Taking the political out of policy – producing evidence on UK housing issues is only part of the challenge

With ever-worsening housing affordability, first-time buyers left behind and tenants struggling to meet their rents, is the UK housing market officially broken? Is there a crisis? Here Professor Ken Gibb, Director of the new UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) aims to answer that question.

Personally I don’t find the shorthand phrase ‘housing crisis’ very helpful, but prefer to think of the housing system as confronting multiple, overlapping challenges which periodically ‘blow up’.

Unaffordable housing is one of several challenges – others are the UK economy’s vulnerability to instability in the housing market, lack of access to home ownership, homelessness, and the lack of sufficient new housing supply – particularly affordable, low-cost and social housing.


Does this mean there has been a general lack of research on housing?

There is actually quite a lot of academic housing research, and the UK has long been in the vanguard in international comparative terms, although other countries like Australia are now producing a lot of excellent housing research.

There are some things we know quite a lot about, and other areas that are contested or relatively overlooked. One necessary early task that CaCHE will undertake is to identify what we know we don’t know – the ‘known unknowns’ – and also map and identify housing research that is underway.

Navigating a complex housing sector – spanning several disciplines and a wide range of different methods and techniques

CaCHE starts from a housing system perspective – these different stakeholders, segments and interests operate interdependently. We need to understand the dynamics of this system better if we are to make sense of the evidence, the problems and the required policy responses.

The problems are not simple and neither are the solutions. They inevitably require political processes reconciling insiders and outsider interests and the building of consensus over difficult choices, if we are to make real long-term progress in areas such as housing taxation, the location of new housing or the shape of housing-related welfare benefits.

Taking the political out of policy – producing evidence is only one part of the challenge, there needs to be political will to act on this evidence

Housing policies going back through time have often been advanced on the basis of an ideological position regarding preferred tenures, opposition to particular forms of social housing etc, and a willingness to support interventions which would appear not to be evidenced. These have also often been unclear in terms of value for money, distributional impacts and even achieving actual policy success.

One important point of course is that housing is dominated by the existing stock of dwellings while policy change takes time, usually more than one Parliament, to work through. So, a big problem is the lack of patient political capital. It is unquestionably unhelpful that successive governments have rapidly turned over housing ministers – I believe there have been more than 15 in the last 20 years.

A boost for housing research

As a large new investment in housing research, encompassing seven research themes, 13 consortium partners and three co-funders, CaCHE looks set to give housing research a major boost and expand academic influence on policy.

We need to be central to the campaign to restore evidence, rigorous knowledge and analysis to policymaking in housing. Our research will be prioritised according to the views of housing and research users through our sub-national knowledge exchange hubs, each acting as a group representing the regional housing system. By helping to demonstrate what works and what does not work, we intend to show the added value that good evidence brings to policymaking – including preventing heading down policy cul-de-sacs.

Reaching the goal – by managing research centre spread across multiple universities, organisations and disciplines

CaCHE is designed to reflect the width and complexity of the housing sector in contemporary British society. We had to be UK-wide in focus, committed to collaboration with stakeholders, and genuinely multi-disciplinary. To do all of this naturally points towards a large distributed centre across all parts of the UK and, in the end, with 13 consortium partners. It is one thing to direct a core team of staff; it is quite another to oversee 30 co-investigators spread far and wide. CaCHE is a great and rare opportunity, but it is also a challenge that cannot be taken on in anything other than a whole-hearted way.

Kenneth Gibb 150Professor Ken Gibb is Director of CaCHE, which is a consortium of 13 partners led by the University of Glasgow. The centre is funded by ESRC, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and aims to provide new research evidence on housing for policymakers.

A longer version of this article originally ran in the ESRC’s
Society Now magazine.

Read about the work of CaCHE.

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