The Bristol City Office – what’s it all about?

img-4122Yesterday saw the launch of the Bristol City Office, an idea that has been six years in the making. It’s an idea that seeks to address some of the challenges faced by the public sector, with ever decreasing budgets and reducing powers. It’s about partnership and collaborative governance, bringing organisations, individuals and budgets together to tackle the issues that we have failed to tackle before, where collaboration and joint working are essential, alongside the willingness to be creative and innovative. But why will this approach work when other attempts have failed and how is this different?

I’ve been involved in partnership working in Bristol for about 20 years now, and on the surface this could be seen as just another attempt to work together. I can hear the cynical voices already, questioning why this is needed: haven’t we done this before? not another partnership? more talk and no action, what’s the point? These are all questions I asked myself when I was invited to be involved in developing the concept for this thing called the “city office”. Why would it be any different this time?

This time I think the context is a key factor in why this might just work. For starters we have a different form of governance in the city, a directly elected mayor who can lead this  with greater power and greater visibility. We also have the ‘shadow of austerity’ across the whole of the public sector and local government in particular. The council in Bristol once again faces severe cuts that mean its ability to do anything beyond deliver on statutory services is massively reduced. That’s a big restraint when you are facing big problems in the city that can’t be solved without significant time and resource. We also have a history of partnership working in the city that has delivered change, with business, public and voluntary/community sectors coming together to make things happen. Bringing these elements together, in a new partnership approach, could provide the impetus needed to make a difference. At this meeting, and the one back in July, I saw an energy and positivity in the room that is often lacking. It feels different this time!

But what is this city office, how is it going to work and what will its focus be? 

The concept of the city office is about ‘place-based leadership’ bringing key stakeholders and organisations together from across the city to develop solutions to the issue that matter most, issues that to date we have failed to adequately address. It’s also about learning, experimenting and innovating, about not being too afraid of failure and being brave enough to take risks in order to find that set of solutions that do work. The city office is unique in its aim of changing the way we do things, by working together and applying collective resources to the challenges we face, by taking a truly ‘total place’ approach to city development.

It will operate at both a strategic and tactical level, bringing organisations together on project activities that deliver in the short and medium term as well as focusing on creating a shared vision for the future. The concept of additionally is critical here, all the projects and activity of the city office need to bring with them the ability to provide something extra as a result of working together, after all, why get involved if it will only deliver what you do already? So to begin with, two project task and finish groups have been set up to tackle the issues of homelessness and providing quality work experience to young people.

As current issues go street homelessness is one of those pretty much at the top of the agenda. We’ve seen a massive and visible increase in Bristol over the last few years, from less than 10 on any one night in 2012, to around 100 now (official figures). The reasons why any individual becomes homeless and ends up on the street are varied and often very complex, with many experiencing mental health problems or issues with drug and alcohol use. Solving the problem is complex, providing the accommodation and support services for those with the most complex needs is challenging. It’s certainly an area that needs different organisations to work together differently to provide solutions. It’s not just about providing a home, but for those with the most complex needs a ‘housing first’ approach may well provide the security and support they need to tackle the reasons they became homeless in the first place. Bringing the different agencies together that are involved in providing those services, to work together on an agreed joint approach may just help to provide the right solutions. I talk more about the ‘housing first’ approach in a previous blogpost. Homelessness will be the first issue to be addressed by the city office, with a call to action issued by Golden Key.

In addition to the project activity, the Mayor introduced the idea of a ‘Single Plan for Bristol‘, a strategic level shared vision for the future of the city, in a similar vein to the OneNYC Plan. A bold idea that has the potential to really make a difference to the key challenges we face as a city. It’s where the city office can bring people and organisations together to work collaboratively to set out a long term simple but ambitious vision with measurable and achievable short and medium term targets. It should be about addressing the root causes of problems and providing sustainable solutions, and not ducking the difficult issues. It’s where we can set out how we address the ‘big’ issues, like how we eradicate inequality and poverty in our city, providing something that everyone should be able to sign up to.

There’s a long way to go on developing the city office, how it works and what it does, but so far the signs are good, positive and the potential is definitely there to influence and create change. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

Grab the power, use it, then ask for more!

