Bringing Disability to the Forefront: Highlighting the Work of the ENHR Disability and Housing Working Group by Dianne-Dominique Theakstone (University of Stirling)

Foreword by Jenny Hoolachan (University of St Andrews)

Despite decades of sociological work highlighting that ‘society’ and all that it encompasses is intersected by gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and a myriad of other facets, the relationships that these social structures have with housing are sometimes downplayed in favour of understanding the markets, policies and implications for suppliers and consumers.  Take disability, which is the focus of this post.  Recently, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the ‘bedroom tax’ is discriminatory against families with disabled children[1].  This decision followed a legal challenge by Paul and Susan Rutherford who require an additional bedroom in their home for overnight carers and the storage of specialist equipment needed for their severely disabled son.  Indeed, many challenges to the legality of the ‘bedroom tax’ policy have been based on the subject of disability, and quite rightly so.

However, disability only tends to enter public discussions of housing when it relates to financial matters or changes in legislation.  While specific cases, such as that of the Rutherfords, certainly help to bring disability to the forefront of policy debates, the full extent of the disability-housing relationship remains largely hidden.  What follows is an overview of the work of the ENHR Disability and Housing Working Group which is still in the relatively early stages of development.  The post provides a small flavour of the scale and depths of the challenges that disabled people face when navigating a world that has been built for non-disabled people.  It is the hope of the Working Group that promotion of their work will attract the attention of fellow researchers, funding bodies, policymakers and the general public in order to advance the housing rights and improve the experiences of people with disabilities.


The Disability and Housing Working Group by Dianne-Dominique Theakstone (University of Stirling)

In 2014 the European Network for Housing Research (ENHR), Disability and Housing Working Group began. This post shares the activities of the Working Group over the past 18 months and upcoming plans. Comments and suggestions are welcome around events, knowledge exchange or research collaborations.

The ENHR 2014 conference enabled the Chairs to hold a kick-start meeting for the proposed Disability and Housing Working Group. We recognise that a lot of effort is required to raise the profile of disability within international housing research strategies and debates. The following central themes were identified at the meeting:

  • Disabled people and their housing conditions, housing preferences, housing design, access to housing services, legal rights (housing and anti-discrimination), housing options and accessible environments.
  • Housing research on disability that adopts a holistic approach towards impairment (loco-motional, sensory and cognitive).
  • Promote application of interdisciplinary perspectives to housing research and practice which is related to disabled people.
  • Examination of central concepts to disability and housing such as ‘empowerment’, ‘user-led’, ‘vulnerability’ or ‘special needs’.

The working group held its first workshop at the ENHR 2015 conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Diverse papers were submitted from representatives from Russia, the Netherlands, Spain, Thailand, Germany, Scotland and Norway. These can be viewed at:

The aim of the Working group is to stimulate debate around the policy and practice implications of disability and housing research. An evidence base will enable a holistic perspective across countries. For example, at the 2015 ENHR conference the papers submitted to this working group exhibited diverse insights into the living conditions of disabled people across Europe.

Solvar Wago & Karin Hoyland’s paper highlighted that the Norwegian Disability Discrimination and Accessibility Act (2009) requires adjustment to take into account the needs of different groups of disabled people within society.

María Aránzazu Calzadilla Medina delivered a law perspective in relation to disabled peoples’ housing in Spain. The paper critically assessed the various amendments that the Spanish Horizontal Property Act 49/1960 (21st July) has gone through which revealed that progress is going in the right direction. However, barriers still exist where it is not a right to have freedom to access a person’s home or work environment.  Furthermore, payment schemes for adaptations are subject to variable supplementary fees and there has been opposition from communities for potentially expensive costs.

Andreas Plum’s paper illustrated the lived experiences of disablement. This paper presented results from a survey of disabled people in Dresden. It concluded that there is a need for more barrier-free housing and living spaces, especially with current ageing populations with associated increasing impairment levels.

In the Netherlands, Clarine van Oel outlined the ways practice can be improved through the user perspective. Her research demonstrated a methodology involving 3D virtual reality preferences whereby participants with dementia chose colour schemes, surface finish and space dimensions of a care-home hallway. Results indicated areas of conflict between the preferences of users and caregivers. For example, the former preferred a white or warm colour scheme, while caregivers’ assumed a warm colour scheme would feel more welcoming.

Aleksandra Burdyak discussed the emotional implications for disabled people living in inaccessible homes in Russia. Attention was particularly drawn to the challenges of estimating the numbers of disabled people through national statistics, different definitions of disability and potential areas where disabled people can be missed from data sets. Results from a telephone survey showed that disabled people in Russia experience social isolation, low incomes and high medical costs. Aleksandra Burdyak concluded that policy is required for future barrier free homes/environments and to address the emotional wellbeing of disabled citizens.

