Housing Studies Association Conference 2018

by Ken Gibb

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.