BWST02 AW AerialSo it seems Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and North East Somerset Councils have signed up to the devolution deal on offer and with it have agreed to set up a combined authority with a directly elected metro mayor. Whilst this was indeed the most likely outcome, there was always the possibility that it could be derailed at this point.

Earlier this month North Somerset Council opted not to be part of this, they said an emphatic no to the deal. So the full area covered by the Local Enterprise Partnership will not be the same as the deal area. This in itself could cause future complications when discussing strategic planning and transport. But, let’s not dwell on that, the important thing to note here is that politicians in North Somerset voted to exclude their population from receiving this extra funding and additional local power. They’ll just have to sit back and watch the other areas benefit from it instead!

It would be fair to say that whilst the deal was agreed in the other three areas it was with significant reservations and concerns. Those concerns focused primarily on the notion of the imposed structure, which was made clear from the start – without a metro mayor there would be no deal. The idea of creating another powerful position, which sits above the existing Bristol Mayor and other Council Leaders, is clearly something that will take some getting used to. Equally, the idea that there is an imposed structure, devised by government, is never going to be particularly popular with local politicians, decision makers and the public. But thankfully, other than in North Somerset, this was not enough on its own to derail the deal.

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency and accountability of the whole process. Most of the initial discussions were held in secret, behind closed doors, involving local leaders with Whitehall officials. The content of those discussions did not become clear until the deal was published. This in itself is challenging, for those local politicians not included, for the public and those with an interest in local decision making it meant buy-in to, and understanding of, the deal was limited. It means we have little idea of what was not included and why, we only know what is there now. Did our political leaders try for more powers over housing, health, and education, or does the deal reflect the limits of their ambition? Did they challenge and discuss how economic growth could be made to work for those traditionally excluded from the benefits of ‘trickle-down’ and try to address the issues in a different way? I guess we’re unlikely to know, all we can do is work on what was agreed and draw our own conclusions on what we think is missing.

I posed a number of questions about the devolution deal earlier this year, which remain pertinent now: would it matter if we didn’t agree it; is it worth it; is it the right structure; and what’s missing?

In terms of the first two questions then I think the answer is becoming even more clear now, with the events of last week (Brexit), Bristol and the city region need to take whatever is on offer to enable more independent and local control over what happens in our city region. As a diverse, forward thinking city region, we need to make local decisions about key issues that impact upon our area. I say, grab the power and use it, and then go back and ask for more, and more again. In the Bristol city region we have the capacity, ambition and foresight to make this work, to be at the forefront of creative and innovative policy and action, and now more than ever this is what we need to do. I applaud our politicians for making this difficult decision, failing to do so could have left Bristol behind other city regions where deals have already been struck.

Don’t get me wrong; I personally have concerns over how this whole thing will work, whether the current deal is enough, whether the structure will work, and whether there is enough flexibility to really address the issues that matter in our area. But, as others have said, it is the only offer on the table, without it we stay where we are, we lose out on money and power whilst other areas benefit.

As for the metro mayor and combined authority, then I can see both pros and cons. The combined authority that has power to take decisions over key strategic matters without constant reference back to each local council area is in my view something we have needed in this area for some time. The metro mayor is a different matter. There has been no consultation over this, no opportunity to see if there is a public appetite for such a role and no real open debate about the benefits it could bring. Indeed, the government itself has consistently failed to make the case for metro mayors, other than to make it clear you have to have one to get the deal.

But nonetheless, that’s what we are stuck with, so lets embrace the idea and make the most of it; make it work for our city region. What it does potentially provide is a role that has the interests of the whole city region at its heart. The metro mayor will promote and speak for the city region in its entirety, rather than represent a small part of it. We haven’t seen that kind of strategic leadership for some time and it has been sorely missed.

The final question I asked was about what’s missing from the deal. In relation to this then I think the door is still open. Where deals have been agreed in other areas it seems to have provided the opportunity to continue negotiations, to add powers and keep the discussion going. So there’s an opportunity for the Bristol Mayor and the Leaders of the other two councils to go to government and ask for more.

How about asking government if we could suspend the right to buy on council properties across the patch or in certain areas, or even just for new build council housing? Why not, parts of Wales have? How about taxing developers for stalled sites, charging them a tax on unbuilt properties, could this have been included, can we ask for it now? Now’s the chance to consult with more colleagues across the city region, talk to other areas and push hard on what is possible.

