Professor Kenneth Gibb at the University of Glasgow discusses the new UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE).
Housing is a divisive and often problematic question for families, politicians and activists. Many talk of a “crisis” but really there are multiple, connected different strands. Chronic problems that are made worse by economic crisis, asset price volatility and shocks like Brexit or austerity.
We know many people cannot afford to buy a first home or that market renting can be unaffordable. It is often said that there are not enough homes and too few are being built. In cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh we see the visible signs of street homelessness but also more enduring problems like poor housing conditions, often found in parts of the private rented sector.
Housing is a store of increasingly unequal wealth, an unfairness that is felt starkly by the young who cannot buy. At the same time, it is generally accepted that Scotland needs to deliver 12,000 more affordable homes every year.
Policy responses vary from repeated unrealistic targets to build sufficient new housing in England, huge galvanising efforts to build on a large scale in astronomically expensive London, but at the same time, much criticism of poorly targeted policies – for example, Help to Buy.
Two eye-catching policies that differentiate Scotland is the progressive reforming of the private rented sector to strengthen security of tenure and introduce light-touch localised rent increase limitations. Secondly, the government is pledged to deliver 50,000 additional social and affordable homes over the current parliament (that is, 10,000 a year).
The recent English housing White Paper Fixing our Broken Housing Market marks the beginning of a pragmatic analytical recognition of the scale of the problems facing the housing sector. It is strong on diagnosis and it is very welcome that it generally is less dogmatic on the form and tenure basis of solutions. However, it is less systematic or convincing with its list of proposals for interventions, some of which have no date or scale attached to them.
What this range of challenges and the varied responses we see across the UK tells us is that the housing system is complex (and varied locally) but that it is crying out for rigorous relevant evidence to diagnose the actual housing and housing-related problems facing towns, cities, regions and nations and, importantly, to do so on a systemic basis. We need to evaluate existing policies to see if they offer value for money and are fit for purpose. Only then can policies and practice be proposed that can influence policy making to move things in the right direction for all in society.
It is therefore both timely and apposite that the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) last week announced a five-year UK-wide multidisciplinary programme in housing evidence and research. The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) will be led by the University of Glasgow along with 12 other consortia members from across the UK, including non-academic partners.
The centre is also funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. With further key locations in Sheffield, Cardiff, Belfast and London, the centre will bring together different disciplines who will work closely with the housing professions, policy and practice. We will work in each part of the UK, for all of society, to prioritise evidence gaps and identify relevant new primary research with the aim of positively influencing policy, thereby attacking the challenges identified earlier.
A distinguishing feature of the new housing evidence centre will be its close relationship with non-academic housing practice, professions, policy and representatives across the housing system. We will set up five groups across the UK, including one for Scotland, which will act as sounding boards for the academics and through which we will hold intensive participative discussions at several stages of the five-year programme in order to agree a consensus around the priorities for the work programme that genuinely reflect the most important concerns of the housing community.
Residents, trade bodies, providers, the private sector, local government and national policymakers will all be involved. The centre’s international advisory board will perform a similar role for UK-level housing questions.
What will success look like? First, we need to provide relevant accessible evidence and research that can inform and influence policymaking and direct policy and practice innovation to improve the housing system in the interests of all.
Secondly, our work should embed the use of evidence and analysis by policymakers, at different spatial scales, as fundamental to good policymaking long after this initiative is a thing of the past.
Thirdly, CaCHE will be viewed as an independent academically rigorous champion of what works in housing and will promote evidence both strategically and as widely as possible through available networks, traditional and social media.
- Professor Gibb is director of the ESRC UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. This article first appeared in The Herald.