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Ken Gibb Interview: How the new centre will make sense of housing

Ken Gibb, Research Lead for Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence

Housing: it is a subject that is endlessly discussed all over Britain: In the pub, in newspaper columns and around dinner tables.

It pervades every part of our society, affecting schooling, social cohesion, the poverty gap, social care, even pitting generations against each other. The opinions voiced are many and often contradictory. But one AHRC-funded project is determined to make sense of it all: The Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE).

This will be an independent, multi-disciplinary and multi-sector consortium of academic and people from the voluntary and public sectors funded through a five-year joint investment by the AHRC, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Amazingly, given the prominence of the subject in the public mind, CaCHE represents the first major investment in housing research at this level since the 1990s.

“We're going to look at it all: not just the economics, and the pressures that you see in places like London, but what's going on all over the UK, for everyone,” says research lead Ken Gibb, Professor in Housing Economics at the University of Glasgow.

“One of the very striking things about Britain today is that housing policy is rapidly diverging. If you compare policy in England and Scotland you will see remarkable differences, and we want to make sense of this.”

The main premise underlying the project is that, for different reasons, and over a period of time, the systematic use of housing evidence has declined in the UK, and this lack of evidence-based policy making has had huge implications.

“We don't know very much, for example, about the rapidly-growing private rental sector,” says Prof Gibb.

“While we may know that private renting has grown hugely – particularly since the financial crisis – we know very little detail about it beyond the fact that it is very complex and made up of many small, individual markets.

Ken Gibb speaking at the launch of the Centre

“And yet the Government is pursuing policies in the absence of this knowledge.”

Prof Gibb says that the starting point for CaCHE will be to act as a corrective to this trend and help support evidence-based policy making. “We would like to encourage the use of evidence in systemic way,” he says. “I've been shocked by how often this is absent. I don't think it's gone forever. But it has been slightly lost and we would like to correct that.

“We want to set up a series of regional knowledge exchange hubs that are representative of all of the stakeholders in the housing sector.

“It's quite exciting because we don't yet actually know what work we are going to do. We have a number of initial projects, and a number of initial PhDs. But the direction we take will come out of the hubs as a consensus emerges.”

With this kind of multi-disciplinary approach becoming more common among researchers, Prof Gibb has some advice for any others considering setting up a similar project: respect the complexity of your subject.

“We all come from housing, but we've got economists, architects, scientists, lawyers, historians – a whole range of disciplines will be involved in CaCHE,” he says. “And this diversity reflects the complexity of the subject.”

Prof Gibb is determined that academics working within the arts and humanities will play a broad role in the project; for example, by providing historical analysis and exploring issues around how communities connect.

Ken and Lord Kerslake

“We hope their input will add considerably to what we do and the outcomes we get,” he says. “We have to think about housing in a systemic way. Nothing exists in a vacuum. One of our themes is looking at how housing interacts with other major themes, like employment or health.

“We want to make sure we don't just come up with a simple explanation that turns out to be wrong. We believe that a lot of failures in the past emerged when researchers didn’t respect complexity or take a systemic approach.

“We would hope that by working in an area that society clearly regards as a priority we can do good work that will encourage people to look at the evidence and be part of the process that leads to better housing policy.

“I would hope that the kind of work we do collectively would contribute to people taking longer-term and more radical views of the housing sector.

“There's considerable determination to make things work. And these are exciting times.”

For more on the Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, read Ken Gibb’s Blog here.

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