The Roundup from Hough Bellis Communications - November 2023

Just as you thought it was safe to open your Hough Bellis News Roundup, once again the world of politics has been turned upside down. With another Housing Minster, the return of Cameron, revolt in Labour, and a looming Autumn Statement, once again we are left wondering whether our business plans need a redraft.

With a world as frenetic as this, who better to deliver training or bring some insights to your Board or Exec Away Day than one of our all-star team of staff and consultants? From Orwell Prize-winning journalist Peter Apps offering his thoughts on Grenfell and building safety to our own Bobbie Hough on safeguarding your reputation – we’ve got you covered. Scroll down or click herefor more and get in touch if you want to discuss options.

Take care and thanks for reading,

Ben, Bobbie, Nicola and the Hough Bellis Team.


Another reshuffle
In uncertain times, there’s something comforting about the more mundane and predictable aspects of life: the setting of the sun, rail replacement buses, the grim British weather, the announcement of a new Housing Minister.

Lee Rowley has become the 16th Housing Minister in 13 years. If you struggle to remember all sixteen, you’d be forgiven for not recalling that this is his second time in the job after serving for all of 49 days last time.

He replaces Rachel Maclean, who lasted a comparatively epic nine months and seemed to have finally got her teeth into some of the key issues. But apparently, that may have been her downfall, after unease among Tory ranks about strong positions on development, private rent reforms and leasehold. So pretty much all of the good stuff that was going on.

Another mind-boggling week
The reshuffle was sparked by the inevitable sacking of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary after she did basically everything within her power to achieve that end. Despite definitely being sacked, she still sent what resembled a furious resignation letter (you can’t sack me, I quit), which seems to have sparked a new civil war among the smouldering remnants of the Conservative Party.

It hasn’t been plain sailing for Labour, with 56 MPs rebelling against the party line on Gaza, with eight Shadow Ministers having to resign from their roles.

In other very normal news, David Cameron has made a shock return to politics as Foreign Secretary, and Nigel Farage is in the jungle, where he’ll be eating rather than talking bollocks (or maybe both). Esther McVey has also returned to public office, as the Minister for Common Sense – surely her first job will be to sort out the housing crisis – or is that too sensible?

Autumn Statement Week
The Autumn Statement will take place on Wednesday 22 November – just over a year on from the last one under Liz Truss, which passed by without much incident…

There was some rare, good news for the Government last week, when it was confirmed that Rishi Sunak has achieved *one* of his five pledges. CPI inflation was 4.6% in October — down from 10.7% when he promised to halve inflation in January.

But rumours of this impacting the polls are somewhat optimistic for the PM, because PRICES ARE STILL RISING, just more slowly, and people will continue to feel the pinch. In the Mirror, Labour research said a block of cheese is up £1.73 in four years. In the Times, Lib Dem stats compare inflation to a 3p hike in income tax.

What does the Chancellor have planned?
Fresh from the news on inflation, Jeremy Hunt seemed to unleash his inner Boris, telling Sky News “there is so much defeatism, declinism about the British economy. I think we have turned a corner.”

So, what worthy social cause could receive the fruits of any dividend – if rumours are to be believed, it could be a cut to Inheritance Tax, which only the very wealthiest will ever pay.

Or, perhaps as The Sunday Times claims, cuts to income tax or national insurance are being considered, with the inflationary pressure of such a move offset by squeezing welfare payments, which only the very poorest will ever receive.

Bloomberg claims that £2 billion could be slashed from the welfare bill by raising benefits with today’s new lower inflation figure of 4.6%, instead of September’s 6.7%.

ITV News also reports that Local Housing Allowance rates could finally be unfrozen, which would be a long-overdue and welcome step.

What does this mean for rent setting?
So far, we’ve only seen the idea of using the October inflation figure for benefits, but it’s easy to see how the same leap could also be made for social housing rents.

If Hunt was to use the October figure of 4.6% for rent setting, that could see a cap of 5.6% rather than the September cap of 7.7% based on CPI of 6.7%. And this assumes that CPI+1% will be used this year, which is far from certain at this stage.

Landlords will all have their own calculation of what each 1% of rent will mean for the bottom line – 2.1% or even 3.1% less than expected would have huge implications.

What else is going on in politics?
The HB team were at both the Labour and Conservative conferences, soaking up the atmosphere and complimentary room-temperature wine.

Despite an admirable effort from the sector, housing was something of a footnote at the Conservative conference, barely receiving a mention in the big speeches. Meanwhile, the Labour event was buzzing with energy, but perhaps lighter on substance.

We were pleased to work with our friends at the Chartered Institute of Housing, Grand Union and others on an event where the Shadow Homelessness Minister argued that the affordable housing definition should be linked to income.

I was also pleased to join colleagues from the National Housing Federation, Northern Housing Consortium and the Shadow Climate Minister to debate the pressing need to retrofit our housing stock.

