South West Observatory’s thoughts from the LARIA conference 2013

Eden Project, Cornwall

The below summary details some of the key points that SWO took away from the two day conference in Manchester. 

The main priorities/themes for the conference:

• sharing best practice across the local authority and public sector research industry

• how to raise the profile of the research industry

• how to improve engagement between academic research, and local government

• how to evidence what difference your work makes to local communities

Key websites, projects and tips:

• Stats Users Net: This online forum launched (with involvement from LARIA) last year. You can find out more, become a member and participate in discussions, here.

• The Alliance for Useful Evidence have produced a report “Squaring the Circle: Evidence at the Local Level”. The report looks at how local authorities and their partners are making use of evidence in the current climate of cuts in funding and a sluggish economy. Some of the findings from this work have been used to inform the development of the What Works Centres.

• There was some discussion of the emerging What Works Centres. The four centres (for Local Economic Growth, Ageing Better, Crime Reduction, Early Intervention) are intended to act as a ‘NICE’ for social policy. The centres will not generate evidence, but will work to synthesise and rank available evidence. The format/interface is likely to be similar to the Education Endowment Fund website (the Teaching and Learning toolkit), but will vary between the centres according to the nature of the evidence. The Centres have funding for 3 years in the first instance, and a National Advisor will lead the network and advise ministers. This post will be appointed in the next two weeks.

• Skills for Justice presented on the new Local Authority National Occupational Standards. These present an outcomes-based perspective on the key skills required for the following roles: Economic Development, Communications Officer, and Researcher. Find out more about the skills required by clicking  here.  The Skills for Justice’s local government page is available here.

• Sheffield Hallam University have produced a report on how communities will be hit by welfare reform, and what the associated impact(s) on local economies might be. Find out more about welfare reform and labour markets here.

• The ONS Beyond 2011 Programme is continuing. There will be a further consultation on the programme shortly, and a final decision on the future of the Census will be taken by end March next year. There was some discussion about the importance of responding to this consultation, as this will be the last opportunity to input into the process. It will be important to put an economic value on the Census data in any response.

• John Newton, Chief Knowledge Officer for Public Health England, noted a couple of points about the data that PHE will continue to make available through their eight Knowledge and Intelligence Teams. This will include key products such as the Local Health Profiles, mortality dashboard, public health outcomes framework, GP profiles, NHS Atlas of Healthcare Variation. Also noted that a mapped version of the local health profiles are available at MSOA level, as well as local authority. These are accessible here.

• One of the workshops showcased the work of Kirklees Council’s Joint Surveys Project Board, led by NHS Kirklees and Kirklees Council. The Board has run a joint programme of surveys, with findings used to inform the JSNA and other key strategic documents. More information on the surveys and approach is available from here.

• RTPI held a conference on Planning and Ageing, in September 2013. Details and agenda here.

Case Study: Preparing for the impacts of Welfare Reform, Surrey County Council

One of the most original presentations over the two days concerned a research project carried out at Surrey County Council, looking at preparing for the impacts of Welfare Reform. The council opted for a qualitative, ethnographic approach which was commissioned to ESRO. The research involved ESRO spending time with a number of families and individuals in Surrey who are likely to be impacted by the reforms. It looked at the perceived changes and responses by those individuals. As well as a comprehensive literature review, the research comprised 12 semi-structured in-depth interviews within 3 boroughs of the county.

The research was designed to test a range of hypotheses, including:

“As a result of the reforms…

• Some individuals will be incentivized to work

• Some will find it difficult to meet household expenses due to a reduction in welfare payments.”

The research found that, with or without welfare reform, low-income benefits recipients often already struggle to make ends meet on a week-by-week basis and draw on an array of practical coping strategies when facing routine financial difficulties or unexpected expenses. The changes were therefore likely to lead to more severe, although familiar, financial problems for these low income families. Practical coping measures include things like:


• Spend or borrow according to cycles of “good weeks” (benefits received) and “bad weeks” (smaller payments)

• Increase in payday/door to door loans

• Extended loan repayments


• Cut back on fresh food

• Skip meals

• Ask family members to feed children


• Fewer gifts

• Cut back on family events

Although manageable in the short term, one of the report findings was that long term use of some of these coping strategies may pose significant risks to housing security, physical and mental health, and outcomes for children.

Amongst other outputs, the research produced detailed budget sheets from the field data. These budget sheets helped to identify the finances and key issues of concern for the families who are likely to be significantly out of pocket.

Issues and outcomes which the research raised were split into “high”, “medium” and “low” relevance. Infographic case studies drawn from the interviews have driven discussions across the Council, and led to much senior level buy-in to the potential issues.

The work has been complemented by a quantitative analysis programme.

You can find out more about the report here.

Sarah Hardwick, South West Observatory 21/05/13

Photo credit: Eden Project. LARIA photo.

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