Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: April, 2018

Housing Studies Association Conference 2018

I am writing this during the final day of the 2018 HSA conference, for the first time taking place in its new home in Sheffield. The structure, familiar faces and the good cheer of the annual conference remain the same.

During the conference I heard several workshop papers, I also attended two plenary sessions, one of which I held the coats for. This year, I also spent a considerable amount of time talking with CaCHE colleagues from far and wide, since we were well-represented and it was too good an opportunity not to catch up with people. Oh, and there was a bit of socialising, too.

CaCHE is now a partner with the HSA and we are delighted to be supporting early career researcher streams and to support specific plenary sessions. I hope that our relationship with them will only deepen with time. We have already worked with HSA on their first annual lecture last Autumn and I hope together we will be a good fit over the coming years.

To the conference. The plenary I chaired involved three very different papers: Keith Jacobs reflected on the neo-liberal housing project, not a housing crisis, but something that works for key elites (though he claimed to remain optimistic about the future); Brian Lund discussed housing politics in UK elections and argued that housing tenure and age, among others, have become key signifiers of voting patterns; Marissa Gerstein Pineau presented a socio-psychological analysis of different social policies including attitudes to homelessness in order to make a case for the importance of how we frame our arguments and communications.

Three things struck me in the plenary. First, I think it is undeniably interesting that housing cleavages have electoral significance but I could not help but want to see more granular spatial analysis, especially of high versus low pressure housing market regions (and also the Brexit remain versus vote leave areas). Second, I completely agree with Keith that it is not really helpful to talk continuously about a housing crisis. He argued this in part because the outcomes created by our housing system evidently work well for important stakeholders at the expense of others (including future generations). I would stress more that we are talking about overlapping chronic problems that periodically blow up into crises.

Third, I think the framing idea is clearly relevant and important in the world of knowledge exchange and policy influencing.  Marissa made the point that when fact finders, etc. seek to bust myths it is often found in follow up surveying that it still the myth rather than the reality that many people retain and hold to as nearer to the truth. This has obvious currency for those trying to evidence the social housing sector as different from many of the ‘legends’ it is saddled with. I also think the perpetrator of the ‘death tax’ concept for inheritance tax (and now also dusted down when discussing the funding of social care or deferring council tax payment) has produced a politically fireproof argument that is extremely resilient to counter-argument – despite evidence or sound logic to the contrary.

The final plenary about professionalism and practice involved Gavin Smart and Mary Taylor: two very good speakers both able to cross the boundaries between academia, policy and practice.  Mary provided three provocations about leadership in housing. First, leaders often focus more on policy than management. Second, unprecedented pressure to change exists in the system and  management needs to do more to embrace performance and  be more willing to change culturally. Third, the task of social housing is getting harder and resources fewer (and will be made more unpredictable by Brexit) – where are the future housing leaders  going to come from?

Gavin sketched out some of the main challenges as he sees them. First, what do we mean by a housing profession? Second,  what are the main challenges for the professions? Third, what is the  relation between professions and the academy? Like Mary, he stressed the massive opportunity (and need) to innovate, especially through new technology. The policy and practice challenge was thirty years in the making and will probably be thirty years in the fixing (and expectations to therefore manage). Too often the profession does not use evidence to support what it says. There are fertile areas where academic work informs policy and practice but there are many cases not so much. How do we change the conversation?

My own paper was about housing systems. It was really a form of thought experiment – is there a case for using housing systems ideas (interdependency, emergent properties and complexity, homeostasis, recursive processes, path dependency, non-linearity, etc.) systematically across housing research and evidence work within CaCHE? What might such a checklist look like? It would need above all to speak to different disciplines undertaking housing research across plural methodologies.  A tall order but surely not beyond us and something that might help us avoid some errors and reduce over reliance on partial analysis that does not consider the whole system.

I heard many other good papers by Rebecca Tunstall, Adriana Soaita, Yoric Irving-Clarke, David Clapham, Peter Matthews and Chris Foye, to name just six but I think my favourite paper was on children, play and spatial theory by Jenny Wood – which was just excellent, thought-provoking and well-presented. To what extent should place-making and planning take account of children’s wishes and how do we reconcile different adult and child requirements?

The conference dinner was held in the municipal splendour of the town hall. There is a regular pre-dinner talk, this year co-hosted by the Cannon & Ball of HSA, Tony Manzi and Joe Crawford. Kind words were said about CaCHE and of course a few people were the target of some harmless ribbing. I think I got away with it, though to be honest I may have missed a barb or two when lulled to sleep at one point by Joe’s mellifluous tones. I was reminded of that story about the Glasgow Empire when Mike Winters went on stage before Bernie popped his head out the curtain and someone in the audience shouted ‘Aw naw, there’s two of them!’. Eric Morecambe was once asked what he and Ernie would have been if they had not been comedians and Eric said ‘Mike and Bernie Winters’.

