As specialists in built environment PR, we watched this week’s Queen’s Speech with intrigue, as she set out a government agenda packed to the rafters with new legislation that has been described as a ‘watershed year for the construction industry’.
But while new homes and new places can drive economic growth they are not without controversy.
We have seen already how the Planning Bill, the centrepiece of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, has entrenched viewpoints.
Much of the construction industry and political centre-right has voiced its support for this radical shake up of the planning system, while liberal and environmental campaigners double down on their efforts to protect communities and green space, their concerns not eased by the promise of the Environment Bill nor the proposals for supporting new skills development.
Our experience in both the built environment and green infrastructure sectors has shown us that even when new residential or commercial developments come jam-packed with abundant and carefully considered proposals to protect and enhance the natural environment, trust among local populations in developers to do the right thing is often rock-bottom.
Partly, this can be attributed to the fact that humans generally don’t respond that well to change. We need a lot of help to get used to new ideas and ways of doing things.
However, (in our view) it is mostly because planning, development and construction have experienced a chequered history in the UK, which has led to low levels of public trust that endure to this day.
The reputational problems are manyfold:
- Snagging lists for new builds or the disruption of living near to development sites are typically the way many people are (very personally) influenced negatively against the construction industry.
- Controversy over local planning decisions, fuelled by a negative media narrative, has led to knee-jerk hostility to almost any new development in some areas.
- Major crises such as the failure of Carillion, the Grenfell tragedy and the partial collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans have created an international backdrop against which public and stakeholder trust are emboldened to remain low.
So while industry may welcome the legislative changes ahead, how can developers come through this period of immense change with their reputations intact?
The truth is, it will take more than warm words.
Developers must be ceaselessly concrete in embracing transparency, accountability and long-term sustainability in their developments if they are to enjoy reputational sunshine in the years ahead.
So what might that look like?:
- Demonstrating a sincere ‘community-minded’ approach, even if changes to planning laws mean that local objections may have fewer opportunities to prevent or change development proposals. The pandemic has strengthened our roots within our communities, which we have come to value even more highly while our movement has been restricted and our sense of health and security has been challenged. In a highly connected social media world, it would be a brave (and foolish) developer who chooses not to engage positively and openly with the heritage, hopes and aspirations of local communities at a grass-roots level when planning and building a new development.
- Showing honest commitment to sustainability and the environment without ‘greenwashing’. If a developer has made environmentally-positive changes to materials, construction methods, or committed to biodiversity net gain for a new development in a way that exceeds requirements, these are all things that can and should be talked about with conviction to build public confidence in the project.
- Shining a spotlight on people. It is easy for brands (not just big ones) to become rather faceless. And when there is no face behind the logo there is no opportunity for the crucial relationship building that needs to happen to build trust. Even the most rudimentary customer services departments will tell you that a face and a name can make all the difference between receiving a hostile customer complaint and a softer, more considered one.
Essentially it boils down to three things:
In no particular order but each as important as the other…
Focusing relentlessly on these three areas has the potential to shift perception up the positivity scale in a way that will future proof the industry by ticking the boxes that not just the general public and communities want to see, but investors and new recruits too.