Do Local Authorities Really Want Sustainable Construction Powers?

Max Lempriere

When it comes to setting sustainable construction standards new research reveals English local authorities favour national regulation over local powers. 

National planning policy and building regulations have undergone considerable reform in recent years. The latest incarnation is embodied in the Housing Standards Review, (HSR) published in 2014. The HSR sought to consolidate the plethora of standards into national building regulations whilst making it harder for local authorities to introduce standards that supplement these national regulations in response to local needs or priorities. One area where local powers have been significantly curtailed by the HSR is in the sustainability and energy efficiency of homes.

Since the publication of Building A Greener Future and the Supplement to the Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change in 2007, local authorities have been able to set local standards on building sustainability to reflect local needs and priorities. Although options are provided in the HSR for local standard setting in a number of areas to supplement the revamped building regulations, this isn’t one of those. The extent to which sustainable construction targets can be set locally has thus been significantly curtailed. The response was predictably fierce. The Association for the Conservation for Energy remarked on the ‘political naivety’ and ‘shortsightedness’ associated with the decision. A report by the Environmental Audit Committee from November 2013 suggests that ‘this decision bulldozes local choice in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach designed to benefit developers who want to build homes on the cheap’.

Yet what do local authorities themselves think? The evidence points towards local authorities being against the idea of local standard setting in the area of energy-efficiency in buildings.

When asked in the HSR consultation whether sustainable construction standards should be incorporated into National Building Regulations (thus restricting local choice) an overwhelming number of local authorities responded in favor (46 of 69 responses). When asked their views on whether local authorities should have the powers to set ‘Merton Rule’ type policies (which mandate the minimum renewable energy use in a building) ‘a number of local planning authorities are also in favour of a review [of the Merton Rule type policies], who do not see a role for planning in decisions about the energy performance of houses’.

What’s more, as part of my on-going research into this area I have surveyed all local English local authorities. Only 50% have embraced the standard setting powers that they have had up until the HSR, and even then there are serious concerns over whether those local standards are being enforced.

An obvious question that arises from this is why? Why do local authorities propose a national Building Regulations led approach to sustainable construction standards? In the course of my research two factors have been raised.

First, many local authorities feel that the national debate on sustainable construction is in such flux that to expend resources on incorporating local standards is risky. Take Harrogate Borough Council for example, who took a proactive lead on introducing sustainable construction targets in their 2009 Local Plan. Subsequent changes to the planning framework published by central government in 2012 reformed the technicalities of local standard setting and in effect forced Harrogate to tear up their plan and start the process again. This obviously comes at considerable costs. When resources are already being stretched to breaking point the threat of having the rug pulled from under their feet is enough to put a lot of local authorities off the idea.

Second, local authorities are subject to strong external pressures from developers that prioritise growth over sustainability. Many lack the necessary internal capacity (whether in terms of expertise, institutional norms, pro-environment policy networks or dominant discourse favouring ecologism) to overcome these pressures. On that basis many consider any local powers a waste, because they can’t be fully exploited.

We must not therefore be alarmist when we look at the HSR and its curtailment of local powers. It is by no means perfect; the extent to which the sustainability and environmental standards of homes can be raised in the future is largely down to how the Building Regulations are going to be reformed and there are doubts that it will go far enough in this regard. Nevertheless, the evidence points towards local authorities favouring a national approach. We should listen to and respect this view, and try to understand why they think like this at all. Only then can we hope to do anything about it.



Max Lempriere is a third year PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include the politics of planning and construction, local government innovation and ecological modernisation.

Reflecting on the doctoral take-over

Stephen Jeffares

Over the last ten days the INLOGOV blog has reflected some of the great talent we currently have within our PhD cohort. INLOGOV has 28 students, a quarter of which are part time and working in public service. We like to think this gives a distinct flavour to our programme.

The blog over recent days profiled some of the great work among current students and reflections from previous INLOGOV graduates of our doctoral programme.

