Enhancing the role of evidence in housing policy

Professor Alex Marsh reflects on his recent trip to Tallinn in Estonia for the Housing Europe International Conference, which took place in June 2018.

The debate over the role evidence does or could play in policymaking has been well underway for two decades. The premise of the whole conversation is that evidence can contribute to making better quality of policy. In a world where the broader concern is that policy is increasingly influenced by fake news and systematic misinformation – and the very idea of agreed facts is being thrown into doubt – it is worth revisiting the starting point of the conversation.

Last month I took part in an event in Tallinn, Estonia organised by Housing Europe, which brought together representatives from many Central and Eastern European countries under the auspices of the Ad hoc working group for Housing Systems in Transition. The role of evidence in policy – and how to enhance that role – was high on the agenda. The event comprised two main sessions.

The first session focused on accessing EU funding for redevelopment strategies. Samir Kulenovic, Technical Advisor in housing and urban development at the Council of Europe Development Bank, and Grzegorz Gajda, Economist at the European Investment Bank, provided overviews of the work of their respective organisations and the sorts of projects that are being funded, through what sorts of processes, and on what sort of terms.

The second session took as its theme: How to build evidence-based housing policy?

Alice Pittini of Housing Europe introduced the session by reinforcing the value of robust evidence, particularly evidence on the broader value and socio-economic impact of good quality housing.

Mary Taylor then provided an overview of the way in which the Scottish Government is using data to underpin strategic local housing market assessments. Mary emphasised the importance of local authority leadership of the interactive process of needs assessment and the value of involving diverse stakeholders to build broad support for the estimates of need and new supply requirements that are produced. This illustrates the inextricable link between politics and effective policy.

Mary was followed by Gulnara Roll, Head of the Housing and Land Management Unit at the United National Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Gulnara identified the wide range of international agreements that encompass housing issues and housing policy. She then provided an overview of the sorts of data that UNECE makes available via its country profiles and the various steps UNECE is taking to facilitate and monitor the implementation of policy addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 11.

Finally, I provided an overview of the work of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE), with particular emphasis on the distinctive knowledge exchange component of the Centre’s work and the co-creation of our research agenda with colleagues from policy and practice.

The following discussion raised a number of interesting and important questions.

Delegates were keen to explore how high-quality research and evidence are turned into effective policy. This is perhaps the most fundamental question of all, and it pushes at the boundary of what researchers can achieve as researchers. We can focus upon the supply side of the issue – ensuring that relevant information is available in appropriate forms at appropriate times and reaches the right people – but that will only get us so far. The issue points more directly at the challenges on the demand side: to what extent are policymakers attuned to evidence and to what extent are they committed to accounting for evidence at relevant stages of the policy process – framing problems, appraising policy options, evaluating policy outcomes? If there is no appetite for evidence then the conversation cannot get started.

The CaCHE approach to knowledge exchange is one attempt to bring evidence closer to policy, but there is a careful balance to be struck here. Too great a distance from the policy process surely risks mutual incomprehension between researchers and policymakers. But too close a relationship with policy means researchers risk losing their independence and compromising the credibility of their work. As Mary reiterated forcefully, researchers need to have the space and the freedom to address ‘blue skies’ issues and to pursue avenues of research of academic interest, even when colleagues in policy and practice do not view them as a current priority: or, indeed, when such research might be viewed as unhelpful to particular partisan political agendas.

These are not new debates. They are ever-present at the interface of research and practice. And they have to be negotiated afresh in every new encounter. That is part of the fascination of research that seeks to enter into close dialogue with policy and practice, and an indication of the importance of the issues at stake when doing so.

Professor Alex Marsh is a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and leads the Governance theme, based at the University of Bristol. 


Date: July 18, 2018 12:14 pm


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