Paper - The Big Society, Localism & Housing Policy

Big Society and Localism: Challenges for the
Housing Academy
Paper for the first seminar in the ESRC Big Society, Localism and Housing series, Sheffield
University; March 2013
David Clapham
University of Reading
University of Uppsala
This paper is work in progress and should not be quoted without permission from the author
Big Society and Localism: The Challenge for the Housing Academy.
Big Society and Localism have become important discourses in public policy in the UK and
the aim of this paper is to consider their impact on the housing academy. There is a
legitimate question about the novelty of the two discourses and it could be argued that
housing researchers have been considering these and related issues for many years. But even
if this argument is accepted, the importance of the discourses merits a state of the art
assessment of the relevance of the approaches and concepts used by researchers in examining
them. The emphasis here will be less on the important research topics and more on the
approaches and tools that researchers have used and could potentially use.
There is no space here to examine in depth the discourses of Big Society and Localism and
this will be the focus of other papers. However, a number of themes are identified which
form the focus of the following analysis. The discourse of the Big Society features elements
of the participation of actors in the policies and the delivery of services; the importance of
voluntary activity; ideas such as active citizenship; and mutuality or community. Localism
features many of these same ideas and places emphasis on policies and plans being made and
services being delivered at a local level.
Three other features need to be mentioned here as the context within which the discourses are
being pursued. The first is the belief that government should be reduced in scale and that the
Big Society should replace government in many areas. In practice the current coalition
government has reduced public expenditure substantially whilst implementing the Big
Society agenda. In a major speech on the issue David Cameron insists that he would have
implemented Big Society whatever the situation with public expenditure cuts, but the
discourse is predicated on the idea that the state has crowded out active citizenship (Cameron,
2009). The second key element is that the Big Society is usually linked with the idea that the
state has failed to alleviate poverty and inequality. In his speech (Cameron, 2009) David
Cameron argues that the Big Society rather than state action is the answer to continuing
poverty. Therefore, the Big Society agenda is being implemented in housing at a time when
welfare benefits in general and those related to housing are being cut substantially. Finally, if
the Big Society seems to stem from Conservative ideology (David Cameron in his speech
makes reference to Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott) Localism seems to stem from
Liberal Democrat concerns about devolution of decision making to as local a level as
possible. Clearly the two discourses overlap considerably, but there is scope for differences
of emphasis between them and they tend to have been implemented in different spheres.
Big Society and Localism in Housing
In housing the Big Society and Localism discourses have been implemented in a number of
ways. First is the reform of the planning system that has resulted in the abolition of the
regional planning level of plan making and the emphasis on neighbourhood planning, as well
as the reduction of central government guidance for local planning authorities. This reform
could have major implications for the supply of housing. Regional house building targets
have been abolished and several local authorities used this to reduce their allocations of land
for new house building. However, the government seems to feel that devolution of planning
to the neighbourhood level and the introduction of the New Homes Supplement will
encourage local communities to accept higher levels of new house building. The economic
situation and the low rate of new house building has meant that it is difficult to assess the
impact of the reforms, but this topic is clearly one that will be important for housing
researchers in the near future. An important element of this will be the attitude of actors at
the neighbourhood level to new house building.
The second element is the benefit reforms that will also impact strongly on housing and will
be the subject of much research interest. How will tenants react to the reductions in benefits
and will this stimulate the government’s expected response of greater responsibility and
greater social inclusion.
The third element of the Big Society changes in housing is the emphasis on resident
involvement. In his Big Society speech (Cameron, 2009) David Cameron places emphasis on
participation in the delivery of public services and on the role of the voluntary sector in
delivering public services. There has been little actual policy change to reflect this emphasis,
although suggested mechanisms to support community organisations and their prospective
role in service delivery could have major implications for housing. Although there has been
much research on tenant participation in the delivery of housing services this area will
continue to provide a focus for housing research in the future.
The final element is the opportunity that the discourse provides for the promotion of mutual,
co-operative or community-based organisations as elements of the Big Society. There has
been a recent growth in interest in co-housing, and the discourse could stimulate the creation
of more kinds of mutual organisations. Again, this is a topic that has interested housing
researchers for some time, but the time is ripe for an assessment of this research and its
adequacy for meeting the future research agenda.
Each of these topics will be considered in turn, but first the paper will turn attention to the
state of the art of housing studies.
The State of Housing Studies
The starting point for most assessments of housing studies is Jim Kemeny’s plea in 1992
(Kemeny, 1992) for more theoretically informed housing research. Kemeny noted the
predominance of government and other policy agencies in the funding of housing research
and the subsequent plethora of empirical studies which tended to accept the definition of the
problem as expressed in the policy discourse of the funder and laid out in the terms of
reference of the research. Kemeny was sceptical of the idea of a theory specifically for
housing, but urged researchers to embed themselves in their social science disciplines and to
bring theories from here to their studies of housing.
