20/02/18: The basketball debate: supporting disadvantaged communities

Brexit is not the only B to be the topic of conversation in the House of Commons. Recently, for the first time in five years, basketball was debated amongst MPs.

You may be wondering, why are we bringing this up?

Around this time last year, Counter Context were approached by Sheffield’s very own b-ball players, the Sheffield Sharks. They wanted to know if we were interested in sponsoring their Respect programme which works with local communities. Being naturally curious and thinking about our core expertise – communicating with key stakeholders and communities, we set out to find out more.

What we uncovered was that the Sheffield Sharks Respect programme reaches over 600 young people in the Sheffield City Region every year. This programme is aimed at children aged 9 to 11 who are vulnerable and at risk to pressures in society including cyber bullying, child exploitation and crime. The Respect programme is designed to give children a dynamic learning experience, which includes six hours of basketball coaching and two hours of in-school education. A few hours might not sound much but these sessions can open up a young person’s eyes to a world of possibility. Unsurprisingly, we quickly signed up to lend a hand. The Shark’s Respect programme became our nominated charity for 2017 and 2018.

Going back to the House of Commons focus on basketball. This was an important discussion around how inclusive the sport is and the difference it makes to young people’s lives. Reading the Hansard transcript it reminded us of the importance of schemes like the Respect programme. In turn we thought we’d be rather bold and urge other businesses to do the same.

Alex Sobel MP, who led the debate and is the Co-Chair of the APPG for Basketball, explained: “UK Sport recently announced £226 million for Olympic eligible sports until 2021. That includes £14.5 million for equestrian sports, £25.5 million for sailing and more than £6 million for modern pentathlon—a sport that requires a horse, a sword and a gun. None of those sports is within reach of the young people we see playing basketball. We are funding elite sports for elites.”

We know this country is not doing enough for those that come from disadvantaged communities. Having spectated at many matches and met those who play basketball both socially and professionally, it is apparent that they all come from many different backgrounds. It is one of the most inclusive sports. The UK neglects to see the vital and significant difference it can make to the lives of those living in disadvantaged communities.

Here, here. We’ve seen this first hand.

Working with the Sheffield Sharks, meeting their players and hearing some of their stories has been hugely inspirational. They are not all people who are born into a family of high-achievers. They weren’t brought up in gated communities and given elite extra-curricular activities in which to gain a head start athletic career. These are people who have fought to get to where they are today. Some of whom have had a difficult start in life, who could have easily fell into a life of crime, have turned their lives around.

It is those players that deliver the Respect programme. Every day they inspire the next generation to dream and to believe.

If the governing bodies can’t and won’t front the cash for these important programmes it is imperative that businesses do their bit. We were only too happy to stand up and make a difference. We often hear the work of big corporate charities but what attention do we give smaller programmes like this? Programmes that might change a young person’s life from a life of crime to becoming a world-class athlete.

We believe that businesses should support the communities they work in. Be part of the solution not the problem. We’re a small fish in a huge pond but if all companies did “something”, it would make a huge difference all across the UK. We’re not talking sponsoring programmes for kudos or the PR often gained by supporting the more “popular” charities but doing something different. Meet with your smaller local charities and find out about the different schemes they’re working on. When you go out into your local community, I guarantee you’ll be surprised at some of the hidden gems that are out there.

Written by Alexis Krachai

Inspiring the next generation

Written by Jack Royle

As a child I was always told by my parents, “you’ll miss school once you leave”. I didn’t believe them. Lo and behold, 15 years down the line, I’m saying the exact same thing to my brother and sisters.

Recently at Counter Context, we were asked to take part in Sheffield Park Academy’s Aspiration Day. Alongside my colleague, James Senior, I happily volunteered. For the first time, I was excited to go to school.

Joining in the school-run traffic, armed with brochures and roller banners, I was interested to see what school was like these days. What I came across was not only a generation that has a clearer view of their future, but also a fountain of new and exciting opportunities.

The Aspiration Day ran as a careers fair for all year groups. It was great to see how many businesses came together to inspire the next generation. Over the course of the day, we spoke with young people about their future plans and ambitions and what we do at Counter Context. From PR to creative design, media monitoring to public affairs – a career many of them had never even considered was now right in front of them.

At Counter Context, we believe more businesses should be getting involved in activities like this. We know the importance of working with local schools and good causes to give something back. It’s important that we take a step back amongst the hustle and bustle of working for a busy agency and see the bigger picture. One day, the students we engage with could be our greatest assets or potential clients.

