Thursday, 13 April 2017

Are you gay?

I’m currently carrying out a small research project funded by the British Academy on the experience of homelessness among young people who identify as LGBT+, and people who identify as LGBT+ and live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. You can read more about the project here, and it emerged from the research I blogged about here and set out the agenda for my current research, challenging narrative of gentrification, here.

We have employed a research assistant to interview people who identify as LGBT+ and I am interviewing people who work with housing associations, local authorities and homelessness organisations. All these organisations, and people, have been amazingly committed to advancing equality and really wanted to learn from my research, as well as providing some excellent examples of good practice.

A few of these organisations have been very open in admitting they don’t routinely collect data on the sexual or gender identity of people, beyond the simple male/female monitoring. They’ve also said it is something they were going to start doing soon. One participant suggested that they didn't do this recording historically because in Scotland (and I’d add, probably the whole UK) this was probably because people feel awkward about asking about sexuality, and being asked about it.

Now, what I’m about to explain I’m sure millions of people have argued (indeed the wonderful folk at LGBT Youth Scotland who are helping me with this research point this out) and I’d welcome academic references to this point, but…I dwelt on this for a while and it’s really fucking heteronormative to not routinely ask service users about their sexual orientation because of a feeling of discomfort.

Because, you see, the 95% of you reading this who identify as heterosexual never have to explain your sexual identity because everyone presumes you are straight. You feel awkward being asked about who you have a sexual relationship with because you have never had to justify it. Every time I, or anyone else who identifies as LGB, has to answer that question we are coming out to a stranger. We don’t know how you would react. Actually, it usually makes me feel more comfortable. Yet organisations choose not to ask this question for fear of making people feel uncomfortable, or insulting people; straight people who really don’t have to worry about this at all.

Why does this matter? Before I get to that, it’s important to note that it is very difficult to ask a good question about what someone’s sexual identity is. Technically, in a survey, you should ask three questions: what sexual identity someone identifies with; who they usually form romantic relationships with; and who they have sex with. In the UK the NATSAL is the only survey that manages to do that. However, the social scientists at the Scottish Government and Office for National Statistics found that something along the lines of “How would you describe your sexual identity” with the choices “Gay/Lesbian”, “Bisexual”, “Straight/heterosexual” and “Prefer not to answer” does a good enough job. The same applies around asking people about their gender identity, or what pronouns they prefer. And, as Katherine Brown argues in this book chapter, despite the fact such survey questions impose identities on people, it’s better to know something about this population than nothing.

And this is why it matters. This is why people need to get over their straight, heteronormative cringe with asking people about their sexuality and sexual identity because then you can do something about it. To give a housing example, a tenant might report anti-social behaviour and abuse. This might be a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. As a body, you have a duty under the Equality Act (2010) to prevent harassment and discrimination, so your staff should be trained to help tenants report a hate crime. If you had never asked your tenants if they were LGBT+ identifying then your tenants might not feel comfortable in explaining that it was a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. On a more mundane level, partners who live in a socially-rented home in Scotland can be added onto tenancies so they have succession rights. It wouldn’t surprise me if many LGB identifying tenants might not think this would apply to their partners. Again, asking tenants their sexual and gender identity when they move in would make them feel comfortable – they would know you wanted to know – and so they would be happier to add new partners to tenancies.


So, are you gay? A simple question, but one we’re still not asking enough. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Personal Archives

As I don’t cease to remind people, my first degree was in history, so I love a good archive. When I truly felt I’d “got there” as a proper historian was when I set off for a day at the National Archives in Kew to read some documents for my undergraduate dissertation on the postwar redevelopment of Bradford City Centre – Labor Omnia Vincit. In the manilla folder of papers I discovered a cracking internal memo from the Ministry of Town and Country Planning despairing of the City Engineer’s plans for a very tightly bounded inner-ring road (the bit Bradfordians ended up knowing as Hall Ings) which was completely contrary to Ministry guidance. I vividly recall sitting on a bench outside on a cold winter morning, eating my lunch, watching the planes fly into Heathrow, and feeling a bit miserable.

My PhD also took a bit of a historical approach – analysing the New Life for Scotland Partnerships which existed from 1989 – 1999. Doing this I bumped into some more informal archiving. One of my case study neighbourhoods was Ferguslie Park. The nieghbourhood had also been subject to one of the UK’s earliest regeneration initiatives, the Community Development Project. Ferguslie CDP ran from 1972-1977. Like all good policy in the white-heat of the technological revolution, each CDP was twinned with a nearby University. In Ferguslie Park’s case, this was the University of Glasgow, where I did my PhD, and looking around the Adam Smith Library there one day, I happened upon a just-about-complete-set of reports on the CDP that proved invaluable for my thesis and to understand the timing of urban change in the neighbourhood. I say just-about-complete, I later found a report Whatever Happened to Council Housing? produced by the Ferguslie Park CDP team for the national CDP which included the cracking line describing the 1930s slum clearance tenements in places like Ferguslie Park as "cuts housing, neglected before it was even built". 

