Housing: approaches to policy
by Trevor Locke
Introduction – policy, practice and history
I begin by going back to the core concepts that lie at the roots of public policy. I go on to consider housing, and the materials that have been used to construct homes, because history is a narrative of change. If we can see where housing might go in the future, we might get a firmer grasp of the kind of policies we need to adopt today. As most historians would say, the future is seen through the lens of the past. If we can see how the construction of homes and housing has changed over history, we might be better able to see where trends are likely to go in the future. A number of new policy issues are discussed, including the basis of occupation such as house ownership and renting.
I begin however with a discussion of policy, in the field of housing, one that sets the agenda for many of the issues that follow. The term ‘housing’ is frequently used but, in this context it means ‘homes’ – all types of domestic accommodation. Most people, in this country, live in houses but that gives only a partial picture of what people regard as being their homes; a substantial segment of the British population now live in flats and apartments, a trend that is steadily growing. Having a home is a fundamental element of human existence but whilst a house might provide shelter, a place for cooking and a place to sleep, a home is an emotional anchor that binds people to the place that serves as their base and the bedrock of their identity.
I start by looking at three core concepts: policy, practice and planning. I frequently use these concepts but they deserve some explanation. I then consider history as it relates to these three concepts.
In this book, I refer many times to ‘policy’ and this is a subject on which I have written extensively in the past. It is a term that, in my view, requires some explanation. In the 1990s I wrote a book that, on the face of it, was about planning: New Approaches To Crime in the 1990s [Locke, 1990]. In it, I argued that policy includes a statement about the goals of an organisation or system. A policy also states the definitions, boundaries, principles and requirements that are used to set up and operate a system [ibid p 80]. In chapter 4 ‘A matter of policy‘, I set out what I thought to be a conceptual framework for policy. Bear in mind, that, I was addressing the public sector and the organisations within it, that response to crime and dispense justice at the national and local levels.
Much the same conceptual framework is also true for private sector bodies such as corporations and businesses. Organisations can have policies, I argued, but so too can systems. The criminal justice system, for example, can be (and should be) driven by policies – those of the organisations that run the system, including the courts, the police, local authorities and departments of national government (such as The Home Office, Ministry of Justice and so on). The same model applies equally to housing, where the legislation and guidelines laid down by national government creates a system within which local organisations (the operators, such as local authority housing departments, housing associations and private landlords) implement the policy.
Policy is formulated and then implemented. When policy is formulated, those engaged in the task can undertake policy analysis and evaluation. The task of policy analysis sets out to clarify the underlying values implied in a proposed policy, to articulate and state the goals of the policy and might also look at existing policies, examining the degree to which these have been successful. This is the evaluative side of the process. In the case of housing, national government sets out a policy framework within which its departments and local operators make decisions, take action, and formulate their own policies. One of the goals of policy is to provide a framework within which decision making can be consistent and fair. Where housing is concerned, we can see policy makers being influenced and lobbied by a variety of organisations, as well as the usual dialectic that takes place between elected members and their permanent administrations (civil servants and the officers of local authorities.)
It is because the process of policy formulation is complex that it becomes necessary to grasp how it actually works, how it should work and how best to make it effective. In the 1990s, I had a mission to advocate policy science at both national and local levels within my professional domain (criminal justice) and, today, I feel the need to re-visit that discipline where housing and its related areas of policy are concerned. Twenty five years ago I was embedded in my professional area of work at both national and local levels and had access to policy makers from the top down, at all levels. Today, I have to view housing policy from the outside, observing what is happening, without being part of it. This affords me a degree of freedom I did not always have in my previous career. I acknowledge that I have no inside understanding of how housing policy is being made, who is making it and how they are making and that is, I freely concede, a weakness. I have, however, examined some of the products of the policy process – the statements of policy that have been published and this offers insights into how housing policy is being made.
