I was asked by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Social Science to speak at its event last week, aimed at MPs, Peers, and others around Westminster and Whitehall. The meeting was looking at the subject of housing, with a particular focus on housing for young people. Below is a lightly edited copy of the text of my speaking notes.
HACT exists to support housing associations and other social landlords to thrive, so that they can continue to deliver the homes that people need and their broader positive impacts. It does this through supporting housing providers to make use of the best ideas and innovations available, including through supporting collaboration between organisations. Very little of our work is with policy-makers – HACT is a resolutely non-political organisation. There are other bodies that are geared up to arguing for changes to the operating environment, whereas HACT supports work to make the best of the environment as we find it.
Social landlords provide homes to nearly one in five households, and they are typically (though not exclusively) less well off than the average. Anything that can be done to improve the lives of social tenants is likely to have a disproportionate beneficial impact on things like health inequalities, because many social tenants have experienced multiple hardships.
As many of you will know, housing associations in particular do a lot more than just provide a landlord function. They also have programmes of community investment work, designed to support tenants and wider communities on issues like employment and training, digital inclusion, and money advice.
In some respects, the trends that we observe amongst social tenants are merely reflective of the wider population. Like many public services, social landlords are experiencing an ageing tenant population, including in their General Needs homes – older people, living longer at home, often with multiple morbidities in ordinary homes rather than those designed with the needs of older occupants in mind.
However, when we look at new tenancies we find a different picture. I was told that the brief for this event on ‘younger people’ was that young was anything up to about 40. Taking that as our measure, 60% of new General Needs lettings in the last year were to households where the household reference person was aged under 40 (over 140,000 tenancies in 2014/15).*
The particular problem that I want to talk about this afternoon is that we do not know – for this younger age group as for all age groups – what works. We do not know what will support these people to build successful thriving lives.
I was at a housing association this morning, and it frames its core social mission as being around “health, wealth, and wellbeing”.
Now, I have a strong suspicion (some of it supported by existing evidence) that without a suitable decent home a great many people would be more likely to suffer from ill health; would struggle to secure good quality employment that would enable them to boost their wealth; or would fail to enjoy high levels of wellbeing.
So it is perhaps often a necessary condition, that people have decent homes in order to meet their potential. But we do not know to what extent it is sufficient.
In other words, how should a housing association spend its limited resources to maximise its beneficial impacts?
Which parts of its community investment activity are most effective at helping households to thrive?
At its root, this is a question of ‘what works?’. As this is a group focused on social science I will permit myself just a little jargon – it is a question of causality. We can observe that people getting certain interventions from housing associations get good outcomes, but how many of those were caused by the intervention, and how many would have occurred anyway?
Some of these young people, taking up social tenancies, receive an offer of employment support to go along with their new home. They get into work. But without robust evidence, we don’t know the counterfactual – what would have happened anyway? Was the new home enough – they would have got a job anyway? Was the employment support an essential component on their journey to a decent job?
And these questions really matter. Either answer could be right – and either wrong. If we decide that the support was useful when in fact is was ineffective, we are wasting money that could have been better spent on building more homes. If we ditch the employment support having decided it was useless when in fact it was valuable, we are providing people with a nicer home in which to tolerate their poverty.
Supporting the growth of evidence
It is because of arguments like this that there is a growing evidence agenda in housing. Housing associations are increasingly keen to understand what works – to scrutinise their activities so they can focus on doing more of the things that work, and stopping doing (or modifying) the things that don’t.
I would just like to finish by talking about a few things that have been happening in the sector and around it recently, and then a quick wishlist of things that I would like to see going forward.
The first is the creation of the Standards of Evidence. Just last month we published a set of standards that supports housing providers to produce evidence of the effectiveness of their interventions.
Further to that, we have been putting them into practice. Working with the University of Aberdeen, with academics who are more used to working on health-focused interventions, we are running three randomised controlled trials to test out various support services that housing associations are offering to their tenants.
And finally, there is work that the ESRC, JRF and others have been progressing for some time, to develop a housing evidence centre. We don’t know quite what form that will take yet, but it has the potential to provide a valuable resource for examining at least some forms of housing evidence.
So looking forward, a quick wishlist of things that I would like to see developed to help drive this emerging evidence agenda further forward:
- More Standards of Evidence: The current Standards of Evidence provide a process for producing evidence of the effectiveness of interventions. This approach could be usefully expanded to provide processes to produce other types of evidence. New standards could include producing evidence where the goal is to compare both the costs and benefits of different potential resource uses, and synthesizing and assessing the state of knowledge based on existing evidence (in technical terms, broadly covering economic evaluation and systematic reviews, respectively);
- Tools to make it easier to produce evidence and find evidence that others have created: An online registry of studies could help people to design their studies, and a repository of findings would provide a central place for evidence to be lodged;
- A Housing Trials Unit: There are lots of areas of housing providers’ business that could usefully be tested through trials, to produce robust evidence that would help focus expenditure on the things that are most effective. A body resourced to conduct more of these trials to test effectiveness would be a valuable resource, particularly where there is potential to produce evidence in one or two housing providers that might be rolled out across the sector; and
- An Evidence Centre for Housing Practice, complementing the one currently being examined by the ESRC and its partners, to extend the reach of evidence into the sorts of decisions that housing practitioners make on a day-by-day basis.
I would be very happy to have conversations with anyone interested in talking about taking any of these further.
As I mentioned, HACT is not a political or lobbying organisation. We are interested in this from a practice angle, not a policy angle. But I would hope that policymakers would view this practice as being relevant to their roles for at least two reasons.
One, is the ability to create a warm environment for practice to be robustly tested, to help evidence be produced.
And the other is that, where we find things that are highly successful in practice across a broad range of contexts, I would hope that these could form the basis of becoming adopted into policy as good practice.
* Source: Author’s calculations from Table 3b: Age of tenant by type of letting, for new social housing lettings. Available in Social housing lettings in England, 2014/15: Continuous Recording (CORE) data, Accompanying tables. Download available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/465819/CORE_Summary_Tables_2014-15.xlsx. More info from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/social-housing-lettings-in-england-april-2014-to-march-2015