Perhaps rather than reluctant agreement we should be embracing the deal and everything it brings with it? The important thing now is to get as much as possible out of it and make it work for us.

What next for Bristol Housing?

IMG_1624You might wonder what there is left to say about housing in Bristol with all the debate that’s occurred over the last few months? We seem to have had all the main mayoral candidates talking about it, making promises and pledges in their manifestos and statements. We’ve also had it mentioned in media interviews and articles, as well as at hustings meetings across the board. But what about the housing hustings meeting itself, did anything different come up and were there any real solutions to our housing problems?

Overall there seemed to be a lot of common ground, with the five main candidates all agreeing that we need to build more homes and George Ferguson, the current Mayor, saying plans were in place to do just that. The Conservative candidate, Charles Lucas, constantly referred to the need to build more homes, whatever type or sector, just build, seemed to be his main answer to the housing crisis, alongside making it easier for developers to build by relaxing planning regulations – everyone agreed with the first part of this statement! There was also agreement over the need for some form of housing company to enable the council to build more homes, but quite what this looks like and how it will operate is less than clear at the moment.

IMG_1625George Ferguson expressed the view that we need to tear up the rulebook and be more creative. That’s why he’s set up the Bristol Homes Board, bringing partners from all sectors together to tackle Bristol’s housing problem. He also talked a lot about the Devolution Deal and how this would help to address housing issues. I have to say that I’ve read the deal and I still can’t quite see how it will make that much difference, assuming it’s finally approved by all our local councils, but apparently there’s something in there that will help deliver housing.

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Kay Barnard, seemed to have a bit of an issue with council staff and their lack of expertise/experience in certain areas. In answer to several questions she suggested the need for training, as staff at the council simply don’t have the skills to deliver more homes. Other issues she seemed keen on were the idea of creating an arms length company to deliver homes as has been used in Liverpool, Manchester and Sutton (I’ve yet to check what these look like). She also expressed concern that many housing schemes that have been delivered in Bristol have had little affordable housing included as part of the deal, in her words “the planners need to be tougher”.

From Tony Dyer, the Green Party candidate, we had a thoughtful response to many of the issues, with social and affordable housing taking centre stage and the need to build social houses for rent expressed clearly as a priority. Using council owned land to deliver better quality affordable housing was also a key concern, holding onto land and maintaining control a clear way forward (also expressed by Marvin Rees). Tony also mentioned the impact of government policy and how this has made it even harder for council’s to build social housing, at the same time as encouraging loss of council housing through the right to buy. This is why he is in favour of developing a Bristol Housing Company, to protect new and existing stock from being sold off, as well as to help develop new council homes.

Charles Lucas added to his comment about building more homes by flying in the face of national Tory policy and agreeing that this should be across all sectors, including building social housing for rent and increasing the council housing stock in the city. He also made clear that he thought the planning department was under-resourced, and that in order to attract developers into Bristol we need to have a more efficient planning response that makes it easier for developers.

Marvin Rees , the Labour Party candidate, set out his priorities as building more homes, keeping hold of council land and using the increase in value from development to build more homes. Homes and communities are at the top of Marvin’s agenda and he believes this should be an absolute priority now. Marvin also raised the point about choices, with limited budgets choices have to be made about where resources are spent, there’s money  and land that could have been used to deliver more homes but other priorities were clearly more important. Marvin talked about meetings he’d had with organisations who want to invest and build in Bristol but have found it too difficult, so they have gone elsewhere, illustrating the need for a culture change at the council. This claim was refuted by George, who suggested that it used to be an issue, but is less so now. 

All candidates agreed that the council needed to make the best use of council and other publicly owned land to deliver affordable housing in the city. How this is done and how you can break down the very considerable barriers that seem to exist was less clear from the debate. The intention is there, but we also heard from people in the audience involved in community led housing initiatives who have witnessed those barriers first hand, who claim dealing with the council is impossible, slow and ponderous to the extreme. There are communities in Bristol that have identified space for housing through their neighbourhood planning processes, spaces communities are willing to see developed, but which have stalled because of issues over land ownership, planning, and council commitment. What they see instead is the council selling off public land in their areas for private developers to build on with limited input from the community. What they would prefer is community led development, on sites identified by the community, where they have a real say over the type of housing, what it looks like and what facilities are needed alongside it. All these communities want is a commitment from the council to support a different way of doing things. Surely there must be scope for Bristol to do so much more in working with communities to make this happen?

