contact the decision-makers and let them know how they felt about what was planned, and that they were unhappy that they had not been consulted on it.

    “We figured that if enough people wrote, they would realise what a bad decision it was. Democracy in action!”

    First steps into politics

    Since it’s a local campaign, STRAW encourages supporters to contact their councillors rather than their MP. WriteToThem doesn’t need you to know who your reps are before you email them, which proved very useful. 

    “Many people had no idea who their councillors were, and had certainly never written to them before. If nothing else, the campaign has got a lot more people in Plymouth to pay attention to local politics,” says Ali. 

    “The thought of having to look up who your councillor is before writing to them is a real barrier for people. WriteToThem makes it so easy, I really think it made a difference.

    “We saw it a bit like a protest. Rather than blocking the streets, we filled councillors’ inboxes with passionate messages – not to be vexatious but to show our strength of feeling. We heard that Plymouth City Council have never had anywhere like the amount of correspondence as they had on this issue. We didn’t get many responses but we knew we’d got our message over.”

    An ongoing campaign

    STRAW had a significant initial success: “In November, at a council meeting, the council passed a motion to pause the project to review it, to determine whether any more trees could be worked into the design. 

    “This was two months before we presented them our petition, and was directly as a result of their being inundated with emails!”

    But unfortunately, there was a huge setback when the plan went ahead regardless. 

    Chopped down trees in front of a fenced off area in Armada Way, Plymouth

    “We’re now in a legal case with the council over the way the Armada Way project has been handled,” says Ali, “and we are fighting to save the 20 trees which weren’t cut down in March as a result of a last minute injunction we managed to obtain.”

    Sad news, but it’s great to hear they’re still fighting on. and Ali reckons that even if STRAW didn’t achieve everything it had hoped for, their actions have still had a net positive effect. 

    “We’re hoping that the campaign will mean that there’s better public consultation in the future. We’ve demonstrated that local people really do care about how their city looks; they want a voice and they care about urban trees and the many benefits mature urban trees bring. 

    “We’d like the council to better consult not only with local people but local stakeholder groups and local experts, most of whom have been overlooked in recent years.”

    Trees matter

    There’s been a growing understanding of the importance of trees within the urban landscape, and particularly in the context of the climate emergency.

    They provide useful shade as the temperature rises; they decrease carbon, help mitigate flooding, increase biodiversity by providing homes for insects, birds and other creatures; and of course they simply make harsh city streets seem more appealing. A tree provides a natural place under which to place a table and chair, for example, reclaiming street use for people rather than traffic.

    Dark Matter Labs has produced this graphic to explain these benefits and more. See more in their Trees As Infrastructure project.

    a graphic showing how trees can reduce noise levels, improve wellbeing, decrease crime levels and reduce carbon among many other benefits.

    Image by Dark Matter Labs; click to see bigger

    A tool for campaigners

    With all this in mind, small neighbourhood campaigns to preserve trees seem all the more vital, and we’re pleased that our services can help. Would Ali recommend that others use WriteToThem as part of their campaigning toolkit?

    “Absolutely. WriteToThem really is so useful; it’s a wonderful tool. 

    “And if you’re campaigning about a situation that lots of people feel passionately about, it can only help if we make our elected officials aware of how we feel.”

    Many thanks to Ali for sharing STRAW’s story. If you’d like to get involved, you can find out more on their website.

     

  6. Navigating the new constituencies

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week our senior researcher, Alex Parsons, shares data we’ve produced about new constituencies, and how we should steer the process of boundary reform towards making our politics easier to navigate.

    The current set of parliamentary constituencies is being replaced for the next election. For some, the main effect is a name change, but for others the borders of constituencies will change substantially.

    Boundary reviews are carried out by four separate organisations — one for each nation — who each set their own boundaries. This means that no-one officially produces a single dataset of all the new constituencies covering the whole UK.

    That seems like a useful thing to have, so we’ve created it. We’ve made:

    The official GSS ID hasn’t been released for Northern Irish constituencies yet, so in the meantime we’re using a unique ID based on the three letter IDs for new constituencies created by Philip Brown and Alasdair Rae for their hexmap of the new constituencies. We’ll cover both IDs when they’re released, but the three letter ones are nice, and would be good to see adopted wider!