Becky outlined her current work exploring the role of evidence in decisions around High Speed 2, Abena’s blog compared how western and non-western states have differing approaches to public management, George described the relationship between financial crisis and citizen participation in Greece, and Thai student Pobsook offered her reflections on her first year of PhD study. Abena, George and Pobsook’s posts reflect the international dimension to our programme, with students from the USA, south east Asia, the middle east and continental Europe.

They also reflect our culture of sharing work in progress among peers. This culture is reflected in our monthly PhD showcase sessions, where researchers share their work with the department. We deliberatively hold the session in our open corridor space rather than a seminar room – although sometimes cramped and with a limited view of the projector screen, this offers an opportunity to get together to discuss ideas and eat cake.

Back to the blog. Tom’s post explored a growing theme in local government, the advance of digital technology and the preparedness of public services to make the most of these opportunities. INLOGOV’s blog and Twitter followership continues to grow, something we think is a reflection of the increased use of social media platforms among today’s policy actors. Pete reflected on blogging itself as a means for doctoral researchers to develop an academic profile, develop networks and refine their arguments.

Our former students have reflected a diverse range of post-PhD experiences in their blog posts. Four of the posts, from Tatum (now a Research Fellow in the University of Birmingham’s Business School), Katie (a Research Fellow here at INLOGOV), Thom (now at Oxford Brookes) and Mark Roberts (at De Montfort) are examples of how many of our doctoral researchers secure academic positions after leaving us. Mark Ewbank’s blog also demonstrated how many of our students carve out successful careers in public service after graduation.

For more information on applying to our doctoral programme please see our website or contact Stephen Jeffares.


Stephen Jeffares is a Roberts Fellow in the College of Social Sciences based in INLOGOV, and is also INLOGOV’s Director of Doctoral Research.  His fellowship focuses on the role of ideas in the policy process and implications for methods.  He is a specialist in Q methodology and other innovative methods to inform policy analysis.

Finding an academic home

Mark Roberts

I graduated from Birmingham in 2008 and initially found it difficult to leave INLOGOV, where I enjoyed my time completing my PhD. However I live near Leicester and, by chance, shortly after I left INLOGOV several friends and colleagues moved to the Local Government Research Unit at De Montfort University. Initially I took on a number of short term contracts as a visiting research fellow, mainly helping with field research on public participation and neighbourhood working. The turning point came when, encouraged by colleagues at DMU, I apply for a Research Fellowship with the Arts and Humanities Research Council which was focused on a Citizen Power project in Peterborough.

While I wasn’t successful in gaining the fellowship itself, I was offered an award from the AHRC for a research project on Understanding the Impacts of Citizen Participation in Peterborough. This award funded my work on a more stable basis for two years and, in addition to reports and journal papers, one of the outputs from that research is an RSA animation aimed at disseminating the main findings to a non-academic audience.

When I was not interviewing and observing in Peterborough, I was teaching and working on a book with Vivien Lowndes. We had a common interest in applying institutional theory to political analysis and she had a contract with Palgrave Macmillan to write a book on the subject. We put together some draft chapters pretty quickly and tested them out by going up to the Politics Department at the University of Sheffield, where Vivien gave some masterclasses to postgraduate students. The feedback we received from that and other reviewers was very positive and we ploughed on.

I should have learned from the PhD process, I guess, that the actual writing is only half the battle, and getting the thing ready for publication (references, indices, blurb, text for the cover) can take a long time. Anyway, the book was published on 31st May of this year in the Palgrave Macmillan Political Analysis series under the title ‘Why Institutions Matter: the New Institutionalism in Political Science‘, and has been a source of both surprise and amusement to my friends and family.

Perhaps the best advice I was given after graduating was from my PhD supervisor and was about finding ‘an academic home’. That can be quite difficult for many graduates who may have spent four, five or more years in the same academic environment. I have been lucky that DMU was on my doorstep and a number of colleagues moved there at the same time. From here I aim to keep the same balance going between teaching, research and writing, making sure I get out into the field as often as possible, and keep in touch with friends and colleagues from INLOGOV and elsewhere.