In Thailand, Sasicha Sukkay’s paper outlined the benefits of joint working. She explained that collaboration between physiotherapists, architects and disabled people, has helped to identify the need for improved accessibility standards within bedrooms and bathrooms. This work will be presented to the Thai Government to shape future policy.

Finally, Dianne-Dominique Theakstone presented a proposition of a Citizenship of Humanity. This emerged from a comparative study of disabled peoples’ access to independent living in Scotland and Norway. The Citizenship of Humanity model addressed the need for disabled peoples’ access to independent living, in policy and practice, to be facilitated at micro, meto and macro levels of societies.

The discussions that followed these papers highlighted the following issues:

  • The need for policies or guidelines to incorporate the needs of sensory and cognitive impairment groups, as well as those who have loco-motional impairments.
  • Accessible housing contributes towards prevention of health conditions which may have arisen, for example, through falls.
  • More work is required to promote a holistic perspective where accessible housing is located in accessible environments with accessible services and accessible public transport.
  • Accessible housing should not solely be perceived as wheelchair user specificity, as suitability for the needs of other disabled people or families should be recognised.
  • Projects should ensure that research methods are evaluated for accessibility (not just wheelchair accessibility – see previous point).
  • Research plays an important role to enable users’ voices to be heard by caregivers, frontline organisations and policy-makers.

Future plans

The Co-Chairs would like to thank David Thomson for his participation as an intern with the Disability and Housing Working Group. David will be providing invaluable IT and administrative support. To find out more about his work visit:

For the ENHR conference 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, we will welcome papers that fit the central theme(s) of the working group and that are based on qualitative, quantitative or mixed-methods research. Theoretical papers are strongly encouraged that might potentially shape the future research in this field. The working group would support ongoing collaborations with the goal of fostering future joint publications and project proposals. Hopefully this will raise the profile of disability as a distinct significant area within housing studies.

Connections shall be made with other conferences such as the Disability Studies 2016 conference held at Lancaster University, UK; as well as the Nordic Network on Disability Research (NNDR). The NNDR will be held on 3rd-5th May 2017 in Orebro Sweden and we will be keen to submit a paper, poster or symposium on behalf of the Working Group. Further information can be found at this link:

Finally, I have now set up a Facebook page where people can keep up-to-date with the ongoing work of the group.  This can be found at


By Dianne-Dominique Theakstone (University of Stirling)

[1] The ruling was also based on the bedroom tax being deemed discriminatory against victims of domestic violence.

Quantum Subjectivity – Understanding the Dual Consciousness of David Cameron by Joe Crawford (University of St Andrews)


In September, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to Oxfordshire County Council to ask what more they could do to ameliorate the very cuts that his government has imposed across the country as part of its never-ending-austerity programme.   The irony of this needs no further elaboration.

I wish to use this blog post to propose three possible explanations for David Cameron’s actions.

The first and most simple explanation is that the man known as ‘Call me Dave’ is a ‘liberal’ in the general (and worst) sense of the term.  Among a great many other problems, the liberal condition has a very strong tendency to decouple all that is inextricably linked while aligning all that is disparate.  For example, on one level (say, the liberal myth of meritocracy) there is no ‘perceived’ connection between rich and poor in the sense that the existence of one has no ‘obvious or visible’ determining effect on the existence of the other (rich people are seen as being talented and hardworking, poor people are lazy and feckless).  Yet in another sense liberalism aligns a diverse range of people (with vastly uneven and unequal volumes of economic and cultural capital) with politically motivated rhetorical sound bites such as ‘we are all in this together’, ‘we all need to tighten our belts; or ‘we should all pay our fair share’…etc.  Dave has himself produced a very useful example by recently decoupling any connection between the rise of ISIS and western military intervention in Iraq, and by aligning disparate groups of people who oppose the bombing of Syria under the broad rubric of ‘terrorist sympathisers’.  This is what liberal politicians, journalists and academics have a strong tendency to do, they decouple all that is linked and align all that is disparate.  So, in his letter to Oxfordshire council, Dave seems to have decoupled any link between his own party’s austerity measures and the cuts being made to his local council services and aligned the government, local and county councils and the public in sharing responsibility for the task of doing all they can to lessen the impact of the cuts (which his government is responsible for imposing).

The second explanation for understanding this situation revolves around the notion that Cameron is exercising a form of ‘cynical practice’ (see Crawford and Flint 2015).  This form of cynicism arises when professionals (often public sector managers) are all too aware of the distance between the reality (what can realistically happen) and the mask they wear in public (the pretence they wish to promote), yet still insist on wearing the mask (despite everyone’s acknowledgement of the distance between the two).  Carlen’s (2008: 20) example is useful’

For while ‘everyone knows’ that the chief inspector was only ‘doing his job’, ‘everyone else knows’ that in-prison programmes and decent regimes are almost certainly not in themselves going to reduce offending…So why lose credibility (or your promotion, or even your job if you are a prison officer or a prison governor) by continuing to say what everyone else always and already knows?