Risky business
The latest Regulator of Social Housing Sector risk profile has been published and as usual is a very difficult read – one that perhaps the Chancellor should sift through before making any rash decisions about rent.

To give just one extract:

“Providers continue to face a difficult and uncertain economic environment. Persistently high-cost inflation, a tight labour market, and contractor failures and supply chain issues are delaying works and increasing costs for providers. An ongoing housing market downturn poses risks for development sales income.

“Rental income has been constrained by the 7% rent cap for 2023/24, while costs for stock investment programmes have continued to rise. Interest rates have risen markedly in response to high inflation, resulting in materially increased provider borrowing costs. These economic factors have weakened the sector’s financial position and reduced its capacity to manage downside risk. Sector interest cover has continued to fall and on a social housing lettings basis is already below 100%.”

…as you can tell, it’s best enjoyed with a stiff drink.

Greater Manchester Private Rent Emergency Declared
We’ve been working with four leading Greater Manchester homelessness charities who have declared a ‘Private Rent Emergency’, highlighting the fact that a crisis in the private rental sector is exacerbating homelessness.

The aims of the group have had backing from Labour, with Shadow Leveling-Up Secretary Angela Rayner telling ITV News that “irresponsible landlords are getting away with turfing people out of homes”. She said Labour was putting them on notice that the party plans to ban Section 21 eviction notices.

They might also score their first big victory if Local Housing Allowance rate are unfrozen in this week’s Autumn Statement.

Culture is key to engaging tenants
We love this Inside Housing blog from the brilliant Jenny Osbourne at Tpas, which argues that a commitment to tenant engagement means nothing if your organisational culture isn’t right. In the powerful piece, she asks: “Are your involved customers reflective of the diversity of your tenant base, or are they just the easiest people to reach?”

Blue Peter turns to housing estates
Please take a few minutes out of your day to watch this video from our friends at Garden Organic and HQN, which highlights the work that former Blue Peter gardener and shared owner Chris Collins has been doing to improve green spaces in housing blocks and on estates.

It really highlights the impact of empowering tenants.

Energy Act now in place
Well done to our friends at Heat Trust after many years of lobbying – the Energy Act 2023 has now received royal assent. This means regulation is coming down the track for heat networks – most landlords will be affected – it’s time to get prepared.

Ombudsman Annual Complaints Review
The Housing Ombudsman saw a 27% increase in the number of complaints it received in 2022/23, with the main complaint types focussed on property condition and
complaints handling. The Review also highlights that investigations have seen a steady increase in the proportion of cases with maladministration findings, rising from 48% of cases in Q1 to 61% in Q4 2022/23.

Meanwhile, six complaints have been made to the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) about the Housing Ombudsman’s “maladministration rate” used to assess and rank social housing providers on their quality of service to residents.

BTP Architects goes from strength to strength
Our friends at BTP Architects have appointed five new directors, as the company continues a period of expansion.

Disability pay gap
Non-disabled workers earn around 14.6 percent more than disabled workers, a higher pay gap than a decade ago, TUC analysis finds.

One year on from Awaab’s Inquest
The tragic death of Awaab Ishak from a respiratory condition caused by mould in his Rochdale Boroughwide Housing home was an appalling incident, which should never have happened. It shone a light not just on RBH, but on some of the failings within the sector more widely to properly deal with issues around damp, mould and condensation.

One year on from the Inquest, a huge amount of work has taken place to ensure that such a tragic incident can never occur again.

Awaab’s Law is now active, giving landlords an obligation to ensure that tenants understand their rights and that effective processes are in place for tenants to raise concerns about damp and mould. Further requirements relating to the timeframe for repairs and expectations that providers take into account the diverse needs of tenants will be subject to future consultation.

Finally… Hough Bellis can help with your board or exec away day
As trailed at the beginning of this Roundup, we’re reminding out network that we can help with speakers for your Board or Exec Away Day, as well as bespoke training for your teams. Speakers include:

  • Orwell Prize-winning author and former Inside Housing Deputy News Editor Peter Apps, who can share his expertise about Grenfell and building safety.
  • Star freelance journalist Hannah Fearn, who writes for the Independent, the I, Guardian, Inside Housing and others can share her knowledge on storytelling and improving your perception in the media.
  • Hough Bellis Managing Director Bobbie Hough has handled some of the most challenging issues in social housing throughout his career and can share his insights on crisis comms and protecting your reputation.
  • Finally, I (Hough Bellis Account Director, Ben Powell) can bring my experience as a former Westminster advisor, local Councillor and award-winning campaign strategist to talk about political engagement, stakeholder management and getting your voice heard.

If you want to know more, email bobbie@houghbellis.co.uk for a chat.

Bobbie Hough
managing director, Hough Bellis Communications