Exploring Digital Transformations

 Exploring Digital Transformations of Community, Culture and Welfare in Austere Times: the Case of Leeds

“This pilot project’s central theme is the variegated impact and implications of a digitally transformed UK welfare system for three specific communities of interest at the local urban scale of Leeds – public administrators, welfare law advisors and those receiving or needing welfare support.

Its importance and timeliness relate to the current context of austerity-driven spending cuts and reforms to public services, voluntary bodies and welfare provision discursively framed by the Prime Minister’s ‘big society’ vision. Alongside reinvigorating the role of voluntary and charitable organisations (Cabinet Office, 2010), the ‘big society’ emphasises using the power of a re-imagined ‘smarter’ (and smaller) state to empower ‘individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives’ (Cameron, 2009) at precisely the moment that the welfare state is being both truncated and transformed to engender greater self-reliance (Hodkinson and Robbins, 2013). This welfare revolution is being principally rolled out through the new Universal Credit (UC) system, merging 6 means-tested benefits into a single monthly payment paid in arrears. UC is also subject to various caps, sanctions and incentives designed to ‘make work pay’, reserving welfare benefits for only those ‘in the greatest need’, while making claimants responsible for managing their own finances, thereby saving public money, promoting self-reliance and reducing poverty in the process (DWP, 2013). Central to these ‘smart-state’ claims – and to our proposed project – is UC’s technological make-up. The government intends it to be ‘digital by default’, with a set target of 80% of claimants making and managing their benefit claims online by 2017.

[…] Yet, while evidence grows about the financial and legal impacts of welfare changes (e.g. cuts to housing benefit, fitness-to-work tests, the benefit cap), the cultural and community implications of this new welfare system and its digital character are far less well evidenced and understood. This is especially relevant for three inter-related stakeholder groups most directly affected by these changes: those receiving or needing welfare support; those administering welfare support; and those providing free legal advice to (potential) claimants. Our scoping project will explore this uncertain landscape of a digitally transformed welfare system for our three specific stakeholder groups through a partnership that builds on existing pro bono research collaborations between the School of Geography (SoG), Leeds City Council (LCC), and the Advice Leeds Partnership of public and voluntary sector advice services.”

(Hodkinson et al. ‘Case for Support’)



Hodkinson, S., Turner, A. & Essen, C., ‘Exploring the Impacts and Implications of a Changing UK Welfare State under Digitalisation and Austerity: the Case of Leeds.’ Working Papers of the Communities & Culture Network+ Vol.8 (July 2016).

Hodkinson, S., Turner, A. & Essen, C., ‘Exploring Digital Transformations of Community, Culture and Welfare in Austere Times: the Case of Leeds. Interim Report’. Working Papers of the Communities & Culture Network+ Vol.5 (April 2015).


Key Participants

Stuart Hodkinson is a lecturer in critical urban geography with research expertise on housing privatisation, welfare reforms and residential displacement in the UK. Since 2011, he has been working closely with Leeds City Council’s Benefits and Welfare Service and Leeds Citizens Advice Bureau to explore the social and spatial implications of welfare reform on the city. He has extensive experience of undertaking qualitative research and managing funded projects. He was a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow (2007-2011) studying the urban processes of neoliberal housing policies, before receiving an ESRC First Grant (2011-14) to explore residents’ experiences of public housing regeneration under the Private Finance Initiative. He is currently a Co-I on an ESRC Knowledge Exchange project (2013-14) aimed at tackling forced labour among asylum seekers and refugees. He is also the academic lead for a 3-year ESRC White Rose Studentship network on Urban Housing Experience in an era of austerity. Recent publications include articles in Housing Studies, Critical Social Policy and Antipode.

Chris Essen is currently ESRC Research Fellow working with Stuart Hodkinson to examine the implications for people, place and local governance of social housing regeneration schemes under the Private Finance Initiative. He has extensive experience and expertise relating to the voluntary sector, having worked there for many years, first as a care officer for the learning disabilities organisation Mencap and then later carrying out a qualitative research project for the Alzheimer’s Society. In 2003 he joined the NHS Patient Advice and Liaison Service, to directly apply public involvement principles. He was recruited into the School of Healthcare in 2005 where he gained a national profile promoting the involvement of service users and their carers as coproducers of healthcare education, research and practice development. He completed a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the NHS in Leeds, from 2009 to 2012, through which he researched, developed and implemented an evidence-based approach to vocational support provision in secondary mental health. His action research culminated in responsive provision which continues to resist the dominant model of delivery.

Andy Turner is primarily a researcher whose main interest is in simulating the future and mitigating risk. He has extensive experience of developing, using and critically exploring digital infrastructure. His expertise and skills have evolved through a series of successive research council funded projects (http://www.geog.leeds.ac.uk/people/a.turner/projects/#Completed_Projects) and through engagement in the UK e-Science programme – geared to accelerate research through the development and use of advanced Information and Communications Technology. Any is currently an advisor on geographical, open and linked data working on the Pararchive: Open Access Community Storytelling and the Digital Archive Project (http://pvac-sites.leeds.ac.uk/pararchive/). Deputy Director of the interdisciplinary research Centre for Computational Geography (CCG) at the University of Leeds since March 2000, he has helped to steer the CCG in its aim to focus on the state-of-the-art in GeoComputational research. He has also been networking with public, private and third sector organisations in Leeds, nationally and internationally and has many professional contacts.

Interim Report