Olives, devolution and diversity

In a lecture for the CIH, Tamsin Stirling gives her take on the increasing divergence resulting from devolution.

The Sarah Webb Memorial lecture was given at the ‘One CIH’ conference on the 25 May 2016 and focussed on the impact and opportunity of devolved housing policy across the UK. This lecture was first published by the Welsh Housing Quarterly: http://www.whq.org.uk/2016/05/27/olives-devolution-and-diversity/

It is a great privilege to be asked to give the Sarah Webb memorial lecture this evening. While I was preparing my lecture, I thought a lot about Sarah – her personal courage, her keen intellect and her incisive, but inclusive manner. And those thoughts led to me to also think about others who were once very much part of our housing world, but who have died before their time. I won’t mention specific names but I suspect most of us will have such memories. Rest in peace friends.

Over the past weeks, I have pondered on how to frame this lecture which has devolution as its theme. My first thought was something around the solar system – we invest money and time in finding out more about different parts of the solar system and what they can tell us about complex issues such as the history of the universe and the origins of life. And these investments in themselves drive amazing scientific developments – the International Space Station is just one example. But after some thought, I concluded that this analogy wouldn’t really work for a lecture on housing and devolution…

The dangerous olive of evidence

So instead, I decided to use a concept that I came across only a few weeks ago – the dangerous olive of evidence. I anticipate that this is probably not a concept with which everyone is familiar. It comes from public health – specifically obesity reduction – and was developed by public health doctor and academic Harry Rutter and used recently by Dr Fiona Spotswood at a behaviour change conference in North Wales. To quote Dr Spotswood:

‘The olive flesh is the vast pool of ‘evidence’ necessary for policy makers and analysts to understand the vast context of the complex wicked problems they are trying to tackle. The tiny hard pip is the evidence that is currently being collected. The Dangerous Olive metaphor suggests that we are so often not fully in the picture when it comes to the causes and potential solutions to complex problems. We are simply not collecting the full range of evidence we need …. ethnography, discourse analysis or case study research …. might be required alongside traditional approaches ….’

Dr Spotswood concludes that, when it comes to tackling obesity, there is no silver bullet, a mix of approaches is needed, and in considering what might work, collaboration within disciplines and work across disciplines is vital.

You might ask whether many housing issues are really such complex wicked problems as those referred to by Dr Spotswood? I would contend that they are. Think of all the factors affecting house prices – land, finance, demographics, developers’ business models, planning, culture of home ownership etc. There is also significant cross-over between housing and the behavioural change agenda – encouraging people to pay rent, promoting pro-social rather than anti-social behaviour, housing’s role in preventing and tackling domestic abuse, changing the way that frontline staff relate to service users are just some examples. It is probably not that hard to find an area of housing in which the interconnections look every bit as complex as those for public health issues.

So do we consider the full range of possible interventions and/or make use of the full range of evidence when we make housing policy or when we seek to inform policy or indeed when we decide on how to shape and deliver services?

The dangerous olive of evidence tells us that casting the net wide matters. Wide can mean different types of research and evidence gathering. I was lucky to chair a fascinating session on housing and poverty at the Tai conference last month at which Dr Lisa McKenzie from the LSE spoke. She describes herself as a ‘rebel ethnographer’ and much of her work is focused on the St Ann’s estate in Nottingham where she lived for many years. Her research aims to make visible what is ‘hidden in plain sight’, including the perspective of children living on that estate. Ethnography and case study research is vital in challenging the current dominant ideology that changing an individual’s behaviour is the sole route to tackling wicked issues, rather conveniently ignoring the massive influence of structural forces.

Facts and statistics are important but the voices of those affected by our policy decisions and the implementation of policy are also vital; we need to ensure within our own work, that these voices are not dismissed or disregarded in the development or delivery of policy. We can sometimes fall into the trap of listening more keenly to hard facts than to lived experience, to taking more notice of a performance indicator than detailed service user feedback. I wonder if the many commissions and inquiries on housing have equally valued lived experiences and facts? If not, might there be something CIH could do about this?

The impact of our collective decisions and indecision, action and inaction, are all around us in our communities, sometimes hidden in plain sight. I wonder what we would find out if we listened really, really carefully to the voices in our communities and what they are telling us. On this, we have much to learn from mutual and co-operative organisations like Merthyr Valleys Homes. Mike Owen, chief executive of that organisation, wrote a really good article on the value of listening to tenants in last week’s Inside Housing – if you haven’t read it already, I suggest you do.

Casting the net wide also speaks for cross-disciplinary work, something that CIH has long sought to foster, particularly in relation to health. And, of direct relevance to devolution, it speaks for geography – making sure that the net of evidence gathering includes the ready-made diversity we have across the UK.

