What do I want? A closer relationship between theory and practice. When do I want it? Now, please, if you don’t mind.

Dr Jennifer Doyle, Trafford Housing Trust, Winner of the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding Early Career Impact

Jennifer Doyle

It is strange and exciting being a researcher in social housing. There are no traditional links between social housing and academic research. As a collective, those of us in the built environment disciplines have broadly fallen into one of two roles:

  • Those focused on an absolute necessity to deliver housing, to manage housing, and to look after our tenants, in the moment, continuously; and
  • Those of us who have been afforded the luxury of time to conduct research to consider things more deeply, to reflect, strategise and plan for the future.

Both of these roles are critical. Without practical delivery, social housing would fall over. Without research, we won’t know the impacts and effects of what we are doing, and how we can improve in the future. However, there is a well-recognised gap between theory and practice in the built environment sciences, meaning that the interrelationship between these roles is limited at best.

Why do we need this relationship?

It isn’t helpful for there to be a breakdown in relations between academic researchers and practical delivery within the built environment. Practical work can be improved both through learning from research and through application of research skills to better understand our own work. Training built environment professionals requires lecturers and courses informed by up-to-date research which is relevant to the field – so surely this should be based in the practical work which professionals will be engaged with when they graduate. We should have a circular and mutually-beneficial relationship, but all too often the academic element of RICS or RTPI-accredited training just gathers dust when individuals move onto the practical work. This means that practical work ceases to be influenced by up to date research and evidence, and critical learning opportunities are being lost by this divergent relationship.

Drawing by Jenifer Doyle

What is the urgency?

The practical side of the built environment professions, and in particular social housing, needs to improve its approach to research and evidence-based decision making very quickly. Emerging policy changes have rapid and significant impacts on our customers and communities, as does every policy or practical change we implement. We need to better understand the impacts of what we are doing, and we need to use this to drive strategic decision making. This has to happen now because what we do today impacts people and communities tomorrow. We’re not in a safe, controlled lab – we are out in communities, and we need to make sure we fully understand the implications of every decision we make, from as many angles as possible. One thing we are doing at Trafford Housing Trust is working with HACT (the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust) to develop standards of evidence – in essence, setting out new standards for the housing sector to ensure that research which is used to inform decision making is valid and robust. We’re also looking at partnering with the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University to work collaboratively on research projects, focusing on work which will directly benefit our customers whilst also contributing to filling critical evidence gaps in academia. We’re keen to partner with like-minded housing associations and researchers to develop more collaborative projects – please get in touch if you’d to chat about this in more detail.

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