Has the world of public policy changed that much in 25 years? The people involved in it have certainly changed, as each set of elections has varied the names and faces in the various corridors of power, but I believe that the processes through they make and implement policy have not changed that much. Hence, my argument is that policy making, formulation and implementation needs to be understood as much now as it was then. When I see a variety of policy failures, particularly in the field of housing, I am convinced that these are due to the lack of a discipline that could have avoided these pitfalls and if only policy makers had done the job better then such calamities could have been avoided. Housing policy is frequently of poor quality, both in its formulation and implementation. This is often because it is riddled with unintended consequences that reflect shortcomings in the way it was made. The purpose of the disciplined approach to policy formulation is to follow through to the outcomes, to forward plan implementation and to arrive at a strategy that is likely to work in the round. Hence, the argument that follows for the need for joined-up policies.
Once housing policy has been formulated it then needs to be implemented. There is no point in making policies that cannot be implemented. Policies that fail to be implemented, according to the goals and principles contained within them, are not good policies. Policy leads to practice and practice is about planning. The practice of implementing housing policies, is largely about planning: how they are to be put into effect, who will do what, where, when and how. This forms a cycle in which policy makers look at the way they intended their work to be implemented and, if necessary, to go back to the policy and revise it, because they see difficulties in how it will be put into practice. This is a problem that I frequently see in current housing practice. Policy made at national level results in unintended consequences and this is due, I argue, to failures on the part of policy makers to use the cycle of formulation and implementation that is required to make effective policy [King and Crewe, 2014]. Taking a suck-it-and-see approach wastes times and resources and causes harm to people in the process. In good practice, the consequences of policy have to be accurately predicted before policies are made. Making a policy and then seeing if it will work is bad practice; going back to the policy later to correct mistakes is not good government. What I do not see, in the current approach to housing policy, is a sense of what constitutes approaches to good practice in policy making.
There are some exceptions, where specific policies are concerned: the housing charity Shelter, for example, makes available a set of good practice guides on various aspects of its work for housing practitioners [Shelter, 2015]. The Department of Work and Pensions provides local authorities with information and guidance on the Local Housing Allowance Scheme [DWP, 2013]. The Centre for Housing and Support provides its members with a good practice service, covering a range of topics within its remit [Centre for Housing and Support, 2015]. The Chartered Institute of Housing provides its members with Practice Online ‘an online resource that provides comprehensive advice, guidance and good practice examples on a whole range of housing topics in a single place. Updated daily by a team of CIH specialists and expert legal advisers, this is the sector’s one-stop resource for ‘how to do housing’ [Chartered Institute of Housing, 2015]. These, and many other examples, were not difficult to find. The Government website also provides a selection of guides about housing-related policies, in particular housing benefit. These are resources aimed at local practitioners. There needs to be more advocacy of good practice in working with policy; many policy experts have defined best practice in the processes of formulating and implementing policy but the extent to which these are followed varies greatly both in Whitehall and in local authority areas.
In my work in the 1990s, I used the term strategy to bring together into one conceptual framework the three core elements of the policy process: formulation, implementation and planning. In those days I was heavily influenced by what was happening in the business and commercial side of strategic planning. I found a framework of thinking and research that wrapped together these three elements and joined up the processes of stating goals, specifying planning implementation and guiding practice. It was that strategic approach, to dealing with the problem of crime, that gave me the the vision of how a new approach could be taken to responding to crime in the 1990s [Locke, 1990] and I was vindicated, I think, by the way that government policies on crime and justice panned out in the ten years that followed. What I am now looking for is a strategic approach to housing policy and I do not think that this is out-dated, not my any means. It is reassuring that a large number of English local authorities have issued documents using the words strategic or strategy in the titles of their policy publications. Another book would be needed to see if such documents in fact make practical sense within this context.
The third arm of this strategic approach is planning. Once policies have been stated, they then need to be implemented and this is the process through which policy makers organise who is to do what, where, when and how. To implement a housing strategy, at local level, a variety of agencies must work together: local authority departments concerned with housing, social services, residential care, The NHS, housing associations, the private sector and third sector agencies that identify local needs. So too, at national level, a variety of departments need to collaborate together and with non-government organisations. There might be lead agencies but effective implementation requires a range of bodies to co-ordinate their work and to collaborate around local plans and practices.
