A bad week for good news?

It has been said that this week in the middle of January is the ‘worst week of the year’, as evidenced by such measures as suicides. I am not sure if this is true, in any sense, or just an urban/public health myth. But, as someone with a birthday on 21 January, I have always been aware that it tends to be a rather flat time of year when people are keeping their heads down. And this year we have a possible triple-dip recession to look forward to.

Professor Glen Bramley
Professor Glen Bramley

So, therefore, what better time to put mine above the parapet and make some observations, and in so doing to shamelessly plug this new Research and Policy Blog which my Institute is just kicking off?

People do research for different reasons, among which are curiosity, a need to solve (or create) puzzles, the need to earn a living, putting off earning a living, or the wish to become a celebrity. I work in a community of people who do research mainly to inform and make a difference to public policy. That does not mean that we don’t have some of these other motives too, but policy is quite important to us – whereas I don’t get the impression it always is to some fellow social scientists, let alone many in the humanities, some natural sciences or other areas. Our field of policy is housing, urban affairs and property development, as reflected in the name of our Institute, IHURER.

Policy research  goes in and out of style with the policy (and financial) climate. It was easy to be into it in the early 2000s, when government was keen on ‘Evidence based policy’ (“What matters is what works”) and research budgets were generous. Now, with government research budgets virtually non-existent and ministers as likely to draw on personal inspiration or evidence-lite think-tanks, it is a more difficult furrow to plough. It is also difficult not to be a bit cynical when considering past episodes one has been involved with. In my case, I think of housing renewal initiatives in England in the 2000s, some of which were very expensively evaluated; or the attempt to use economic models of affordability to induce our planning system to enable more housing to be built.

However, there are glimmers of light in the murk out there, and not all is lost. Ben Goldacre recently did a programme on Radio 4 suggesting that there was a movement to apply some of the classic methods from medicine (RCTs, or ‘Randomised Control Trials’). Strangely enough, the area of policy which seems to be most alive for research and evaluation currently is what I would term ‘human misery’ , or ‘severe and multiple disadvantage’ – groups like chronic offenders, drug users, single homeless – as well as the notorious ‘troubled families’. The mantra about what works has shifted (in Whitehall) to “What matters is what saves public expenditure”, and some of these groups appear to be costing a lot of money in the process of achieving dire outcomes. The Big Lottery Fund is about to spend £100m on some large scale action projects with in-depth evaluation, quantitative and qualitative.

Something else which I find encouraging is that, in the context of this kind of policy research, the old divides between tribes within social sciences have broken down quite a lot. Most evaluations combine quantitative and qualitative approaches; economists are getting more interested in people’s actual behaviour; while the wealth of secondary data now available enables really powerful testing of relationships and impacts, especially where longitudinal and data linkage approaches are possible.

In our institute we are more than comfortable with this. We are a place where urban economists work with human geographers, planners, sociologists, even lawyers (!). We are finding it creatively stimulating to be working with mixed methods on these rather challenging groups and issues. At the same time we remain well grounded in the professional and policy communities who plan, deliver or regulate housing, urban development and property markets.

We cannot be complacent. Some of the infrastructure in and around government, to maintain and enhance the evidence base, has been weakened and may be weakened further, with a great reduction in analysts in post, loss of experience, ending of some surveys and scaling down of others, and the possible loss of the Census. As the economy faces a possible triple dip we may expect even more half-baked ideas for deregulation of planning, environmental or labour laws as a desperate attempt to flog some life into the market.

At the same time, too obsessive a focus on UK is surely inappropriate. The need to better understand and shape the development and change of cities is one of the pre-eminent global challenges of our era. It is exciting to be working with a highly international group of graduate students on these challenges now, and hope to see more joining us in the coming period.

We see this blog as a regular feature on our website going forward, our weekly commentary on breaking issues, key developments in policy and new insights from research.

By Professor Glen Bramley

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