Through the report of its leadership and diversity commission, CIH has already strongly advocated for the benefits that diversity in leadership brings to organisations and the communities that they serve. Through its policy work, CIH has the opportunity to do the same; to bring different ways of doing things to the attention of members across the UK, but go beyond that. To advocate for the value of being aware of different ways of doing things, of diversity of thought in delivery as well as leadership. To really learn from the differences, not only in the ways of doing things, but from the policy development and implementation process. And certainly to be crystal clear when it comes to language, eg when using the word government, clarifying which government(s) or assembly/ies are being referred to. England may be larger than the devolved nations, but it should not be the automatic default for a UK organisation.

Devolution provides us with a wonderful live social experiment, but I wonder to what extent any of us are really watching, understanding and distilling the learning.

Just take arguably our most pressing issue in housing, that of supply. There are clear differences across the UK in relation to government emphasis on, and investment in, different tenures. But it is also really interesting to look at the micro-level at which there is positive cornucopia of approaches and initiatives. Just some examples:

an active co-operative housing programme in Wales
a new Rent to Own product in Northern Ireland
the community grants programme for empty homes in England
the use of charitable bonds in Scotland.
To return to the dangerous olive, my contention is that diversity in the form of devolution can help provide at least part of the flesh of the olive. It can certainly help us avoid an over-focus on the tiny, hard pip.

It might be easy, given the different political complexions across the devolved administrations of the UK, to say, ‘well the differences in approach are all very interesting, but different political party or parties are in power. We can’t really see how that approach would work, or even be possible in a different part of the UK (for different part of the UK, often read England)’.

Homelessness prevention legislation as an example of policy transfer

In this context, it is instructive to look at the example of homelessness legislation. I am based in Cardiff and much of my work over the years has been in Wales so the lens through which I observe and think about devolution is unashamedly Welsh.

In 2011, the Welsh Government commissioned research on homelessness legislation. This was in the context of housing becoming a devolved area on which the National Assembly for Wales could pass primary legislation and a desire to improve our homelessness legislation. Officials and others in Wales were aware of the steps taken in Scotland, with progressive homelessness legislation which had, in particular, removed the significant barriers that many single homeless people faced in getting help. We were also aware that there were significant issues with the then existing homelessness legislation in Wales, both for people who were homeless or potentially homeless and for local authorities.

The research delved into the flesh of the olive. It included an international review of approaches to homelessness, not just within the UK or even Europe, but beyond, a review of how the existing legislation was working in Wales, including stakeholder and service user views and then came up with a set of proposals for how new legislation could be constructed along with estimates of cost for each of the elements.

The proposals then entered the messy reality of constructing new legislation, the arguments about costs and implementation, the different political perspectives (with a non-majority government in power at the time). And while the legislation is certainly not perfect, it put in place for the first time across the UK, a duty on local authorities, working in partnership with others, to prevent homelessness for all those presenting irrespective of local connection, priority need or intentionality.

That legislation has been in place for just over a year and early signs of implementation are positive, with homelessness prevented for two-thirds of people approaching local authorities for help. And now there is a call for similar legislation to be implemented in England; this call has come from Crisis. Crisis convened a panel to look at how the homelessness legislation in England could be improved with particular reference to single people. Gavin was a member of the panel which looked carefully at the legal framework for homelessness in Scotland and Wales and its proposals for new legislation draw strongly on what is in place in Wales.

As someone who was working within Welsh Government when the legislation was being developed, and was party to some of the less edifying arguments that took place, it is very pleasing to see this development. Wales has often very much been under the radar, but as our legislative and policy agenda becomes more and more distinctive, I hope that this will cease to be the case. We have developed pioneering and progressive legislation on a number of areas including the well-being of future generations, tackling violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence and mental health. And in housing, as well the Housing (Wales) Act, we have passed legislation on tenancy reform, putting into practice the work of the Law Commission on renting homes, the only country in the UK that has done so.

I am sure that there are many people who still think that policy learning between nations is tricky and in many ways, that is an understandable perspective. However, with the further evolution of devolution to the devolved nations, the onward march of devolution to English regions and the change of political control at Mayoral level in London, it is an argument that will have less currency in coming years.

I read with interest about the devolution settlement for Greater Manchester and then saw the publicity around the launch of the Manchester homelessness charter which aims to make homelessness everybody’s business. It asks organisations, businesses and individuals to adopt the charter and pledge to take action. I suspect that we will see some instructive developments in that region over the coming years from which all of us across the UK can learn.

How distinctive?

So how distinctive has the housing policy agenda become in the devolved nations?

The nature of the current devolution settlement in each of the devolved nations is different, is based on very different histories and is at a different stage of evolution. Devolution, as the former Secretary of State for Wales and avid devolution campaigner Ron Davies said, is a process, not an event. It is also, as devolution expert at London Metropolitan University, Dr Diana Stirbu describes, a laboratory for innovation, highly contagious and here to stay.

I do not wish to speak for either Scotland or Northern Ireland and understand that you will be having presentations from your own policy experts in the devolved nations tomorrow. But I think that I am on safe ground in saying that there is an increasingly distinctive policy agenda in each of the devolved nations.

