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Experts by profession, or experts by experience?

Thousands of young people in Hampshire are forced to sleep rough or sofa surf. Supported accommodation or hostels, funded by the council and provided by voluntary sector organisations, have been cut to the bone. In these desperate times, how can we implement changes that materially improve young people’s lives?

Dr Anna Killick of the University of Southampton, a researcher on a Blagrave funded research project with the Southern Policy Centre Help Us Move On argues that we need a national government that gives local councils enough money to solve the housing crisis. In the meantime, we must try to find any local solutions that will improve young people’s lives.

Combining different kinds of local knowledge to achieve change

I advocate that we bring together local knowledge from two sources: young people’s own knowledge and experience and that of those who know local government.

I have been working on a project whose aim is to find solutions to some of the housing and education, training and employment problems facing the most vulnerable young people in Hampshire. The Blagrave Trust’s stipulation as funder of the project was that we should do this in a way that was youth led. We gathered a team of six peer researchers to advise, and in some cases lead, on the research. The Blagrave Trust  also wanted us to identify what was achievable and how it could be achieved at the local level, in Hampshire, and we realised we would also need to draw on knowledge of local council structures and finance.

Throughout the research process, the local knowledge of young people combined with the knowledge of local governance in creative and dynamic ways. In this piece I demonstrate this with one example of how the two types of local knowledge helped us identify a problem and then develop a possible local solution, including the strategy for its eventual implementation.

The problem requiring a material solution

Thousands of young people in Hampshire are forced to sleep rough or sofa surf. Supported accommodation or hostels, funded by the council and provided by voluntary sector organisations, have been cut to the bone.

Even if a young person can get a place in a hostel the chances of them being able to move on from the hostel into independent and more long-term accommodation are slim. Funding for ‘next step’ type accommodation has been cut.  Unless the young person has a child, they are unlikely to move fast up any council house waiting list. They can only afford poor quality bed-sits in the private rented sector where they may feel isolated from or scared of the other tenants.

Local knowledge of young peer researchers

From youth worker contacts, we recruited a team of six peer researchers who have direct experience of homelessness or acute housing problems. Aged between 16 and 26 and including some young parents, they come from a range of backgrounds- studying, working, unemployed. They met each week. They contributed their local knowledge to improve the design and analysis of a housing survey, making sure it reached 456 young people through their networks, which no other researcher could have done.

The survey suggested that some young people would consider sharing in the private sector if an agency advised them and helped them do it, for instance by matching them with landlords and co-tenants and helping to iron out any subsequent problems. These shared houses might mean less isolation and higher quality rooms than in the standard ‘multiple occupancy’ bed-sits.  We also found local private landlords who rent to students now and are aware that the supply of students is drying up as the volume of purpose built accommodation grows. Some of those landlords could be persuaded to move across into the shared housing market for non-students.

The peer researchers have the local knowledge necessary to help design an agency that can speak prospective young renters’ language and address their hopes and fears. They can also address some of the fears of private landlords, who may have an exaggerated perception of the risks of moving into the non-student market. Peer researchers can start to build relationships with them leading to greater trust and understanding. Having on occasion been problem tenants in arrears themselves, they can convince landlords and others that there are constructive approaches that can be used to help tenants who get into difficulties.

The young peer researchers have also made a deep impact on policy makers. When they met one of the lead housing councillors, they made an emotional and practical appeal no one else could have done.

In general, the peer researchers care deeply about being involved in a project that will eventually ‘make a difference’. This holds the rest of the project up to a standard of determination and drive to achieve implementation that might not otherwise be there.

Inside knowledge of local government

However, these kinds of proposals also require local government support to ensure implementation. Therefore we also drew on the ‘expert’ knowledge of local government insiders who argued that because of the time and financial pressures councils are under we should make sure what we asked for was ‘achievable’. In addition, they advised us to develop a detailed implementation strategy which set out:

  • The key people who need to agree to make the changes: which housing council leads and officers to meet and how to persuade them, including gathering evidence from other projects on the costs and benefits, which show how some financial support for an agency could save council money long term.
  • The people and organisations who can influence these change-makers, and the ways in which those influencers can be reached.

Mutual respect for forms of local knowledge

Our peer researchers do not want to stay at the amateur level. Some want to develop the skills which trained researchers and those with inside knowledge of local government have. At the same time, even people who have spent a lifetime in local government find the contact with young people who are keen for change energises them and helps them to improve policy. When both types of people come together, understanding and mutual respect for the two respective forms of local knowledge is strengthened.