Perhaps then, since Cameron knows that austerity is a political rather than economic programme, his letter to Oxfordshire council could well be a cynical ploy.  He knows what he’s doing but pretends he doesn’t know.  Dave could be playing a double bluff.

Thirdly, there is what I’ve decided to call ‘quantum subjectivity’ a concept similar to the psychological  notion of ‘cognitive dissonance’ but without there being too much ‘dissonance’ involved.  Quantum subjectivity arises when an agent harbours two (mostly contradictory) positions on the same subject.  The position which emerges depends almost entirely on the situation within which the agent finds him/herself.  We don’t know a person’s position  until we engage them, an activity which always takes place within a context, located within both social and physical space.

Think Schrodinger’s cat.  Is it alive?  Is it dead?  Until you look (thus pinning it down to one state or the other) it is both at the same time.  A quantum particle can be in two places simultaneously, only once you pin it down (by observing it), does it provide its location.  In sociological terms, what a person ‘thinks’ is often determined, not by their social position (as classical sociology might suggest), but by the situation in which they find themselves when they are ‘pinned down’ to having to express an opinion.  My own research provides useful examples.  When discussing eviction practices with housing professionals, they would freely alternate between structural and individual discourses depending on the context. On one hand they would adopt a position in which structural factors played the most significant role in the causes of rent arrears (the problem was collectivised and therefore depersonalised), and in another context would adopt a position quite the opposite of that, where it was the irresponsible behaviour of the tenant which was the issue (the problem is then individualised and thoroughly personalised).  So, in short, the same professionals, from the same offices, oscillated between the same binary frames in order to deal with the contradictions contained within the practice of evicting tenants.  Quantum subjectivity, it seems, allows professionals to deal with the inherent contradictions, political tensions, and moral ambiguities which have come to characterise modern ‘public service’ provision in the UK.

The ‘quantum subjectivity’ explanation suggests that David Cameron’s position on austerity is determined by the situation in which he finds himself.  When Dave is at home, in Oxfordshire, drinking tea in the garden with his wife and children, the effects of the cuts to his local services appear to him to be so severe, he is compelled to write to the council to ask why more cannot be done to reduce their impact.  When David Cameron is in Parliament, surrounded by his Bullingdon Club chums, all braying like donkeys, manically waving their order papers as they ridicule and berate those in opposition, the government’s austerity programme seems the most sensible policy for dealing with problems, the real impact of which David Cameron appears to know absolutely nothing about.

Two entirely different positions.

Two entirely different worlds.


Pictures [from David Cameron’s (Tenant’s) special relationship with Scotland] are published with kind permission from Greg Moodie


By Joe Crawford (University of St Andrews)


A Return to Purer Waters? The Supreme Court Re-Casts the Pereira Test by Jed Meers (University of York)

In his oral arguments in the recent Supreme Court decision in Hotak, Jan Luba QC argued that ‘the safest course when dealing with a statute is to drink from its pure waters.’[1] He was talking about s.189(1)(c) Housing Act 1996, which details the ‘priority need’ hurdle homeless applicants must navigate to be owed a housing duty by their Local Authority.

Another post on this blog has outlined s,189(1)(c) and the problems with its interpretation through the so-called Pereira Test. The approach taken was to assess the applicant’s vulnerability against that of an ordinary street homeless person, which in turn led many homeless applicants who plainly appeared to be in need of assistance – such as Mr Ajilore – to be denied a housing duty under s.193 Housing Act 1996. This position had come under sustained criticism for moving far beyond the ‘pure waters’ of the statute, and creating discretionary space for the infiltration of considerations absent from the original intentions of the legislation.

However, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has reconsidered the meaning of ‘vulnerable’ under s.189(1)(c), ruling that its interpretation should be revised.

The facts of the three claimants (outlined in detail in paras.19-33) each turn on a particular element of the Pereira Test. In his lead judgment, Lord Neuberger outlined the three key issues addressed in the case: (i) whether the assessment of vulnerability requires an exercise in comparability, and if so, to whom; (ii) whether support from others can be taken into account when assessing vulnerability; and (iii) what role, if any, does the Public Sector Equality Duty under the s.149 Equality Act 2010 play. I will deal with each of these.

Firstly, the judgment is clear that ‘vulnerability’ necessitates some exercise of comparability, as an adjective which carries ‘a necessary implication of relativity’ (para.51), akin to the assessment of being ‘tall’ (para.92). Clearly, comparison demands a comparator. Here, the Court dispensed with the ordinary street homeless person, which was considered to be against the original intentions of the legislation and lead to ‘arbitrary and unpredictable outcomes’ (para.56). In other words, in the use of a street homeless person as a comparator, the test was assessing vulnerability using an already incredibly vulnerable benchmark. Instead, the Court assessed that an ‘ordinary person who is in need of accommodation’ (para.59) was the appropriate comparator.