Perhaps one of the most important developments of the day was the opportunity to improve the way we communicate the work we do in order to connect with a younger audience. Not only are these the people who our businesses will be catering for in the not too distant future, but if you can explain your work to 13 year olds, you will improve at explaining it to others.

Another valuable outcome of these types of event is the networking opportunities they offer. The Aspiration Day gave us the opportunity to speak with businesses with similar values and enabled us to form new relationships with other companies, from banks to training companies.

The students really related to our graphic design work. I showed them some the illustrations and infographics I had produced during my time at Counter Context and was filled with pride at their reactions. It was apparent that in the digital world a picture doesn’t just speak a thousand words, it inspires a thousand minds.

It is really important for businesses to give something back to the next generation. That’s why we’re hugely passionate about getting involved in activities like this. So, if you’re thinking you’d like to speak to your younger self and give advice about navigating the daunting world of full-time employment – perhaps going back to school is the best thing you can do?

Productivity, creativity and deliverability

Productivity. At times it feels like you cannot get through a single day without there being a pronouncement on this most complex of topics. The focus is often on data that points to the UK’s inability to generate the same economic outputs per hour that is produced by our counterparts in Europe and further afield. What we produce in five days takes the Germans only four.

At other times, there are questions raised about whether the digitalisation of developed economies is making traditional productivity measures obsolete. In short, there is not a real problem but rather a problem with the statistics. Then someone comes along and talks about AI, automation and augmentation. They point to the belief that modern society is at the cusp of a great leap forward thanks to our unprecedented understanding of digital alchemy.

Look below the surface and many questions about productivity impact on the projects and schemes we support. Will today’s new commercial buildings cater for 21st century workers? Will automation see more focus on buildings catering for servers rather than workstations? How can buildings be designed to eke out as much output from the average office worker as possible without making them unhappy?

Transport schemes are also subject to challenge. Is the fact that our little island is increasingly congested having a significant impact on the productivity of the average UK worker who cannot get to work? Will high-speed journey times on rail increase or decrease productivity? How much work does the average commuter actually get done when battling patchy wifi and limited elbow room?

All of the above, plus an insatiable appetite to fine tune our company, means that during 2018 everyone at Counter Context will be spending time this year thinking about how we can become more productive. We’re not lagging behind but our natural curiosity and ambition means we’re drawn to thinking about how we can be smarter and quicker in delivering value to our clients. Jobs that used to take days now take merely a few moments thanks to a plethora of online tools. That does not mean we are complacent; rather it gets us excited about the opportunity to identify new improvements to how we work.

At the start of the year we came across a short but interesting article about communications firms and how they can apply the widely used 3Cs model that has blossomed into a thousand varieties over the years. Hat tip to Tom Cheesewright for his thoughts on this subject. https://bookofthefuture.co.uk/dont-confuse-automation-and-augmentation-af483a3428c4

Tom’s point is that communications companies are governed by our requirement to do three things. His article focuses on the impact of automation but it got us thinking about what we do at Counter Context. It touched on an interesting set of principles that, at the fundamental level, our work is about:

Curation – the ability to discover and qualify information for our clients.

Creation – the ability to synthesise something new for our clients from what we have learned.

Communication – the ability to articulate that new idea to audiences on behalf of our clients.

With that framework in mind we’ve started on a fascinating journey that begins with mapping everything we do under those three headings. That journey will continue as we start to explore how we can derive more value from these processes. Despite being effective and efficient, we know that we can do more to become more productive. Why? Because no company can afford to stand still and, supposedly, the UK has a productivity problem….

Written by Alexis Krachai

‘De-sectioning’ your consultation strategy: effective consultation and engagement for NSIPs

Written by Emily Marshall

10 years ago, the Planning Act 2008 created a legal framework for undertaking consultation for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) under Sections 42, 44, 47 and 48 of the Act. These sections tell the ‘applicant’ it has a duty to consult. This is with ‘prescribed consultees’ local authorities, persons with ‘interest in the land’ and the local community in accordance with various deadlines and ‘in such manners that may be prescribed’.

When we break down the legal jargon, what the Act 2008 is telling us is what we have been practising all along: understand the stakeholders and communities who may be affected by your plans and engage in an effective, meaningful and two-way consultation process during the development of your proposals.

