Ben Lowndes #viewsoncomms

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

Thoughts from #SevernGrowthSummit: no ‘powerhouse’ needed

As business events go, the Severn Growth Summit at Celtic Manor was high profile judging by the response it generated.

I was one of about 350 people to attend the conference, which looked at how government can and businesses improve the economies around the West of England, Cardiff and Newport.

Welsh Secretary and Vale of Glamorgan MP Alun Cairns used the recent decision to abolish tolls on the Severn Bridge to press the case for a Western Powerhouse to drive growth across the areas. The comms teams should be delighted with the coverage this generated. I’ll come back to the powerhouse theme shortly.

There is more than a touch of symbolism to the tolls going. For those who use the bridge every day, it’s said by JLL’s Chris Sutton to be worth an extra £1,500 a year. There are 25m journeys made across the bridge each year and thousands of people use it on their daily commute. It’s a good example of how government action can make working between the three cities easier and more successful.

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Reputation matters: how developers can build trust in their work

Without putting too fine a point on it, developers’ reputations have had a challenging year.

I’ve been to a few public meetings lately where they’ve been criticised. It’s always been like this, especially when people don’t want development in their areas.

But it feels like the volume and tone of criticism has changed over the last year, as a growing range of issues has hit the mainstream. Land banking, executive pay, leasehold concernsviability assessments and worries about the green belt are all in the headlines.

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Reasons to be upbeat after Homes England launch

So, after months and months of preparation, Homes England has arrived.

The Government announced today that the body formerly known as the Homes and Communities Agency has changed and will play a key role in delivering the 300,000 homes a year it has promised.

The change was trailed by the HCA over many months and was planned for last year after it was announced in the White Paper. The housing sector appeared to welcome it, judging by the use of the #WeAreHomesEngland hashtag on Twitter this morning.

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New year, new hopes and engagement approaches

This Christmas was a good moment to reflect on what happened in 2017 and make plans for the year ahead.

Unusually for us, we haven’t travelled beyond Bristol this Christmas. Spending the festive break in Somerset provided an opportunity to really think about these things, as well as spend time with family and friends.

The last 12 months have been a hell of a time for me; memorable, challenging and exciting. It was a bit stop-start, with the snap general election disrupting projects whilst providing a new level of uncertainty for a government already absorbed by Brexit. Anyone remember ‘strong and stable’? It didn’t go well when the PM visited the South West and was a new low point for drab, one-way political campaigning in this country. It all feels like a different era now.

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Gordon Brown highlights why authenticity matters

Listening to Gordon Brown speak in Bristol this week, it was easy to forget how heavily the burden of Prime Ministerial office appeared to weigh on him in 2010.

The former PM was here promoting his new book to a packed Wills Memorial Hall and spoke with conviction and humour about his life in politics.

He was also candid about the challenges faced by the global economy over the last decade, his role in addressing the crisis and the friction caused by the resulting fallout.

Here was a man at ease with himself, speaking about life with his kids, encounters with Nelson Mandela and even quoting Taylor Swift lyrics.

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MacKenzie: our media is better than this

Kelvin MacKenzie’s missive against Ross Barkley and the people of Liverpool reaffirms his status in the city as a uniquely offensive and mistrusted figure.

Twitter users quickly voiced disapproval of his column, which likened a young player of mixed-race heritage to a gorilla and made disparaging remarks about Scousers.

The reaction – as the city prepared for the 28th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster – highlighted widespread bafflement that the piece got past the editors in the first place. Fair enough. What the hell was he doing writing about Liverpool at any time, let alone now?

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Metro mayor: will we see a ‘nice’ election?

The first hustings for the West of England’s mayoral candidates felt different to the usual tribal exchanges we’ve seen in recent elections.

It was a decent, intelligent debate with different ideas and approaches emerging about how to meet the region’s need for more housing, decent transport and a highly skilled, successful economy.

The region is six weeks away from electing the person who will oversee about £1bn in investment in addressing these three challenges.

Everyone seems to agree that these issues are crucial to the West of England’s future success. Anyone who lives or works in the area knows its traffic and housing problems can get people fired up.

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Three thoughts from the #housingwhitepaper roadshow

“I am a man desperately in need of allies to help build the homes that we can agree are desperately needed in this country.”

Gavin Barwell, Housing Minister, 2 March 2017

I was in Taunton this week to see the housing minister’s white paper roadshow.

Gavin Barwell is at least the eighth housing minister I’ve seen in action since 2004. Five of those were on similar visits to the South West when I worked at the HCA.

To say that he’s inherited a tough gig is an understatement. The Housing White Paper has had a mixed response, which isn’t surprising for a sector with so many interested parties.

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Devolution: people care if they’re aware

The West of England’s devolution deal was rubber stamped last night after months of discussion by local leaders.

The agreement unlocks around £1bn in investment in housing, transport and skills. Most people would regard these as important issues that should be locally controlled.

Despite this and the welcome statements that will follow, last night’s response to the news seemed muted.

Councillors in Bristol expressed concerns that the 2,000 responses the recent consultation generated should have been much higher.

The Bristol Post reported these concerns alongside the question: does anyone care?

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Collaboration: more than a buzzword

Calls for ‘collaboration’ across the housing sector are hitting high levels. I have attended conferences recently at which panelists have insisted that collaboration is key to our future. At one event covering areas ranging from the performance of office buildings to the future of cities, speakers used the phrase six times in an hour.

Articles and blog posts stressing its importance are abundant. Google ‘collaboration and housing’ to see for yourself. And local and national government call for a collaborative approach from employees and partners. This can sometimes feel like a call for inspiration.

Meaning of collaboration

In an era of networks, for an industry that has thrived on partnership working, this makes sense. The challenges facing the sector are too big for any organisation to face alone. Those that work together stand a better chance of success.

It is difficult for anyone who works in the sector to argue against this sentiment. But defining good practice in this area – let along making it work – is more challenging. Statements like ‘collaboration is key’ are often used without any sign of how this could happen.

Collaboration between organisations frequently misses the input of the communities or people affected by what they are trying to achieve. And conflict seems built into the system, with some groups feeling their views are ignored. When this happens, positions become entrenched and delivery can grind to a halt.

If we are to benefit from a collaborative approach, there needs to be wide understanding of what good collaboration looks like. And organisations must prepare to change mindsets and structures to embrace it.

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