Mark Roberts is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University, Leicester. His research interests include citizen participation, neighbourhood working, new institutional theory, interpretive analysis and the influence of religion and race in urban politics. Before completing his PhD at INLOGOV, Dr Roberts worked in local authority social work for twenty nine years, with his last post being Deputy Director of Social Services in Sandwell MBC in the West Midlands.

Different expectations and different contexts

Thom Oliver

At first glance the shelves in my office look pretty incongruous, dust jacketed local government case studies from the 1960s lined up alongside books on gender quotas and corporate governance codes. That’s the real challenge I think post PhD, finding your space and constructing your narrative in a congested, time pressured and often opportunistic realm.

Having left INLOGOV following my PhD (which explored the representative role of councillors operating on appointed mandates) in 2011, I now find myself on a three year post doctoral fellowship in the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at Oxford Brookes Business School. Like many of my peers following the PhD I fully anticipated few opportunities for much autonomy in any of my first post PhD roles, perhaps a 12 month stint on someone else’s project or a 1 year fixed term teaching contract. Therefore I consider myself very fortunate to have found a position where I can endeavour to carve out a self defined niche. But therein lays the challenge, where to concentrate focus.

The initial answer is obvious, the clear expectation post submission is to publish in quality journals, taking into account the impending REF exercise, the changing context of publishing and journal access, and addressing the developing impact agenda (as discussed last week on this blog by Katherine Tonkiss). This post however considers some of the softer expectations, opportunities and challenges of the shift from PhD to Postdoc.

New environments and new challenges

The first challenge I think comes with adapting to a new work context, beyond moving from an individual to more collaborative way of working. The movement from a research intensive institute to a department with a clear teaching focus presents a significant challenge. The expectation comes with a need not just to do the research but to increase capacity and foster an environment within the department which draws others into an active research culture. As many of my peers at other institutions will attest very few departments can claim a coherent and collaborative interplay between teaching and research.

Building collaboration and capacity

In aiming towards a form of sustainable employment within research a clear bidding strategy has to go hand in hand with a publishing strategy. The first questions arise around what to bid for, what is achievable and what would offer a clear trajectory to a more substantial bid? Also in a new environment there is a challenge to build new collaborations to form a stronger platform from which to bid. In my case I have been very fortunate, my colleague and mentor Professor Laura Spira has been a helpful and supportive collaborator enabling us to quickly pick the lower hanging fruit of institutional seed corn funding and explore the options for a seminar series bid and more substantial amounts from Leverhulme and the British Academy. Throughout we have been able to develop a fuller understanding of the theoretical stances and methodological approaches of each other’s specialisms whilst benefiting from the contrast to our own disciplinary baggage. The value derived from openness to different literatures and ways of thinking can be immense.

Catching currents and developing contexts

There is also scope to benefit from developing policy context and agendas. The recent backdrop of localism and the mayoral model has also offered opportunities for development. Living in Bristol the unfolding drama of a successful referendum followed by the surprise election of an independent mayor in George Ferguson has given opportunities for bits of media work as well the capture of some interesting attitudinal data of both voters and councillors on the implications of the mayoral model. The opportunity to build a network of non-academic contacts within a local government context has also helped to translate conceptual ideas and test the viability of more applied research locally. Maybe a case of locality and good fortune but couple that with some deskwork, legwork and networking and perhaps there are the foundations of a feasible research project. It can be a lot of work over a short period of time but being on the cusp of a developing research agenda has not only delivered timely data but also allowed me to speak to new policy debates.