The debate actually started with a question about homelessness which brings us back to why we need to build more homes, particularly affordable and social housing. Tony made the point that it is a disgrace that people sleep on the streets in a city like Bristol and he issued an apology on behalf of all politicians that not enough was being done to prevent homelessness. All candidates agreed it was unacceptable to have rough sleepers, whilst Marvin added to this and made the point that the homeless are not invisible, they do exist and we need to acknowledge that and rethink the way we think about housing. There are places doing more innovative work on homelessness, Bristol could do well to look at other examples of how to tackle the problem.

There was also a discussion about how to make the private rented sector (PRS) work better for people. Most of the candidates agreed with the Ethical Lettings Charter promoted by Acorn as part of their campaign promoting a new more ethical approach to renting a home in Bristol. Marvin talked about the need for a different set of tools to manage this form of housing, tools which are not currently available but are needed in this changing housing market where private rental is becoming increasingly more common. The Acorn campaign was formed because people believed the politicians and decision makers were not doing their job properly, they were not seen to be protecting tenants or using the powers they already have very effectively. Most agreed this should change.

What the housing hustings did illustrate well was that housing is a big issue, it’s an issue lots of people care about and it’s a political issue. On a Friday evening, on a bank holiday weekend, lots of people turned up to listen, heckle and support the discussion on “what next for Bristol housing”. The issues are obvious, the solutions are available, but somehow we’re not quite doing enough to make enough of a difference. The question is who will make that change and make things happen differently? Hopefully, we’ll know more after the election!

Bristol Mayoral Election – What about housing?

CcYfmnsWEAAKjbFWell, we’re almost there, the election is next week. It’s time to decide who will be the next directly elected Mayor of Bristol. With all 70 seats on the Council also up for election it looks set to be an interesting week. Hopefully this time the turnout will be higher and local people will be more engaged in having a say over who governs their city.

Over the last few months I’ve been looking closely at how housing policy has been discussed and debated publicly during the election process. At the beginning of this process it wasn’t clear quite what the political priorities would be and whether or not housing would feature as a key issue. But as time has progressed housing issues have certainly become a big part of the debate. Perhaps not surprising given the very real pressures people are feeling in relation to housing in Bristol.

The Bristol housing market looks something like this:

housing sectors

The statistics below will give you a feel for some of the housing problems Bristol faces:

  • house prices have increased by 29% over the last 10 years
  • private rents in the city increased by an average of 18% in 2015, the highest in the country (alongside Brighton)
  • 28% of privates homes fall beneath the decent homes standard
  • one of the highest increases in homelessness acceptances in the country
  • one of the highest rough sleepers figures in England
  • 2010-2015 only 1490 affordable homes built against need of at least 800/year
  • in the last few of years over 100 council houses per year lost to right to buy
  • in the 12 months prior to March 2014 just over 1200 new homes were delivered in Bristol but only 97 were affordable
  • between 2016-2036 Bristol needs 18,800 needs affordable homes, that’s 940/year

These figures make disturbing reading and really only provide a snapshot of the problem, but are nevertheless useful as background to the debate. I should point out here that the information for this blogpost is drawn solely from publicly available material produced in manifestos, action plans, websites, Facebook pages, hustings meetings and media interviews with the main candidates.

So with all this in mind, what are the mayoral candidates saying about housing? Well, I’ll break it down into 4 main policy areas and take these in turn: overall housing delivery, affordable/social housing, private rented sector, and homelessness, .