    Political equality means more than equal seats

    There are 650 MPs in the UK Parliament, each is elected from a constituency, and each constituency only has one MP.

    The main change in the new rules is reducing the tolerance for differences in the number of registered voters between constituencies, and ending the previous separate weighting of Wales. This means that some areas are affected much more than others by the change – with the number of Welsh seats reduced by eight, and Scotland losing two seats in total.

    Boundary changes aren’t just a technical process, but have impacts on the results of elections. In the UK, politicians can’t directly draw boundaries, but this doesn’t mean they’re not a political choice. The boundary commissions follow the rules they are set, but what these rules are (and how often they happen) are the subject of political debate where everyone has one eye on the outcomes that different sets of rules produce. The debate about “equal size constituencies” versus boundaries that reflect “natural communities” is in part about different perceived partisan advantages of drawing lines in different ways.

    Advocates of constituencies of equal size argue that this is about political equality. Now, we like political equality, but taking this argument seriously should lead you way past equal size to supporting a move to proportional representation. In practice, everyone in this debate accepts trade-offs between political equality and other factors. If we’re not going to have proportional representation, we think clear lines between different levels of government are features that should have real weight.

    Effective and understandable layers of representation

    We are in favour of layers of representation that are effective and easy to understand. Through postcode lookups on TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem we can explain the overlaps for a user’s own postcode, but the simpler the system the easier it is for people to understand what is happening – whether or not they visit one of our websites.

    When boundaries are less complex, it’s also easier for people working inside the system to understand how the pieces fit together. Tighter requirements on populations means more constituencies will cross local authority boundaries. Using our new datasets, we can say that the number of constituencies that have more than 5% of its population in at least one other local authority has increased from 26% to 38%.

    This means there are an increasing number of MPs who have a harder job than others – working with different or multiple local authorities depending on the issue at hand. Knowledge and understanding of local systems is much more complicated for these MPs, and getting problems to the right place is more challenging for their staff.

    Number of local authorities Current constituencies % Future constituencies %
    1 478 74% 404 62%
    2 155 24% 220 34%
    3 16 2% 26 4%
    4 1 0% 0%

    Tighter requirements also mean more frequent changes. The current timetable will lead to this process being repeated every other election, disrupting understanding of constituencies and processes of accountability.

    The reason we’ve produced this data in the first place is to help organisations we are working with transform information they have about current constituencies into information that is useful for new constituencies. Institutions inside and outside the formal political system develop an understanding of the country that is disrupted by changing boundaries.

    This problem also applies to the understanding MPs have of their own area – both in terms of learned understanding, and statistics and reports created to inform them. Changing boundaries means everyone has to change their understanding of what a constituency looks like. This is all bad from the point of view of effective understanding and interrelation of layered government.

    Something that should be key when designing our political system is making sure that it can be understood by citizens and representatives, and supports effective communication between layers of government.

    If we designed our institutions and boundaries to be easily navigated, rather than meet mathematical rules, what would that look like? Certainly there should be better alignment between different layers of government, but can we go further than that? We want better postcode data so that we can fix the problems of when the same postcode is in multiple areas, but from a public understanding point of view – why shouldn’t the line drawers respect postcode boundaries in the first place? They’re a lot more real to people than the process that produces our boundaries now.

    The way we draw our boundaries is part of wider arguments about the different priorities we have when we design political institutions – and the idea that things should be easy to understand and navigate is currently undervalued.





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    Image: Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash.

  7. Litter pickers are powered by a little neighbourhood pride… and FixMyStreet

    If you’re a litter picker – someone who goes out with binbags, gloves and a general determination to clean up your local area – then clearly you have a well-developed sense of pride in your neighbourhood.

    Little wonder, then, that many litter pickers use FixMyStreet as they go about their voluntary clean-ups. We love to see it — and we like it even more when they give a shoutout to the service on social media!

    This cheery bunch are the Kings Heath and Brandwood Litter Pickers, who quite honestly manage to make hard toil look like a fun social event. Indeed, they do often follow up their work cleaning up the streets with a cuppa and a chat.

