Building trust in housebuilders in a post-truth era

How dispiriting on a wet Monday morning, to hear on Radio 4 that a survey has been done (by the annual Edelman Trust Barometer) which shows that trust in business, media, institutions and government, is at an all-time low.

When I first started working in this industry 10 years ago, a colleague more experienced than me used to say that ‘no one trusts the men in white coats any more’.  He would use the example of a councillor standing up at a planning committee he was attending and saying “I hear all the ‘expert’ evidence, from both the applicant and the Council, that says that this development will result in less traffic, but I have local knowledge, and know that traffic will increase.” 

Planning and development is a very technical exercise, which jarrs with people’s lived experience.  It has always struck me how brilliantly able we all are at being able to face in two directions at once when it comes to housing in particular.  This is partly because we may acknowledge all the facts and figures which say we need more homes but then become overwhelmed with emotive issues when proposed housing comes too near to us.  A report can tell us the traffic impact from a development will be negligible but that’s not what we FEEL when we’re in a traffic jam, late on the school run again.

But what is even more alarming is the assumption by many people that businesses, including housebuilders, are simply lying to them, when the facts don’t accord with their feelings.  In my experience, most of the accusations of ‘dodgy’ behaviour by developers can be explained away by cock up rather than conspiracy.  A favourite example of mine was a scheme for a major housebuilder where the main reason the local Parish supported it was that they were promised the management of the open space.  When consent was secured, a management company was instructed to run the open space, and the Parish was understandably outraged.  It turned out that the planning team, busy and overworked, had simply forgotten to pass on this information to the technical team when the time came to handover.  A communication error which is easily made in a large firm  – but the assumption locally was that residents had been deliberately deceived.

What can our industry do to help build trust from local communities?  I believe clear and open communication would be a good place to start.  In a world of media training and spin, it is easy to give dry, over-prepared answers to questions – if indeed a housebuilder is prepared to answer any questions at all.  We should get better at explaining what we’re doing and why – and be a bit more direct in taking on critics. 

But we need to go further, and get much better at articulating the emotive messages around housing, instead of the technical ones.  Dump the information about site constraints and drainage, and start talking about families who live nearby and will benefit from affordable homes, or the difference an education contribution can make to schools locally.

It is often said that we live in a post-truth era – and indeed the other segment on Radio 4 today that had me sighing was Prof Theodore Malloch saying that “the world is moving in Donald Trump’s direction.”  If this is the case then rather than rail against it, we need to work with it.  Opponents of housing have excellently crafted an emotive message about homes “destroying the countryside” and “tearing the heart” out of communities.  We urgently need our own narrative about the benefits new homes bring to both their inhabitants and the communities they live in, or we risk playing Hillary to the NIMBYs' tan-tastic Trump.

This article was written by Anna Sabine-Newlyn, Chief Executive at MPC.