The question in interpreting s.189(1)(c) therefore, is – simpliciter- whether the applicant would be, when homeless, significantly more at risk of harm than an ordinary person in need of accommodation (para.52). Perhaps with some of the more ornate constructions of comparators by Local Authorities in mind, the Court was clear that this ‘ordinary person’ is: ‘robust and healthy’ (para.71), made without reference to the resources available to the Local Authority (para.39), and cannot be formed from the ‘very dangerous’ use of statistics (para.43).

Secondly, the majority of the Court considered that taking into account support from third parties was a relevant factor which flows from the ‘contextual and practical’ nature of s.189(1)(c) (para.62), albeit with the requirement that such support would – if it were to mitigate a finding of priority need status – have to be provided on a ‘consistent and predictable basis’ (para.65).

The final key issue is the role played by the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). The judgment highlighted it as ‘complementary’ duty, requiring a sharp focus on: (i) whether the applicant has a protected characteristic under Chapter 1 of the 2010 Act, (ii) the extent of this, (iii) the likely effect of the protected characteristic in the broader context of the applicant’s position if they were to be made homeless, and (iv) whether this results in them being ‘vulnerable’ (para.78).

The ruling of the Court is a long-awaited decision which is likely to have far-reaching consequences. There are two points worth noting here.

Firstly, the revised judicial interpretation coupled with the complementary PSED, appears to enhance obligations towards those with disabilities. Indeed, it may well be the case that the findings of fact inherent in the process to claim DLA (or PIP) would prima facie render the applicant vulnerable. Even for lower rate components, the factual tests inherent – such as being unable to walk outdoors ‘without guidance or supervision from another person most of the time’ (s.73(1)(d) SSCBA 1992) – would appear to indicate that such an applicant, when homeless, would be significantly more at risk of harm than a ‘robust and healthy’ (para.71) ordinary person in need of accommodation (para.52).

Secondly, there is clear anxiety in the lead judgment to ‘emphasise the primacy of the statutory words’ (para.59), and consequently avoid the construction of already highly vulnerable ‘street homeless’ comparators. However, this inevitably leads to the question of what characteristics – if any – such a comparator possesses, and how ‘significantly more at risk of harm’ should be interpreted with reference to them (para.51).

Though this judgment is a positive step forward from the old downward drag of Pereira, the spaces it leaves in its re-casting will result in significant further litigation. In emphasising the original meaning of the statute, the Supreme Court has attempted to return to ‘purer waters,’ but quite how the revised interpretation of s.189(1)(c) will work in practice within Local Authorities already straining under huge financial pressures, remains to be seen.

[1] Incidentally, for those looking to fill a quiet evening, it is now possible to watch all UKSC hearings on their ‘on demand’ service. The footage of Jan Luba QC’s remarks can be see here at 58:04 – 58:17.


By Jed Meers, University of York

The importance of knowing comfort for sustainability in the built environment by Line Valdorff Madsen (Aalborg University Copenhagen)

What is the meaning of comfort?

As a social scientist finding my way into the research field of energy consumption and sustainability in the built environment, I find that the concept of comfort is often taken for granted. Comfort seems to be everywhere in discussions and research on energy efficient buildings but mostly inscribed as thermal comfort, if defined at all. The meaning of the word comfort is implicit in energy research as are the implications of comfort for energy consumption, particularly in technical literatures which do not regard comfort as a social concept, nor sufficiently explores the underlying reasons for expectations and levels of comfort. For the most part, such research explores how technologies can provide (thermal) comfort more efficiently – without compromising expected standards and levels of comfort. The emphasis is thus on how to make ‘users’ adapt and use more efficient technologies in the ‘right’ energy efficient way. Such scholarship seldom deals with how to adapt technologies to a sustainable everyday life, or questions what comfort really is and how it influences sustainability. To me significant questions remain, such as: What does comfort mean to people in their everyday life? How much and what kind of comfort do we need? Can we ask people to compromise their comfort to reach goals of reducing energy consumption? These questions are not dealt with, at least in the more technical research focusing on technologies. The socio-technical research on comfort does offer some additional insights about people, practices and conventions but it too links comfort to indoor temperatures and the like (e.g. Shove et al 2008).