    Kim Hudson, the pink-haired lady in that first picture, tweeted to say that not only had they filled seven binbags in a recent outing, but they’d used FixMyStreet to report five instances of fly tipping, broken paving and drain covers. Looks like they’re not averse to a few guerrilla tactics too…

    Tweet from Parks Community UK: "Awesome work, thank you all! Those poppies are so cheerful." Self-seeded? Response from Kim: "Ahem… maybe…. You wouldn’t prosecute a cute 87yr old for ‘Guerilla tactical wildflower bombing would you?"

    We messaged Kim, and she told us, “The Kings Heath & Brandwood Litter Pickers operate in south Birmingham. 

    “We meet every Sunday at 10, and we also support other local groups if they have a grotspot. I am known as the Dawberry Fields Fairy and have been known to litter-pick in my tutu!” Kim also told us to get in touch with the group’s founder, Andrea Quigley, if we needed more details — so we did! 

    Andrea explained the how group began: “It started about four years ago. My daughter was working in Spain and, returning one Christmas, was appalled at the litter on the streets. Spain is much cleaner. So, with a friend, we started the group”.

    Their grabbers, gloves, hoops, high viz vests and other equipment are funded by Kings Heath Business Improvement District, and Birmingham City Council provide the bags.

    It’s all very well organised: “Our members adopt roads and when they join say how many hours they are prepared to do each month. 

    “Some members just adopt their own streets; others do more. Only about ten of us meet on Sundays, but the group as a whole has about 65 members who just get on with it in their locality.”

    And how does FixMyStreet fit in?

    “We regularly use FixMyStreet to log issues — usually fly tipping — and it’s extremely useful and easy to use. 

    “In the email I send to new members, I always suggest they use FixMyStreet to report issues with the council. I think our team has made a difference to the area and the community and as we use FixMyStreet, that has too.”

    We’re really glad to be playing a part in this endeavour. We also enjoyed hearing about the logistics of the group – and the fun side – from Kim and Andrea. 

    If your neighbourhood could do with a clean-up, perhaps you’ll take inspiration from the Kings Heath and Brandwood posse, and get a group of litter pickers together. Sounds like the ideal social activity: a bit of physical exertion, a sociable chat, cleaner streets for everyone – oh, and the chance to wear a tutu if you’d like.

    Who knew litter picking could be so much fun!

    A litter picker in a field of long, yellow grass, posing with their grabber out and one foot in the air
  8. Mass mobilisation of supporters with WriteToThem

    Power for People would like to see a transformation in the way we provide energy in this country – by removing barriers to small-scale renewable energy schemes, owned and run by people in their local communities. 

    They’ve written draft legislation — the Local Electricity Bill — and are currently campaigning for it to be made law. Since our TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem services are an integral part of their campaign, we were keen to find out more.

    Power For People’s Corinna Miller was happy to help, firstly by explaining what drives the campaign: “We’re in the midst of an energy price crisis. It’s never been more obvious that we need cheap, clean, home-produced energy.”

    And their vision is one of a sweeping change to the UK’s energy provision. Right now, provision is limited to a few big monopolies with profits disappearing into shareholders’ pockets; Power for People advocate clearing the path for small sustainable energy projects, with profits that would stay local.

    “There’s such huge potential in our cities, towns and villages, for growth in small-scale renewable energy generation – especially by local groups that would provide cheaper, greener power and distribute the benefits across their local communities.

    “But at the moment, such schemes only generate 0.5% of the UK’s electricity – largely due to the prohibitive costs they face in accessing local markets.” 

    So how do mySociety’s services fit into their campaign? It’s down to Power For People’s belief that mass mobilisation can bring change — and that all links back to the experience of their Director Steve Shaw, says Corinna. 

    “In 15 years working both at environmental NGOs and as a freelancer, Steve worked on campaigns that were instrumental in getting new laws passed – like the Household Waste Recycling Act, bringing in the doorstep recycling collection that all our homes now have; and the Climate Change Act, setting a legally binding target for the government to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions — which has resulted in almost all of the UK’s coal power stations closing and the building of the world’s biggest offshore wind farms.

