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Transforming the housing evidence base in Wales

The Welsh Hub of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) was launched In at a seminar at Cardiff University in December. Peter Mackie explains more.

The centre aims to produce evidence that will shape UK and devolved policy and tackle chronic housing problems. It brings some of the UK’s leading experts together to focus on seven key areas, including: the impact of housing on the economy; understanding housing markets; housing choice; housing poverty; neighbourhood design; the impact on housing as a result of multi-level governance; and homelessness.

Cardiff is one of five regional CaCHE hubs and is based at the Wales Housing Research Network in WISERD. The December event in Cardiff saw Craig Watkins from the centre’s executive team discussing opportunities for engagement with the centre, while key individuals from the housing sector presented their initial views on the major evidence gaps and priorities in Wales.

More than 60 delegates heard contributions from:

  • Hayley MacNamara, Community Housing Cymru
  • Jen Heal, Design Commission for Wales
  • Jennie Bibbings, Shelter Cymru
  • Mark Harris, Home Builders Federation
  • Paul Webb, Welsh Government
  • Sara James, Office for Statistics Regulation

In this brief article, we reflect on the key priorities identified by both speakers and delegates, although we recognise that we cannot do justice to the rich discussions that took place. The diverse range of topics highlight the complexity and the extent of the challenges that lie ahead of CaCHE but also the opportunities to transform the housing evidence base in Wales and across the UK.

Affordable housing

Several evidence needs were identified in relation to the broad theme of affordable housing. First, the evolving challenges experienced by social housing tenants as a result of welfare reforms must be better understood. Second, it was suggested that a review of international evidence on mechanisms for delivering affordable housing might be pursued and any lessons adapted for the Welsh context. Finally, there is a need to understand the skills gaps within the social housing sector in order to enable local and regional commissioning targets to be met.

Private sector home building

One of the key evidence gaps to emerge in relation to private sector housing development is the need to better understand housing aspirations and choices and how these vary across Wales. Moreover, to what extent do these preferences correlate with design codes that inform the type of housing we build? Questions were also raised about the particularities of any barriers to housing development in Wales – what prevents planning permissions being translated into development?

Private rented sector

Several speakers highlighted that evidence on the private rented sector had not kept pace with the sector’s rapid growth. There is widespread recognition that statistics on the sector are deficient, with scope for improvement on rent levels, tenancy durations, accommodation quality, and tenant characteristics. Questions were also raised about the potential role of evidence in improving access and tenure security whilst also creating an environment conducive to landlord investment.

Place making

It was claimed that too often discussions in housing circles focus on numbers and units of housing, forgetting that these are people’s homes. Reportedly, there needs to be a shift of focus onto more qualitative measures of success such as wellbeing. One specific evidence gap in this regard would be to improve our understanding on the impacts of poor neighbourhood design.

Homelessness and housing law

Wales has innovated in homelessness policy and law in recent years and this innovation provides a focal point for new research. Implementation of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 is raising questions for researchers and policy makers. Why does rough sleeping continue to rise? What role does litigation play in the new legislative framework? How might a Housing First approach be integrated within the legislation? What might a Welsh tribunal system look like?

Welsh housing system

One of the aims of CaCHE is to take a systematic approach to understanding housing challenges across the UK and in the devolved nations. Given that much of the discussion during the seminar was structured under separate themes, participants were keen to emphasise the importance of avoiding silo thinking, ensuring that the evidence base delivers a better understanding of the Welsh housing system as a whole and how it might be improved.

Westminster and Wales

A recurring theme throughout the event was the importance of examining the interactions between devolved housing policies and those reserved by Westminster – particularly in relation to social welfare. Moreover, there is scope to explore manoeuvrability and opportunities to act differently within Wales in order to negate some of the worst impacts of policies emerging from Westminster.

The data

Countless comments and observations were made about the potential to improve datasets within Wales and also how these datasets are used. Notably, collecting and making available individual level data for data linkage was raised as an important priority in order to improve our ability to examine outcomes of services and policies. Within this context, but also more broadly, one delegate noted the need to ensure equalities data could be disaggregated and analysed.

Significantly, while there were calls for improved data in Wales, it is also important for this data to be comparable across the UK. It is hoped that the data navigator, which is being developed as part of CaCHE, will help people to navigate often complex housing data across the UK.

Evidence into policy

Delegates warned of the dangers of producing data that is never used. Indeed, evidence exists which has failed to have impacts. Discussions focused on the importance of producing knowledge in easily accessible formats – with fewer words and more diagrams – but also recognising the political environment and the mood for change in any given policy area. A key role for CaCHE will be to support a culture change across the UK, breaking down barriers between those who generate and those who use the evidence.

Collaborative and coordinated evidence production

The final point is to recognise that several key organisations and networks are now producing and coordinating housing evidence in Wales, including CacHE but also the Wales Centre for Public Policy and Welsh Government’s Housing Information Group. A collaborative approach will be key to ensure we avoid overlap but most importantly that we deliver the best possible evidence base for policy and practice in Wales.

CaCHE is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. For more information contact Dr Peter Mackie (MackieP@cardiff.ac.uk) or Dr Bob Smith (SmithR2@cardiff.ac.uk) at the Wales Hub.

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