The technological fix vs. ideals of home and comfort

To me it seems that the limitations of existing research perpetuate a common belief in a technological fix that has not yet proven able to turn our high levels of energy consumption around. This reflects research which has traditionally had a strong focus on behavioural theory and individualised agency, as has already been pointed to in sociological energy research (Gram-Hanssen 2010, 2014, Shove 2003, 2010, Strengers 2011, 2013). Since Fanger defined levels of thermal comfort, as early as the 1970s, understandings and standards of comfort levels have not changed much, apart from a more adaptive approach to the relation between users and buildings (e.g. Nicol & Stevenson 2013, Roaf et al. 2015). I therefore propose that it is necessary to understand comfort in housing from an everyday life perspective, and that we ought to understand comfort as something that gives meaning to, and guides, many everyday practices in the home. Not least, to understand comfort in housing is also to understand how we feel at home and what makes a house into a home (see blog post by Katherine – I can put in a link here to another blog post).

In Denmark, where I am based, households stand for around 30 percent of the energy consumption and we are finding that the amount of energy used in homes (e. g. for heating) is not decreasing significantly despite homes becoming ever more efficient (Danish Energy Authorities 2013, Gram-Hanssen 2013). I believe that this trend has to do with social conventions and the aspiration for greater comfort, through ideals of ‘better’ and bigger houses. In the western world there are very strong ideals related to housing, that portray the ideal home as a detached, owner-occupied house that should have at least one (bed)room for every family member to ensure privacy (see for instance Maller et al. 2012). In Denmark one-family houses make up 44 per cent of the housing stock. The average dwelling size is 111.5 m2, while the average household size is 2.1 persons. More rooms, larger communal space and an increasing amount of energy consuming appliances is now combined with fewer occupants per square metre (an average of 52 m2 per occupant in 2013) (Statistics Denmark). From an historical perspective, it appears that as family size has decreased, the size of our homes has increased.

As such it is imperative to explore ideas of comfort and how these carry meaning in relation to our everyday life and homes, since this may help to explain some of these phenomena. Comfort in housing is bodily, sensory, social and related to the ‘home’ as a socio-spatial system (Blunt & Dowling 2006, Mallet 2004). Explicitly, to feel at home is closely related to feeling comfortable and vice versa – to feel comfortable in a house is very much related to homeliness. This relationship can be examined by looking at everyday home-making practices, specifically how we perceive and construct comfort through such practices. Thereby also pointing to reasons why energy consumption in housing is often not linear to what is expected, as we practice comfort in different ways. Indeed, comfort cannot be measured solely by the means of average temperatures as there is more to comfort than what is measureable. Looking at the concept of comfort via the social practice theory framework, changes the focus from technologies and measureable parameters, to the relationship between the material and the social that characterizes daily comfort in our homes, by focusing on shared everyday practices of, for example, heating, refurbishing, laundering and cooking: practices involved in home-making. This can also shed light on how conventions guide everyday practices of comfort and how other meanings (of e.g. family life, gender roles, taste) take part in this. It means that the ‘building user’ is not merely a user of a technology, but rather an everyday practitioner and home-maker that interacts with energy technologies, the material structures of the house, the social relations of families and others and that have both bodily and mental sensations. All these things are involved in shaping comfort. So, what does this mean for the future of energy consumption in the built environment? Well, one thing is sure, the concept of comfort needs a redefinition, as we cannot achieve truly sustainable homes without recognising that comfort is shaping our homes and the practices within them, and this is essential to the way energy is consumed within the four walls of the home.


Blunt, A. & Dowling, R. (2006) Home, Routhledge, London

Danish Energy Authorities (2014), Energistatistik 2013, Energistyrelsen, København

Gram-Hanssen, K. (2010) Residential heat comfort practices: understanding users, Building Research & Information, 38 (2)

Gram-Hanssen, K. (2013) Efficient technologies or user behaviour, which is the more important when reducing households’ energy consumption? Energy Efficiency, 6 (447-57)

Gram-Hanssen, K. (2014) New needs for better understanding of households’ energy consumption – behaviour, lifestyle or practices? Architectural engineering and Design Management, 10

Maller, C., Horne, R. & Dalton, T. (2012) Green renovations: Intersections of daily routines, housing aspirations and narratives of environmental sustainability, Housing, Theory & Society, vol 29 (3)

Mallet, S. (2004) Understanding home: a critical review of the literature, The Sociological Review, 52

Nicol, F. & Stevenson, F. (2013) Adaptive comfort in an unpredictable world, Building Research and Information, vol. 41 (3)

Roaf, S., Brotas, L. & Nicol, F. (2015) Counting the costs of comfort, Building Research & Information, vol. 43 (3)

Shove, E. (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience – the Social Organization of Normality, Berg, Oxford

Shove, E. (2010) Beyond the ABC: Climate change policy and theories of social change, Environment & Planning A, vol. 42

Shove, E., Chappells, H., Lutzenheiser, L. & Hackett, B. (2008) Comfort in a lower carbon society, Building Research & Information, 36 (4)

Statistics Denmark (2014) Statistical Year Book 2014: Living, Danmarks Statistik, København

Strengers, Y. (2011) Negotiating everyday life: The role of energy and water consumption feedback, Journal of Consumer Culture, 11 (3)

