The housing research industry: interview with Thinkhouse’s Richard Hyde

Elephant & Castle. Photo: Ulises Moreno-Tabarez (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In October 2018, we wrote a brief blog profiling Thinkhouse and celebrating four of LSE London’s reports making it onto their curated library of the year’s best research. The list fluctuates as new reports are published, assessed by an independent editorial panel, and moved onto their corresponding categories including must read, highly recommended, and other reports. Since then, another of our reports, Rent controls: lessons from international experience, has been added to their library.

In December, Richard wrote an article for Inside Housing where he summarises the must-read reports of 2018. He notes that in 2017, the lead research and ideas were about devolution; in 2018, the key issues that featured most were about demographics, renting, homelessness/rough sleeping, and land. Now that 2018 is over and the new year is well under way, we wanted to follow up with Richard Hyde, chair of the Thinkhouse editorial panel, to discuss some of the issues that are reflected in their library.

This is an edited version of an interview that LSE London’s Ulises Moreno-Tabarez (UMT) conducted with Richard Hyde (RH) about the housing research community and the possibilities and challenges it faces in impacting on government policy.

UMT: You mentioned in the Inside Housing article that Thinkhouse reviewed over 130 reports of housing research. This points to the scale of the housing research ‘sector’ in the UK – which also implies competition in terms of funding, research agendae, and ideological position. All this translates into different recommendations for policy and practice. I imagine it is difficult for policy makers to create a coherent narrative from all these reports. If you had to write a coherent narrative for general audiences covering the complexities of all the housing research you have reviewed in 2018, what would that narrative be?

RH: Yes, this is a weighty body of work, especially so when you realise it may exclude many academic papers. Whilst we have very strong links with the academic world, we decided not to subscribe to academic networks on the basis that we need to narrow our focus. Also the best academic research will get picked up by the authors of the think tank type reports that make up the greatest proportion of the reports on the site. We do not rule out changing this approach as the site develops. We are also keen to expand our international page of research and ideas from around the world.

Our audience is a mix of policy makers (whether in central of local government, on a Board of a developer or housing association), housing executives, researchers and the media. We cannot be certain, but we think they use the site to focus on specific areas of interest, say, regulation in the private rented sector. Therefore, how we classify and enable users to download our complete database is important.

In terms of one coherent message about housing research, I believe that it reflects the dynamic nature, complexity and scale of the sector. There is no silver bullet to address some of the structural problems – it will need a combination of many policy actions.

UMT: Homelessness and rough sleeping are two themes that featured prominently in the 2018 reports Thinkhouse surveyed. These issues are often treated, if not dismissed, as symptoms of structural problems. How do the reports negotiate the need to address symptoms while also tackling structural conditions that cause and exacerbate these issues?

RH: You are right about the number of reports on homelessness and rough sleeping that have been published on the site since we started operating. What strikes me is that many do offer solutions and there is some consensus about which work. ‘Housing First’ is the policy idea that is getting most traction. This may be one of the reasons that it is an area which has been the focus of action for politicians and led to legislation giving new responsibilities – to which local authorities have responded. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, implemented from April 2018, is shaping local authorities current responsibilities. Of course, the research and reports are an important catalyst for this change, but I also think the resulting media and Select Committee challenge – which echoed the call for change in a coherent and articulate manner – was also very important.

UMT: Iterations of the phrase ‘political will’ is common across several of the top reports found in Thinkhouse’s library, with most authors claiming this is a key element if needed change is to happen with regards to social housing, the private rented sector, land value, and planning, amongst other themes. Policy makers are seen as the usual culprits. What can the housing research ‘sector’ do to increase political will and get broader audiences involved in the process of ensuring informed and necessary change?

RH: the point I make in my previous answer is probably how – and you can see this approach with the recent report on the need to build more social homes from Shelter. It is an in-depth study which is very readable and supported by great academic analysis, but it is also really a campaign rather than a one-off piece of research. It has been fronted by some well-known, media savvy individuals and as a result was able to move the debate about the need for more social homes forward.

UMT: Thinkhouse’s editorial panel is said to base their decisions on how likely these reports are to influence policy makers. My question here is twofold: (1) What are some factors that you look for in determining whether a report will or will not influence a policy maker? (2) Do you plan to keep track of your predictions? If so, how?

RH: All the panel members scores will be averaged to determine which reports should be showcased in the “must read” section. Panel members will have their own scoring criteria, but they usually take into account the credibility of the authors/publishers; the quality of the research; how innovative and practical the policy proposals are; and the readability of the report. Successes from other countries are always interesting but given the UK housing sector’s distinctiveness and complexity what works overseas is not necessarily going to be effective in the UK.

It is an interesting idea about whether we should track the success of the reports we highlight in the must-read section and our failures to spot ‘winners’. It might be nice to know and maybe could help balance the frustrations of seeing a really well written, well researched, innovative piece not get any traction at all!

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