Firstly, on overall housing delivery, several of the candidates are making promises to build 8,000 new homes over the next 4 years, that’s 2,000 houses per year of which up to 2,800 will be affordable. This is broadly the commitment made by George Ferguson, Tony Dyer and Marvin Rees, with variations around the numbers of affordable homes (I’ll come back to that later). It is less clear what the Liberal Democrat and Conservative proposals are other than Charles Lucas identifying a priority to build more homes and Kay Barnard highlighting the need to ensure all brownfield sites are developed for new homes. So increasing the number of homes built is a priority for all of the main candidates, but what is missing from much of the discussion is just how they will achieve that. Detailed proposals on the policy changes needed are at this stage largely missing from the public documents. When challenged at some of the hustings meetings candidates have provided more information. In particular, there appears to be some agreement over the need to set up some form of arms length, council owned company to deliver affordable housing projects. Just what this means and how it would work is less clear, but examples are available from other cities where similar proposals have been made using different models, such as the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. The point here is about changing the role local councils play in increasing the supply of housing, through partnership and enabling roles rather than as sole deliverers. This was an important recommendation in the Elphicke-House Report produced last year which identified the need for local authorities to take responsibility for making development happen in their area.

The delivery of social and affordable housing also appears to be a priority for all the main candidates, some more explicitly than others. Here the focus is on affordable housing, often with no clear definition of what is meant by affordable, but with some making the distinction between the government’s definition of affordable and what is actually affordable to people in Bristol. There’s a real debate to be had here about what local authorities can actually do to increase the amount of affordable housing delivered in their area. With government policy squarely aimed at encouraging home ownership, the public and social rented sectors have taken a bit of a battering. Add to that the proposed extension of Right to Buy to housing association homes, the relaxation of planning S.106 agreements on affordable housing and the curbs on the ability of councils to borrow money to build new social homes and you begin to see that any commitments here are made with one hand tied behind your back. Just what can local authorities do to make a difference? Some of the suggestions include looking at alternative forms of housing, like self-build and cooperative housing, modular build and pre-fabricated housing, as a means of delivering more affordable housing. There are definitely options for more work in this area. Bristol, once upon a time, led the way in self-build, but has sadly fallen behind many others places now as support from the council has reduced and development has become more competitive. I wrote a piece for the Bristol Cable on alternative housing as an option, you can read it here.

The private rented sector as a provider of housing in Bristol has become ever more important over recent years, now providing 24% of homes in the city. This in itself brings with it a number of concerns and issues, such as security of tenure, affordability and quality of provision. All these are concerns in Bristol, as they are in many other cities and towns, where the need to find cheap, affordable housing drives individuals and families into renting unfit accommodation, living in overcrowded conditions, and living in fear of eviction. There is little control over the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and little the council can do to regulate price and quality, and what control they do have is often not fully implemented. As a result of concerns about PRS provision in certain areas of the city, a trial scheme was implemented in Easton and Lawrence Hill, where discretionary licensing was introduced for landlords. This scheme is being rolled out slowly into other areas of the city, enabling council inspections to ensure minimum standards are being met.

In response to issues highlighted by tenants, Acorn have established an Bristol Ethical Lettings Charter, which Bristol City Council have now supported, but this is still only voluntary. This Charter is a declaration of decency and a statement of intent, to help create a fair, professional and ethical private rental sector, it asks landlords and agents to commit to certain standards of security, cost and quality. George, Tony and Marvin all feature policies on improving the PRS, which include rolling out the Ethical Lettings Charter and introducing a landlord enforcement scheme. These priorities would certainly go some way to addressing the concerns of many tenants in the PRS. Giving voice to those tenants is also important, which is where Marks Out of Tenancy could help with their proposal for a website where you can rate your landlord or letting agent, a sort of TripAdvisor for the PRS.

The final issue for debate is homelessness, an increasing concern in Bristol, with more rough sleepers and declarations of homelessness than other cities outside of London. The response from candidates to the issue has been mixed, some don’t mention it, others identify it as an issue, but have few solutions. The ideas that have been mentioned include bringing empty homes back into use, increasing overall housing provision, providing more emergency shelters and providing more support for those who are homeless. Of course there are no easy solutions, people are homeless and sleeping rough for many different reasons and will need varying levels of support at different times to help them address their problems and issues. For those with complex needs there’s an interesting approach being used in the US and Canada which sees housing as a basic human right and seeks to provide immediate access to permanent housing for homeless people. Starting from that premise removes the need for those who are homeless/sleeping rough to go through support programmes and overcome addiction problems before they access decent housing, it starts with housing first, and has seen some significant success. There are different ways of addressing problems and there are some creative and successful approaches out there if only we would look beyond the norm.

