OPINION: Brown must win over communities if homes plan is to succeed

Gabriel Abulafia says public affairs firms can play a crucial role in pushing through plans outlined in the housing bill.

Housing: ambitious targets to build new homes
Housing: ambitious targets to build new homes

One thing that has become crystal clear about the new Prime Minister is that housing will be his top priority. From the very beginning, Gordon Brown’s aides were briefing that he would be about ‘housing, housing, housing’ and he duly created a new place at the cabinet for housing minister Yvette Cooper.

This week’s housing green paper left little doubt that Brown is deadly serious about achieving ambitious new house-building targets.

A key driver is the effect that the UK’s housing crisis is having on the country’s economic potential. But the focus on housing is also a response to voters, who realise that high property prices are not necessarily something to celebrate. The answer would seem simple – build more homes and, in particular, build more affordable homes. But there is a problem: large numbers of people are resentful at the way that new development is changing the area in which they live.

People are suspicious of developers and fearful of what the new development may mean for them and their families.

This resentment is often based on bread-and-butter considerations: ‘Where will the extra traffic go?’ ‘Will I still be able to park my car outside my own front door?’ Often the people expressing these concerns are the same ones who are worried about their children being able to afford a home of their own.

Can PR convince these entrenched ‘nimbies’ to think again? Brown needs to reconcile two strongly held and contradictory sets of views and it is crucial that he finds the right way to do so.

Labour paid a heavy price at the last general election for its house-building programme. It was a strong factor in the party losing some valuable seats in the South- East and has left it with wafer-thin majorities in others.

Local tensions about development can only be diffused if the Government’s provisions on consultation are applied sensitively, using detailed knowledge of a community. And it is possible to carry out a consultation programme badly and in a way that creates opposition to a development proposal.

Developers must embrace the truest form of strategic PR, taking time to research and understand a community, engage its leaders and offer people a chance to view, comment and make input into its plans. By getting getting communities on side, developers can speed up the time it takes to gain planning permission. They can also help the Government deliver its goal of three million homes by 2016, with minimal political fallout.

Gabriel Abulafia (l) is a director at planning PR consultancy Green Issues Communications

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