    “These were great successes, and one thing Steve learned from them was that grassroots focused campaigns, mobilising tens or hundreds of thousands of people to lobby their MPs at the constituency level, when done in a coordinated way over a long-term arc, are extremely effective.”

    And of course, to help people contact those MPs, what better than free web services like TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem? 

    Power for People’s website first sends you to TheyWorkForYou to find out who your MP is, then provides a list to check against and discover whether or not they already support the Local Electricity Bill.

    Once you know what their stance is, you’re in a far better position to write a persuasive message to your MP, says Corinna, and WriteToThem is the final step on that path. 

    “We wanted to streamline the communication process so each supporter didn’t feel like they had to do too much extra work. Whether an individual has contacted their MP before or not, offering them a tool to help easily find and write to them, all in one place, felt like the best solution to get people to take action in support of the campaign. 

    “WriteToThem has a wonderfully streamlined system that people trust and we have found people take effective action with this tool.”

     WriteToThem doesn’t allow for copy and pasted messages, and Corinna says she finds they’re often blocked by MPs’ servers in any case. “Instead, we direct people to helpful facts that they can share with their local leaders — and we give them bespoke advice when they receive a response. 

    “We highly encourage back-and-forth communication, so that the MP understands that the campaign is not going to go away until action is taken at a parliamentary level. People care about this issue, and we want MPs to know that.” 

    It sounds like everything’s working nicely for Power For People, who say that their Bill already has the support of 322 MPs from all partiesa figure which includes 128 Conservativesalong with 110 local authorities and county councils. 

    “Our main call to action continues to be for people to write to their MP, which is why WriteToThem is such a key tool for us. Helping streamline the communication process and helping people write to their local leaders has been vital to the success of the campaign so far.”

    And so, what advice would they give to other organisations considering using WriteToThem for their own campaigns?

    “Definitely help people curate their own message to their MP, by being specific to their constituency. This requires a bit more time speaking to your supporters but it’s worth it to get an MP interested in what you are calling for. Be specific. Try to keep each email short and polite, with a single request for the MP.”  

    Many thanks to Corinna for sharing such interesting background details to the campaign. If you’d like to learn more about Power for People and get involved, visit their website.  

    Meanwhile, if you’re running a campaign yourself and think it might benefit from WriteToThem’s free service, there’s lots of useful information here.

    Image: Chelsea

  9. TheyWorkForYou in the 19th century

    This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

    This week Dr Kathryn Rix writes about the opening up of parliamentary information in the 19th century. TheyWorkForYou is twenty years old, but in many respects is a digital continuation of similar projects and arguments about parliamentary transparency that go back centuries.

    Learning more about this history helps situate our work in the longer context – and this period (with league tables of MPs, arguments about league tables of MPs, and a clear illustration of the link between changes to the physical building and transparency), is one with obvious application to our work today.

    On 22 February 1836 a landmark vote took place in the House of Commons. It was significant not because of the issue involved – a local railway bill – but because for the first time, MPs left the chamber to vote in two separate division lobbies, following which an official division list was published, recording the names of every MP voting in the majority and minority.

    The publication of these official lists from 1836 made it far easier for those outside Westminster to scrutinise and assess the activities of their representatives. One Radical MP described this change as “perhaps one of the most important measures ever sanctioned, as a check upon the conduct of members”.

    Before this ground-breaking division, the official records of the Commons gave only the names of the tellers who counted the votes in each division, and the total number of MPs voting on each side. The Commons had just one lobby, so when divisions took place, the presumed majority stayed in the chamber to be counted there, and the presumed minority went out into the lobby.



    The informal record

    Although there was no official record of how each MP voted, some MPs – notably the Radical backbencher Joseph Hume – compiled their own lists of divisions and supplied these for publication in the newspapers. However, these unofficial lists were usually produced only for more important divisions and sometimes gave the names of those in the minority, but not the majority. They were notoriously inaccurate, and MPs regularly wrote to the press correcting errors.