A lot of information flows within this system, much of it being statistical but also soft data about the impact and experience that practice is having on the lives of people at the receiving end. In nearly all areas of planning, information is the life-blood of practice. In this regard, both crime and justice systems and housing systems share a common model of operation in which information plays an important role. A recent television programme showed how data is now being used to predict where crime will happen in the future [BBC, 2013, Berg, 2014] Watching this, I realised that what they were doing in Los Angeles, was simply an update on the work I did in the 1990s in Leicester, the North East region and many other local areas. Today, agencies have much more sophisticated modern resources than were available to us in the 80s and 90s. Back then, we formulated a procedure for creating local area profiles of crime, based on gathering and analysing data about where crimes had been committed in small local areas. The work gave a picture of what was happening and we used it to explain how the data could be applied to improving inter-agency collaboration and planning [Evans, 1992]. Developments in real-time analysis of large data sets allowed the LAPD to predict where crimes are most likely to be committed at a micro-level. I can see that the same model could be used to predict trends in housing demand and to indicate to planners were housing would most be needed in the short-term and medium-term future. It would not necessarily need to operate in real-time, but large-scale data sets could be analysed to point to specific areas where accommodation and housing would be needed at the local level. Such an approach would profile local area housing patterns, not dissimilar to those that we developed in the field of policing and justice management.
In 2010, a report talked about the creation and use of modelling in housing, in which economic and social factors were brought together and focused, to some extent, on what it called ‘tenure choice.’ The resulting model allowed certain elements to be predicted. This was useful, particularly in areas of high mobility and change. This work led to the formulation of a predictive model that could be used at regional level. The report explains how the model can be used to predict trends in housing need [Department for Communities and Local Government, 2010]. The government website’s National Planning Policy Framework provides ‘planning practice guidance’, including to do ‘housing and economic development needs assessment.’ This includes a section on the methodology of assessing housing need [Government website, 2014]. The section begins by stating: ‘Establishing future need for housing is not an exact science.’ Not a good start because, in my view at least, the opposite is true. The work on predictive modelling shows how a very exacting application of science (and mathematics) can provide tool kits for working with data to reveal current trends and predict where those trends might go in the future. This kind of work is very exact, employing very precise mathematical algorithms. The same source goes to state that ‘This guidance supports local planning authorities in objectively assessing and evidencing development needs for housing (both market and affordable); and economic development (which includes main town centre uses).
The assessment of housing and economic development needs includes the Strategic Housing Market Assessment requirement as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework. It goes on to explain that the objective of the exercise is to ‘identify the future quantity of housing needed, including a breakdown by type, tenure and size’ (among other things.) The application of large data sets to mathematical models can appear very fanciful to housing planners faced with severe shortages of accommodation in a local area. This is all well and good but if housing units cannot be created to meet trends in housing need, is there much point in doing all this? Knowing what the trends in housing needs are now or are likely to be in the future is of little use if local authorities cannot manage the supply side of the equation. This is where we are taken back to the issue of the housing crisis. Solving housing policy, planning issues and problems requires more than just information. Moving on to strategy, I consider some of the elements that need to be brought into play to turn policy into plans and practice.
