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Distinctive Dispatch #4: Better comms for people, places and work
We need to talk about the green belt; Somerset Council leader discussion; Distinctive turns one; defining liveable neighbourhoods.
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We need to talk (sensibly) about the green belt
After big housing-free pledges earlier this year, a political battle for would-be homeowners’ votes is underway.
Rishi Sunak floated the idea of extending Help to Buy, while Kier Starmer promised to step up efforts to hit the fabled 300,000 new homes a year target. This highlights a clear dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives on housing policy.*
Framed as a commitment to ‘back the builders, not the blockers’, Starmer’s suggestion that Labour may release some green belt land for new homes captured the most attention.
As ever with housing, vexed debate surrounds the topic. On one side are developers and YIMBY supporters who argue the green belt isn’t fit for purpose. Opposite are those who oppose any green belt development, come hell or high water. Neither group particularly likes or trusts the other, based on what I see and hear.
Looking at social media posts from the last few weeks illustrates this. In reality, it's more of a shouting match than a debate. A quick social listening** search picked up more than 2,000 UK posts mentioning ‘green belt’ or ‘greenbelt’ across Twitter, Facebook and online newsfeeds.
This image shows the most shared tweets captured since Starmer’s statement. Suggesting that some green belt may be used for housing raises claims that all of it is up for grabs.
As I said; vexed. And local authorities and politicians find themselves caught in the crossfire. It’s leading to some greenfield housing sites getting stuck for years after councils allocated them for development in their local plans.
If Starmer is referring to these situations when saying he will take on ‘the blockers’, he deserves some credit. I’m sure his team intended to grab headlines with this statement (and they did).
But the reaction highlighted how fixed positions are. Very few posters appear to step out of their circles of interest to speak to others with different views about this issue, although they will shout at each other.
It will take more than headlines to see any serious progress here.
Building trust is key to housing conversation
There are many heartfelt, well researched and thoughtful pieces around this topic, some of which I’ve listed below. None of it brings any particularly collaborative perspective to the discussion though.
If we accept that neither 'build nothing on the green belt' or 'bulldoze the blockers’ arguments are sustainable, it follows that the truth sits between these points.
So, what to do about that?
Thoughts on building trust
Communicators, local authorities or developers involved in green belt discussions should commit to openness and building trust with stakeholders and communities.
That means people need to stop shouting and pointing fingers at each other, and recognise that housing in this country isn’t working. And it’s not failing for one reason alone, however much we wish it were that simple.
It’s too expensive, to rent or buy. The numbers outlining continued house price increases this year are eye-watering.
There are too many empty and underoccupied homes, that could also play a role in meeting housing need. This is a complex area, and easier to talk about than it is to address. But it rightly bewilders those who see these empty homes numbers at the same time as hearing about housing need.
People have concerns about ability of local roads, public transport and community services - that’s doctors, dentists and schools - to cope with new homes. The last three consultations we held heard the issue of public transport come up more than any other. Talk of 15-minute cities seems detached without recognising today's challenges. New transport hubs won’t work without a reliable bus service.
And affordable housing should always be part of the mix.
There are many other burning questions. A reductive shouting match about the green belt won’t address them. But we need to talk about how to carefully develop land in the right areas to provide all types of homes, to rent, buy and part own.
Start talking, and listening
We should involve communities in regular discussions before the local plan-making stage. I’m aware from previous research I did that, incredibly but unsurprisingly, less than 10% of younger people take part in local plan consultations. How can local plans represent public views if so many people with a stake in an area’s future don’t engage?
Dozens of local authorities have paused local plans as the government quietly shelved its 300,000 a year housing target recently. But the conversations on housing still need to happen at some stage. The cost of delay is massive, and only likely to worsen.
We discussed this topic with Somerset Council’s leader Bill Revans, in a recent webinar on the new authority’s priorities. There’s little clear information available about the new council’s local plan timetable. We do know that they need one for the entire county. But it won’t be in place before 2028, after the next local elections.