Overall it is clear that housing features as a key priority for many of the mayoral candidates, but to date the level of debate has been disappointing, with few new or different solutions discussed. To some degree this is perhaps to be expected, with local government working within a difficult environment of cuts and central control. It’s also fair to say that most hustings meetings and debates have little time to get into the detail as they try to address a range of big topics with up to 13 candidates! I’m hoping the housing hustings taking place on Friday April 29th will provide a little more of that detailed discussion, where the ideas and solutions can be developed further.

Tackling Homelessness – let’s not reinvent the wheel

homelessIt’s difficult to stand back and watch what is happening with housing policy in England at the moment. The transition of the Housing Bill through the legislative process has been complicated, combative and confusing, with endless amendments and changes made along the way. Indeed we are still waiting to see the final outcome, but whatever happens there will be some fundamental changes to the way we do housing in this country.

Within this debate the plight of the homeless in our cities seems to have been somewhat lost, they are an inevitable consequence of our housing and welfare policy  as well as our inability to build enough homes over many decades. However, there is little by way of concrete policy change or real action to actually make a positive difference in this area. It seems we still need to research the issue and find out why people are homeless and how to help them. To this end, in December 2015 the government launched an inquiry into the causes of homelessness as well as the approaches taken by national and local government to prevent and tackle homelessness. Quite what the inquiry will come up with is unclear at the moment as is whether or not it will make any difference.

Perhaps we should be looking elsewhere to see how homelessness has been tackled successfully? We could learn some important lessons.

There’s an approach called ‘Housing First’ adopted in the US and Canada that starts from the premise that housing is a basic human right. This approach was first used in the early 1980s to provide housing for homeless people with multiple and complex needs. It starts from the basis that once you remove the chaos of homelessness then a person is better able to address and deal with the issues that led them to being homeless in the first place.

“Housing First is a consumer-driven approach that provides immediate access to permanent housing, in addition to flexible, community-based services for people who have experienced homelessness” (Canadian Housing First Toolkit)

It seems to me that this concept and approach is well worth revisiting. Instead of demonising and criminalising homeless people maybe we should be thinking about providing them with secure, permanent accommodation and the support they need to enable recovery and improve wellbeing, so they can re-integrate into society. Rather than making ‘housing readiness’ a condition for the provision on housing, it provides the housing first, alongside the support services, so recovery can take place in a secure environment.

The solution to homelessness has been clear for at least a decade: giving homeless people homes. According to a 2014 paper from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, it could  actually be cheaper in the long term to provide permanent accommodation for homeless people than continue to support them whilst sleeping rough. The paper suggests that levels of homelessness in Canada come with an annual bill of $7 billion in emergency shelters, social services, health care, and law enforcement and judicial costs. Whilst a comprehensive housing strategy would cost taxpayers far less: $3.75 billion in 2015-16 and $44 billion over a decade.

“Studies have consistently shown that – in practice, and not just in theory – providing people experiencing chronic homelessness with permanent supportive housing saves taxpayers money” (National Alliance to End Homelessness)

Another study in Florida (2014) found that Florida residents pay $31,065 per chronically homeless person every year they live on the streets. However, it would cost taxpayers just $10,051 per homeless person to give them a permanent place to live and services like job training and health care. In Utah (2015), another recent programme was established to end homelessness using the Housing First approach. Here, the cost of providing an apartment and social work for clients in the Housing First program is $11,000 annually, while the average price of hospital visits and jail for street denizens is nearly $17,000 a year. Once more illustrating that taking a more holistic view can save money as well as provide the homes that homeless people need.

The key to these approaches is thinking long term about the issue and across different services, something that doesn’t always happen. Maybe we need to remind ourselves why housing is important? Its a basic human right that sets the tone for our lives – everyone should have the right to a decent home that is affordable, but sadly many don’t.

It is easy to sit back and be critical of the inability of local and national political leaders to take strategic long term decisions. We criticise them for having to be sensitive to electoral cycles and for not tackling the difficult issues. Housing is one of those issues that needs a short, medium and long term plan, where the difficult issues need to be faced head on and where linkages need to be made across service areas.

