“Every penny you spend on housing subsidy is money you can’t spend on building houses.”
David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, 10 February
Sound bites can be a useful way to convey a simple, memorable point.
Used well, they can conjure powerful, evocative messages that people remember. Politicians love them and use them to distill grand and complex plans into a key point.
Problem is they often miss the fundamental, complex realities that are an essential part of the story. When that happens, people are more likely to misunderstand the issue at hand.
Housing has been tested by this issue for some time, and none more so than in recent weeks.
David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn traded blows over the housing crisis at PMQs last Wednesday. None of Corbyn’s six questions landed a direct hit on the Prime Minister. But the exchange highlighted housing’s prominence as a key differentiator between the parties. See debate below from about 2 min 30 secs and make up your own mind.
It is, of course, welcome that politicians take housing seriously. It’s just a shame that much of the debate and commentary doesn’t give a sense of what’s really going on.
Take Cameron’s reference to subsidies (above). It’s part of a wider narrative that seeks to position the government as responsible custodians of the economy, set against Labour’s ‘tax and spend’ approach.
The reality is more complex, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, this government is using subsidy to bring forward new homes and redefining the concept of affordable housing in the process. Funding is going to would-be owners and house-builders in unprecedented levels. Help to Buy and Right to Buy are proving popular in many parts of the country. There is a bewildering range of programmes and initiatives for housing providers and developers to access.
Secondly, reducing grant funding and housing benefits is affecting some providers’ building plans. The National Housing Federation is doing great work highlighting the impact of capping housing benefit on sheltered accommodation. Chief Executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association Tony Stacey has set out the impact of this policy in his area: 24 supported housing schemes could be at risk.
This illustrates that housing is complicated. How it works is difficult to explain accurately in a sentence.
Get the story straight
More than ever, housing providers need to simplify the language around what they do. That means dropping the jargon. It means talking openly about the what and the who, rather than the wherefore. It means acknowledging the scale of the challenge, and not overblowing or over-simplifying it as some have done. And it means being honest about how they intend to adapt to changes, and what the impact will be.
The sector has important things to say about its contribution to local communities and the government’s ambitions, and the impact of the changes it is going through. Some are doing this well.
We all have a responsibility to do the same so that the soundbites don’t win the argument.
I’d be interested to know how providers are doing this.
* On the same day as PMQs, MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee voiced concerns about housing policy. The committee’s latest report highlighted issues around the potential impact of Right to Buy on affordable housing and questioned the approach for funding this policy. ‘Pay to stay’, where rents could be means tested, and the Starter Homes policy were also questioned. The report highlights concerns raised by sector leaders recently. It should be read by any communications people who work in the housing sector. You can read it here.