Katie Colliver is a PhD researcher in I-SPHERE at Heriot-Watt University. In July 2019 she attended the Social Policy Association’s annual conference held at Durham University. In this blog, Katie reflects on her experience of the conference and provides an overview of the sessions she attended, including her own research.
Last month I headed to Durham to attend the Social Policy Association (SPA) conference. I’d often admired Durham Cathedral from train windows as I passed through the city, bound for other destinations, so I was looking forward to spending time in the city and seeing the cathedral up close. It was also my first time going to the SPA conference. Until then, I had mostly presented to housing audiences so I was feeling a bit nervous about the size and scope of the conference. The entire discipline of social policy seemed like a pretty large remit! Would I be able to relate to other speakers’ work, or they to mine?
I needn’t have worried. There was a strong representation this year: enough for two packed sessions entitled ‘Housing and Homelessness’. In ‘housing’, Ava Siu-mei Lau (Hong Kong Baptist University) showed us a striking example of the human cost of sub-letting and apartment division in Hong Kong’s over-pressured market. Harald Stoeger (Johannes Kepler University Linz) described the emergence of housing sub-systems within established national welfare regimes resulting in varying roles for the social housing sectors, in response to different levels of expenditure and social support according to regional politics. Min Wang (Beijing University of Technology) considered the conflict arising from mixed income developments– a topical subject that had also received attention in the UK press earlier this summer, although the affordable units in China benefited from a significantly greater subsidy than in domestic schemes. Allison Logan (UC Berkeley) closed the last paper session with fascinating theoretical insights into the politics of housing supply and allocation in Oakland, California, a city in the San Francisco Bay Area experiencing dramatic rent rises.
Experiences of legislative change in England and Wales was a prominent theme within the presentations on homelessness. Anya Ahmed (University of Salford) spoke on the impact of the prevention duty in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. The legislation has enjoyed a positive reception – more people are accessing advice and assistance than ever before, and there are reports of a positive shift in organisational culture. But there are also significant variations in the quality of Personal Housing Plans, both across Welsh local authorities and within them. The ‘person-centred’ ethos of the system is called into question by concerns that that some local authorities are placing too much responsibility on individuals whilst failing to provide them with meaningful support.
In England, Jan Flaherty (University of Oxford) reflected on Oxford’s experience with trailblazer funding to support the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) 2017. Innovations included the introduction of ‘community navigators’ to engage in early upstream prevention, and embedded workers within hospitals, prisons and social services. But she found that in the local homelessness sector there is little awareness of the HRA or the changes it has brought in. This raises concerns that some of the people most vulnerable to homelessness, for instance long-term rough sleepers, may fail to benefit from their new prevention and relief entitlements. Christina Carmichael (University of East Anglia) similarly reported service users struggling to exit services, as they are confronted by a depleted social welfare sector following austerity. She found that inadequate and inaccessible services and support, lack of appropriate and affordable housing options, and pervasive social stigma were significant barriers for people hoping to move on and out of homelessness.
My PhD research explores the normative bases of homelessness policy in England, Scotland and Wales. I presented some significant differences between nations. Scotland is led by a strong commitment to rights, complemented by a national performance framework which centres on wellbeing. Subject to acute external pressures, the focus in England and Wales remains upon managing crisis; protecting the most vulnerable and responding to those in need are central motivations. Ideas of ‘ending’ homelessness are present in all national conversations. Scotland led by pledging to eliminate all forms under the legal definition and Wales announced a similar aim this June, but the English sector is primarily concerned with the narrower goal of ending rough sleeping. Contrary to broader trends in the social security system, however, homelessness policy in all three nations shows signs of movement towards universal coverage through the extension of rights.
Many of the presentations I attended gave cause for some sober reflection, which resonated with the theme of this year’s conference: ‘Securing the Future: the Challenge for Social Policy’. Delegates were asked to consider the role that social policy can play in an increasingly uncertain political landscape and within national and international societies marked by inequality and injustice. To make progress against these challenges, it’s important to know what we are aiming for. A motivation behind my own work is the principle that we need to get our values straight, so that we know what to do with the facts.
One session in particular confronted this issue directly. In ‘Social Policy, Innovation and Creativity’, the audience’s attention was drawn to the values that accompany or underpin policy. Lee Gregory (University of Birmingham) started from a concern that Social Policy may have lost its ‘critical edge’. Calling for a more radical imagination, he explored whether there are foundational concepts which can shape approaches within social policy and help articulate an alternative vision for the future. Gideon Calder (Swansea University) and Beth Watts (Heriot Watt University) also identified a deficit within normative discussions in social policy. They argued that talk about values is often limited to familiar lines about ‘rights’ or ‘consequences’. There is a danger that these become silos against which other normative concerns are juxtaposed. Instead, they made a persuasive case for a ‘pluralist’ approach which recognises the importance and validity of multiple normative positions.
The question of who gets access to housing is laden with multiple values. In this climate, it is especially important for researchers and practitioners alike to articulate what directions we should take, but also why. Social policy balances need, rights, consequences, desert and many other principles. Clarity about the role played by each supports a more honest debate about our future.