Three Days of the HSA

by Ken Gibb

I have spent the last two and a half days in York at the annual Housing Studies Association conference. The themes of the conference included housing, inter-generational struggles and responses; housing policy in the context of the general election and constitutional change; and, the very rich and very poor in contemporary urban Britain. There were also parallel sessions of both academic papers and early career researcher streams. Everything was well-organised, ran smoothly and was an enjoyable environment of polite and engaged inquiry.

There were great plenary speakers including Beverley Searle, Sue Heath, Kate Barker, Rowland Atkinson and Lisa Mckenzie.  I also enjoyed some great workshop papers. One in particular was by Sarah Payne on the first day on house builders and their recovery from recession, a paper which spoke directly to Kate Barker’s plenary on housing policy, much of which was concerned with planning and housing supply.

Conferences like HSA are very social both in terms of meeting up with old friends but also about engaging fully with social media. Apart from Twitter and such like, Alex Marsh and I planned beforehand to do a podcast interview on housing and the election (what else do you do in that hour before dinner?).

My plenary paper was a reflection on the diverging housing policy framework in Scotland, the experience and consequences of the referendum and Smith proposals, and the implications for the UK election and for policy transfer in both directions.This hopefully complemented Kate Barker’s more detailed assessment of known housing policy proposals in the election debate. We had interesting questions, particularly one suggesting that much of the debate was really about upstream issues to do with the labour market, income and wealth distribution, health inequalities and education.

My recurring theme or metaphor was quantum mechanics. I recalled the day of the referendum when we held an important strategic meeting about future work and simply did not know which vote outcome would happen and hence where our new work would best be directed. On reflection, a bad choice of day for such a meeting but it was very creative! Moreover, we were like Shrodinger’s Cat – both outcomes were possible until the vote was over. The general election is currently highly uncertain and discussing it inevitably leads us down similar alternative futures. It also strikes me that the choices we make at such a conference with all these different parallel workstreams mean that we experience quite different conferences as a result of our choices – something like a series of parallel universes!

One workshop discussion I was in did raise the lack of range in the political discourse at the conference – the almost complete absence of a non-left or non-centre left position or narrative. Some were relaxed about this fact or even welcomed it; others worried that perhaps it may limit our capacity to influence and persuade. 

My other memories of the event that will remain include when Kate Barker was talking and made the comment that on a specific policy issue she was ‘barking up the right tree’. Also, I finally met my namesake, Len Gibbs, who is doing interesting research on low demand and market failure. Nice man and surely he and I should be writing papers together and causing copy editors great confusion (in fact the Scottish MSP, Kenny Gibson, has also made a similar suggestion to me).  

Finally, it was good that we had an opportunity to remember Alan Holmans, who was a longstanding pillar of the HSA, a great housing scholar and a thoroughly nice man.