The Big Society, Localism & Housing Policy

ESRC funded Seminar Series, 2013-14

Background to ESRC seminar series The Big Society, Localism and Housing Policy


Since the formation of the UK coalition government in 2010 ‘localism’ and the ‘big society’ have become key buzz words featuring high on political and policy agendas. Both fuzzy and fluid terms, they reflect the presumed benefits of devolving power downwards to communities, and the social value of volunteering, self-help and philanthropy. These ideals have been highly influential in housing policy and practice across the UK. Their influence can be seen, for example, in the growing emphasis on community and mutual provision within the affordable housing sector, and the inclusion of a community ‘right to challenge’ in the English Localism Act 2011.


Yet housing reforms are also entangled in wider debates about the appropriate role of welfare in the ‘big society’. Prime Minister Cameron has evoked the rhetoric of ‘broken Britain’ to justify a fundamental restructuring of the British Welfare State. The current Welfare Reform agenda therefore poses important questions about the future role of social housing, and how housing support will be provided to low-income households. Crucially, these potential consequences may differ across the UK depending on the way devolved administrations (and also local authorities) use their powers and budgets, perhaps leading to greater divergence in housing policy than we have seen under devolution so far.


Seminar aim and objectives


The main aim of the Seminar Series is to deconstruct how ideas of ‘localism’ and the ‘big society’ have impacted upon and influenced housing policy and practice in the UK, in the context of devolution and whilst learning from international experiences. The Series brings together researchers from a wide range of social science disciplines (economics, geography, planning, social policy, sociology) with those engaged in housing policy and practice. It will also support networking between early-career and established researchers. The objectives of the Series are:


  1. To deconstruct the rhetoric of the ‘big society’ ideology and to locate these ideas within wider, historical debates about localism and active citizenship;
  2. To examine the evidence base for the ‘big society’ in the context of reductions in UK public spending;
  3. To explore the varied geographical impact on housing policy and practice across the UK, within the context of devolved government;
  4. To contribute international examples of localism and housing policy to the debate;
  5. To mobilise a network of informed researchers, practitioners and policy-makers within the housing studies community (broadly conceived) to continue work on the implications of the ‘big society’ at different spatial scales and in different UK jurisdictions.


Seminar questions


Presentations and discussions in seminars with around 40 participants will be focused on the following questions:


SEMINAR 1 (Sheffield): The Big Society: what does it mean for housing studies?


  • What’s new about the ‘big society’ and ‘localism’?
  • What problems and opportunities do the ‘big society’ and ‘localism’ offer for housing policy?
  • What are – and should be – the respective roles of the public, private and third sectors in housing-related service provision? Where do communities fit in?  What should be the role and agenda of housing scholars?
  • To what extent can the ideals of the ‘big society’ (and localism) be realised in, and reconciled with, austerity and cuts?


SEMINAR 2 (Belfast): The Big Society, Welfare Reform & Tenure Restructuring in the UK


  • What do the concepts of localism, the ‘big society’ and the ‘broken society’ analysis imply for the future of the UK welfare state and citizenship?
  • What will be the impact of welfare reform on the ability of low-income groups to access and remain in social housing?
  • Will the proposed planning reforms in different parts of the UK affect housing supply, and if so how?
  • As a consequence of the above, might the combination of localism and welfare reform result in a change in the tenure balance across the UK and would there be any differences between the four jurisdictions? Would these changes be particularly detrimental to poorer households?


SEMINAR 3 (St Andrews): The Big Society & the Future of Social Housing


  • What lessons can the co-operative and mutual sector offer for the housing association sector?
  • What does ‘new municipalism’ mean for social housing provision?  How is this likely to impact on future business models within the non-profit housing sector?
  • What do the proposals for ‘flexible’ social housing tenancies mean for the future of social housing provision?
  • Should social housing be simply a welfare-safety net for the most vulnerable groups?  What effects does this have on social-spatial polarisation?