Strengers, Y. (2013) Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life – Smart Utopia? Palgrave Macmillan, London


Line Valdorff Madsen Aalborg University, Copenhagen



‘When an uprising of the property owning classes in Hampshire is your best hope for the future you know you’re in trouble’ By Andy Inch (University of Sheffield)

This is a post about the land-use planning system in England. This is not a subject that makes it high up the list of topics that ‘critical urbanists’ tend to consider sexy, or even perhaps remotely interesting. Still, I make no apologies for that. You see planning is in a pretty parlous state in England. Successive governments have identified governmental control of the use and development of land as a regulatory burden and a significant barrier to economic growth. At times the construction of planning as a key economic problem has reached heights of absurdity that a fine comic writer would be proud of.

I remember watching the BBCs ‘Newsnight’ not long after the 2010 election when Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Harriet Harman’s favourite ginger rodent was on. Asked how the Coalition was going to sort out the broken British economy following the worst economic crisis in living memory Alexander cited planning reform as one of the two or three key ways in which the Government was going to unlock growth. That’s right. Planning Reform. It was as if he had stumbled across Michael Heseltine’s infamous speech from the early ‘80s and taken literally his reference to planners having ‘jobs locked in filing cabinets’. All they had to do was find the keys the idiot planners had lost.

Some time after that the government announced the first relaxation of permitted development rights. This somewhat arcane change to what homeowners are allowed to build without the need for planning permission was widely trailed in the media as another key plank of the government’s recovery package. As if the hassle of securing planning permission was the only thing preventing people from unleashing the wave of conservatories that was needed to bring back sustained prosperity. Bugger endogenous growth theory. We just need everyone in Hampshire to build a bigger sunroom.

Since then there has been initiative after initiative. According to Steve Quartermain, the lucky man who until recently went by the title ‘Chief Planner’ at the Department for Communities and Local Government, there wasn’t a single pre-budget statement in which George Osborne didn’t announce further deregulatory planning changes during the last parliament. It’s a trend that seems to be continuing.

This is hardly surprising. The ‘Treasury view’ of planning has long been informed by the basic Hayekian assumption that any attempt to plan economy or society is just another step along the road to serfdom. The fact that the right to develop land remains nationalized in England must seem like a painful anachronism from this perspective.

Depressingly the only thing that seems to be holding back the neoliberal attack are the thousands of Conservative voters sitting in their already amply proportioned sunrooms in Hampshire, tutting over the Daily Telegraph and relying on the planning system to preserve their green and pleasant views.

As Malcolm Tait and I argue in a forthcoming paper on the Coalition governments’ approach to planning reform, the Conservative political tradition has an uneasy and somewhat contradictory relationship to the idea of planning control. Different forms of conservative thought suggest very different attitudes towards planning, from the one nation ‘conservationism’ of the National Trust and CPRE through to neoliberal advocates of the raw efficiency of the market. These attitudes also draw on very different ‘spatial imaginaries’, the former generating deeply felt attachments to primarily rural landscapes, the latter viewing place as little more than a ‘competitive asset’. We argue in the paper that the balance of forces between these traditions defined the coalition government’s politically troubled oscillation between discourses of ‘growth’ and ‘localism’.

Since we shaped that argument, however, the steady onslaught of deregulatory pressure has built further. I now wonder whether we need to consider a slightly different interpretation, one with even bleaker political implications.

Speaking in 2010, Nick Boles, who was soon to become planning minister, suggested a seemingly more Schumpeterian view of planning. A view premised on the value of ‘creative destruction’:

Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people’s communities should develop, or do you believe it can’t work? I believe it can’t work, David Cameron believes it can’t, Nick Clegg believes it can’t. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.

What if we read the steady feed of deregulatory measures that have been passed since as a fairly successful programme for chaos; a strategic attempt to manage and overcome the tensions between different Conservative traditions whilst steadily pushing back against the idea of planning control?

Hugh Ellis from the Town and Country Planning Association is one of the few voices to highlight the significant negative effects that key, detailed changes to the policy regime are having. This includes, in no particular order:

  • The strengthening of a presumption in favour of (sustainable) development, coupled with the need for local authorities to have an up-to-date five year supply of land for new housing has made it much harder for local authorities to defend against unwanted speculative development.
  • The heightened emphasis on the financial ‘viability’ of development that has led to the loss of significant public benefits including large amounts of affordable housing that is typically negotiated from developer profit.
  • The changed definition of affordable housing that means developers only have to produce housing at 80% of market rates
  • The loss of space and sustainable building standards
  • Further changes to permitted development rights which mean that authorities now have no control over the conversion of existing offices, warehouses etc. into new housing. This is leading to the ongoing loss of large amounts of office space in high demand areas, particularly London; converted into homes without any means of checking whether the construction or space standards are adequate, or whether there is adequate provision of schools or open space.

