After the Dispatches hatchet job, how can housing associations get a fairer hearing?

They are not only on the front line trying to solve the housing crisis but, in many cases, they mop up many of society’s problems that extend well beyond bricks and mortar. Yet, last month’s Dispatches documentary was at best an ill-informed, poorly researched one-sided piece of broadcast journalism and at worst, a total hatchet job that cut out any balance or counter-arguments that didn’t fit a pre-existing agenda.

Blackstock Consulting regularly works proactively and discreetly to help businesses tell their story and in this blog, we set out some firm advice for housing association executives who may be feeling under pressure.

The programme lacked any real balance, which meant that many of the important issues it raised were dealt with so badly as to undermine any credibility whatsoever in the reporting. Yet this isn’t the first time housing associations have gotten a kicking. And unless they start to speak up, it won’t be the last.

In the decade and a half I’ve spent working with listed property companies, airports and infrastructure businesses, along with private equity and fund managers, together with some leading housing associations, I have always advocated taking a proactive stance in engagement with people. During my time as Heathrow’s spokesman, I cultivated many positive media relationships and during my tenure at the British Property Federation, where I worked with Liz Peace who is now on Blackstock’s board, I massively enhanced our engagement with regular discussions across the Today Programme, Sky News and every national newspaper. We sought to explain, in plain English, why listed property companies were important to the economy and how much of the commercial property we interact with is owned by pension funds.

Blackstock, which I set up five and a half years ago, is regularly featured by the broadcast media as a voice of independent reason on the market (watch some clips). Our firm provides three buckets of things to clients: PR, public affairs and media relations support; thought leadership, research and content; and strategic advice, whether it’s to help with a restructure or merger, or a new launch or finance raising.

I regularly contribute to various media, including this Property Week feature ahead of this year’s RESI Convention, on why housing associations need to be taken seriously by the new housing minister. Like me, many were genuinely shocked at the comical tabloid stance of Dispatches.

There were no interviews with anyone from an operational housing association nor any genuine assessment of the policy environment which has created the backdrop for affordable housing and the sector’s broader commercial direction.

We’ve identified some of the key things wrong with the programme and alongside some messages that in-house communication professionals and housing chiefs may wish to use to get their message out more clearly. You can get in touch with us in confidence here.

1. Excessive pay?

Perceived excessive executive pay was also at the heart of the documentary’s narrative, pulling up examples of chunky pay packets for departing chief executives. As a charitable sector, housing associations have to justify this and, for the most part, they do. Many operational housing association executives are handling assets and businesses that far exceed the size of many FTSE 250-listed companies and some FTSE 100s. Yet, executives at listed firms and many charities enjoy pay packages that far exceed the reaches of housing associations chiefs.

When you also consider the size, scale and pressures housing association bosses are under to deliver much of the homes required to alleviate the housing crisis and help government hit ambitious targets – their pay can be easily justified, especially when compared with the remuneration of certain executives in the building and charity sectors.

For example, the chief executive of construction giant Balfour Beatty was paid £5.3 million in the last financial year; the boss of housebuilder Redrow earned £2.1 million during the same period, while the chief of biomedical research charity, The Wellcome Trust, was paid £3.05 million – the highest of any charity boss in the UK. These figures are in stark contrast to the highest paid chief executive of any UK housing association where the highest salary was £580,000 last year.

2. Grant cuts

Dispatches was clearly keen to leave viewers with the impression that housing associations were ruthlessly selling off or knocking down social rented homes and replacing them with homes for sale or higher rent, to drive profit, portraying housing associations as profit hungry commercial entities. The failure of the documentary to delve into the impact of repeated failures in government policy – such as cuts in grants and subsidies – on housing associations highlights this further.

The documentary failed to mention that, for many years, the government has pushed housing associations to build new homes for affordable rent as a condition of grants – grants that have been consistently cut over the past 25 years, forcing housing associations to operate in a different way. This is illustrated by the fact that grant rates per unit were around 75% in the 1990s, before plunging to less than 25% in 2015.

Housing chiefs need to make it very clear that subsidised housing requires a subsidy. Traditionally, this was covered by the government but due to cuts and policy changes, this now needs to be found elsewhere. Without government funding to help them out, housing associations have to plug the funding gap themselves by pursuing commercials routes, such as selling off homes at market prices.

Crucially, the profits made from selling homes is funnelled right back in to building affordable homes for the people that need them most, as there aren’t dividends or shareholders to pay. This is also an utterly critical fact that needs tattooing on everyone’s palm.

3. Universal Credit chaos

Just as the social rent cuts shredded billions from the book values of housing associations – a fact not touched on at all – another disappointing omission from the Channel 4 documentary was the impact of the roll-out of the flawed and chaotic Universal Credit programme. Indeed, the UK’s four housing federations have issued a joint call for changes to be made to the scheme. These include measures to ensure that payments are made on time and to allow housing associations to negotiate on behalf of vulnerable tenants so they get their money to pay bills and rent when they need it. To put this into context, a recent survey of UK housing associations found that Universal Credit tenants are in rent arrears to the tune of £24 million.

Housing associations have to properly promote the work they do in clearing up these sorts of messes. They need to stop being so afraid.

4. Public land for affordable housing

From a journalistic perspective Dispatches fell short on many levels – aside from the previously mentioned lack of balance and cherry picking of damning statistics used to undermine housing associations, it was riddled with leading questions posed to those interviewed and contained no direct ‘right to reply’ comment from a government minister or any housing association representatives.

The documentary also failed to explore a key point: the impact of the government’s policy to sell public land to the highest bidder without no consideration of handing it over purely for social housing. In recent years the government has sold of swathes of land owned by departments such as the Ministry of Justice and Department of Health to stimulate the development of private homes. We’re not saying it shouldn’t do that, as it’s clear we need homes across all tenures. But if subsidy is key and cash is in short supply, then it would surely make sense to use some surplus public land for cheap housing? Making some available – at reasonable rates – to housing associations to help increase the stock of social and affordable housing in Britain is supposedly a priority across the political spectrum, yet there’s little pressure from any side for greater action in this regard.

5. Charity work beyond housing

Channel 4 also failed to mention the vast amount of charitable work housing associations undertake to help change people’s lives. For example, they run projects helping young care leavers and homeless people, as well as those with mental and physical disabilities that struggle to stay housed to live as independently as possible. On top of this, most housing associations also provide social value to the communities in which they operate by running schemes to support tenants into employment or training to help fulfil their aspirations.

This long term commitment to communities needs to be explained rationally – as words like “community” and “sustainability” have become meaningless jargon. Let people tell your story.

6. Give HAs the credit they deserve

While the flaws of the Dispatches documentary are plain to see, the housing association sector should nonetheless use it as an opportunity to create a public-facing platform for themselves where debates around the housing market, executive pay and affordability can be had in the open. The sector has a long and proud charitable history that they need to shout and dance about because, otherwise, there’s a real danger they will be unfairly linked with the excesses of the private sector.

Ultimately, Dispatches was keen to portray housing associations as bodies that are somehow taking advantage of the housing crisis. In reality, however, housing associations are non-profit organisations whose core purpose is to provide more affordable homes and every penny they make goes straight back into building homes and providing services for residents. We should be mindful of that and support their good work, rather than seek to take cheap shots at a group that often doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

7. Training, support and advice

Our industry experts and experienced campaigners are well placed to help housing associations chiefs better navigate external engagement and we can help train staff, refine your messaging and build reputations. Please get in touch to arrange a face-to-face briefing on how we can help you do a better job at communicating.