Traditionally, due to the shorter development cycle of smaller TCPA schemes, pre-application consultation would involve one short round of consultation. This would be facilitated through drop-in sessions followed by engaging parish councils and voting members once the application had been submitted. The Localism Act 2011 created a shift in the approach to community consultation. It strengthened the role of consultation before application submission, encouraging earlier engagement with communities as part of a more democratic planning process.

It is this approach: ‘giving local people a chance to comment when there is still genuine scope to make changes to proposals’ that is at the centre of any meaningful engagement plan. It is also, ultimately, what the various sections of the Act 2008 are advising.

At Counter Context we do this by designing effective and genuine consultation and engagement strategies and delivering successful two-way communication and feedback channels. Our thesis is simple: we focus on building understanding about proposals through early and iterative engagement. This in turn builds trust and confidence in our clients’ plans and process.

Click here to see our steps towards delivering an effective consultation and engagement plan for NSIPs. Also, join me and Leigh Bramall at this year’s Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects Forum or contact me at emily.marshall@countercontext.com.

How far beyond Manchester is the PRS bug spreading?

The New Year has brought a somewhat unwelcome dose of Australian Flu. It’s knocked out a number of colleagues in offices across the country and generally made life a misery for many of us.

In Manchester, there’s a far more welcome bug that has spread like wildfire over recent years and appears to show no sign of slowing. Leeds looks to have caught it and cities like Sheffield and Liverpool have definitely got the sniffles. It’s a bug that many local authorities are hoping to catch soon with the hope that it will help to deliver regeneration, council tax and the New Homes Bonus. It is called PRS (Private Rented Sector) residential development and it has become something of a buzz word in the property industry.

The questions are: ‘Will it last?’ and ‘How far will it spread?’

Manchester has a major case of the PRS bug. It has helped to drive the inner city regeneration of the city centre and create a skyline which is continuously climbing as the city centre renaissance continues. A recent event on PRS in the city confirmed the level of development. Figures from Lambert Smith Hampton (LSH) showed that 3,300 PRS homes have been delivered since 2010 but the pace of delivery and crane count in the city reflects the fact that over 7,500 are currently under construction, demonstrating the appetite of investors for PRS schemes in the city. LSH suggested that 12,000 – 15,000 units represented saturation.

It was notable that the type of PRS schemes being delivered at such pace in Manchester is very much a city centre, high-rise phenomenon that caters to an urban, inner city lifestyle. Primarily, it is driven by an increasing population of young professionals with growing salaries as companies are more attracted to access the pool of talent. Linked to this, students are also driving demand. Together, this trend has maintained rental levels, maintaining viability. Whilst a rapid increase of thousands of new units seemed likely to dampen rental levels, the market and demand was expected to be sufficiently established in Manchester to allow rents to hold up at levels that will sustain the long-term future of developments.

To date, the focus of PRS has been city centre apartment blocks in the big cities where a large student population attracts employers, which then drives demand for city centre homes for those who work in the burgeoning business, professional and creative services. This explains why cities like Leeds have also seen PRS growth and places like Sheffield and Liverpool are seeing increasing developer interest in PRS as they look for new pastures beyond Manchester but where viability still works. Elsewhere, this type of PRS scheme has yet to make an impact, although it was noted that it could require a developer to take the plunge to demonstrate that other towns and cities could sustain a PRS market, rather than there simply being no market.

Like any bug, there are also clear signs that PRS is mutating into a different form. PRS models that deliver more affordable family homes, on what have been viewed as sub-prime brownfield sites, seem to be gaining traction in towns and cities where the city centre apartment block model doesn’t stack up. This type of PRS housing has the potential to provide significant benefits for local authorities in terms of housing delivery and regeneration of previously uneconomic sites. But with many local authorities new to PRS and holding much of the land required, the message is clear that strategic engagement with local authorities is a crucial part of the delivery process.

Is the PRS bug spreading? As we enter 2018, it appears so, although securing an understanding among key stakeholders that this one bug is positive is likely to be increasingly more important moving forwards.

Written by Leigh Bramall 

Thirty-year transport plan for the North

Transport strategies are like buses. You wait ages for one and then three come along together. In relatively short succession, Transport for the North (TfN) has unveiled its long awaited draft of their Strategic Transport Plan; Sheffield has just published its Transport Vision for consultation; the City Region is about to launch its Transport Strategy.

