Research Champion for Justice and Equality: Professor Nicholas Pleace

Since our foundation, the University of York has played a pivotal role in putting inequality and injustice on the political agenda. Our challenge is to research, design and share solutions, working as a partner with our city, our region, with our European networks and globally.   

Popular support for equality and justice and against misogyny, racism and intolerance focused on everything from cultural difference to sexual orientation, has never been more widespread or extensive. However, whenever evidence and arguments advocating greater social justice and equality are presented, the opposition is often formidable.

Place, Precarity and the Human Right to Housing

With my colleagues in the Centre for Housing Policy (CHP), my work has centred on homelessness, on meeting the housing and support needs of vulnerable people, so that they can live their lives in the ways they choose, and control and on working towards better, more secure, more affordable and more sustainable housing.

We must also be concerned with what we sometimes call the ‘postcode lottery’, with our chances of going to university, getting into certain professions and our physical and mental health being strongly linked to where we are born, grow up and live as adults. Spatial concentration of poverty, combined with an absence of good quality local services and green space, social problems and crime, is associated with poorer chances in life. Experience of injustice and inequality are all too often and all too closely associated with where we live. 

Nicholas Pleace is Director of the Centre for Housing Policy and a Professor of Social Policy at York. His research interests centre on interdisciplinary, mixed method and comparative work, with a particular interest in homelessness nested within a wider concern with housing inequalities and social justice.

Another serious concern centres on people whose lives are never really settled, because they cannot find a home that is secure, affordable and suitable for their needs. Again, our work in CHP has shown that precarity, a lack of control about where you can live, how you live, whether you have a stable, affordable and sustainable place of your own, presents real risks to life chances, health and wellbeing.

Globally, displacement of populations, for economic reasons, due to war and environmental change, means experiences of precarity, which can be extreme and sustained, on a massive scale. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that 70.8 million people are living in situations of forced displacement, 25.9 million of whom are refugees and 3.5 million are asylum seekers.   

Housing is a human right. There is a fundamental human need to have a place to call home that is safe, secure, adequate, affordable and stable. The poverty and injustice of lacking a home, not just in the sense of a physical home, but in lacking a connection to a place, be it a neighbourhood or a country, is a key issue for social justice research. 

A settled home has become more and more difficult for many people to access. Housing can be a major economic asset that can yield a strong return, generating more money in a year than many people can earn. Housing is bought and held as a commodity, with housing in very highly stressed markets becoming one factor in explaining the growing concentration of global wealth among a very small group of individuals and companies. Changing how we see housing, from ‘investment’ back to ‘home’, in housing markets worth trillions, is a very important challenge for social research.

The challenges in ensuring the human right to housing mean understanding and coping with a world that is changing rapidly. The mass urbanisation that the UK first experienced during the industrial revolution is global, with clear economic distinctions emerging between an elite group of globally connected cities and the rest of the world.  Extremes of wealth and poverty exist in these globally connected places, but there are also entire communities, such as some former industrial towns and coastal communities, where opportunities in life, health and wellbeing are not what they should be.

York is the city of Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree, a city that has a history of social reform and social betterment, the tradition of which underpinned our foundation as a University. It is great to be working as the research champion and to help the University continue in its work to promote justice and equality.

Climate Justice

Fossil fuels have been one of the key engines of very rapid social and economic progress over the last century and a half. However, their extraction has led to some of worst excesses of global business, wars, mass displacement of populations and, of course, to the environmental degradation that has begun to threaten our collective future. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in (fresh) water stressed areas. Average sea level rise is now above 3cm per decade and, according to the British Antarctic Survey, has gone up by some 20cm since 1900.

The inequalities and injustice of the future may centre on access to drinkable water, cultivable land and a tolerable climate, with only a minority having access to liveable, sustainable environments. As a University, as a cornerstone of our city and our region, continuing our very strong track record in addressing global inequalities and as a centre of excellence in environmental research, we need to work on ways to promote growth that are inclusive, sustainable and equitable. The work of our new Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity at York will be one of the ways in which we will explore these ever more important issues.

Digital Dimensions

Machine learning is starting to change our relationships with welfare systems, healthcare, taxation, how governments react when we seek any form of help and the ways in which businesses advertise and market their products. Technology is enabling a new depth and extent of surveillance, enabling governments and corporations to know far more about the lives of citizens than was hitherto possible.

The commercial world uses these approaches to filter potential customers, selecting some, avoiding or discarding others, so that what is offered to one is not necessarily offered to all. Software will make more and more decisions about whether someone will see a doctor or a nurse, how someone who needs personal care should be supported, whether someone should be offered a mortgage or a job interview, allowed into a country, or onto a flight. Used in the right way, these technologies could be used to reduce human bias, but if employed in the wrong way, they might reproduce our existing biases more efficiently than a human bureaucracy could.

Our use of media and communications is undergoing continuous, revolutionary, change. The ways in which we use images, narrative and stories to comprehend and try to respond to an ever-more complex and divided world shift, flow and fragment in new ways. Political resistance to inequality and injustice are facilitated by social media, but so too are resurgent and new political and social movements that are regressive at their core. In a visual world, a world in which stories are used to try to both understand, manage and reduce the complexity and splintering of society, we have to approach the lines between ‘data’, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in new ways.