It can be hard to get excited about these details of planning law and policy. But taken together these changes are substantial and represent the further hollowing out of planners’ capacity to regulate in the public interest.

Some of the changes, like the loss of control over new housebuilding, are bothering the retirees in their sunrooms and so may generate further political trouble for the Conservative party. Others, however, like the new permitted development rules, are not likely to affect them very much at all. As Ellis argues, however, these changes risk creating the slums of tomorrow; poor quality places that will have significant impacts on people’s lives, particularly those who have no other choice.

Planning control was created as a response to the effects of ‘chaos’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prompting the society to react against the all too visible hand of the market. The legacy and reputation of planning is now so tarnished that we seem to have forgotten those lessons. Perhaps it will take the slums of tomorrow to remind people. In the meantime advocates of planning as a politically progressive force are left with few allies – when an uprising of the property owning classes in Hampshire* is your best hope for the future you know you’re in trouble.


*with all due apologies to the good people of Hampshire.


Andy Inch (University of Sheffield)


PLEASE NOTE: This post was originally received in January 2015 and therefore was written before the May 2015 general election.  Andy has kindly made a few tweaks in recent weeks to update the post.




What is it that Bugs me about Neighbourhood Effects Research? By David Manley (University of Bristol)

There are many answers to that question. I could, for instance point to the lack of appreciation for the temporal scale – the theory that has been laid out for the neighbourhood to impact the individual relies on a far longer temporal scale than the time frame most analysts (if not all) allow for the analysis. Or, I could have lamented the lack of thinking about causal pathways: open any health related journal and I guarantee you’ll find a paper analysing the relationship between public open space and improved health outcomes (quite how the mere presence of local open space is sufficient is never disclosed in these papers. My grandmother lived very near a number of parks but she rarely, if ever, ventured into them). Or, I could have pointed to near silence in the literature that recognises that where people are located in residential space owes a lot to the spatial expression of inequalities and class struggles so that the urban differences between places are not accidental outcomes (but others blogging here are far better placed to talk about that than I am!). No, when I was asked to respond to Joe’s blog on neighbourhood effects I thought long and hard about Bourdieu and what his work could mean for the field. Then I thought harder and longer about the dominance of the disciplines represented in the near 20,000 papers reporting neighbourhood effects. My gaze landed on the econometricians and I wondered how they would engage with the ideas of the philosopher: whilst I may be doing a disservice to some econometricians, many within the field are likely not to be listening. So, the thing that keeps me awake at night and where I think we (by we in this instance I mean people interested in neighbourhood effects) need a step change is to wrestle the term and analyses back from the economists and econometricians.

What is wrong with the econometricians you ask? I’ll tell you: in the world of the econometricians complex modelling approaches can be used to overcome some pretty serious problems. What’s wrong with that, after all, that’s what all quantitative modellers are doing isn’t it? Well, no: for instance ‘things’ that we have not been able to measure (this could be personality, how risky an individual is willing to be in their financial behaviour to name two) can be ignored through the use of complex modelling techniques (the ‘fixed effect’ approaches). The econometricians are happy with these models because they allow them (they believe) the chance to estimate values to attached to neighbourhoods that are ‘unbiased’ and not altered by those inconvenient things that we do not know or cannot measure.  The problem is, in reaching those ‘unbiased’ estimations a lot of other important information that we do know and that is important has been thrown out: for instance, in their simplified representation of reality (for that is all a model really is) other variables have also been discarded because the model cannot cope with information that does not change. In short the baby is thrown out with the bath water and variables such as ethnicity and gender, to name two, are omitted from the model and any effect that these variables may have (and there is reason to suggest that they may be important!) is lumped together as ‘error’ with those other ‘things’ we don’t know. So far, so mechanical. But this blog is about more than just the specification of the variables in a model. Because, the same assumptions that apply to the econometrician’s variables also apply to their neighbourhoods!

Reading through the literature (and I am a part of this literature so I must shoulder some of the guilt) the most important component of the investigation – the neighbourhood to which we are ascribing these effects – is the part that receives the least attention. Indeed, in many cases the neighbourhood is used as a non-spatial entity. We (and this time I am using the ‘we’ for geographers!) should be the front of this literature using our considerable spatial arsenal to explain, examine, critique and explore how space matters. Neighbourhoods (whatever they may be – that is another blog to be written at another time) are fundamentally about the organisation of individuals into spatial entities. They may be spatially contiguous – that is next to each other like residential neighbourhoods – they may be disjointed – like work, leisure or cultural neighbourhoods – or they may not exist in a physical sense but all are important. The neighbourhood must be the most important part of any study trying to determine if there are linkages between places and individual outcomes. And of course, neighbourhood is a highly contested and debated object at an atomistic level neighbourhood has a unique meaning to each individual in the data. Yet, it is also the piece of information that received the least attention in much of the literature: neighbourhood is frequently used to mean purely the residential context and is derived from standard administrative units created to satisfy the delivery of state statistical data. They have no meaning for the activity space of individuals, of the spaces through which people travel or interact, and have no meaning for the spaces in which people inhabit. Moreover, the kind of neighbourhood that you would use for, say, trying to understand peer group effects on children are very different to those that you would employ for understanding   Similarly, the things that we measure in the neighbourhoods are equally important. Much of the neighbourhood effects work uses the percentage of X, or Y and then attempts to make an assertion that the more (less) of X or Y the worse (better) things will be for individuals.

