Starting with the evidence

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 20. 

Almost everyone agrees there is a housing crisis, that the housing market is broken and dysfunctional and that urgent action is required – but why and what exactly should be done about it?

For most of the last seven years, the answers to these questions seem to been scribbled on the back of a fag packet at Policy Exchange or emerged fully-formed from the brilliant mind of Iain Duncan Smith.

Any idea of evidence-based policy disappeared after 2010, with evaluations of policy published only reluctantly and ignored when their conclusions are inconvenient.

That has begun to change under Theresa May, who became prime minister with a reputation for taking her time over decisions and insisting on looking at the evidence for herself before she took them.

With the Conservatives apparently prepared to consider some ideas that were previously off limits, and even to fund social rent once again, the political consensus about the need to do something about housing is growing.

So the timing could hardly be better for a new initiative dedicated to supplying the evidence to help diagnose the problems with the housing system and come up with solutions.

The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) is a multi-disciplinary partnership of nine universities and three professional institutions that aims to produce evidence and new research to improve housing policy and practice across the UK.

Led by the University of Glasgow, CaCHE has £6m of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, support from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Arts and Humanities Research Council and another £1.5m from consortium members.

Work will focus on six overlapping themes but priorities will be determined in partnership with stakeholders from across the housing system

Exemplar projects identified so far give a flavour of the work:

  • Reviews of the international evidence on homelessness prevention, housing taxation and policies to improve housing affordability,
  • Wellbeing as a tool for measuring housing outcomes
  • The impact of welfare reforms on housing associations
  • The plight of Generation Rent
  • The nature of housing quality and ways to evaluate it
  • The challenges of high-rise residential development.

CaCHE started work in August but the official launch event was in London this week.

Advisory board chairman Lord Kerslake said that Brexit is dominating everything in parliament and Whitehall at the moment: ‘So it is hard for any issue to break through, but if there is one issue that is breaking through it’s housing.’

He went on: ‘It’s fair to say that the political parties agree on the issue but not on the response to the issue. That’s where CaCHE comes in.’

Emma Stone, policy and research director at the JRF said the centre would help tackle its priorities: ‘Housing can and should be a protection against poverty but instead it is pushing people into poverty.’

Ken Gibb, CaCHE director and principal investigator, said that in addition to direct issues like homelessness and affordability, housing was also implicated in wider ones like inequality and economic instability.

With centres in all four countries of the UK and different regions of England one key focus for CaCHE will be policy transfer.

As housing policy diverges at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont, and in devolved parts of England, different solutions are being tried to some of the same issues and there is potential for all to learn from them.

The Welsh homelessness prevention legislation is one obvious example of that and it could be that Scotland’s reforms of the private rented sector will become another.

CaCHE has the funding and support to make a real difference but events elsewhere this week showed that it will still be an uphill struggle to make all that evidence count.

The government has continued to insist on no change or pause in the roll-out of universal credit despite overwhelming evidence that it is plunging tenants into destitution and leaving landlords with rising rent arrears.

In doing so, it seems to be ignoring the lessons from the pilots and the staged roll-out that IDS said would ensure that any problems would be ironed out before the accelerated roll-out reached most areas and the new benefit began to confront complex cases and housing costs.

The problems were all too clear at the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru’s Big Question conference in Cardiff this week.

In April Flintshire became the first part of Wales to go full service and it was clear from a presentation by Clare Budden, its chief officer community and enterprise, that the issues go well beyond the costs of the phone line and the waiting period that have dominated media coverage.

The problems are especially acute for council like Flintshire that are both social landlords facing rising rent arrears and strategic housing authorities looking at rising costs of homelessness.

In particular, universal credit’s inability to keep up with people who move between short-term accommodation is leaving local authorities with rising bills for temporary accommodation and no way to fund it.

Douglas Haig, director for Wales of the Residential Landlords Association, highlighted its survey showing that only 13% of private landlords are willing to let to someone on universal credit.

In previous welfare reforms, the government has ignored complaints from councils, housing associations and private landlords on the grounds that they all have vested interests. It remains to be seen how long they can ignore the mounting evidence, and parliamentary votes, on this one.

Downing Street was at least ‘in listening mode’ at a summit with representatives from across the housing world. Lord Porter, for one, was left feeling hopeful it understood too.

But I couldn’t help reflecting that the summit was the culmination of a policy process that has been working in reverse

Normally you listen to people who know what they are talking about, then you consult on a green paper, then you firm up the proposals in a white paper, and finally you legislate for change in a Housing Act.

The last government did the exact opposite and kicked things off with a half-baked Housing and Planning Act.

This one can at least start by looking at the evidence and learning lessons.

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