A review of the state of the art of housing studies in a special issue of the journal Housing,
Theory and Society in 2009 gives some insight into developments since Kemeny’s plea. The
contributions show that there has been a considerable rise in the use of theory in housing
research. However, a number of concerns were registered.
The review noted the predominance of positivist research in the disciplines of economics,
psychology and, to a lesser extent political science as well as being the implicit framework
for much policy oriented research. Positivism assumes the existence of social facts that it is
the role of the researcher to uncover. This approach is subject to the criticism made by Allen
(2009) that housing research has been imperialist because it has asserted the superiority of the
knowledge derived by researchers to the common sense knowledge of residents themselves.
Allen argues that the research knowledge has been used by government to ignore the views of
residents and, in the case of the Housing Market Renewal Programme studied by Allen, to
demolish their homes. Positivist housing research fits well with a policy making process that
is based on the discourse of “evidence based policy” which has tended to lead to a search for
“objective” facts to justify particular courses of action.
The dominance of positivism has both encouraged a degree of inter-disciplinarity, but has
ultimately constrained it. There has been an incorporation of some positivist behavioural
psychology into economics in the study of housing markets, but Munro and Smith (2008)
have shown the need for a wider approach than this that incorporates insights on the social
interactions in the functioning of markets as well as the interactions with material objects.
Without a wider incorporation of factors into research on housing, the field will consist of a
number of different approaches that offer different insights, sometimes on the same
phenomenon, without any meaningful integration.
It could be argued that it is desirable to have many different and partial ways of looking at the
same issue. “Let a thousand perspectives bloom.” However, I have argued before (Clapham,
2009) that diversity of this kind hinders any progression of knowledge and constitutes a form
of multi-disciplinarity that merely allows people to choose between a number of different and
partial perspectives without offering a framework for a complete understanding of the
phenomenon. Much more useful is a move towards inter-disciplinarity in the forms identified
by Heckhausen (1972). He talks about a composite inter-disciplinarity in which the focus is
on the topic to be investigated and approaches and concepts from different disciplines are
used as appropriate in order to understand the phenomenon under study.
King (2009) argued for the existence of a theory of housing which he argued was possible
and necessary because of the unique features of housing as a commodity and in its
relationship to people. In other words home is a special place that needs particular concepts
and theories to describe and explain its relationship to residents. King proposes to build a
theory of housing on the concept of dwelling in a similar way to Kemeny who proposed the
concept of residence as the cornerstone of a theory of housing. Clapham (2009) argued for a
theory of housing and that this would be a means of moving towards an inter-disciplinary
integration of housing research. I have argued (Clapham, 2009) that housing provides a
subject of focus that could be used to generate a unified theory of housing. A key part of any
general theory making would be an understanding of the relationship between state, housing
officers and public tenants, which is our focus here. Despite these arguments there has been
little movement towards an integrated housing studies in the last few years and the field
remains fragmented.
In his contribution to the review of the state of housing studies, Bengtsson (2009) draws
attention to the lack of much research that takes a political science perspective. He argues
that there are many concepts drawn from the discipline that would add to the study of housing
and he mentions ideas of path-dependency as well as concepts of citizenship, democracy and
power. Although these concepts are used in housing research he argues that they are used by
non-political scientists and their use has been divorced from developments in the use of the
concepts in other fields of political science. Given the concerns of the Big Society agenda
this lacuna is a very important one that merits more attention.
Since the review of housing studies in 2009 there has been a reduction in the volume of
funded housing research in the UK linked with public expenditure cuts and a change in
central government. This has left many housing researchers chasing more and more applied
and small scale research from more and more practice oriented organisations. There has been
a reduction in the number of housing research centres and it is possible that housing may
revert to its position before the growth in the 1970s as a field of study for researchers rooted
institutionally within the mainstream disciplines.
Housing Studies and the Big Society Agenda
In this section each of the four themes identified earlier as major themes of the Big Society
and Localism discourses will be examined in the light of the general sate of housing studies
identified above.
New house Building.
The localism agenda has led to the reform of the planning system with the scrapping of the
regional planning tier and the emphasis placed on neighbourhood planning. This is coupled
with the introduction of the New Homes Supplement. The changes were accompanied by a
discourse that stressed the lack of current new build housing, but also the background of
nimbyism and inefficiencies in the planning system as the cause of this. The obvious
research question is what impact will the changes have on housing supply? At one level the
answer to the question will be easy to discern from future levels of house building. But there
is always the problem of the counter factual. How much would have been built under the old
system? Therefore, research needs to understand the process of house building and decisions
in the planning system.
