The Roundup from Hough Bellis Communications - March 2024

Hello all,

In the wake of the budget, we’ve pulled together a newsletter, which will hopefully distil some of the key elements for our organisations.

If you’ve already seen and heard enough about Jeremy Hunt, we’ve also included the usual wider sector roundup below, so click here if you can’t stand the thought of reading anything more about the economy.

Hope you’re all doing well,

Ben, Bobbie, Nicola and the (growing) Hough Bellis team

A tale of two countries
“Today’s controversial budget has imposed tax hikes of 21% and devastating cuts to public services over the next two years”.

That was the news from Birmingham City Council’s budget the night before Jeremy Hunt told us that “the plan is working”, taxes are being cut and public service budgets are being protected.

Contrasts like this are why there was a strange sense of unreality about some of the Chancellor’s remarks yesterday, so detached did they seem from the stories that we see and hear each day.

We can see that our local councils are nearing bankruptcy, our local services and partnerships are being scaled back or withdrawn, customers and service users are finding it harder to cope, homelessness is growing, the NHS is crumbling, high streets are emptying, and the housing crisis keeps getting worse.

We can’t just wish it away with blind optimism, or by knowing that in 2032, it’s predicted that we’ll have the second highest GDP thing in the thing compared to the other thing.

There were welcome measures in the Budget, of course there were. But there was so much missing too. Not even a mention of council budgets. Not a word on social care. Silence on homelessness. Nothing significant on delivering the social housing we desperately need.

It was a tale of two countries. The one the Chancellor wants us to believe that we live in and the one that we experience every day.

The good news for our organisations
Going into the budget, we already knew that benefits would be increased by 6.7% in April, which will help some of the poorest people in the country to slightly catch up with the cost of living. The wait between this first being announced last year and filtering through to payments will have felt endless, so it’ll be a very welcome relief when it’s finally felt in a few weeks.

The Household Support Fund, which was due to stop at the end of March has been extended by six months, which is a massive relief. It has provided £2.5 billion of welfare support via local authorities to help vulnerable people with food, water and energy bills since it was introduced in September 2021. What happens when the six-month extension finishes is still up in the air, but at least there is some breathing space to lobby for a successor scheme.

People on Universal Credit who have taken out Budgeting Advances will see the repayment period doubled from 12 to 24 months. This will make a huge difference for people who are struggling, as they will be able to reduce the amount taken from their benefits by spreading repayment over a longer period.

The Chancellor also announced that he was abolishing the £90 charge for getting a debt relief order, a measure that the Citizens Advice Bureau has lobbied for. This was a barrier, which stopped people in the most difficult of circumstances from accessing help – but we obviously wish more could be done to stop people from reaching that point in the first place.

What were the other key measures?
The headline measure is another 2p in the pound cut in Employer National Insurance, which will put a bit more money into the pockets of our teams. This is on top of the 2p announced in the Autumn Statement, and both cuts combined will take £20bn out of our public services.

That’s almost double the amount that the Government invests in housing development each year.

I’m also old enough to remember when National Insurance was going to increase to sort out the crisis in social care. Luckily, I’m not old enough to need social care yet, as it definitely hasn’t been sorted out.

We’re now told that Rishi Sunak views the whole concept of National Insurance as unfair and wants to phase it out altogether.

But who was the Chancellor who introduced the previously planned NI increase, calling it ‘progressive’? Rishi Sunak.

Full child benefit will now be paid to households where the highest-earning parent earns up to £60k – the current limit is £50k. Child benefit will be tapered away between £60k and £80k. This helps to mitigate the current unfair situation, which sees a single parent earning £51k lose some of their child benefit, while a couple earning a combined £99.9k could retain all of theirs.

However, it’s not all good news for the workers, with the IFS arguing that for every £1 given back to workers by the NICs cuts, £1.30 will have been taken away due to “fiscal drag” between 2021 and 2024, with this rising to £1.90 in 2027.