Building a new support network

From sharing an office with the now Drs Ewbank, Tonkiss and Matharu during my PhD to sitting in an office of my own, there was a strong need to find people to bounce ideas off for the sake of sanity, creativity and development. Whilst I have great contacts within my department at Brookes and back to INLOGOV, I have made a conscious effort to build contacts with academics both locally in Bristol and across a number of disciplines (Law, Political Science and Public Policy). This has been an element which has proved really important in helping build both my confidence and helping me develop my network further. I am very fortunate to count a number of non-Brookes colleagues as critical friends, whether I met them at conferences, at policy events, job interviews or just through a tentative email. From these connections I may hear about conferences, funding calls, potential jobs, as well as the potential to develop collaborative research proposals. As an early career researcher there is something hugely valuable about having an experienced friend to answer career advice questions or get some comments back on a paper. Of course it works both ways, for them too there is an opportunity to bounce an idea around or sketch out a research paper. The investment of time and opportunism in making contact has been immensely rewarded and to each of these friends I am hugely grateful.

Coming out of the PhD there is a big new challenging environment, in aiming to carve out my place in this environment the challenges laid out have been diverse, to adapt to new contexts and working environments, to build collaboration and capacity, and to adapt to address fast moving research agendas. Whilst it’s clear that to progress you need first authored publications and being principal investigator on bids there are many challenges and opportunities which can help you get there. My research now sits broadly under the theme of public governance, representation and accountability, my current funded research project is exploring the how public sector non executive directors consider their role, representation and accountability. A strong conceptual and methodological thread remains from my time at INLOGOV and it’s around this thread my research is developing. My development is as much due to others as to myself. I have learned that the benefit from continuing to expand your network is crucial and makes any future achievements both more manageable and more likely.


Dr Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School. He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate. Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.

HS2: the importance of evidence

Rebecca O’Neill

Large infrastructure planning projects are often met with much controversy and debate. This is partly due to the risks involved and the conflicting views amongst actors. One such project is the proposed high-speed railway to London from Birmingham, the North of England and potentially Scotland; better known as High Speed Two (HS2). After the project received an amber-red rating in May from the Major Projects Authority (MPA) annual report there is every reason for people to be concerned. An amber-red project is defined as follows:

Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible’.

So the questions that must be asked are what evidence supports the project and how should we analyse the debate? The evidence in favour of the project is largely based on predictive models and statistical data. One would think that after the financial crisis of 2008, people would not be so quick to base decisions on rational predictive models. Or that after the cost overruns and benefit shortfalls of HS1 (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) supporters of HS2 would be less optimistic in their forecasts. However, advocates of the project believe that the project is both viable and necessary to tackle over-capacity issues on the West Coast Main Line.

There are a number of ways of analysing the debate. One such way is through an evidence-based policy making lens. This approach argues that once a policy problem is identified then research evidence will fill the knowledge gap thus solving the problem. For advocates of evidence-based policy making, ‘the task of the researcher is to make accurate observations about objective reality, ensuring that error and bias are eliminated by isolating variables in order to be able to identify cause-effect relationships’. These experimental methods are usually in the form of statistical analysis and they rely heavily on quantitative data. So evidence must be about ‘facts’ that tend to prove or disprove a conclusion. Evidence-based policy making has underlying positivist assumptions that it is possible to have a value-free science. It assumes that there is an objective truth ‘out there’ and if researchers adopt a certain approach then they will find the answer to the wicked issues and social problems we are facing.

If we utilise the evidence-based policy making approach then I must come to these conclusions:

  • The actors within HS2 are rational actors who have systematically collected scientific, rigorous evidence to support their claims and their decisions are rational and value-free.
  • If there is a conflict of evidence then this is either because the actors have not behaved rationally, they have allowed emotions and values to shadow their decisions or the evidence has flaws in terms of quality and methodology.
  • Those opposed to the project have an argument based on ideologies and less systematic and rigorous evidence.

However, I propose (along with many others) that the policy process is messy, that actors are rarely rational, that evidence is not necessarily ‘out there’ waiting to be found and that assuming more information will provide policy makers with the solution is wrong. The policy process is better viewed as an arena in which actors present claims and attempt to persuade their audience that these claims are true through the presentation of evidence and persuasion. The claims made by actors within the process are based on a variety of different evidence ranging from personal opinion to rigorous, scientific evidence. A good claims-maker will have mastered the art of appealing to a range of audiences, shaping and presenting their evidence in a way that best suits their audience. The concept of evidence-based policy making does not acknowledge the role of humans in this sense.