The other joyous archive I’ve used is those of local history libraries (many now closing due to funding cuts). The local history librarian at Bradford Central Library grew quite fond of me popping up to the seventh floor two-or-three times a week during the summer in 2003 and requesting the books of minutes of the meetings of Bradford County Borough Corporation. I ended up going through every volume from 1945-1965. Over the years they had also collected fantastic boxes of newspaper cuttings about developments in the city centre; and of course had all the local papers archived on microfiche. My visits made a welcome change to the people researching family history.

In my PhD I was lucky that the regeneration partnerships in my two case study neighbourhoods had funded community history projects. The local libraries in Ferguslie Park, Paisley Central Library, and Wester Hailes library, thus had kept great records from official documents and community projects that told me a lot about what had happened.

Being someone who studies urban policy, policy and urban planning documents are a key source of research material. Also, universities that teach these subjects tend to gain a load of such material in their libraries. The trouble is, understandably, librarians need to move on stock that is no longer useful, or is taking up space that could otherwise be used, so books and reports are cleared out. It is for this reason that I ended up saving a full set of the annual reports of the Scottish new town development corporations from Heriot-Watt University library when I was a Lecturer there. These are now in the safe-keeping of a colleague (it was a bit too much for me to move them on when I left for Stirling).

The other archival material you end up with as an academic is your colleagues’ materials. This blog post is inspired by a colleague Dr Melanie Lovatt, who told me a very moving story about some books she inherited after her PhD research. With demographics being the way they are, and Scottish universities running enhanced severance packages, my bookshelves have swelled with books from retired colleagues. Some of these are third-hand as well.

But you also end up inheriting more ephemeral archival material. One of the best stories here is the J.R. James Archive, run by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. As I understand the story, my colleague Dr Alasdair Rae moved into a new office at Sheffield, and there were some boxes of slides and other stuff from a former incumbent – Professor J.R. James. Realising these were an amazing archive of postwar British town planning, he managed to get money for two students to spend a summer digitising the slides, and then working out what they were and putting it all on Flickr for anyone to access. You truly can spend hours on the archive website.

I now have my own little archive. A colleague recently retired from Heriot-Watt. Before she joined the University in the 1990s she had worked as a planning consultant at Pieda. Knowing my interest in archives, history and regeneration, she saved a box of random documents for me. It’s an absolute treasure trove of random documents going back to the 1980s, and I thought I’d share some highlights.

One bit of it, is a box of stuff on Glasgow East Area Renewal (GEAR). GEAR matters a lot in Scotland. The proposed new new town of Stonehouse was cancelled by the Scottish Office to fund GEAR instead in the late 1970s, and it was the first Scottish attempt to use partnership working, as envisaged in the 1977 Inner Areas Act, to try and revive a derelict and deindustrialised inner-city area. This giant map shows the extent to GEAR:



As I understand as well, one of the other interesting things about GEAR was the final evaluation of it was never publicly published. It was not exactly glowing, but still GEAR ended up being the model for how to “go” urban regeneration for about the next 20 years. And, voila, I have a copy of a draft of the evaluation executive summary:



The same box also contains documents from the Scottish Development Agency and Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothians on The Leith Improvement Project – the 1980s project to regenerate Leith. Thanks to that, I’m typing this from the converted warehouse we now live in. By the time it was converted in the early 2000s, that regeneration project had been so successful, that no subsidy was needed for the developer to take on the risk of the redevelopment.



As I’ve already mentioned, my PhD was on two New Life for Urban Scotland partnerships and I now have my very own copies of their original strategies and a whole host of other documents:



I also have a whole host of other documents from the two other partnerships in Whitfield and Castlemilk, along with a load of stuff from the slightly later Priority Partnership Areas including some stuff on Motherwell and Pilton.

Finally, the other interesting tit-bit is this typed document – it’s undated and has been marked in red with some corrections.



It is a report on possible developer contributions to build a light-rail or metro system in Edinburgh – the Edinburgh Trams! Now, I didn’t realise they’d had such a lengthy history, but when I posted this on Twitter last year someone got back to me with a scan of a pamphlet from Lothian Regional Council from the early 1990s, describing a rapid transit scheme that would be similar to what has been built. The line went from Wester Hailes (rather than the airport) down the The Gyle and into the city centre; a branch went off to Leith and Granton; another branch went off into a tunnel under the Old Town, to remerge and run a route roughly out to where the Royal Infirmary is now. I can only presume it was proposed under the 1994 Lothian Structure Plan – I’d welcome any further knowledge.

This report just details possible development locations along the western route estimating how much planning gain they might be able to get out of developers attracted to these sites that were soon to be serviced by a brand-new tram. He report glumly concludes that only £5-£10 million could be expected. That would be around £7-£14 million in 2010 when the tram did eventually get started on construction. Edinburgh Council did end up using developer contributions to help pay for the tram. I can’t find an exact figure, although £45 million is discussed in some reports as being money CEC put towards the project from “developer contributions and capital receipts”. If anyone knows of a precise figure, it would be interesting to know if Pieda’s estimates were correct, whenever that report was written.


I don’t really know what I’ll do with this box. It’s currently just sat in our bedroom, as it’s difficult for me to get it to Stirling. But, as my followers on Twitter know, I’ve a soft-spot for Milton Keynes as I really think it is one of the greatest successes of town planning ever. And, at the end of the week the city turned 50, and inspired by Melanie, I just thought it would be nice to blog about these odd little personal archives one ends up with.