Shaping Housing Futures

by Ken Gibb


I have been in Toronto as part of a second workshop for the Shaping Housing Futures programme. This is a tri-country knowledge exchange activity thinking about how housing challenges in the UK, Australia and Canada can be analysed and understood with a view to developing feasible and credible new housing policies in each housing system. Thanks to David Hulchanski and his colleagues for hosting us and for the background work on the meeting, papers and project by Sharon Chisholm.

The project is so interesting because alongside four academics (Duncan Maclennan, Hal Pawson, David Hulchanski and myself), we are working with housing providers and NGOs across the three countries. This has led to intense and valuable workshopping of a range of key questions: what is the best way forward in each country to promote well-functioning private rental markets; how can policy be framed as a system of interdependent tenures and related systems (land, finance, etc.) instead of assuming each exists in a vacuum; how do we best address pressured metropolitan housing markets in each of the three countries studied; how do we articulate a new story that promotes the housing case to governments from a fundamentally economic perspective; how do we communicate these ideas? We hope to have both a more traditional report and a rather more accessible infograph-based workbook ready in the autumn (see the recent excellent affordability report from Hal Pawson and colleagues).

One cannot do this sort of work without being struck by both the challenges and opportunities from comparative analysis and lesson-sharing across what are very different housing systems. Unlike Canada and Australia, the UK is not a federal system of government. Of the three only the UK has a (relatively) large and established social housing system. The rental markets are quite different and moreover I have been struck how many commonalities there are between Canada and Australia in housing terms, even if all three countries suffer with unaffordable pressured metropolitan housing markets (and all three are experiencing wider housing related wealth inequality with its pernicious consequences). We must be cautious in how we do these comparisons but never forget that sometimes an idea from somewhere else simply can on occasion be worth further exploration. Suitably contextualised, customised and ‘translated’, it may make a lot of sense locally.

Within 7 working group themes in total, I have been working on a couple of specific themes for Shaping Futures as well as thinking about the  UK contextual background. I should point out the invaluable help that Canadian consultant Derek Ballantyne provided for my finance theme and also thank Roger Wilshaw, from Places for People, who helped greatly on housing governance and modern institutions.

The contextual material stressed:

  • The sense or extent to which long term trends relative to housing are stable, at turning points, have experienced structural breaks or are maybe mean-reverting after a shock.
  • The tension or rubbing points between reserved and devolved matters as far as housing goes.
  • The contested nature of policy for private renting – multiple tax grabs versus policies to support institutional investment and, in Scotland, new longer term tenancies and limited rent regulation.
  • The strong regional variations in affordability, housing costs and affordable housing supply in different parts of the UK
  • On-going Party political debates on housing following the February 2017 English housing white paper.
  • A degree of speculation about the possible impacts of different Brexit outcomes for the British housing system.

The governance or modern housing institutions session argued that a necessary condition for better housing policies that operate to support a coherent and well functioning housing system, requires appropriate institutions. While this is probably the clearest possible example of an area where policy transfer of comparative analysis is most difficult since national and sub-national institutions are most likely to be idiosyncratic and the result of specific path dependencies.  Nonetheless, some lessons have been apparent:

  • At a broad level, institutions need to be congruent and fit with the functional housing systems they should serve.
  • Local arrangements must be provided to allow the relevant authorities to align empirically verified levels of need and demand for housing with land supply and credible targets for affordable supply within that total. Rigorous evidence and analysis for planning that is provided comprehensively is simply essential.
  • Patchy frameworks of regulation cover different parts of the housing system – how can we move to a consistent set of regulated consumer rights regardless of housing tenure?
  • Can we deliver land delivery vehicles, probably at the regional spatial scale alongside new planning partnerships that can lead on and proactively plan major housing developments on a more systemic level including affordable housing?

The session on finance took a slightly unusual tack that argued that we already, if we are honest, understand the basic tenets of how one can finance affordable housing and there really are not many innovative magic bullets out there to support more sub-market housing to scale without public resource in one form or another. I used the analogy of the children’s tile game where you can move all the tiles around because of one empty space in the middle. Variations of savings on land, equity, construction cost reductions and financing can all contribute. We do need to do these things intelligently and provide enabling instruments to support funding affordable housing but it is in part about making the case for more resources in housing and convincing governments and relevant finance or treasury departments that this should be a priority.

Finance for housing is, as with the wider reform story, therefore to a large extent about convincing, and then developing a credible and authoritative narrative (perhaps focused around undeniable economic truths). Following Guy Standing’s influencing arguments in the last chapter of his recent book on Basic Income,  we need to speak to the needs of political elites (building long term consensus and a willingness to commit over more than one political cycle), can convince the bureaucracy of the need and credibility of the case for change and how it will be implemented, and finally build a clear grounded case that can win over voters, citizens and consumers.

Other themes concern private renting, communicating a new housing story, the economic case for such a story and the implications of pressured metropolitan housing markets across the three nations studied. This is all still work in progress and papers and reports will be drafted, edited and tested out before seeking to communicate and disseminate and talk to governments in the Autumn. Do watch this space and follow us on our website.