    Pressure to improve this system and publish a full official record of every division increased after the 1832 Reform Act, the first major reform of the British electoral system. One of the Act’s key aims was to restore public confidence in government by making the Commons more responsive and accountable to public opinion. In this spirit, the Radical MP Daniel Whittle Harvey put the case for official division lists, arguing that:

    “every person now acknowledged that responsibility, and not secresy [sic] and concealment, was the basis of the trust reposed in the hands of Representatives by their constituents … In a Reformed Parliament he believed, that all hon. Members would be desirous that their constituents should know how they voted”.

    A select committee in 1834 felt the best option for compiling accurate official division lists would be to construct a second division lobby, but the cramped conditions of the Commons chamber made this impractical. However, when MPs moved into temporary accommodation following the catastrophic fire at Westminster in October 1834, this obstacle was removed. The additional second lobby, which facilitated the publication of official division lists, was built during the 1835-6 recess. It became an integral part of the Commons and was replicated in the new Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry.

    Use by newspapers and journalists

    Information extracted from the official division lists was widely reproduced and analysed in the newspaper press, as well as in guides to MPs’ voting behaviour, such as An Atlas of the Divisions of the House of Commons (1836), which listed every MP’s vote in the 1836 parliamentary session in a tabular form. Such analysis of MPs’ votes was not entirely new. Richard Gooch’s The Book of the Reformed Parliament (1834) had tabulated MPs’ votes in selected divisions in 1833 and 1834, and had been used at the 1835 general election to challenge MPs in several constituencies about their attendance levels at Westminster. MPs had, however, disputed the accuracy of Gooch’s publication, based as it was on unofficial records. At Droitwich, where his opponent calculated that he had voted in just 11 of the 116 divisions listed by Gooch, John Foley insisted that his votes “had been given much nearer ninety-nine times than nine”.

    A grid of divisions ands MPs marking absences and votes.

    Extract from Atlas of Divisions (1836)

    The publication of official division lists meant that MPs could no longer try to shirk responsibility for particular votes by claiming that they had been misreported. Another highly significant development was that, with all divisions fully recorded, accurate calculations could be made of how many times MPs voted each session. The Atlas displayed these totals against each MP’s name, a novel feature which one commentator tellingly described as “a scale of diligence” by which voters could measure “the conduct of representatives”.

    Rankings and league tables

    National and local newspapers compiled and dissected figures on MPs’ attendance levels on a weekly and annual basis, making it much easier for voters and the wider public to access this information and use it to call MPs to account. While annual attendance statistics sometimes listed their names alphabetically, it became common for MPs to be ranked alongside their colleagues – either nationally or regionally – on the basis of how often they had voted, producing what were effectively ‘league tables’ of MPs. The Gateshead Observer referred to its annual attendance tables of north-eastern MPs as a ‘parliamentary audit’ or ‘reckoning day’. MPs had been accustomed to explaining to their constituents how they had voted, but increasingly also found themselves having to justify how often they did so.

    For those MPs who appeared towards the top of these tables, these statistics provided welcome proof of their diligence. After being ranked as the fifth most attentive MP during the 1840 session, Henry Salwey, MP for Ludlow, was praised by his supporters as “most assiduous, and most constant – ever vigilant in promoting … the local interests placed in his care, and the general welfare of the community”. In contrast, other MPs and their supporters rejected attempts to reduce their Commons contribution to mere numbers. At the 1841 Hertfordshire election, the voting record of the Conservative MP Abel Smith was compared unfavourably with his Liberal opponent, who had voted three times more often. One of Smith’s backers argued, however, that “we don’t count the number of divisions – we look to the importance of them: we don’t wish our member to sit through every paltry discussion – as though nailed to the benches”.

    The reaction of the quantified MP

    The question of how useful these attendance figures were as a measure of MPs’ commitment to representing their constituents was widely debated during the nineteenth century. The Morning Chronicle was not alone in mocking the idea that an MP’s “whole duty … consists in walking in and out of the lobbies”. It was pointed out that notable figures such as Lord John Russell (a former prime minister) – who voted in 28 of 198 divisions in 1856 – and William Gladstone (a future prime minister) – with 58 votes that session – would be found lacking if judged only by this measure. The ‘Division-list Test’, as one MP labelled it, failed to take account of MPs’ contributions in other areas of the work of the Commons, particularly in serving on committees. Although one Worcester newspaper noted the relatively poor attendance of the local MP, Joseph Bailey, in divisions, it observed “in justice” to Bailey that “his labours on Committees have been incessant”.

