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Dr Alan Holmans CBE

last modified Nov 15, 2018 10:46 AM
The Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research has learnt with great sadness of the death of Alan Holmans. Alan had a long and distinguished relationship with CCHPR. He will be greatly missed. This is an appreciation of Alan by two close colleagues; Christine Whitehead and Peter Williams. It includes quotes from others who worked with Alan throughout his career and is followed by the text of the address given by CCHPR Director, Michael Oxley at Alan’s funeral on April 8th.



Alan had two careers, as a civil servant and as an academic.  Although some might see these as worlds apart for Alan there was one continuous thread that ran through his working life –a complete integrity with an unbounding commitment to true evidence and an absolute willingness to support and encourage colleagues, especially younger researchers.

Alan came to the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research (CCHPR) in 1995, a few months after his retirement from the then Department of Environment where he had been Chief Housing Economist.  In those days senior civil servants had to go on their 60thbirthday and Alan was nowhere near ready to give up work - and his wife Stephanie wanted to move back to Cambridge - so everything worked for us.

Alan brought with him encyclopaedic knowledge about housing as well as direct involvement in the development of housing policy for almost thirty years. Before that he had completed his PhD, become a lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Glasgow - with Derek Nicholls then Head of the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge - and then joined the Civil Service as an Economic Advisor in the Treasury.

Alan’s interests were very much those of an Economic Statistician - he loved sorting out the numbers and his immense understanding of how the housing system worked meant that how he used them  made policy sense.  What he enjoyed at CCHPR was having the freedom to put his own interpretation on his findings rather than being constrained by his civil service position - and, as he often said, ‘having to draft round difficult issues’.

Given the current political interest in housing, perhaps the strand of work for which Alan is best known is his regular projections of demand and need for housing especially in England (but also Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), which have formed the basis for estimates of the total new housing requirement as well as the land and finance needed to achieve these totals for over forty years. 

Alan published the first forecast in the very first issue of Social Trends in 1970 but his far more detailed analysis in the Housing Policy Review published in 1976 formed the basis for all future forecasts. These regular outputs - whenever new household projections were published - together with a great deal of related analysis on investment requirements, suitable subsidy regimes and implications for land use planning formed a core element of his work in CCHPR.  These were sponsored  by a whole range of funders who recognised the importance of high quality consistent estimates for planners and the construction industry as well as for central government.   His last piece of work with the Centre was a projection to 2031 for Wales which he was working on only a couple of weeks ago.

Another part of Alan’s work which is if anything is growing in importance is his contribution to the history of housing through Housing Policy in Britain published in 1987, his seminal compilation Abstract of Historical Statistics of British Housing published in 2005 and, in 2012, a History of Household Projections.  These together with the Technical Volumes of the Housing Policy Review in 1976 provide an immensely rich set of source documents evidencing the way that housing and housing policy have developed.

Detailing Alan’s work in this way perhaps misses out Alan’s gentle personality; his continued support for the Centre and preparedness to work on whatever he was asked to do; his commitment to helping younger colleagues; his dry sense of humour; his interest in cricket; his love of single malts and all the other attributes which made him a joy to work with and a pleasure to have as a friend.  The quotations below reflect some of our thoughts as we remember Alan’s long and distinguished career and especially the twenty year-long second (or indeed third!) career at the Centre after his first retirement which we think and hope he enjoyed as much as we did.   We will miss him greatly but his work will stand as an everlasting memorial to him and the integrity he brought to everything throughout his life.

Richard Best: Alan was a great hero of mine: he was supported for the seminal reports on housing projections in the early and mid-90s and was a consultant for us for a decade thereafter. He has continued to be hugely important to all of us trying to make sense of the statistics and use them to really influence housing policy. 

Nick Raynsford:  He was, as you say, a giant of the housing research world. He also was a constant reminder of the skills and ethos that underpinned all that was great about our Civil Service, which has been so badly eroded in recent years. We will all miss him.

Adrian Coles: A great loss. Takes me back more than 35 years when I first met him - he seemed a giant in housing research even then.

Mark Boleat: I echo what Adrian has said, except I first met Alan over 40 years ago. He maintained an astonishingly high standard over that period and it was a pleasure to work with him.

Terry Heiser: This is sad news. Alan was a very clever man, with a good heart, and belonged to that admirable class-the English eccentric.

Bob Garland: Such an expert and a gentleman.

Andrew Wells: Both Pam and I remember him as a very influential presence in the Department of the Environment of our youth and middle years.  I recall his office absolutely stuffed with papers on every available surface, including the floor.  His desk had a small area for work surrounded by towering piles of papers and reports.  But he was always able to find the crucial research report which illuminated the issue you asked him about (even if obliquely). 

