CaCHE for questions: The Housing Studies Association Lecture

Council tenant, full time carer, HQN Associate and professional Twitter moaner Rob Gershon has been on a much shorter journey through the world of the UK housing sector than almost everyone else. Nevertheless a number of key moments along his trip were unexpectedly drawn together in his attendance at the Housing Studies Association’s Autumn Lecture.

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I attended the Housing Studies Association (HSA) Autumn Lecture in my role as Lead Associate of HQN’s Resident’s Network. A lot of the time, at the small number of housing events I go to, I just turn up because I’ve invited myself, or people like to have a tenant along to give a different perspective, or because they know I’ll be good value for money* tweeting incessantly about whatever the event is. I’m lucky I can choose what to attend. My precious time, gleaned out of my shrinking entitlement to respite care or ability of our paid carers to cover me being away, is something I think long and hard about lending to housing events instead of equally valuable time spent doing nothing at home.

I knew I wanted to go to the HSA lecture as soon as I saw it on Twitter. I know Beth Watts, who chaired the event and is Senior Research Fellow at Herriot-Watt University, from some of her previous work on Welfare Conditionality, and when I can I try and get Beth to speak at events run by HQN, who also happened to be the sponsor of the HSA lecture. At a time when housing policy is implemented by national and local government, and to some extent landlords, without necessarily taking on board evidence of outcomes, I think it’s important to bring facts and research into debates.

As the first of two speakers at the lecture, Sir Bob Kerslake’s presentation about the importance of keeping evidence at the forefront of policy-making was persuasive. Lord Kerslake/Sir Bob was the Chief Executive designate when the Homes and Communities Agency was formed, has been the head of the Civil Service, is on the board at Peabody and was amongst a determined cadre of Peers who helped mitigate some of the worst effects of 2016’s Housing and Planning Act.

Back in 2016, Lord Kerslake held aloft a letter I’d helped to source from residents as he called once more for a vote on amendments to try and protect homes and communities in the face of the poorly designed Bill. Despite the threat of constitutional crisis and pointed staring from whoever the housing minister was at the time, he won the vote on the amendment. Ultimately the sovereignty of the House of Commons meant it couldn’t carry any policy-changing weight. A year and a half later, there is barely anything left of the Housing and Planning Act that has not been discarded or mitigated out of existence, Lord Kerslake commenting in his speech that he could have saved a lot of time if he’d known this during the debates.

When I found out Kenneth Gibb was speaking at the event and I knew I had to go. Ken is now the Director of the Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE). Back when I first took to the internet to try and find out why the government was trying to implement the multiple policy failure of the bedroom tax, I was saved from despair by a number of housing professionals, legal professionals and even politicians who helped shape the way I researched it.

Ken’s appearance at the Work and Pensions Committee hearings covering ‘support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system‘ made me realise that contesting the ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ [sic] was not just a matter of tenants versus everyone else, and that there were people working to bring reality to bear on the magical thinking of ideological policy.

On this policy, concessions have never been forthcoming, so in my capacity as the person who is cynical about housing policy, the concept of establishing a centre dedicated to evidence and research about housing feels like it risks facing the same fate as so much other evidence in the recent past – being ignored at best and denounced or ridiculed by politicians at worst, even when the research is sound.

On the same day as the HSA lecture came news the Local Housing Allowance Cap was to no longer apply to supported housing, nor in any social housing at all. Even in a lecture about evidence, Tony Stacey of South Yorkshire Housing Association asked the speakers whether this decision had been made as a result of research, or because of how it seemed politically, and few really believed it was the former.

Other questions focused on how we could ensure that the quantity of new homes we need to build does not mean a slide in quality, on how we can prove the effectiveness of ‘nudge’ policy, on how to ensure that local communities are heard when they wish to provide more truly affordable housing for their localities, on whether we can learn from Australia, and other countries, on how to build more homes, and whether it’s still worth telling individual stories alongside trying to prove the evidence of things with science.

This initiative to bring research into policy-making has at its heart the desire to reverse the way that policy is currently made. Too often, a fully-formed policy or missive is brought into the world, there is a discussion about its relative merits and failings, and eventually some actual research is done into why it’s not working.

The aim of this @housingevidence approach is to do the research and get the evidence first, and then to look at how the pros and cons can be incorporated in decision making, and then to use this knowledge to inform how policies are built. Evidence-led policy-making. The organisation seems organic at present, being a well-organised structure of academics and economists, but is very much in the – if you’ll forgive a Universal Credit joke – ‘test and learn’ phase.

Anyway, I got to meet Brian Robson from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (who are funding the project) properly at last, Alex Marsh, kind-of-lapsed housing blogger and all-around nice guy, Suzanne Fitzpatrick, whose research on housing and welfare reform has been an bit of a ray of sunshine for me at times, when the way actual policy is released has seemed so clouded. I got to chat to Joe Frey, who had come over from Northern Ireland to hear the lecture and we got to talk a lot about how housing policy is diverging in England, Scotland and Wales and the importance of the voice of tenants and residents.

And lots of other people but I’ve already written too many words. You know who you are, and we’ll catch up again soon because beyond the academia and the science, and even the stories there needs to be a lot of cooperation and collaboration if this stuff is going to work. Today, I’m off to one of the housing minister’s meetings with tenants to hear what things are important to them, and although I’m full of doubt about whether that’s a form of evidence that might end up in policy, or a PR exercise, even I can’t help but feel there’s scope for the way things are done to change. For the better, I mean.

*They paid for my dinner.

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