I looked at some examples of local housing strategies. In Sheffield, there is a housing strategy covering the period 2013 to 2023. The council prefaces this with the statement ‘Our housing strategies help us plan and deliver housing for different groups of people across Sheffield. We update our strategies regularly to make sure we deliver a good choice of high quality housing, supported by excellent services. Our objective is for housing to be at the heart of high-quality, safe and distinctive places that will enable Sheffield’s communities to thrive’ [Sheffield City Council, 2015]. In its policy document, it says: ‘More information about how Sheffield is changing and the challenges for the city going forward can be found in the State of Sheffield report. A detailed assessment of Sheffield’s housing issues, and the need to invest in new and existing homes and housing services is set out in the Strategic Housing Review Report 2012. Both reports contributed to the evidence base for this Housing Strategy’ [ibid]. This illustrates the need for information to lie at the heart of policy. There is evidence, in the report, that the city council will work with other providers to ensure that its policy objectives are achieved. Evidence for a collaborative approach is seen where the report states: ‘Therefore alongside the activity that we are directly responsible for and the work done with or by other organisations, we intend to continue to talk to Government and others about how to reduce the barriers to delivery and create the right powers and environment which will help us achieve our long term goals’ and later ‘It is therefore important to recognise that whilst some of this activity is expected to be housing-led, other activities and improvements are expected to be delivered by the appropriate part of the Council, by partner organisations and by helping local traders and businesses to work together to help themselves. In these circumstances, the main role for the Council will be to coordinate the delivery and broker the engagement of all relevant parties’ [ibid, chapter 2]. Allied to Sheffield’s strategy statement there is an action plan that sets out in detail how the policy is to be implemented. In the introduction to the action plan it says ‘This is the first of three action plans that will be developed over the life of the Housing Strategy and covers the period 2013-16. The Housing Strategy Action Plan 2013 to 2016 describes what we will do over the next three years to help us achieve the housing ambitions contained within the 10 year Housing Strategy. The plan contains actions that are priority programmes and initiatives for the Council and our partners, and reflects the current national and local policy situation and financial challenges that Sheffield is facing’ [Sheffield, 2014]. This document indicates that the Council needs to work with partners and the community to puts its plans into effect, illustrating what I call ‘a collaborative approach.’
In Cardiff, there is a clear commitment to collaboration. In it’s strategy report, Cardiff City Council states: ‘In early 2010, the statutory partnerships in Cardiff agreed to undertake work to integrate their existing plans to develop a single Integrated Partnership Strategy – ‘What Matters’. This new approach, to bring together a revised Community Strategy; Health, Social Care and Wellbeing Strategy; Children and Young People’s Plan; and a Community Safety Strategic Assessment, is indicative of the collaborative working being developed to deliver seamless public services in Cardiff’ [Cardiff City Council, 2015]. What this particularly illustrates is the integration of a number of related policies being implemented through a collaborative approach that draws together a range of agencies. Inter-agency collaboration was something I worked on extensively, through the work I did for the consultancy group ‘Quality Partnerships’ which provided seminars and undertook project work at local level.
These two examples serve to show that the concepts used in work on planning policy implementation, in the 1990s, are still alive today. It would be both interesting and rewarding to examine a range of other examples of local housing strategies but I will forego that now in the interests of brevity. I have to say that the above represents desk-based research; I never went to these areas or talked to people working in them, so I cannot vouch for the credibility of these examples as far as practical impact is concerned.
Having set out my agenda for policy, practice and planning I want to move on to looking at history. The original set of House Bricks articles were inspired by my work on the history of the built environment in the context of my local area of Leicester [Arts in Leicester magazine, 2015].
I have argued already that the best way to understand any community – in history as well as in contemporary times – is to look at how people live, cook and entertain themselves [Locke, 2015]. In the historical context, our concern is with how people arranged their lives, the kind of homes they built and the materials they used to construct their houses – a key part of any historical account that tries to understand and depict a community. Water supply, drainage, sanitation, cooking, waste-disposal and entertainment are also fundamental elements of understanding communities, cities, towns and villages. It is through the lens of history that we may see the future. If we understand the past, we might be better able to predict the future. People live in homes and these are the venues for many of the activities that constitute their daily lives – where they consume food, engage in cleaning, entertainment, bringing up children and perform a wide range of activities that form part of their daily lives. What housing policy attempts to do is to scale up individual homes to the level of neighbourhoods, communities and regions. As we saw in the above section on planning, policy is being rolled out over periods of time. Having a historical perspective on housing might not be necessary to present day practice, but it does confer insights that contribute to the visions being formulated for the future.