HQN blog – A political moment of change: the Housing Studies Association autumn lecture

Given the rate of housing-related announcements lately it would be a fair bet there would be one in any given week. Nonetheless, last week’s government climbdown on LHA capping added a frisson of excitement to the Housing Studies Association gathering on Wednesday: it was revealed only a couple of hours before.

This public lecture, sponsored by HQN, was a new initiative for the HSA, and the organisation was rewarded with a packed and lively audience in Sheffield to hear Lord Kerslake speak. The ex-council, HCA and civil service chief was on good form, casting an eye over a range of political issues from housing shortages to Universal Credit.

First, he dealt with the ‘malign’ effect of Brexit, ‘dominating the political and policy landscape’ and drawing space from other concerns. But he believed that housing can yet break through as a political issue, and indeed the point seemed reinforced by the LHA announcement coming from the Prime Minister herself.

Next, a tour of the problems in housing. Affordability and access crises, a price boom and fewer younger owners were identified. The varied housing markets across the country, Lord Kerslake said, are being driven by the economic divide: essentially, London versus elsewhere. Social housing stock has fallen by half since its heyday, owner-occupation has also fallen, and commensurately the private rented sector has grown rapidly.

Today we face the prospect of future generations being less well off than their predecessors. This may be well known, but, Lord Kerslake said, this is actually true of all age cohorts since 1955. The remarkable scale of change and direction of travel has ‘not been good’ on the whole, and is the biggest reason for disparity in fortunes is housing.

Lord Kerslake pointed out that until recently, this growing divide seemed to have almost no political consequence. The focus of discussion in policy was therefore confined to the impact on older people. But the last UK election, and the Grenfell tragedy shortly after, dramatically changed that story, and Lord Kerslake placed housing at the centre of the rethink. Inequality – the life divide between the haves and have nots, with housing at the centre of this wider debate – became a key political topic.

In this changed landscape, he believed, it should be possible to make the case for investment in housing. However, the scale of the problem becomes clear, he commented, when we consider that despite the government already putting ‘enormous amounts of money’ into construction, we have only just regained pre-economic crash levels of new housing supply. “We are only back where we started.”

That led Lord Kerslake to predict that we will not quickly build our way to affordability – in fact, we cannot. The scale of the task requires the UK to ‘build a lot more houses for a long time, raising our game and sticking with it’, he argued. To do that, greater public investment will be essential.

Above all though, he said, we need a plan that straddles market cycles and changes in government – avoiding the short-termism that bedevils the housing sector – and that is based on solid evidence when it comes to solving problems of market failure.

As it happens, that is also the mission of the newly launched UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE). Led by Sheffield and Glasgow universities with numerous partners including HQN, the centre aims to bring forward a pipeline of evidence on tackling current housing challenges.

Professor Ken Gibb from Glasgow University outlined some of the research the new centre will take on, from behavioural economics to the nitty gritty of housing management. It too sees an essential role in looking beyond the short term and finding lasting, evidence-based solutions to the ‘multiple bad outcomes’ that so often happen in housing markets and neighbourhoods.

Better policy and practice is something that everyone involved in housing will surely cheer on. Those with unpardonably long memories will recall the New Labour days of ‘what matters is what works’. We’ve come a long way since then and as Lord Kerslake remarked, not generally in a good direction. This time around we at least have the advantage of devolved government that can foster more plurality of approaches, and a new political mood to listen to tenants. With CaCHE to assemble the evidence on what really does work, we may get things moving the right way at last.

By Janis Bright

In the following, additional blog HSA Chair Beth Watts explains the inspiration behind the event and provides a taste of the afternoon’s proceedings. There is also access to Lord Bob Kerslake’s speech in full and more on the new Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence from Professor Ken Gibb.

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