Andrew Parfitt: That is sad news - I had imagined Alan as immortal- which in the field of housing analysis he shall be. My thoughts are with his family and all his colleagues. I remember Alan as unfailingly helpful and courteous, we had delightful conversations over the years and he was always interested to hear what was going on in the world of Whitehall. It was a great privilege to attend the seminar which the CCHPR arranged in his honour in August 2009.

Christopher Foster:  A truly remarkable person. All of us who worked with him will not forget him.

Peter Owen:  Very sad to hear. I am one of many who built their careers on Alan's outstanding talents.

John Perry:  Sad indeed - he was a real character and very committed. And we've all written words along the lines of 'as assessed by Alan Holmans' as a signal of authenticity.

Hal Pawson: His contribution to our field was not only eminent but also unique. And as a role model for a ‘productive retirement’ he has also been unsurpassable.

Mike Berry: Yes, a very sad loss to the housing research community.  Alan was a gentleman-scholar of the type that Britain used to have a comparative advantage in producing.  The times I met with Alan were few but worthwhile, for me at least.

Bill Randolph:  A lifetime dedicated to housing analysis and policy.  One wonders whether governments will ever again have people of Alan's calibre and expertise available within the civil service to advise on housing matters at the highest level. 

Judy Yates: I was saddened to hear of Alan's death - what a wonderful role model he was to us all to have remained so engaged in his work right up to the end. 

Glen Bramley: Alan made a remarkable contribution to British housing policy, the evidence base, the historical record, and thinking about the relationships between housing and demography. He was a true British empiricist and a (perhaps justified) sceptic about fashionable theories and fancy models, and he continued to make a contribution despite infirmities right to the end. He was also a delightfully courteous and thoughtful colleague, a true gentleman.

Kate Henderson: I am very sorry to hear this news. Alan was a huge supporter of the TCPA and will be missed by us all. 

Beverley Searle: Alan made an invaluable contribution to housing research and the Housing Studies Association. I feel honoured to be one of the treasurers who have followed in his footsteps. As others have said Alan was truly a gentleman, and one of the most charming academics I have met. The housing community will greatly miss him.

Geoffrey Meen: I'm currently writing a book on historical housing economics and only a couple of weeks ago I wrote the below for the introductory chapter:

Historical analyses by economists of housing systems remain scarce. The work of Alan Holmans provides an invaluable exception for the UK and we fully acknowledge our debt to his path-breaking work.

Jens Lunde: I am sad to hear about Alan Holman's death, as I know he has been important for the housing economic and research community. 


Christine Whitehead and Peter Williams April 2nd 2015


Alan Holmans - Address by Michael Oxley

Alan Holmans was a gentleman and a scholar.

I know him first as a scholar.

Like anyone seriously interested in British housing policy, I read and quoted from Alan’s work on housing need over many years. Alan was the source of information on scholarly analysis of housing need and demand and the authority on how many new dwellings were required. No work in this area was complete without reference to Alan’s work. It was not of course primarily academic work for consumption by other academics. It was practical work with real implications for how many houses should be built. It was work for politicians, for planners, for house builders and ultimately for all of us as consumers of housing.

Alan brought his considerable talents to the Centre for Housing and Planning Research at the University of Cambridge in 1995.

By the time I became Director last year he had long retired. But had he? No, not really. He continued to have an active association with the Centre contributing to its research and publications when opportunities arose.

It was in this later period that I became truly aware of Alan as a gentleman: A gentleman of integrity and distinction. These qualities were matched by an enthusiasm for involvement in research which can ebb from others of far fewer years.

As he worked with us on projections of housing needs in he would write out the most careful and precise drafts by hand and our secretary Pam Johnson would type these and return them to him for checking. He would never let me send copies on for external consumption until he was 100% satisfied that the content was correct and clear. When others wished to rearrange his paragraphs he would reject anything he disagreed with in the most polite tones imaginable.

A few weeks ago the Welsh government asked the Cambridge Centre for some new revisions of Alan’s estimates of housing needs and demand. By now Alan was in hospital and some might have thought he would have neither the inclination nor the energy to get involved in this fresh work. But, not a bit of it.

Sarah Monk, our recently retired Deputy Director, came out of retirement temporarily to help with the work and she visited Alan in hospital. Whilst waiting for an operation, he said he would have plenty of time to sort out the housing needs of Wales. He readily cast the Times and the Financial Times to one side and delved into the detail of the estimates. Sarah reported as late as 3rd March that, faced with a request from Wales for more local projections, Alan asked for sight of the latest household projections and a pocket calculator.  Then, not content with an outstanding gap he wanted more data on the Right to Buy. With this provided, he duly finished the job.

Right to the end he was concerned to get it right.

The University of Cambridge and the housing world has lost a hero.

A gentleman, a scholar and a man of great enthusiasm and integrity is with us no more. But the light he shone on understanding housing numbers, on households, the need for more housing, and the need to get it right will shine on for a very long time.


Michael Oxley

April 8th 2015