Navigating the PR maze: challenges and best practices for UK housing developers in 2023/24

Wooden figure standing in the middle of a maze made of colourful wooden blocks

It’s a landscape shaped by shifting public opinions, stringent regulations, rising operational costs and an increasingly complex market… we delve into the intricate PR challenges facing the UK’s house builders and offer up some effective strategies for navigating them.

PR Challenges

Public trust and perception

Large-scale residential housing projects often come under the microscope due to their significant impact on local communities.

While the recent Housing the Nation report from the House Builders’ Federation shows 68% of people believe that building more homes is vital to resolving the country’s housing crisis, new build developments suffer long-standing reputation problems.

Buyers can be put off by stories of lack of space and character, snagging issues and poor build quality, while local communities can fear that development will spoilt their surroundings and overload their amenities.

Political and economic uncertainty

From Liz Truss’ disastrous 44 day premiership that set mortgage costs soaring and sent the pound into a slump, to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee inquiry that admits the government’s 300,000 homes a year pledge would be “impossible to achieve”, the housebuilding industry finds itself at the frontline of delivery for this target, with question marks over how buyers will afford to purchase these homes – or any home at all.

With a general election on the horizon for 2024 and the likelihood of a Labour-led government coming to power, the recent appointment of Angela Rayner as the new shadow levelling up, housing and communities secretary is news the housing and development industry must not ignore.

Rayner’s appointment may signal even more focus on affordable housing – and social housing in particular – with perhaps less emphasis on planning reform.

Environmental concerns despite overhaul of net zero targets

Whether you are of the mind that the Prime Minister’s speech on net zero last week was a destructive u-turn or a pragmatic new approach to the challenge of mitigating climate change, what house builders need more than anything is clarity.

By kicking the heat pump can down the road, homeowners and house builders alike are none the wiser as to whether to factor in the cost of moving from gas boilers to heat pumps in the short-term, long-term, or…ever?

This is both a financial and reputational issue – making the wrong decision could prove extremely costly.

Rising costs and skills shortage

Escalating costs in materials, labour, and logistics, combined with the necessity to provide for affordable housing and meet section 106 requirements, puts significant financial pressure on house builders and their supply chains.

There’s little doubt that the sudden increase in costs over the last few years, alongside an acute skills shortage, has negatively impacted the volume of new homes currently being built.

With the requirement for community amenities such as schools, leisure and retail facilities to be provided in large-scale developments often tied to reaching set number of occupied residences, the slowing down of house building amid market uncertainty means developments waiting longer for these much needed amenities. For existing residents, the early occupiers of a new development, this is unwelcome news.

Community and media relations

The success of large-scale residential projects is intricately linked to their acceptance within or alongside existing communities. Integrating such vast developments with the local ethos is a considerable challenge.

With their sheer scale and impact, large residential projects are media magnets. Any misstep or controversy can attract widespread negative publicity.

Best Practices for Overcoming PR Challenges

Transparency and open communication

When times are tough – this is exactly the time when PR and communication needs to be maximised, rather than set to the back burner.

Regular, clear, transparent communication about potential disruptions or delays to timescales can help in garnering community support. Nature abhors a vacuum and it’s a guarantee that this space will be filled with unhelpful misinformation that can sour the mood around a development if communication from the house builder becomes sporadic or absent.

This is also the time and the place for boosting (or beginning) communications around the broader benefits of housebuilding projects – be it job creation, skills development, infrastructure upgrades or investment in community development.

In an environment of rising costs and delays to development completion, building a narrative of collaboration with the community is essential to avoid the reputational risk of being known as a ‘faceless’ developer interested only in its bottom line.

Active community engagement

There are still too many developers that consider community engagement to be a tick-box exercise to facilitate a planning application. While it is true that public consultations will always attract a number of those who will dismiss any form of development altogether, public engagement done well – with time, thought, and an open, inclusive attitude – can be exceptionally meaningful and worthwhile.

This holds true for more informal engagement with residents already living on large-scale developments as they continue through their build phases. Often these residents are the pioneers for a new community, the ones who bought in to the concept from the start, and can become the greatest advocates for attracting other buyers – particularly helpful if advertising spend has been cut.

If they are not communicated with frequently, openly and honestly however, this opportunity can be lost and can instead become a reputational risk if residents do not feel listened to, or involved in conversations about delays or changes to planned development.

Commitment to sustainability – but beware of greenwashing

Large-scale residential developers have an opportunity to be flag-bearers of sustainable housing and community development. Incorporating green technologies, enhanced biodiversity measures and genuinely sustainable materials can both ease the path through planning and boost sales.

Regardless of government policy – the public expectations around sustainability are now higher than ever. People want to live in healthy and sustainable places but, as Mindshare identified, ‘ethical initiatives are facing a trust deficit’ and almost half (49%) of the public now think that brands are guilty of ‘greenwashing’.

While house builders have been very vocal on their climate policies since COP26, none of the biggest house builders have shared their views on the recent Prime Ministerial announcement about the changes to the UK’s net zero ambitions.

For those looking for more information on creating, and communicating about, sustainable human settlements and the wider built environment, the global Race to Resilience and Race to Zero campaigns are worth delving into.

Last words

House builders in the UK are facing an intricate array of PR challenges. Yet, with proactive communication, a commitment to sustainability, and genuine community engagement, these challenges can be moulded into opportunities.

In an industry where the landscape is as much about human beings as it is about bricks and mortar, a strategic, empathetic, and transparent approach is the key to success.

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