How do you measure Big Society?

The CRESH team and colleagues from Portsmouth and Liverpool are currently collaborating to produce a ‘blueprint’ for measuring Big Society.  You can read more about the work and funders on the project page.

To design a measure of Big Society begs a question… what is Big Society? Actually defining it is not easy. Although the general idea has been quite clearly articulated by David Cameron, a huge range of supporters, detractors and commentators have been writing and blogging about what it means since the coalition government took power. Opinions vary about what Big Society is and is not. There are also strong views about whether it’s a good thing or not. The government is also now encountering the realities of putting an idea developed in opposition into practice. Tony Blair has some interesting things to say about the difference between having an idea in opposition, and delivering change in government…

Although debates continue about what a Big Society should look like  and what policies the coalition need to build it, its key principle is clear; it represents a desire for a society in which citizens and communities take a vastly increased role in managing, shaping and delivering social and physical infrastructure. As Number 10 wrote in May 2010, their aim is “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities…[to] ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people’” .

We have a sense that some in government believe their job will be done once they change the law to empower people to run local services or to have a say on how their neighbourhood will be developed. The ‘offer’ to participate in a Big Society will have been made and it doesn’t matter who, or if anyone, takes up the offer. Others, however, want to see evidence of changes wrought. Will it alter how much people like you and I are aware of, care about, and get involved in, what’s happening in our local areas? Which communities will do well from it, and which will not?  The fact that Big Society has the potential to affect everyone makes it an important thing to monitor and measure.

At the start of the project, we focused on designing a framework for understanding ‘Big Society’ and identifying the set and sequence of changes which expect to see if it’s ‘successful’. Then, we looked for datasets and indicators to measure each of these things. It’s remarkable how many surveys which would have been useful to monitor and measure the progress of Big Society, have been cut. On Friday, we will visit the Department for Communities and Local Government to present our work so far and hear what they have to say about it. Sometime after that, we will post information about our ‘model’ of Big Society and how it might be measured.

Job Opportunity: Postdoctoral Research Associate

We are seeking to appoint a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the field of Health and the Environment. Based at the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh you will join the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH) which is a virtual centre joining scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Our research is focused on exploring how physical and social environments can influence population health, for better and for worse.

The successful candidate will work with an active research team based in Edinburgh and Glasgow on two research projects. First, they will play a key role in an ESRC funded project that will investigate whether aspects of the physical environment exert an influence on physical activity levels at the individual-level. Second, complete a pilot study to investigate the role of the local physical and social environment in understanding inequalities in health amongst children and adolescents. Both roles will involve working with large social survey, health and environmental datasets, the application of statistical techniques to the data, interpretation of the results, dissemination of findings and developing new research proposals.

Closing date: 7th March 2011

For more information and details on how to apply click here.

Fast food outlets cluster around schools

New CRESH research has found that fast food outlets tend to cluster around schools. The work published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine demonstrated that fast food vendors are five times more likely to cluster around New Zealand schools than in other areas. Using data from four cities, the authors found that outlets are also more likely to be situated in poorer neighbourhoods. The results suggest that the geographical distribution of fast food outlets may be one factor in explaining the increase in obesity rates amongst youths, and its social distribution.

The work has been covered in the New Zealand media. See:


The academic paper can be found here:



Forthcoming symposium: Mental Health and the Environment

CRESH are pleased to announce an interdisciplinary symposium to be held at the University of Edinburgh on 31st March 2011. The event is being organised with the University’s Human Geography Research Group, in the School of GeoSciences.

It is well recognised that mental health and illness are significant causes of human disability and impairment. Academic researchers and policy makers are increasingly concerned with the relationship between the environment and various mental health related outcomes. It is acknowledged that risk and resilience to mental illness and distress is a strongly linked to characteristics of the environments in which we live, work and play. This symposium will draw on work from a number of fields to consider the role of the physical, social, built and healthcare environments in understanding human mental health and wellbeing. This interdisciplinary symposium will be of interest to policy makers, students and academic researchers working in the field of mental health and wellbeing.

Confirmed speakers:
Professor Sarah Curtis, Durham University
Dr Anne Ellaway, MRC Glasgow.
Professor Christine Milligan, Lancaster University
Prof Richard Mitchell, University of Glasgow
Dr Liz Twigg, University of Portsmouth

The programme of talks for the day is available here.

Date: 31st March 2011
Time: 1000 to 1800 hrs
Venue: Edinburgh


Please sign up before 28th February 2011 by contacting:

Anna Kenyon (

New grant for environment and health inequalities study

CRESH members Drs Jamie Pearce and Elizabeth Richardson are part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers recently awarded interdisciplinary funding to examine the role of pollution and weather events in shaping health and inequalities in the UK. In collaboration with Edinburgh colleagues Ruth Doherty (Edinburgh PI), Mat Heal, David Stevenson and Massimo Vieno they have secured a grant entitled “Air pollution and weather-related health impacts: methodological study based on spatio-temporally disaggregated multi-pollutants models for present day and future”, awarded under the UK cross-council Environmental Exposure and Health Initiative. The project involves 5 institutions with atmospheric scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde, epidemiologists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and St. Georges Hospital, University of London, health geographers and social scientists at Edinburgh and LSHTM and experts in building physics at University College London. The total award is £1.8M over 4 years. The project will examine the spatial variations in health outcomes related to mixtures of air pollutants and weather in the UK, and the relationship to socio-economic inequalities. The WRF (meteorology) and EMEP (atmospheric chemistry) models will be used to simulate weather and composition at 5km by 5km resolution across the UK.

CRESH work presented at national statistics event

Elizabeth Richardson presented our regional-level environmental deprivation work to the ScotStat Small Area Statistics event on 5th October 2010.  The programme of talks can be found here, along with links to the talks:

She gave a talk entitled “Multiple Environmental Deprivation in South Lanarkshire: Does It Influence Health?” which can be found here:

The event provided a useful overview of small area statistics in Scotland, including the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, the Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics web portal and a range of interesting talks from other users of the data such as ourselves.  Useful links were made with ScotStat, the Scottish Government, NHS Scotland and other users.  A key part of the day was a consultation on potential changes to Scotland’s key small area geography: the data zone.  The process involves trading off the advantages of maintaining comparable populations between the areas but also keeping the area boundaries consistent through time.