    There were other reasons why voting in numerous divisions was not necessarily seen as demonstrating dedication to parliamentary business. The influx of MPs from the smoking or refreshment rooms when the division bell rang, without having heard the preceding debate, was often commented upon.

    Such behaviour prompted the Conservative MP Charles Adderley to argue that there could be “no worse test of a man being a useful member of Parliament”, since “a man might attend every division… and be the idlest dog in the House”. Another argument against testing MPs’ diligence in this way was that the overall totals did not distinguish between critical issues and less significant matters, such as local or private bills which did not affect the MP’s constituency. William Scholefield, generally seen as a hard-working representative, told his Birmingham constituents that he had deliberately abstained in many such cases, since “I will never vote on a bill unless I distinctly know what I am going to vote about”. Yet while the use of the “Division-list Test” could be challenged in various ways, it continued to be seen as a useful indicator for constituents in deciding whether their representatives had been attentive or neglectful in carrying out their parliamentary duties.

    Images: ‘Division barrier and lobby’ and it is taken from pg. 409 of J. Ewing Ritchie, The life and times of William Ewart Gladstone. The pictorial edition Volume I.

    Dr Kathryn Rix is Assistant Editor of the House of Commons, 1832-1945 project at the History of Parliament Trust, which is currently researching electoral and parliamentary history between 1832 and 1868.





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  10. Climate monthnotes: August 2023

    We started the month with some great news – as detailed in yesterday’s blog post we’ve been accepted into the Blueprint Coalition, an influential group of local government organisations, environmental groups and research institutions, pushing for a more joined-up approach to local climate action in the UK. We’re excited to see how our services, data, and expertise can help the coalition in the coming months. Massive thanks to our new Policy and Advocacy Manager, Julia, for pushing this through!

    Meanwhile, on our Local Intelligence Hub project with The Climate Coalition, Alexander and I have been importing more datasets, and improving the metadata for datasets we already hold, in preparation for wider use of the platform (and public access) later this year. Excitingly, our Senior Researcher, Alex, got us to the point where we’re now able to import data by both current (2010) and upcoming (2025) parliamentary constituencies, which is a first step towards supporting climate campaigners and community organisers in the run up to the next general election.

    Watch this space for some upcoming blog posts about the technical detail behind how we’re transforming environmental, demographic, and public opinion data between the two generations of constituency boundaries – it’s pretty cool!

    At the very start of the month, Julia went to Manchester to work with the Youth Steering Group of the Fair Education Alliance. We talked about what an MP is, how the House of Commons works, and the top 10 things to find out about your MP using TheyWorkForYou.

    Julia with FEA steering board TWFY training

    Julia and the FEA steering board

    With our technical support, and a massive effort from their team and volunteers, our partners, Climate Emergency UK, completed their audit of the marks for the 2023 Council Climate Action Scorecards. We’re now working on getting them a dataset of processed scores for initial analysis, as well as building the web-based interface through which the scores will be published later this Autumn. Big thanks to Struan and Lucas for their tireless work on this – it’s a mammoth project, but worth it. We’ve already seen how influential last year’s data on councils’ climate plans was, and we can’t wait to share the latest data on the actions local councils have taken.

    Speaking of climate action plans – it was nice to see CAPE (our database of local authority climate action plans) getting a namecheck in this thoughtful piece from Andy Hackett of the Centre for Net Zero. Happy to be of service!

    Alongside all of this, we’ve continued to beaver away on preparing for the next stage of our Climate programme beyond the end of our current funded period in March 2024. We’ve been having some really exciting conversations with funders, as well as investigating joint projects with new partners. In particular, we’ve been looking at ways we could use our data and machine learning expertise to improve the transparency and quality of climate data, and considering next steps for Neighbourhood Warmth and our work on community-based, democratic approaches to home energy transition.

    Image: Maria Capelli