Article by Jules Birch – Inside Housing –  on his attendance at the 2014 HSA Conference in York

Article by Jules Birch – Inside Housing – on his attendance at the 2014 HSA Conference in York

Jules Birch, Journalist, was invited to attend this year’s HSA conference to chair one of the plenary sessions.  Jules is also an early career academic, having recently started a PhD.     Here he shares with you some of his thoughts as a first time attendee: 

I didn’t know quite what to expect coming to the HSA conference for the first time.

I was hoping for two things from the three days. As a freelance journalist and blogger specialising in housing, I was pleased to be asked to chair Tuesday’s plenary session and I thought I would find some new ideas to write about. But that was only half my reason for coming: I am also a part-time doctoral student struggling to narrow down an idea for a dissertation to something a bit more specific than ‘it’s about housing’.

On the first, my blog for Inside Housing looks mainly at the plenaries and the wider conference theme of value of housing. My jumping-off point was a call by Ruth Davison of the National Housing Federation in the opening session for researchers to ‘stop researching and start broadcasting’ their evidence about the beneficial impacts of housing. Much of it is about the debate that I chaired on who is best placed to judge the value of housing – the state or the consumer – and comments in the final session by Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. More on the second reason later.

 I didn’t really know what to expect from the Housing Studies Association either. I’ve got to know several members over the years, commissioned articles from some and met many more through twitter recently. But what exactly does ‘housing studies’ mean? Would I find a dwindling band of veterans from a shrinking number of courses or the wider group suggested by articles in Housing Studies?

 And, as this was my first one, I didn’t know quite what to expect from an academic conference. Would there be equations and regression analysis that went over my head? Or would I gain a new understanding of the issues I blog about week in and week out?

 What I found exceeded all those expectations. Yes, there were some housing veterans (though judging from their performance behind the microphone and on the dance floor there is considerable life in them yet) but there also were many talented young researchers too and all ages in between.

 Yes, there was some of what outsiders might think of as narrowly focused ‘housing studies’ but there were also papers from geographers and sociologists, economists and historians, planners and lawyers. The scope was not restricted to the UK either, with contributions on Austria, Sweden, Australia and from Misa Izuhara on the Far East. Housing research seems to be in pretty rude health if this range of ages and interests is anything to go by.

In the workshops given by established researchers, Ken Gibb and Alex Marsh gave a fascinating presentation on the impact of the global financial crisis on housing economics as seen through papers in the main academic journals. I found Pete Redman’s session on valuing the right to buy thought-provoking as the policies of the different nations of the UK diverge on the issue. And Alasdair Rae produced what I thought was the best visual of the entire conference with his map showing the correlation between a heat map of Rightmove searches and the Green Belt.

 But the early careers streams were especially valuable for me. On welfare reform, I heard Jed Meers on the ‘discretion’ in discretionary housing payments and Emily Ball on conditionality in family-based interventions. Both offered new insights on subjects I’ve written about before. On private renting, Phillip Child’s presentation on Labour in the 1950s and 1960s and Ben Pattison’s on New Labour’s ‘masterly inactivity’ after 1997 made for an interesting combination with even contemporary relevance in the wake of Ed Miliband’s new policies. Along with Adele Irving on housing quality and wellbeing, all of them offered new insights for me as a journalist and blogger. But they were even more useful for me as a student struggling to narrow down my thinking to see what other people ahead of me in the process have gone through with theirs.

 However, if the sign of a good conference is how often you want to be in two places at once, I frequently found myself wishing I could be in three or four simultaneously. I was especially sorry to miss Nicholas Choy’s session on the political construction of urban design codes, not just because he won the Valerie Karn Memorial Prize but also because I worked on the project he was discussing. I was equally keen to get to the session on zero carbon homes by Sarah Payne, Nicolas Taylor-Bruck and Aidan While but was engaged in housing economics at the same time.

Looking back through the programme now, I can see many more presentations and workshops that I wish I’d been able to go to on everything from AirBnB to social value and soup kitchens to the PFI. I’m waiting for the presentations to go online to read more on rational fictions and imaginary systems and find out what I don’t know about housing and poverty.

The one surprise for me was that there were not more housing practioners at the conference. For anyone who works in housing who perhaps feels a little jaded from the plethora of conferences out there, HSA 2014 offers something a bit different and a chance for practitioners and policy people to think about what they are doing away from the day-to-day pressures of work.

As for me, I’m definitely hoping to come back next year with the added pressure of making my own contribution to the early careers stream.