Notes from a Conference

by Ken Gibb

I am at a housing studies conference in York. This is an annual event, comfortable, and with many familiar faces and old friends. This year’s event has been about housing and value (deliberately multi-dimensional). A lot of tweeting went on throughout (#hsa2014).

Highlights this year were the many high quality papers we heard in workshops from several disciplines including papers on race and class by David Robinson and on policy ‘fictions’ by John Flint. There were two valuable papers on knowledge exchange projects. Ian Wilson from Sheffield Hallam also did a nice paper on the economic impacts of social housing organisations. There was a pantomime villain in the form of a Conservative councillor speaking in a plenary debate who gave as good as he got. Julia Unwin from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did the final plenary paper on the role of housing within welfare – a crumbling but essential pillar. An excellent, at times scary, but also an inspirational way to send us off.

Outside the formal business, we had Steve Wilcox’s blues band playing after the conference dinner. My personal highlights were the new people I met and got to know a bit (including Julian Birch who hitherto had been merely virtual). I also enjoyed a late night walk from the town back to the Heslington campus. And, of course, there is that excellent train journey across to Edinburgh and down the east coast to York. A friend of mine and I have also got into the habit of an early morning run on the middle morning of the conference and that was great, too.

Alex Marsh and I did a paper building on earlier research about the extent to which (and when) housing economics as an academic discipline identified and forecast the GFC, as well as the extent to which the type of work being done subsequently by housing economists has been altered, methods modified and research innovated? This is quickly quite controversial and also touches on fundamental questions of how the academy works and how change or innovation occurs. We had good feedback on a paper that has tried to systematically and chronologically review a large volume of material, most of which was a read through of 10 years of two eminent relevant journals. A lot of the substantive focus looks at fundamentals versus bubbles and the comparison between the problems experienced by macroeconomics as a discipline compared to housing economics. We now have to build on this and turn a rough incomplete draft into something submittable.

I have been coming to these events for many years (my first job entailed that I was the first honorary secretary of the Housing Studies Association in the early 1990s). While housing education is struggling it is patently obvious from meetings like the one this week – that housing research is vibrant and many younger or early career researchers are doing or contemplating conducting exciting and valuable research. This may of course be in part because of the extent of the housing ‘crisis’ that fuels demand for the work. Whatever the sources, the housing research body collective has much to be positive about.

My favourite line from various speaking platforms throughout the meeting came from a seasoned academic musing over a long historical analysis of housing politics. To paraphrase: ‘I have resigned from the Labour Party many times; once I had to rejoin just so I could resign over Iraq’.