Clearly there will be an important place in the research tools needed for examination of this
issue for the political science concepts identified by Bengtsson. The localism agenda has
been reflected in important changes in the governance arrangements for planning and
concepts of democracy and participation will be useful in analysing the changes. Have the
changes altered the locus of decision making on new house building? Have the power
relations around the housing development process been changed by the reforms and what is
the impact of this? Do the neighbourhood organisations vested with planning powers have
democratic legitimacy and are they accountable to residents? In other words are they
elected? Are there contested elections? What mechanisms are used for accountability to local
residents and how effective are they? Do the local residents feel that the system is different
and that they have more of a say in planning decisions?
Alongside this traditional political science approach there could be a more social and
psychological agenda. An assumption of the reforms seems to be that the localisation of
decision making will change attitudes and lead to a reduction in nimbyism. However,
nimbyism has been treated as a selfish and reactionary attitude without an understanding of
how it relates to people’s perception of their links to their dwelling and their community. Is it
just a matter of keeping out undesirables and protecting house prices or are there other, more
psychological issues involved?
Therefore, the localism reforms open up areas of housing research that make use of political
concepts as well as an examination of the attachment to dwelling and place and the role of
political mechanisms in altering this.
Benefit reform
As described earlier the big society discourse is commonly expressed in relation to poverty
and the perceived need to change the attitudes and behaviour of the poor and there have been
cuts in welfare benefits many of which impact on housing payments. There is a strong
tradition in housing studies of examining the impact of changing welfare benefits on the
incomes and housing chances of tenants, particularly through the Housing Benefit system.
Two additional elements may be included in this tradition that the Big Society discourse
The first is the emphasis in the discourse on changing attitudes and behaviour. There has
been little research on the attitudes and behaviour of benefit claimants, apart from work on
financial and work incentives. A lot of this work has been based on rational models of
behaviour where it is assumed that people react in predictable ways to financial incentives.
This tradition has a valuable role to play in understanding the impact of benefit changes, but a
valuable addition would be the use of a social psychological approach in measuring wellbeing. Do benefit changes alter the way that people feel about themselves and their housing?
Is it possible to maintain a high self-esteem and a positive commitment to home when
housing expenditures are difficult to sustain and hold on one’s home is insecure? What
impact does having to stay in the parental home have on young people and their families?
Are the family dynamics changed by the situation and is the development of young people
affected? Increasingly young people will have to share accommodation. What makes a
successful sharing arrangement? What happens when a number of young people with chaotic
lifestyles are forced to share?
The second element of research that the benefit changes highlight is the importance of the
dynamic nature of housing pathways. Changes to the income of households will change their
housing circumstances in the future. The nature and extent of these changes may only
become apparent over a period of time as small immediate changes may be magnified over
time. For example, more expenditure on rented housing in an early stage of the housing
pathway may make entry to owner occupation impossible and this could have consequences
for the housing situation in older age. Also, changes in the housing element of a household’s
pathway may have implications in other areas of life. For example, it may change the
possibility of taking some employment opportunities or may impact on health which may in
turn impact on income and quality of life. Alternatively, immediate changes may be
overcome through the actions of households or through other factors such as economic
growth making employment opportunities more readily available. The key point is that there
is a need to map out the long term consequences of benefit changes in the housing and related
pathways if we are to make an appropriate judgement on their impact.
There has been considerable research on participation in housing, but the localism and big
society agenda is a good time to review this research and to assess the tools and concepts that
have been used. Much “grey” applied research has tended to concentrate on the formal
structures and processes of participation. By this is meant the ways by which that tenants’ or
others’ views are sought. The assumption seems to be that it is sufficient to have access to
the decision making process for tenants to have an influence over the outcome. The Big
Society discourse and localism have made new structures and processes available, especially
in the planning sphere, but an important question is the difference this will make to outcomes.
Three frameworks have been used in the past. One is that used by Cairncross, Clapham and
Goodlad (1997). They adapted the circuits of power approach of Clegg (1989) and examined
the structures, processes and objectives of the actors involved in the participation process
within particular rules of the game. They classified different forms of participation as
traditional, consumerism and citizenship. A second approach is that of Somerville (1998)
who analyses empowerment processes and divides them into conservative, reformist and
radical. A third approach is the use of Foucault’s concepts of governmentality and resistance
( McKee, 2010; Flint 2004) McKee argues that recent changes in housing that aim to
increase individual independence and self-esteem through empowerment and the creation of
“active agents” constitute a “will to empower” that has both regulatory and transformative
potential. Flint argues that government has increasingly used technologies of control to
create identities of tenants as self-regulating agents subject to the dominant ethical behaviours
of consumerism and a communitarian duties and obligations. Professionals are seen within
this framework as mediators between the state and tenants and regulated by managerialist
technologies to become community control professionals, charged with recreating tenants as
active agents displaying communitarian duties and obligations.