TfN leads the way with what ought to become a seminal document once it is finalised. TfN is becoming England’s first Sub-National Transport Body, giving the organisation statutory powers. This is a bit of a mouthful but this status will enable TfN to formally represent its northern partners to central government and will put a statutory duty on the Secretary of State for Transport to consider TfN’s recommendations. Some argue all that TfN can do is bark. Others argue it will have bite owing to the strength of the coalition of stakeholders it has brought together from the public and private sector. Only time will tell but one way or another it is highly likely that TfN is going to make waves.

What is striking about the draft strategy is that TfN has already set out confidently seven priority development corridors. You can review the scope of these transformational projects by clicking here. It is good to see the breadth of thinking and the extent of the proposals being put forward. We are not talking about modest and incremental changes. Delivered in full, these corridors will transform travel across the North of England, from Wales to the Humber.

As ever the burning question is how much all of this will cost. Initial indications suggest that transformation comes with a price tag of between £60 to 70bn. That is a lump of cash but relatively modest when set against investment in London, the time period over which the investment would be made, and the impact this spending could have on economic growth in the North. Currently the GVA per capita in the North of England is £7,500 below the national average. Put more simply, each of us who calls the North home is on average £7,500 poorer than our national counterparts. Investment in transport will be critical in helping to bridge that gap.

What happens next? Consultation, further deliberation, refinement and negotiation with government. The impact of this strategy should not be under estimated. It has the potential to be transformational. The key will be TfN’s ability to maintain a strong coalition of voices who proclaim with reasoned argument that the North of England will put this investment to good use. The benefit to the national economy is clear. Getting this right could mean 850,000 extra jobs and £100bn more created through economic growth by 2050.

Written by Alexis Krachai

Built Environment Networking: positivity in Sheffield despite economic headwinds

Sheffield is on the up. That is the number one message that came out of a high-level discussion organised by the Built Environment Network last week in the city of seven hills. Here at Counter Context we’re proud to be supporting some of the region’s most significant schemes. It was a welcome 90 minutes to take a step back to look at what the city is collectively achieving by becoming home to many of the UK’s most exciting investment opportunities.

The pipeline of projects being delivered with some of the world’s most high-profile investors and occupiers was evident simply from the panel of speakers. The audiences heard from senior executives from both Boeing and McLaren who have recently invested in high-profile manufacturing facilities in the Advanced Manufacturing District that extends across Sheffield and neighbouring Rotherham.

Denzil Lawrence from Boeing highlighted the enabling attitude of the local authorities, the existing and strong supply chain, access to the University’s research and a strong labour pool as the compelling reasons for their aviation powerhouse to start manufacturing components for their next-generation aircraft here in South Yorkshire.

Ruth Nic Aoidh, Executive Director Legal and Commercial at McLaren Automotive picked up the baton and echoed many of Denzil’s observations. She concluded that Sheffield’s proud history in steel was evolving and that McLaren’s focus on carbon fibre development marks another important step as Sheffield becomes a world-leading location for advanced manufacturing.

Confidence was equally evident amongst speakers from the city’s Town Hall and universities. Ed Highfield, Head of City Growth at Sheffield City Council set out a compelling portrayal of the investment pipeline shaping the city centre skyline and the wider area. The audience was clear that Sheffield is seeing unprecedented levels of interest amongst investors and occupiers.

Mark Swales, Director of Estates at Sheffield Hallam University described the institution’s £140m investment in their estate over the last four years and their plans for the future. High on the agenda is the rapidly evolving Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park that is creating an environment that will host companies committed to transforming our understanding of health and well-being.

From super cars to 21st century aircrafts. From city centre residential developments to innovation districts. It was clear to anyone in the audience that it is boom time in Sheffield. Everyone left into the evening knowing there is every opportunity to maintain that momentum.

Written by Harriet Knowles

2017 is in the rear-view mirror. 2018 is right in front of our eyes. What to think?

Written by Alexis Krachai

Last year was a good one for Counter Context. We said hello to some new faces. We won some major new contracts and we helped launch proposals for the UK’s largest ever solar park. We ended the year larger and more successful than in any of our previous years.

From our head office in Sheffield, we led the way in launching the Sheffield Property Association; the first association of its kind outside of London. Our members now own £4bn in assets, are responsible for 20,000 jobs and own over 3 million sq m of real estate in one of the UK’s most exciting cities. Rather than just anticipating the growth of the city, we’re playing a role in defining its trajectory.

