The Bartlett School of Planning


Phoebe Stirling

Thesis title: The construction of the housing market: National housing discourse and market mediation.

Primary supervisor: Professor Nick Gallent
Secondary supervisor: Professor John Tomaney

Throughout the twentieth century, the UK, along with most developed economies, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of homeowners but also a parallel increase in the value of homes. Access to home ownership has not been accompanied by affordability. House prices have risen steadily throughout this period and in recent years have reached unsustainable levels, by which many people are excluded from the housing market.

To some degree it is broadly acknowledged that individual house purchases, particularly in the capital, are now a means towards personal and commercial investment as much as for securing personal housing. It is also acknowledged that the role that housing performs as an asset increases demand for housing within a limited supply, and is thereby a driver of rising prices and deepening ‘crisis’. There is, however, a limited dedicated record of this process, or of how it is operationalised at the market level – how individual transactions are affected by and act to embed these broader structural shifts in the socio-economic role of housing.

The dilemma that spurs this research is how this housing ‘problem’ is to be conceptualised and investigated. Barker (2014) identifies a need to reinvigorate the relationship between planning for housing and housing economics, in order to produce a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics that produce these outcomes. Economic analysis of the housing market is not a simple given however.

Mainstream understanding of this market often views its dynamics either as structural change in the housing system, or as micro-interactions at the market level. The first engages explicitly with the (social, political and economic) structure of the housing market, leading to rising house prices, unaffordability, gentrification and displacement. The political economy of the housing system – whether this is perceived as ‘more market’ (Van Gent, 2013) or ‘planning that constrains supply’ (Cheshire, 2014) – is analysed in order to comment on specific policies and shifts in political economy. The second analyses individual transactions at market level, aiming to understand how housing agents actually work, and the degree to which their actions conform to mainstream or neoclassical models of exchange. There is little cross over between these two strands of literature.

While connections are made between the political restructuring of the housing market and resulting market outcomes, beyond inference, the analysis of market level exchange is largely sequestered from the broader political economy of housing.

This research project investigates a different view of the market. It outlines instead the constellation of devices (both discursive and practical) through which the notion of housing as a means towards capital investment and a safe haven for savings is constructed and maintained. The research therefore examines the nature of the relationship between the structure of the housing market in London, with its tendency to produce housing for investment, and the market level practices that reinforce this direction.

The study investigates the nature of discursive and practical market devices, activated by market actors such as estate agents and other housing professionals, within their work. Estate agents in particular are chosen due to their role in communicating the specific benefits of home ownership to vendors, buyers, and other professionals. This has been shown to be a strong factor in housing purchase, closely linked to the changing socio-economic role of housing, and its perception by market actors. This will allow a better comprehension of how markets respond to, incorporate and reproduce social, economic and political discourse. The project aims to question the view that sees consumer utility maximisation and (bounded) rationality as the corner stone of the housing market. It will therefore contribute to our understanding of how the housing market is to be conceptualised and thereby studied.

housing London