The pre-referendum ‘debate’ over whether the UK should remain or leave the EU was notable for a tendency to dismiss the views and role of expert opinion. Michael Gove was the best representative of the view that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. The majority of economists were clear that leaving the EU would impose considerable costs on the UK economy. Despite the overwhelming pro-remain views of economists, a majority of those voting in the referendum decided to ignore their advice.
The question to ask therefore is why and what are the implications for discussion of housing and planning issues in Cornwall. With reference to why we might take the view that people did not understand the data – perhaps not, but how many did? On the other hand people may have decided that a lower potential income in the future was outweighed by other benefits not captures by economic data. Some might have considered that the economic benefits would not have accrued to them and their loss would not impact on their own income. Only time will tell.
But where does this tie in with Cornwall and housing issues?
On one level there is a lot of information out there, the ‘Local Plan’ and planning documents are full of data. It could be argued that these are produced by experts and therefore should be taken at face value. Yet analysis here and on other blogs notably ‘Its Our Cornwall’ have identified serious flaws in the data and thus a plan which is not evidence based in the true sense of the word.
So what is the problem?
It is important to realise that evidence and facts do not exist in a vacuum. With housing there is a common view that more is required, that house-building helps the economy and therefore the overall push is to build more. But this discourse rests upon certain assumptions – that population growth is not only outside the policy makers remit but good in itself; that as you cannot (and should not) intervene in the market, then the fact that many houses are never used to meet housing need is irrelevant. As a consequence although expertise is used, it is guided, managed and channelled into supporting the dominant discourse that house building is good!
We also have to ask who are the experts? Many working for developers or sectors associated with house-building are unlikely to question whether the policy actually works in practise. If work for an organisation involved in the housing sector then you naturally tend to support house building.
So what are the options for those seeking to assess the evidence?
A number of guidelines are relevant here.
When you hear the view of someone supporting a particular stance, consider whether they might be biased in any way – do they stand to gain from the policy?
What evidence is being used and where does it come from? For example the Homechoice Register numbers are cited to support housing development, but are they a good indicator of need?
Look at the data that is used, find the original source and assess what the data means.
See if statements are backed up by evidence and assess that evidence.
Question the opinions of those making statements.
Always be prepared to run through the evidence and see if it stacks up.
Look for alternative viewpoints, though again question the material used.
It is not that people should ignore experts but that we should ensure the expertise is actually evidence based rather than driven by pre-determined objectives!