What about housing?
Good news if you want to sell your second home! The higher rate of Capital Gains Tax paid on profits from selling property has been cut from 28% to 24%. Apparently, this will lead to a higher tax take, as more transactions will take place as a result. The world will have moved on by the time we work out whether that was true.

In housing delivery news – the Chancellor announced, “a new £20m fund for community-led housing schemes, supporting local communities to deliver the developments they want and need”. There isn’t yet news about how this will work in practice. I’m sure it’ll be useful, but it is obviously a drop in the ocean.

A more significant investment of £242m was allocated to deliver new housing “in Barking Riverside and Canary Wharf, which together will build nearly 8,000 houses”.

The “Long Term Plans for Towns” will also see funding provided to 20 new places, with the Chancellor namechecking Darlington, Coleraine, Peterhead, Runcorn, Harlow, Eastbourne, Arbroath and Rhyl. The towns will receive £20m of funding to invest in community regeneration over the next decade.

Why there (probably) wont be a May General Election
Maybe the biggest news is that you need to strap yourselves in for the longest, most tedious political year in history because yesterday’s budget all but rules out a May general election. It was only half the scale in spending terms of the Autumn Statement and lacked anything significant enough to suggest an imminent announcement.

All of this leads to a very strong probability that the Conservative Party will keep on waiting for something to come up to reverse their fortunes.

And you can almost see their thinking. The economic indicators are forecast to improve, with the OBR predicting that CPI inflation will fall below 2% target by the end of June, falling to 1.5% next year. The National Insurance cuts will have made their way through into people’s pay packets. *Something else* might come up to make things better.

But on the other hand, Council Tax is going up by 4.99% in most areas and more in others. Public services face further restraint. Every day, more people move onto new fixed-term mortgages. Most social rents are going up by 7.7%, private rents by more. Lower inflation won’t reverse price rises, it’ll only slow them. *Something else* might come up to make things worse.

But there will still be local and mayoral elections in May in many areas (Wikipedia has the details of what is happening where).

The light at the end of the tunnel (is the light of an oncoming train)
Finally, a quick reflection on how any kind of tax cuts are possible if the economy is struggling as much as we are told.

They are balanced against future – unspecified – public service “efficiencies” to be implemented after the next general election. The budget red book confirms that there will not be a spending review before we elect a new government. In other words, it’s a problem for future us.

According to the IFS, unprotected services (most areas other than the NHS), will need to make cuts of around 3.3% per year. While this is smaller than the average cut of 6.1% per year between 2010 and 2015, it feels like there is a lot less left to cut.

Away from the budget…
…if you’ve made it this far, well done! Here is our usual roundup of what we and our clients have been up to, as well as issues affecting the sectors in which we work.

Heat network customers left out of price cap
We supported our client Heat Trust with coverage in The i and MSN News where they highlighted the fact that homeowners and tenants with communal heating systems are not protected by the falling energy price cap. This leaves the country’s 500,000 heat network households exposed to high levels of variability in their energy prices.

Tpas back research project to make landlords more representative
We helped our wonderful client Tpas to secure an Inside Housing news story and blog to highlight a research project to make landlords more representative of their diverse communities. We’d encourage all landlords to take part in the new research – more details can be found here.

Amnesty International highlights housing crisis
Olivia Coleman has starred in a new ‘mini-drama’ to back a social housing campaign for Amnesty International.

Coleman stars alongside Hustle actor Adrian Lester in Before Our Eyes, which takes the form of a trailer for a supposed new drama as part of a stunt designed to capture the public’s attention. The film thrusts viewers into the heart-wrenching reality of a young mother trapped in a broken housing system. Evicted and then re-housed in temporary accommodation that’s riddled with black mould resulting in the baby’s death.

Dial C for Consumer
The Regulator of Social Housing has set out its new Consumer Standards for housing associations and local authorities in England.

The new ‘C’ grading will come into effect from April 1, with landlords set to be inspected every four years on the conditions of homes and how they treat tenants. The first judgements are likely to be published in the Summer. Jonathan Walters, deputy chief executive at the regulator, has told Inside Housing that landlords still had “a way to go” to comply with the standards.