If we believe that everyone has the right to a decent home, then by restricting housing growth and refusing development we are denying people that right. In a prosperous city such as Bristol it is ridiculous that we have so may people on the housing waiting list; too many people in overcrowded and poor accommodation; and others with nowhere to live at all. So what more can we do to deliver the housing that Bristol desperately needs at a price people can afford and how do we tackle the homelessness issue? Perhaps taking a more creative and innovative approach we could adopt the ‘housing first’ principle that starts from the premise that everyone deserves a decent home. This means a new and different approach that puts people first.

Halfway point in an amazing journey

Word Cloud1Well that’s me, I have just reached halfway in my PhD journey. I’ve been doing this for 18 months now, which sometimes seems like forever and at other times seems like I only just got started. But that is it, I am halfway through my 3 year learning adventure, and what an adventure it is turning out to be. I’m sure most people will look at this and think really, at 50 you’re doing a PhD and seeing it as an adventure? But that is how I’ve seen it from the start, a learning adventure where I can develop my own thinking, find out more about an area of interest and just maybe by the end of it all, provide something that might be of use to others. It’s also something I’ve always wanted to do, but if you’d asked me 3 or 4 years ago what I would be doing now, it wouldn’t even have featured. That’s life for you, it has a strange way of providing us with the opportunities to do the things we want, we just have to recognise those opportunities and take those first steps to achieving what we want when we can. For me it’s also been about finding a positive out of a very negative situation, where that positive has now successfully eclipsed any negativity that existed.

I’m now at that stage in my PhD where I’m immersed in fieldwork. Where life has been taken over by a constant round of interviewing, observation, and meetings followed by transcribing, writing up field notes and setting up the next round of interviews. It’s relentless and I seem to have fallen a little behind with the transcribing – it is undoubtedly my least favourite activity at the moment, therefore gets put off all too often when other more interesting things spring to mind (even cleaning the house is preferable).

So far I’ve been pretty lucky with the willingness of people to participate in my research, to give up their time to answer my questions, to invite me into meetings and discussions and to provide me with information. Hopefully this will continue as it all helps to provide a true picture of what is happening and why.

Alongside all this actual data collection, there are of course other activities that need to be maintained. Like keeping up to date with what is being published on relevant areas of theory, that is certainly keeping me busy as various useful articles and books keep appearing. There’s also quite a lot happening in terms of government policy on housing, so I need to keep abreast of those changes too, and the commentary that goes with it. Add to that learning how to use Nvivo (software package for qualitative data analysis), setting up thematic codes and a coding framework, loading information into Nvivo and beginning the long process of coding each and every interview and set of notes, and you’ll see that I’ve been a bit busy lately.

The advantage of getting some training on Nvivo was that not only did it teach me to use the software, but it also meant I had to think through what my data was telling me. I had to really delve into the process of taking on board the themes and issues emerging from my data, relating them to the theoretical framework I had established and drawing both inductive and deductive themes and codes from theory and data to try and make sense of it all. This is a challenging process that I am only really just beginning, but it’s like doing a giant puzzle, where you know many of the pieces are there but you don’t have the picture that they’re suppose to make to work from. So you have to work intuitively, making links and finding relationships that work and help to form a picture that makes sense. But you also have to remember all that knowledge you gained from the theory and the methods you spent the previous 18 months learning about and use that to develop the picture, or the story you are trying to tell. It’s a fascinating process and at the moment I’m not quite sure where my story is leading me or what the final picture will look like. That’s all part of the adventure.

I realise at this point that I have succeeded in writing a post all about my research without actually saying what my research is about. So in brief, I’m looking at how policy gets prioritised, who and what influences the process and what different it makes in terms of what actually gets done. I’m looking specifically at housing policy in Bristol before, during and after the Mayoral election that takes place this May. There’s so much to say about this agenda, about how things change, how decisions are made, where the influence comes from and who holds the power. It’s certainly a fascinating time to be doing research on housing policy and how national changes impact locally and by fascinating I really mean challenging. The situation changes so rapidly as does the response from housing organisations, lobby groups, councils and delivery bodies as they find themselves having to adapt to the latest proposal or policy change from government.

This is currently my world, a whirl of data collection and analysis, an ever changing policy framework, new announcements nationally and locally and extensive media coverage of housing issues. I’m enjoying every moment of it during the here and now, whilst also looking forward and trying to anticipate the final picture and story that I’ll be able to tell.

