Measuring the Big Society: stakeholder consultation

We’ve produced a draft proposal for measuring the baseline and future progress of Big Society at a local level.  We would value thoughts and comments from interested parties on:

  • our approach,
  • our selection of variables with which to measure the Big Society and
  • the methods we propose to use to develop the measure.

Please download the document here and comment by Friday April 22nd.  Many thanks for your involvement.

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.

New PhD studentship available


We have a new PhD studentship available, based in Glasgow. The closing date for applications is 1st Nov. Please get in touch with Rich Mitchell for details on how to apply.

Title: Does the development of Glasgow’s city structure over time explain its excess mortality?

Duration: 3 year PhD, full time from Jan 2011 (or sooner)

Supervisors: Prof Rich Mitchell, Dr Mark Livingston (Urban Studies, University of Glasgow), David Walsh (Glasgow Centre for Population Health)

Research: Glasgow has particularly poor population health relative to other cities in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe. This apparent ‘Glasgow effect’ is not explained by the high levels of poverty. One possible explanation lies in the physical size of the city’s poorer areas. Some are now so large that residents have to travel quite a long way to experience anywhere that is not deprived. It has been suggested that this spatial pattern of deprivation contributes to poor health in its own right, perhaps explaining why the city has worse health than others with the same deprivation levels. This studentship will trace development of the spatial structure of deprivation in Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool from 1971 to 2010 to identify any inter-city differences in this development and examine how these are related to Glasgow’s mortality rates. The precise methods and focus will be developed and agreed by the supervisors and student, but the general approach will use GIS. The studentship presents an opportunity for training in researching social geography, public health and health inequalities, and using GIS.

Person specification: Applicants should hold a first class or upper second class degree in a relevant, numerate social science (such as geography) or clinical discipline. Some experience of GIS is essential. A master’s qualification in a relevant discipline would be an advantage.

Award details: This is a 3 full time studentship and will provide an estimated stipend of £13,590 per annum. The award is available to UK and other EU nationals only. The award also covers fees. The award is provided by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (

Further details: More details on the project, the supervisors and the departments involved is available from Prof Rich Mitchell (, Dr Mark Livingston ( ) or David Walsh ( ). See also

Team awarded ‘Big Society’ grant

CRESH has been awarded a grant from the AHRC Connected Communities programme to look at The Big Society, a key idea underpinning the UKs coalition government. The work will start in January 2011

In a ‘Big Society’, citizens and communities take a vastly increased role in managing, shaping and delivering social and physical infrastructure. The idea is closely allied to notions of community activism and civic participation, and thereby to concepts of social capital and social cohesion. The idea behind Big Society is that not only do social and community problems get ‘fixed’ without direct state intervention; those involved draw social and health benefits from their roles.  Measurement of community participation, social support, social capital and civic engagement is well developed at the individual level. However, Big Society places a focus on geographically defined communities such as ‘the neighbourhood’ or ‘your square mile’. Measuring and comparing community participation within neighbourhoods across the country is much harder and less well developed.

Existing literature provides compelling reasons for wanting to follow the progression of Big Society over time. The nature and size of social and environmental problems faced varies between communities. Some communities currently have greater levels of civic engagement than others, and some are probably better placed to begin or grow that kind of participation than others. If Big Society is to become a major route through which problems are solved and life in the UK is improved, it is essential that we understand who and where might benefit most, which communities might lead the way and which might need most help in adapting to the new policy. Monitoring where we start from, and where we go, is an essential component of this important change in the balance between citizens and the state.

If we want to learn whether a policy emphasis on Big Society changes participation in our neighbourhoods and communities, we need to know about how people currently participate. We also need to know this in a way which allows us to monitor how things may change. There is no contemporary picture of existing patterns of engagement, or indeed potential for engagement, across the UK.  There is however, a range of existing methods for measuring and estimating levels of social capital or civic engagement within small geographically defined communities.


