When considering how research can inform policy, the challenge is to understand the myriad of different routes of engagement.
Research engagement by the Department of Real Estate and Planning at the University has demonstrated the effectiveness of one particular route on the journey to impacting policy: that of the role of industry. In navigating the industry route, a number of lessons have been learned from the experience, which we share here.
Setting the scene: Navigating the policy landscape
Navigating the policy landscape can be complicated due to the geographical nature of policymaking, changes in the machinery of government (and sometimes institutional memory), the different roles of parliament and government, including the scrutiny role of parliament itself, and the role of non-departmental public bodies. Devolved policies and budgets, and the role of elected mayors and Local Enterprise Partnerships add to the complexity, as do non-governmental organisations and influencers, such as think tanks, membership bodies, the third sector and practitioners.
A long haul, not a sprint
The complexities of the policy landscape mean that, although not always the case, the policy impact ‘journey’ can be long, and there are sometimes numerous routes to take before reaching the national policy ‘highway’.
With expertise in real estate appraisal and valuation, the Department of Real Estate and Planning at the University of Reading has actively engaged with the property industry and professional bodies, such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), over a number of decades. In doing so, the Reading team was strategically positioned to better understand and investigate real world challenges, including addressing one of the reasons behind the decline in building affordable housing in the UK. This has fuelled the ‘housing emergency’ which, as described by Shelter, is about people, not houses. With families struggling to find the next month’s rent, the decline in social housing contrasts with the increased profits made by developers. The profitability of the seven largest housebuilders in the UK rose from an average 9% Return on Capital Employed in 2011 to 33% in 2017; however, the amount of affordable housing delivered by the same seven largest UK housebuilders reduced from 44% of completions to 20% between 2011 and 2017.
In this context, the Reading team’s long-term work on development viability appraisals has been significant. These appraisals determine the contribution from property developers within individual planning consents; they are designed to benefit the local community, including the provision of affordable housing. The research demonstrated that the method behind the appraisals was flawed, meaning that developers could game the system, driving up their profits at the expense of the community.
Local focus leading to a national journey
Sometimes, the ’first stop’ on the policy impact journey is more local in nature, before influencing national and international policy. The Reading team’s research (funded by RICS) was first spotted at a local level in 2015 by the London Borough of Islington. It used the research to inform aspects of its revised planning guidance. In 2016, news spread across the regional London policy landscape, and the Department was subsequently commissioned by 13 London Boroughs, with colleagues from the Royal Agricultural College, Kingston University and Ramidus consulting, to conduct further research on land values and development viability across the whole of London. Extending its geographical reach further in 2016, and following submission of evidence from the Reading team to the London Assembly and Greater London Authority Planning Committee, the research underpinned the viability planning guidance across all London Boroughs with its adoption in the Mayor of London’s 2017 supplementary planning guidance and the ‘London Borough Viability Protocol’.
Knowledge mobilisation to navigate successful outcomes
The impact widened in 2017, when the UK government (Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government) used the research, in consultation with the Reading team, to help shape the design and delivery of government policy on developers’ contributions within its review of the English National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the National Planning Practice Guidance (PPG), published in 2018. Since then, the Reading team has led the drafting of the industry guidance on the implementation of the revised viability testing system set out in the new PPG, due to be published in the Spring of 2021.
Final destination: national policy impact
The Department of Real Estate and Planning’s property appraisal team at the University of Reading has shown that, of the numerous routes to reach the national policy ‘highway’, actively engaging with industry and professional bodies from the start has been effective in commencing the journey to impacting policy.
The long haul was worth it. The journey was part of a research agenda which had engaged with industry for over 20 years. ‘Local journeys’ to policy impact centred at first in Islington, and swiftly moved on to impacting planning policy for the whole of London, and then ultimately, national policy. It demonstrated co-created and engaged research, built on an understanding of real-world challenges, and finally arriving at the destination of policy impact. The implementation of this policy, with new evidence informed industry guidance, is significant in terms of ensuring that communities have access to affordable housing and wider community benefits.
Neil Crosby is Professor of Real Estate in the Department of Real Estate and Planning and Dr Ruth Pugh is Research Impact Development Manager, both at the University of Reading.
This blog was written for the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and was first published online on 31 March 2021.