The obvious first point is that there has not been agreement on an appropriate way to pursue
research in this area. The important question then is whether it is desirable and possible to
create an agreed way forward. If a unified approach is desirable, is it possible and where do
we start in constructing it? The two key approaches identified above have different strengths
and weaknesses. The approach of Cairncross et al focuses on the inter-relationships and
games played within particular rules. As such it provides a framework for analysing the
interactions involved between agents in Big Society and Localism structures. It focuses on
the perspectives, discourses and power resources of those agents and does not assume these a
priori. Within the governmentality approach, the attitudes and perceptions of tenants is seen
in relation to the governmentality techniques. So they may be acquiescent, show resistance
or be sceptical (see McKee, 2011). But it is possible that the perceptions of tenants are
framed by other discourses not analysed. Also, research using this perspective has not
examined the power games through which particular outcomes are determined.
In contrast the strength of the Foucauldian, governmentality approach is the focus on the
rules of the game and their links to other spheres. Although this element is included in the
Cairncross et al perspective it was not the focus of their work and no further research has
examined it using this perspective. The Cairncross et al work was based on Clegg’s (1989)
use of the Foucauldian concept of power and so there would not seem to be any ontological
reason why the two perspectives could not be combined. It should also be possible to
incorporate elements of the social psychological approach outlined in the previous sections to
shed light on the attitudes and objectives of actors. However, psychological tools are
particularly important in order to examine the outcomes of participation. Flint (2004) points
out that the aim of governmentality techniques is to turn passive welfare recipients into
autonomous, empowered and responsible individuals. Although it is not explicitly stated the
feeling is left that this is an evil state trying to control its subject populations and that tenants
should resist this exercise of power. However, a quick look at the psychological literature will
show that these elements are key components of self-esteem, positive identity and well-being.
The evil government is trying to make its citizens happier people and increase their wellbeing! How dare it!
I have identified this as a separate category from participation largely because it has been
researched using different tools. Concepts such as community and co-operation or mutualism
become moral principles that underpin the forms of provision and are often used to evaluate
the outcomes (McKee, 2008; Clapham and Kintrea, 1995). This research has generally
shown that mutual forms of organisation generally do lead to greater resident satisfaction
with their housing and a greater sense of community. It has also been shown that mutual
housing organisations are more cost effective than other forms of public rented housing
(Satsangi and Clapham, 1990). This strand of research is valuable, but it could be expanded
in two directions.
The first is to incorporate the psychological elements identified earlier. So far studies have
used general satisfaction measures usually derived from structured questionnaires to measure
the outcomes of mutualism. There are more detailed elements of psychological functioning
that can be used to measure outcomes such as self-esteem and agency. Some research has
been undertaken using these measures to build up into measures of individual well-being and
to use these to measure the outcomes of services for homeless people (see Christian et al
2012). Their use would add considerably to our knowledge of the specific outcomes of
mutuality in housing processes.
The second element is to put mutual housing organisations into context perhaps using the
governmentality framework. (McKee 2008). This work has been undertaken by McKee
using Glasgow Community Ownership as the case study. This work needs to be widened
using other examples and the integrated perspective outlined earlier.
I have argued here that the Big Society and Localism discourses provide a fertile ground for
analysis by the housing academy. However, to make full use of this there needs to be
development in the approach used by housing researchers.
The first point is the need to move away from an unreconstructed use of positivism in
housing research. The integration of some psychological insights with economics has been
very beneficial in the increasingly important insights gained from behavioural economics.
However, positivism makes any further integration difficult because of its lack of acceptance
of the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of many other disciplines. I have
argued earlier for the value of integration in housing studies and for the exploration of ideas
of bounded positivism (along the lines of bounded rationality cf Herbert Simon) in order to
aid integration. This is a major task that awaits the attention it deserves from housing
Any integration needs to include the relatively neglected area of political science and the Big
Society and Localism discourses provide many examples where the use of political science
concepts would be of value. The integration also needs to include the psychological elements
of behaviour as I have argued in all of the topics covered earlier. This does not just mean
unthinkingly applying psychological concepts, but adapting them and fitting them into the
general context of sociological theory. Individual behaviour needs to be seen within the
societal and economic context within which it occurs. I have shown above how concepts
such as well-being, self-esteem can help in understanding the impact of the discourses
highlighted here.
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