What does 2018 look like? Well if it is anything like 2017 then get ready for more unpredictability. Close to home, Sheffield City Region is still currently scheduled to have mayoral elections but whether they will happen or not is more unclear than ever after community polls in Barnsley and Doncaster backed an aspiration for a One Yorkshire deal. Across the North of England, we will see the metro mayors being put to the test to prove if they can take their new powers and new funding and turn both into economic growth that rivals London.

Nationwide? Who knows for sure but considering what happened in Westminster last year, it is fair to say that the Brexit Buckaroo will continue to cause equal amounts of delight and despair for those on both sides of the debate. This in turn will likely see investor sentiment yoyo in sync with the UK’s negotiations with the European Union.

Despite the inevitable change and turbulence there will be constants. Communities will continue to be suspicious of government and businesses. Ongoing government cuts and the new reality of how we deliver government services will place more and more pressure on politicians and officials in town halls. The demand to explain what they are doing and how they are doing it will grow and grow. In turn, social media and the growth of ‘fake news’ and opinion over fact, will continue to make life more complex and uncertain. Anyone who can says they truly understand the new reality is wrong. The seismic changes that technology is having on us all and how we communicate are still to fully play out around the world.

For us here at Counter Context, you may ask what we plan to do to navigate through all this uncertainty. Our answer is that we will observe, understand, adapt and stick to the tried and tested methods that have served us so well for over 23 years. That does not mean we are complacent. Rather we know what will always matter. We cannot predict the future and what changes lie ahead, instead we are always ready to adapt to any changes and trends happening in our market place. We employ a laser-like focus on helping our clients to achieve their objectives. Communication is not an end in itself. It is about helping to achieve their goals.

Our most important priority will always be to help our clients to build understanding and trust in their business and projects. How you do that changes with the times but our commitment to those principles means we will be better than anyone at helping our clients to navigate through the complex year ahead.

Our recommended resolution? Stay tuned to our blog. Our team will be more prolific writers this year offering opinions and advice that stretch from politics to infrastructure and energy to property.

Why we’re supporting Museums Sheffield’s Big Give Christmas Challenge

May Lester, Account Manager at Counter Context explains why Counter Context are supporting the Big Give Christmas appeal to raise money for Dementia Friendly Cafes across Sheffield:

“It’s that time of year again – when you are likely to see as many charitable pleas as you are brussel sprouts. That being said, when something truly valuable crops up, we pay attention.

At Counter Context, we love our home city and investing in Sheffield is somewhat of a no-brainer to us. We live here, work here, socialise here and go for those all-important Christmas drinks here. But not everyone has that luxury to just go out, socialise, celebrate the good times and plan those New Year’s resolutions that mostly get forgotten by the time Christmas dinner is digested. In fact, many people feel very lonely when it comes to Christmas time.

As a company we know how privileged we are and we want to give something back to the people of Sheffield -something that has a real tangible impact on the city and people’s lives. We have supported a number of good causes this year and when we were approached by Museums Sheffield to support their Big Give Christmas Challenge, we were only too happy to oblige.

Museums Sheffield and the Big Give Christmas Challenge initiative aim to raise funds to hold Dementia Friendly Cafes across museums in Sheffield. The cafes will provide welcoming spaces for creative activities, historic object handling and reminiscence. These types of activities make a real and proven difference to those living with dementia.

We were astounded to hear that in Sheffield alone, 6,000 people currently live with dementia. Nationally, it is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million. These are not small numbers. That’s why we want to help.

Alexis,  our Managing Director, explains:

“We are always looking for ways to support our city. This initiative aims to genuinely help the people of Sheffield who are living every day with dementia. It’s a simple, straightforward way to make their lives better and we’re really proud to be involved. But we need your help – the Christmas Challenge is a match funding campaign so if you give, we give. This is a chance to invest in something truly tangible for Sheffield – we can’t wait to hit the target and see and hear about the cafes really making a difference to people’s lives.”

The Christmas Challenge is the UK’s biggest online match funding campaign. Museums Sheffield has a fundraising target of £4,000. We, along with Quality Context and the Postcode Support Trust, have pledged £2,000 for the matching pot. To reach the £4,000 target, Museums Sheffield needs online donations between 28 November and 5 December from the public. For one week only, we’ll be matching your online donations so that they are worth double – you can find out how to donate by visiting: museums-sheffield.org.uk/biggive

Find out more about our Big Give Christmas appeal and how your donation could make a vital difference to people living with dementia here.