So, until we engage spatially then we are going to continue to look for effects without getting a handle on where they may (or may not) exist. In doing so we may not find the needle in the haystack, but at least we’d be looking in the right place!

David Manley, University of Bristol (@david_j_manley)

The Continuing Danger of the Right to Buy – how housing is on the election agenda for the wrong reasons By Vikki McCall (University of Stirling)

Suddenly, housing is back on the election agenda. The Conservatives have pledged to ensure security for people by expanding the Right to Buy in England to housing association tenants. The policy has been framed as helping to give people security at every stage of their lives. The expansion would enable social tenants to buy a housing association home if they have lived in it for 3 years.

The plan has been challenged from several directions on social, moral and economic grounds. The Chartered Institute of Housing has already called for a ‘crack-down’ on the Right to Buy as it has disadvantaged different groups. David Orr from the National Housing Federation has questioned whether handing over assets will break the charitable rules and challenge the charitable status of most housing associations. The Audit Commission also report that fraud around the scheme has cost £12.3m a year. Other commentators such as Owen Jones have stated quite clearly:

“This is social cleansing, as simple as that”

It also sets English policy in direct opposition to the direction of travel in Scotland, where the Right to Buy will be ending in 2016. The abolition of the Right to Buy within the Scottish Housing Bill (2014) was introduced to save the current and future social housing stock. Housing Minister Margaret Burgess has noted that:

“These measures will protect up to 15,500 social houses from sale over a ten-year period and safeguard social housing stock for future generations… With 185,000 people on waiting lists for council and housing association houses, we can no longer afford to see the social sector lose out on badly needed homes” (Scottish Government 2014).

The impact of the Right to Buy on the social rented sector is well known and clearly documented. This can’t be underestimated. Further expansion of the Right to Buy will herald the decimation of the social rented sector in England. It will add to the already pressing demand for more social housing throughout the UK. Why would any landlord build social housing only to be forced to sell it 3 years later?

This policy change is situated within a housing market where ‘expansion is largely dependent upon maintaining demand among a widening section of lower income households’ (Malpass 1986: 241). This trend was continued as the Right to Buy was followed by other schemes that have been targeted at those on lower incomes. It has been shown that these have posed a number of financial challenges for new owners, questioning the appropriateness of home ownership for lower income groups (McKee 2010). There is a perception of ‘winners’ (those who benefited from the policy and became owners) and ‘losers/victims’ (everyone else) with focus on its more negative impact has been predominantly on the social renting sector.

However, this is a debate with much wider repercussions even for the ‘winners’. I recently presented a piece of research written with Drs Madhu Satsangi and Corinne Greasley-Adams at the Housing Studies Association conference in York around older owner occupiers in lower value properties. There was an emerging view that there was a group of owner occupiers whose housing needs were not being met.

The research indicated that the group ‘older owner occupiers in lower value properties’ was synonymous with those who had exercised their Right to Buy. Over half of the group surveyed were in properties built before 1990, which generally have higher repair and maintenance costs and are less energy efficient. A third of the participants reported that there was a part of their home they could not access. Furthermore, a third of them wanted to move, mainly due to ill health, but lack of options and affordability were key barriers to moving.

The investment opportunities, security, freedom and autonomy that were promised to them was therefore not in place for a certain group of owner occupiers. This group, especially after a health crisis, were turning to the social rented sector to help. Despite the presiding myths and the veneration of homeownership in UK housing policy, there has been a perception that people are ‘perceived as victims of housing policy rather than its beneficiaries’ (Malpass 1986: 243).

We therefore have come to a full circle from the initial promises of the 1980s that cashing in on the Right to Buy guarantees future security for everyone. David Cameron introduced the new expansion of the policy on the same promise: security and a ‘good life’ for all. Although clearly some people have won from this policy, what we see now is that housing options can be reduced as a certain group of homeowners grow older and develop new support needs.

This ideologically driven policy ignores the wider socio-economic inequalities that exist amongst homeowners (whom are not an homogenous group). The expansion of the Right to Buy is a dangerous, short sighted policy that will further the socio-economic inequalities in the UK.

Blog by Dr Vikki McCall, University of Stirling

All views represented here are my own.

Follow @vikki_mccall @HousingStirUni