So, nationally, we’re left with a toxic ‘debate’ while housebuilders suggest building rates could fall to their lowest level since the war. That’s a failure that many people on waiting lists or trying to get on the housing ladder will find difficult to forgive.
Tweets saying that not all the green belt is green, or radio phone in complaints about population numbers, won’t shift the dial here.
We need an adult conversation about where housing goes, and how it’s provided. And those who strongly oppose development should be part of that conversation too. That means they need to be willing to join in.
For our part, we represented sites with capacity for thousands of homes in the last year, altough none have green belt status.
We are always clear about our role, who we represent and what we can (and can’t) do. We are open, approachable, clear and direct where we need to be. We are here to listen, as well as speak. We always take on board comments and feed them back to teams we work with. And while we accept strident criticism, we don’t respond to abuse, which has become worse in recent years. How we deal with that is a post for another day.
If we can all open our ears a bit more, we stand a better chance of answering the key question about the places we want to create.
I look forward to supporting those conversations, and hearing what people have to say.
Here are some posts which contain a mix of data, insight and personal torment:
Failing to Plan or Planning to Fail? The State of Local Plan-Making – by Lichfields.
The housebuilding crisis: The UK’s 4 million missing homes – by Centre for Cities.
Green belts once served a vital purpose, but now they are squeezing the life out of cities – by Rowan Moore, The Guardian.
Our planning nightmare shows why Britain can’t build houses (£) – Times journalist Martina Lees describes her ordeal in trying to extend the family home on the green belt in Surrey.
* (As an aside, it’s reasonable to want government to build more houses and make home-ownership easier).
** If you’re interested in how social listening works, this blog explains. Drop us a line if you’d like to find out more.
Distinctive turns one! Thanks for your support
Yesterday (1 June 2023) was a big milestone for the Distinctive team. It marked a full year since we started trading.
We were very pleased to hit our income target. We achieved this while delivering great work and building our presence in areas we care about. We're also proud to have made a difference through volunteering for causes dear to our hearts. Colleagues committed more than 70 hours of time to those causes over the last year.
Our small team worked with about 20 clients during year one, developing strategies and campaigns and engaging the public on their behalf.
Our achievements include:
✅ Hundreds of pieces of great coverage – national, regional, broadcast.
✅ Three engagement programmes promoting sites with capacity for thousands of homes and jobs.
✅ Complete comms support for a high-profile acquisition of a client's business.
✅ Three communication workshops and strategies.
✅ Creative campaigns for visitor attractions, local authorities and active travel bodies.
✅ Two rebrands.
And lots of learning and fun along the way. Thanks to all our clients for supporting us, and our team for putting in the hard yards and making things happen. Taking this step was a huge move for all of us. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved together.
And thanks to you for your interest in this newsletter and connecting with us over the last year. Making new connections and reconnecting with old friends was a highlight.
If we can ever be of any help of you’d like a chat, please drop me a line.
Things we’ve done
Distinctive Discussion with Somerset Council leader, Bill Revans: Thanks to everyone who joined our webinar with Somerset Council’s leader Bill Revans on 18 May.
The event offered insight into Bill as a leader of the new council and its priorities for the next four years. Housing, planning, education, transport and partnerships feature in the discussion. Some great questions from attendees too. Our blog contains more detail and a replay of the session.
Written by Jasmine Gordon
Things we’ve heard
The Truth Police – BBC Sounds: Exploring science’s ‘dirty secret’, Michael Blastland sheds light on the fraud and malpractice plaguing academic research. The programme highlights the role of 'Truth Police' in scrutinising and verifying academic claims. Responses to this work from some quarters are as troubling as what it uncovers.
Things we’ve read
Car-free utopia or burning bollards: how can Bristol build a truly ‘liveable’ neighbourhood? The Bristol Cable covers another vexed discussion, around attempts to bring forward ‘liveable neighbourhoods’ in parts of the city. It’s good to see local media take a thoughtful and considered approach to this topic. More of this, please!
See you again on the first Friday in July. If you’d like to share or discuss anything before the next edition, please leave a comment or drop us a line.
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