In the case of HS2, claims were made about the West Coast main line (WCML) stating that it was almost at full capacity as well as claiming that the UK needed to modernise its railway infrastructure. They did not simply claim that it was the right thing to do; rather they captured existing discourses within society such as modernisation and economic growth. The claims-making framework enables us to explain why unfounded anecdotes can easily override rigorous scientific effort and investment. It also explains why some evidence is accepted over other evidence.

For a long time supporters of the project dismissed counter-claims and evidence arguing that the NIMBYs were being selfish, that the project was for the greater good and that they were preventing much needed modernisation. However, more and more people are questioning the claims being presented by HS2 Limited and their followers.  In practice, the philosophy of ‘what works’ often takes second place to, as Russell and Greenlagh describe, ‘experiential evidence, much of which was in the form of anecdotes or generalisations based on a person’s accumulated wisdom about the topic’. Claims-making theory, therefore, provides a robust theoretical framework for examining the process of how claims are made, received, denied through counter claims, and reshaped. It also illustrates how claims and those who make them interact to formulate public policy.


Rebecca O’Neill is a doctoral student looking at the role of evidence within High Speed Two. She has an interest in the conceptualisation of evidence, evidence-based policy making, the claims-making framework and interpretive approaches to research.

Leaping from campus to council

Mark Ewbank

It was not too long ago that I sat for my doctoral viva at INLOGOV. Rather than being a harrowing experience, it actually turned out to be a very enjoyable one – with a chance to forensically dissect my research into local government ‘overview and scrutiny’ in minute detail and relate and explain the research project’s aims, outcomes and evaluations. Immediately afterwards I took a Research Fellowship at the University of Southampton looking at select committee evidence utilisation in the House of Commons, along the same theme of my doctoral work.

However, soon after the end of my research and work at Southampton I made the leap to local government. Whilst at INLOGOV and previous employment at the (excellent) Centre for Public Scrutiny I had had daily contact with councillors from all over the country, I had never truly experienced life on the frontline. Now, a few years into my post in local government, I can reflect, from an officer perspective, that the day-to-day life of a councillor is far more complex than anything I had ever envisaged within my research scope first laid down in 2007. However, whilst my experience hasn’t invalidated any of my research outcomes or conclusions, it has opened up a whole raft of possible further research questions that I remain keen to evaluate in the future.

For me, quite unexpectedly due to pre-conceptions, my time in academia has been well-utilised by local government, whether undertaking research myself, working with academics or commissioning. At a high-profile council I now lead a small team of officers in the ‘overview and scrutiny’ function, where having balanced, fair analysis and evaluation is critical. With the academic background in a long-term research project such as the doctoral thesis, ‘task-and-finish’ groups almost take on a similar feel – with total immersion and rigorous research plans and reports.

With an inbox that fills up each time I leave my desk, there are times when I miss the protective cloister of an office and a project that occupies myself alone, but the sheer number of experiences and daily challenges that come with being an officer in such a unique council outweigh the negatives at this point. At a fundamental level – I duly confess that I do enjoy working with Elected Members and have found that in whatever capacity I have worked with them, whether in a central (CfPS), academic (INLOGOV) or frontline (Council) capacity, facilitating the democratic wheels has always been my passion. At my own Council, such Member passion and enthusiasm, on both sides, for improving lives keeps and drives my enthusiasm for the role. Having such a direct and measurable impact, as Scrutiny practitioners tend to have, has ensured that I have yet to come to regret my leap.


Mark Ewbank is currently the service lead for Overview & Scrutiny in the City of Westminster. He graduated from his PhD studies at INLOGOV in 2011, with a thesis focused on party group organisation and behaviour within and outside legislatures, especially in relation to the roles of political actors as part of groups/select or scrutiny committees. Mark also taught classical political theory at an undergraduate and postgraduate level at the University of Birmingham.