When it comes to Wales, this is not just my view. I was having tea a few weeks ago with Alison Inman, Aileen Evans and Colin Wiles. We are chatting about things housing and Colin suddenly said: ‘Wales really is a different country‘.

For me the differences between Wales and England in relation to legislation and policy reflect ideological differences and differences in the use of language and terminology are certainly evident.

For example, in Wales, since the 2012 White Paper, there has been a very strong emphasis on a whole system approach to housing rather than an over-focus on any one tenure. There is a view that social justice and tackling poverty are important, as is supporting vulnerable people to fulfil their potential. 80% of the Social Housing Grant budget in the last administration was invested in social housing. We still have a ring-fenced Supporting People budget which has largely been protected from cuts.

You will have heard, at least up until now, very little reference within the Senedd to work-shy households, scroungers or skivers. Sadly, I suspect that this will change in this new administration.

Process is important too. Something that Wales shares with Scotland is an emphasis on co- production. On bringing people with a delivery role in to contribute to the development of policy and legislation. Co-production was extremely strong in relation to the homelessness element of the Housing (Wales) Act. A group co-produced the new statutory code, joint training was held and since the legislation has been implemented, there has been an openness to feedback from the team in Welsh Government. This and the degree of discussion with local government and the third sector prior to, and during, the legislative process has really paid off. At an early stage, a shared sense of endeavour was established around the need for a change in culture, from processing people to see if they passed various tests, to problem solving with people who are facing homelessness.

Sadly, this approach was not so evident in relation to the private rented sector element of the same Act. So while I might be critical that we are not learning across the UK, I am clear that there is still significant learning and reflection for us to do within countries, drawing on our experience of developing and implementing policy.

Another distinct difference between Wales and England at the moment is possibly largely due to scale. We are close to politicians, advisors and senior civil servants and access is relatively easy. But there is also an issue about how much our politicians listen. The cross party housing group has been effective and consensus was established on a number of key issues. With the new administration, there will be significant change in the membership of this group and new relationships will need to be built.

We have also had a number of ministers with responsibility for housing who have both really understood housing and championed different aspects, whether that be co-operative housing, the role of housing in tackling domestic abuse or the links between housing and poverty. I for one am delighted that Carl Sargeant has the Welsh Government housing brief again; the feminist housing minister referred to by Michelle Reid at a previous OneCIH. He is a highly effective advocate for gender equality; all the boards, committees and advisory groups created during his time as Minister which he signed off on were 50:50 women and men – so not 50:50 by 2020 or 2030 or whatever it is we are supposed to be aiming for, but 50:50 now.

So yes, there is an increasingly distinct policy agenda in Wales, whether you look at housing or beyond. Yes the context within which this legislation has been developed is different from that in the other countries of the UK, but there is much to be learnt from both the content and the process of development, including how we support politicians, advisors and civil servants to consider, access and use evidence.

I’d like to include some brief personal reflections here. I have carried out a lot of research for the Welsh Government over the years and been frustrated on a number of occasions when what I thought were clear recommendations for action resulted in no action at all – things seemed to be consigned to the ‘too difficult’ box.

My experience within Welsh Government as a Ministerial Advisor made me reflect on my approach to research. With the benefit of this perspective, I don’t think that I would change the methods that I used to collect evidence that much, but I would change what I did towards the end of the research process. By this I mean warming people up to receive the research, the evidence – for people read civil servants, advisors, Ministers, backbenchers, cross party group members, delivery organisations – the detail would vary from project to project. The door in terms of emotional temperature needs to be slightly open to then be able to present a piece of research which might be saying pretty difficult or challenging things. I think that there is also an issue about how recommendations are set out. Couching things in as practical terms as possible, thinking about how they might be delivered, is helpful. Again, take the homelessness legislation example; the research set out the detail of how new homelessness legislation might be shaped and costed the proposals.

I am aware that Scotland has a particularly positive history in terms of how research is valued and used in the policy making process. So it’s definitely worth looking at the devolved nations for learning on process, as well as on differences in policy and practice.

To close

Diversity of thought, of approach, of viewpoint, is healthy. In relation to governance, it helps prevent group think which has been the cause of many spectacular organisational failures – take Enron for an example.

Sue Essex in her centenary lecture for CIH Cymru referred to the devolution dividend that has ensued in Wales – from Wales crafting its own ways of doing things. I think that there is another kind of devolution dividend, one that is generated by the diversity that comes from devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and to the regions of England. From the ‘laboratory for innovation’. CIH as a UK-wide organisation is extremely well placed to reap this devolution dividend.

So let’s beware the dangerous olive of evidence and get beyond the pip. Let’s really make the most of the diverse housing policy landscape across the UK – going beyond simply reporting it, or comparing and contrasting things, but really looking – as the space probes really look (mixing my framing here – apologies) – seeking to understand and distil learning – to reap the devolution dividend – and who knows what tricky issues we might make progress on.

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