Northern Housing Consortium appoints new policy boss
Congratulations to Patrick Murray who has joined the Northern Housing Consortium as director of policy and public affairs. Patrick is vastly experienced and joins the group from Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Welsh Government social housing updates
Welsh government has set aside an extra £5m in social housing grant funding in its latest budget. The announcement means funding for 2024/25 rises to £370m. Meanwhile, Welsh parliament has launched an inquiry into housing supply in Wales and plans to build 20,000 low cost, low carbon homes. A call for evidence is open until 19 April.

Your new job??
Staying in Wales, the good folks at ClwydAlyn are recruiting for an Executive Director of People, Culture and Communications. This is a fantastic job with a great organisation focused on ending poverty. You can find out more here.

JV North marks huge milestone
Congratulations to our friends at JV North. The consortium has just marked the delivery of their 10,000th home and passed £1bn in investment with Homes England.

MSV shares its work on tackling racism
Our friends at MSV have been speaking to Inside Housing about their anti-racist task force, which has been set up to make sure it engages in the right way with its diverse tenant base. This is really excellent work and something that everyone in the sector can take something from.

Procure Plus go from strength to strength
Our ace clients Procure Plus are in Local Authority Building and Maintenance this month to highlight the fact that they have helped to facilitate over £120m worth of installations through their industry-leading retrofit Dynamic Purchasing System.

We’re expanding our team!
As we continue to grow our client base, we’re continuing to grow our all-star team. We’re currently recruiting for a new Account Executive – if you know anyone who fits the bill, please encourage them to apply.

As this newsletter goes to press, we’ve also just finished the process of recruiting a new Intern, continuing our partnership with the University of Chester. Pretend it’s transfer deadline day and follow our socials for an announcement sometime in the next couple of weeks!

Check out our shiny new website!
We’ve come a long way at Hough Bellis and our service offer has expanded far beyond practical comms support and guidance to partnering with leadership teams and Boards to tackle strategic challenges and reputational risks. We realised that our old website didn’t really reflect the organisation that we’ve become, so we’re proud to launch our new presence and we’d love your thoughts.

Plumbing apprenticeships in the spotlight
Heating Plumbing Monthly caught up with our client Liberty’s plumbing apprentice, Georgia, for National Apprentice Week; a year since they first interviewed her.

ForHousing delivers new homelessness project
Our client ForHousing has completed seven new homes in Huyton, Knowsley, for those who would otherwise be at risk of homelessness. The homes are part of the Government’s Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programme and are part of ForHousing’s longstanding commitment to tackling homelessness and inequality.

Sign up to Garden Organic’s Growing Buddy scheme
Our green-fingered clients at Garden Organic run a fantastic ‘Growing Buddy’ scheme, where they partner with housing associations and councils to engage their tenants in developing growing clubs to create sustainable gardens and cultivate food from a range of cultures.

As their ‘Growing Buddy, Garden Organic will offer tenants and landlords face-to-face and online organic gardening workshops and certified training, packs of seeds, booklets and growing instructions as well as ongoing advice on composting and waste reduction.

We’ve seen some great outcomes so far – ask your teams to take a look.

CommsFest is back and this time it’s (in) person(al)
With housing continuing to be in the spotlight like never before, we’re partnering with our client HQN to deliver a masterclass in Manchester on 25th April.

We’ll be covering:

  • The work landlords need to do to identify reputational risks and prevent them from turning into national headlines.
  • The changing media landscape and how we should work with modern journalists who are writing about housing issues.
  • What the coming elections will mean for housing and how landlords should be working with politicians.

The Hough Bellis team will be joined by top national journalist Hannah Fearn, and the excellent Amanda Coleman who literally wrote the book on crisis comms.

With early bird tickets from just £150 for an all-day training event, this represents great value for your teams and we’d love to see you there.

Bobbie Hough
managing director, Hough Bellis Communications