Doing a PhD – Year 2

Last year I was part of the Bristol Doctoral College, Year in the life of PhD blog, which involved providing one blog per term on what it is like to do a PhD. Whilst I’m not involved again this year, I thought I would carry on the practice of blogging about the PhD process and my progress. So here I am, just beginning the second year of my PhD and it seemed like a good time to reflect on my first year and look ahead to what this year will involve.

My first year started with taught courses and assignment writing, continuing my learning on research methods. These pretty much occupied me full time for 4 months and wasn’t quite how I’d wanted to begin my PhD! However, on reflection, I can certainly see the benefit of having to do them as I have used much of the knowledge gained during that time to help me develop my research further.

After completing (and passing) all the assignments it was onto some theory, well quite a lot of theory actually. In my usual logical, methodical manner I decided to start at the beginning and read my way through a logical sequence. Which basically meant starting with theories of the policy process (of which there are many), moving onto agenda setting theories (lots of those too) and eventually focusing in on Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework. This then took me on to theories about multiple levels of governance, models of governance, power theory, community power and local leadership. Which is quite a lot of theory to get to grips with, but kind of covers most of the issues I think I need to know about or at the very least it provides a good starting point.

Having buried myself in theory for a few months, I then needed to do more work on my research approach and the methods I wanted to use. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do but needed to build this into a coherent approach based on some recognisable ontology and epistemology. This took some serious thinking, as my practice based brain struggled to work through some of the more detailed philosophical arguments about methodology and approach. But I got there in the end, mostly thanks to the grounding in research methodology provided in my MSc course and the additional 3 units I took at the beginning of the year. This together with the work of Rod Rhodes, on interpretive political ethnography, was enough to convince me that I knew where my research would fit and how I should go about it.

My MSc Graduation

My MSc Graduation

Then came the point when I was finally ready to put together my progression review/upgrade documentation. This is a key point for any PhD student, where they are formally assessed to see if what they have done so far and plan to do is good enough to allow them to carry on with a PhD. For me this meant providing a total of 15,000 words on my research approach and on some key elements of theory, together with completing the progression review form. I could easily have written 30-40,000 words at this point, so my main challenge was narrowing it down and deciding what to submit for consideration. The next step was the Panel Review Meeting. I approached this as a great opportunity to discuss my research with some senior academics, who could help advise me on how I might improve what I was proposing and who could challenge and question elements of my research. Whilst potentially daunting, it was a really positive discussion, with two extremely helpful and supportive academics. I learnt a lot about my own understanding of some of the issues and about some of the assumptions I hadn’t realised I was making. I also learnt a little more about positioning my research, defending positively what I was proposing and discussing points of interest.

I came away from my review meeting with a lot of issues and ideas whirling round in my head and even more theory to consider (social practice theory in particular). But I did come  away feeling pretty positive, I’d had a good discussion, received some positive feedback and once I’d submitted a bit of additional information, was told I could continue with my PhD. Good news indeed!

During the year I also submitted my application for ethical approval of my research, another key point in any research project. My research will involve interviewing elite actors, potentially ‘shadowing’ them and using participant observation. It’s a form of interpretive political ethnography, that combines methods to try and understand things from the point of view of the participants of the study. It’s also based on a small case study in Bristol, where I was previously a local councillor and have been involved in various aspects of city life for many years. Thankfully, the response from the ethics committee was extremely quick and efficient, and only asked for a small amount of additional information which I was able to provide without too much extra work. I then receive the approval I needed, which was another key milestone for my PhD. Basically, that now means I am pretty much ready to go out and do my fieldwork.

This next year will mostly be about data collection, interviewing, observation, and document analysis. It’s going to be a busy year and the idea of starting my fieldwork is exciting but also daunting and a little scary. I’ve got a bit of work to do on developing my data collection and analysis strategy, making sure I am fully prepared (or as much as I can be) for my fieldwork, but I’m almost ready to go. This next stage involves not only collecting data but also thinking about how it works with the theory, about identifying the right people to speak to, the right events to attend and the right time to be involved. It means reading more theory, working out themes and issues, coding transcripts and analysing data as I go along. A pretty daunting set of tasks, but something I’m really looking forward to.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 10-12 months, burying myself in the Bristol Mayoral election process!