Roll on next year and thanks to all of the committee (especially Beth and indeed Joe and Tony) and HSA staff for their efforts to make the new home the base for such a successful conference.


Unpacking Rent Pressure Zones

Scotland recently broke ranks with the rest of the UK over private renting by introducing a new standard tenancy which will mandate the grounds by which a landlord can end a tenancy; otherwise they are open-ended and average tenancy lengths are expected to lengthen.  While some see this as a revolution in the rental market; others are more sceptical. It certainly has been the case in recent years that average length of tenancies had been growing under the old rules, as well as evidence that  more families are letting in the market. At the same time, others remain to be convinced by the new legislation. The new law is less than 6 months old and credible evaluation will take some time to surface and perhaps resolve these disagreements.

Alongside the tenancy reforms sit a new form of second degree rent controls in the shape of rent increase limitations in what are called local rent pressure zones, designated and applied for by local authorities. These are approved by the Scottish Government on the basis that the councils in question provide credible evidence that there is a clear case for such limitation to stop excessive rent increases. It is worth noting two or three things: the proposed limitations do not interfere with the initial rent setting that takes place at the beginning of a tenancy (they are not controlled) and any subsequent limitations will be capped but above the rate of inflation (a minimum of CPI & 1% for up to five years). These new proposals are, all in all, relatively modest.

For me, the most important issue is what the Scottish Government requires in terms of  credible and legitimate evidence from the council in question? Helpfully, the Scottish Government published a document which sets this out and I have just got round to reading it.

The first thing one is struck by in the guidance is that the evidence demands on a council are substantial. The early perception that many councils would be seeking such RPZs is clearly a misjudgement.  Paragraph 7 of the document says: Evidence of rent rises alone will not be sufficient to prove that they are rising by too much. Authorities also need to prove that rent rises in the proposed RPZ are causing undue hardship to tenants; and the rises are having a detrimental effect on the local authority’s broader housing system.

The cap only applies to tenants operating under the new tenancy in the designated geography of the RPZ. The guidance says that such a zone may be at different geographies such as a street, post code sector or data zone (but not necessarily a broad rental market area, as one might have intuitively expected). The guidance argues (para 18) that the provisions are intended to be used by a local authority to deal with excessively rapidly rising rents and where the Scottish Government consider that rents are rising too much, they are causing undue hardship to tenants, and, the council is coming under increasing pressure to provide housing  or subsidise the cost of housing as a consequence of rising rents (the Scottish Government expects the council to have plans to increasing housing supply and to link these to their RPZ application).

This is expected to be a transparent process where councils must publish their case and their evidence for RPZ designation. The guidance says (para 23): ‘the evidence will be a mixture of quantitative analysis e.g. statistics which demonstrate rent increases and qualitative analysis e.g. consultation with tenants. Councils will have to gather specific/ new evidence themselves where they do not hold this information already or where national data collections do not provide the level of detail required for an application. As such, councils might consider contracting with a third party with statistical and research expertise’.

Annex 1 of the guidance (criterion 3-5) sets out what is expected: a profile of the stock, time series evidence of rent increases, sample information and clarity over analytical methods, data from existing tenants, evidence that they are experiencing hardship, evidence that this rent pressure has increased pressure to expand supply and deliver more subsidy.

It would seem likely that the extent of evidence required will deter councils from making multiple applications and so the geographies may be comparatively wide. Second, it will take time for the new tenancies to generate the evidence required so do not expect RPZ applications immediately.

So, is this a modest proposal that sends a signal that may give tenants some comfort (and indeed landlords since they would have certainty about greater than CPI rent increases and can still set market rents initially); or might it be the thin end of the wedge that opens the door to greater levels of intervention?  I think it will be some time before we can assess the impact of RPZs.  Moreover, I think we need to place these reforms in a wider context of policy change for the private rented sector which go in different directions. These would include the adverse tax changes on landlords via LBTT, capital gains taxation and the tax relief available on borrowing, as well as the ongoing welfare impacts of the LHA cap and the treatment of younger single people (i.e. the single room rate). There is also the rental income guarantee pilot to encourage build to rent in Scotland.

And of course, the rental market is actually a series of more or less separate market segments on both sides of the market. We need to think through how these policy changes affect the different segments and the sector as a whole. Returning to the overall assessment of these interventions – rigorous analysis will have to both disaggregate the combined effects of these policies over time and ascertain their impacts across the multiple segments of the modern private rented sector –prs 1). All in all, we should be cautious about early evaluations telling us conclusively that the new system works or does not work later this year or even next.