Ben Lowndes #viewsoncomms

A perspective on PR, development and life in the South West

Four thoughts on the government’s housing story

Anyone who’s worked in PR within government knows the drill when it comes to big announcements like the Prime Minister’s housing speech today.

The announcement to proposed changes to the dry-but-much-maligned area of planning policy followed some familiar and well-executed steps.

Important parts of a housing announcement

Firstly, the detail is briefed to the weekend media and peppered with phrases like ‘revolution’, ‘overhaul’ and ‘transformation’.

Then ministers are prepped to explain the announcement to the Sunday papers and broadcasters, pick their targets and use data (selectively) to underline the message that they are delivering.

Next, the sector reacts on social media, according to their own viewpoint or experience. The need for investment in social housing, the perceived lack of action on the green belt and constraints on council borrowing were all cited among the posts on the announcement. Our social listening tool picked up about 400 tweets mentioning the #NPPF or #NPPFlauch hashtag by 4pm on the day of the announcement. I’d expect thousands during the week as people continue to respond.

Soon after, there are a few clever memes. This time, some tweets about the backdrop to the announcement gain as much traction as anything serious.

Finally, this is followed by considered in-depth responses from commentators and industry experts that look at what this means for housing. My email inbox will contain plenty of briefings to consider by the end of the week.

Thoughts on what this means

This is at least the third time in the last 12 months that this road to revolution has been set out. The government’s White Paper and the autumn budget are two other significant points along this journey. This is as it should be for something as important and complex as how to build more homes, more quickly.

The communications team who prepared the activity to support the Prime Minister’s announcement can be pleased with its work over the last few days. As always though, as pointed out by a contact yesterday, the devil will be in the detail.

My experience as a PR-person with an interest in housing means that a personal perspective of the big ‘set piece’ announcements centres on the content and the reaction to it. Here are some things that strike me having followed things over the last couple of days.

#1 Developers face a challenge to build confidence in their role: All developers I speak to say they’re flat out. They’ll say the notion that they are sitting on sites with planning permission when they could be building is nonsense. They may well feel aggrieved today at the narrative urging them to ‘do their duty’ or ‘fulfill their obligations’ to build more. I blogged recently about the challenges house-builders face to build trust with communities. This requires transparency, openness and a willingness to communicate regularly and well. Housing associations faced a similar challenge in 2015, when they were roundly criticised by the then chancellor George Osborne. They responded positively and are now broadly seen as part of the solution to the housing crisis and have the ear of government again. Will house-builders respond in a similar way? I hope so, as they have positive and important story to tell.

#2 Is the government squaring up for a fight with Conservative councils? Many commentators say the government’s criticism of ‘NIMBY councils’ who won’t promote development in their areas sets them against Conservative local authorities. It’s a nice line, but the reality more nuanced. Of the 15 councils written to by the government last year for not having local plans for housing in place, five were Conservative-led. This is fewer than those who are independent or under no overall control and just one more than Labour. I’ve worked in Oxfordshire and Devon recently where Conservative-led local authorities accept the need for more housing and are grappling with significant new developments in their areas, sometimes in the face of local hostility. It may suit the government to be seen as standing up to the ‘NIMBY lobby’, even if their lack of serious – and, dare I say it, revolutionary – action on sensible development of the green belt is glaring. The Housing Secretary Sajid Javid has ably positioned himself on this issue (check out his speech to the house-building industry today). If he is successful, a tilt at Number 10 in a couple of years’ time isn’t out of the question.

#3 None of this is new and the announcement doesn’t guarantee action will follow: The main substance of today’s announcement has been set out before, in the White Paper and last year’s budget. Its tone will be uncomfortable for councils and developers (see above). But it’s worth remembering that the issues outlined in the announcement are subject to consultation, so aren’t ‘action’ yet. Did you miss that in the coverage? If you did, the proposed changes to planning are being consulted on along with a revised draft of the framework which sets these out. This isn’t the sort of thing that sets pulses racing and it’s interesting that it’s being set out as ‘news’ (which doesn’t mention any consultation taking place). The fact that the PM is seeking ‘action’ from house-builders and local authorities is a story that writes itself. But this is more like a sensible tweak than a charge towards anything more radical.

#4 Engaging communities is not a ‘bolt on’: The extent to which communities feel able to shape developments is the critical part of this conversation for me. Changing the planning process won’t enable more homes to be built on its own, even if investment is provided to make this happen. Bringing communities with you on the journey is essential. This work doesn’t start or stop with a project milestone, like a consultation for a planning application. Engagement needs to start as soon as a site is bought, so that communities can provide intelligence that shapes future plans. It needs to consider audience preferences, so that a wide body of people – and not just the usual suspects – get involved. If you have your consultation events in the same places in the same way, don’t be surprised if the same people turn up. And it needs to be clear and transparent, to build trust in the process. This thread runs through today’s announcement and conversations about infrastructure planning and estate regeneration. If it sounds like it’s the right thing to do from a business perspective, it’s because it is. Organisations who treat communities as a ‘bolt on’ to their work, rather than an important stakeholder, should look closely at what the government is saying and think again.

Reasons to be optimistic

Are these measures fit for the urgent and pressing challenges we face? I’m optimistic because there’s been huge progress made to move housing to the top of the domestic agenda.

The sector is in the spotlight now, and that’s exciting. But this means that it must deliver. There will always be things missing from any announcement, that’s true. And it’s difficult – impossible even – to predict what the future holds. But I would suggest that those who grasp the opportunities and show they can ‘step up’ will prevail.

Are you up for the challenge? What do you think about the announcement? I’d love to hear your views.

If anyone would like a chat about how decent communications can support them in this area, drop me a line.

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