The objectives of the project are to

A)     Identify sources of data on civic engagement, community participation, volunteering and community cohesion which either describe geographical variation in these characteristics across the UK, or which are suitable for producing estimates

B)     Consider the candidacy for each of the identified characteristics as a contributor to measuring ‘Big Society’, and determine the small-area units best suited to capturing ‘community’ in this context

C)     Identify the most suitable methods for deriving small area measures of community participation and action


Team awarded new grant

Duncan Lee and Rich Mitchell have been awarded a grant from ESRC to try and solve a problem with the methods used to investigate spatial variation in health.

There is great interest in how and why the risks of good or poor health seem to vary from place to place. There are lots of studies which have tried to work out how the characteristics of places and the people who live there may explain why health is worse in some areas than in others. When scientists do this kind of work, they need to take into account the fact that places which are physically closer together tend to be similar to each other; this similarity can have an influence on the statistical tests used and if this problem is ignored, it can lead to the wrong conclusions about how the characteristics of places and the people who live there are related to risks of poor health.

There is a problem however, in that the existing techniques are not sophisticated enough to tell the difference between places that are right next to each other and which actually are very similar, and those which are right next to each other but which are actually quite different. This is a particular problem in cities, where you can get two neighbouring areas that have very different characteristics.

In this project, we intend to develop a method which is able to spot when areas are close together but have different characteristics and when areas which are close together are indeed quite similar. The method will then apply the right kind of statistical approach in each situation. Our project has three parts. First, we will develop the new method. Then we will test it in a way that allows us to see how much better our new approach is than the existing technique. Finally, we will use the method to look at how and why the risks of three different health problems vary in the central belt of Scotland. The health problems will be alcohol problems, lung problems and breast cancer. For each of these health problems we will use our new technique to explore what characteristics of places and the people who live in them, might raise or lower risk. Rather than discovering new factors that might be involved in the risks of these disease, we expect to be able to gain a better understanding of the relative importance of factors which have already been identified. This might help the health service to know what level of ill health to expect in an area, given its characteristics, and hence plan services better, or it might help to identify what aspects of places and their residents need to be changed or helped to reduce risk of poor health.

So, overall the project will make a contribution to methods in this kind of science and will also provides a useful study of some big health problems.

The project starts in October 2010 and will run for 2 years.

Smoking research in the news

Dr Jamie Pearce was part of a team of researchers considering the impact of the  introduction of legislation in New Zealand that restricted the  places where people can smoke. The results of the study, published recently, suggested  that whilst the introduction of the smoking legislation has reduced  the rate of hospital admissions due to heart attacks, this effect  may be greater in males, older age groups and those living in more  affluent neighbourhoods. The research was published in the  Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. Reports on the  findings have appeared on the BBC, ITV, national newspapers as well  as various international media outlets. For example, see:

BBC coverage

The paper itself can be found here

Our green space work in the news

Green spaces keep men healthy

Jun 21, 2010

Recent work by Dr Elizabeth Richardson and Prof Richard Mitchell attracted considerable media interest recently.

Their study found that men who live in neighbourhoods with more green space are less likely to die from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases – conditions that account for almost half of all deaths in the UK. But it also found that these benefits of greener neighbourhoods do not extend to women. The results were a surprise because it had previously been widely assumed that green spaces are equally good for everyone, through offering opportunities for physical activity and social contacts for example. The reasons for the findings were unclear, but other literature tells us that women use green space less than men and don’t exercise as much there, particularly if they perceive the area to be unsafe or threatening. This could explain the findings.

The study was the first to study green space and health relationships for the UK as a whole, as the researchers combined remotely sensed data and Ordnance Survey map data to quantify green space at a national level. Mortality statistics based on a population of almost 30 million adults were used, giving the results substantial significance. It should be stressed that as the study only considered mortality statistics it cannot be assumed that women’s health does not benefit from green space in other ways.

The paper “Gender differences in relationships between urban green space and health in the United Kingdom” was funded by the Forestry Commission and originally published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, but has now received diverse coverage through outlets such as BBC Radio Scotland, the Daily Telegraph, and even The Sun, where the headline read “Park life is better for blokes’ hearts”.


Daily Mail: “Why living near a park is good for a man’s heart and lungs”

Scotsman: “Women miss out on health benefit of green spaces, major study finds”

Scottish Sun: “Park life is better for blokes’ hearts”