The Roundup from Hough Bellis Communications - May 2024

Hi everyone,

As the dust begins to settle on a big week of elections, we wanted to give our take on what the results are telling us about the state of the nation. This was the last big stop on the road to the next general election and generated plenty of headlines.

We’ll also give our usual take on some of the big stories impacting our clients and the work that we all do. It’s become a cliché to say that these are uncertain times, but with a government desperately seeking to improve their position and an ascendant opposition with grand plans of their own, we’ll see a huge amount of change over the next year. Major pieces of legislation are still making their way through Parliament, while other recent laws are being brought to life through new regulations.

Finally a plug: if you’re planning your next board or leadership team away day and wondering how to navigate these big issues while safeguarding the reputation of your organisation, we can help. Hough Bellis is working with landlords across the UK to develop sessions on understanding and managing reputational risk, with some fantastic speakers from the media and housing. Read more here.

Take care and speak soon,

Ben, Bobbie, Nicola, Els, Will and the Hough Bellis team

***2024 LOCAL ELECTION SPECIAL***

Top Lines
It was pretty much as bad as it could have been for the Conservatives – again. They are now in control of just 6 of the 107 councils up for election.  They lost 474 councillors, a parliamentary by-election and every mayoral election other than one. They also came in third place in terms of council seats won, winning just 515 to the Liberal Democrats’ 522 and Labour’s 1,158.

The results are another strong indication that Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister and Labour will have had a long weekend of celebrations… but it wasn’t all plain sailing. The full results are here.

Having a Mayor
Labour won ten of the 11 elections for Mayors. While their unexpected victory against Andy Street in the West Midlands captured most of the headlines, it’s the results in the newly created East Midlands, and York and North Yorkshire areas that will be causing most concern for the Tories. Both of these areas are packed full of the kind of constituencies that Labour will need to win to form the next government, and they won with big margins.

Labour’s Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram, Oliver Coppard, Tracy Brabin, Paul Dennett and Sadiq Khan all retained their seats comfortably – although there were briefly some wild, unfounded rumours suggesting a struggle for Labour in London.

In the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen did manage to secure a solitary victory for the Conservatives, but he was defending a stonking 73% vote share from 2021. Although Labour will be disappointed to lose, the 16.5% swing that they secured bodes well for the general election.

Strong and stable
Somehow, despite leading his party to their worst set of election results since 1996, Rishi Sunak’s position in the Conservative party now seems more secure. Hanging onto Tees Valley seems to have done just about enough to hold off any prospects of yet another leadership election. The rebels seem resigned to their fate – with Suella Braverman telling the Times that “we must not change our leader.”

She also wrote “the hole to dig us out is the PM’s, and it’s time for him to start shovelling,” suggesting very limited understanding of the mechanics of digging.

The results also seem to have killed off any prospect of an early election, if that was ever likely. It looks like we can all relax for the summer and look forward to putting our big coats on when it’s finally time to vote.

Labour worries
Despite a brilliant set of results and some big wins in areas where Labour has traditionally struggled, they also saw a significant loss of support in many urban areas, linked to their stance on Gaza. Despite the Conservatives losing 474 Councillors, Labour only gained 186 and suffered some notable defeats.

Labour’s vote share actually went down in the West Midlands Mayoral election, as independent candidate Akhmed Yakoob picked up 11.7% of the vote campaigning on the Gaza issue. Labour lost control of Oldham and Kirklees councils and saw the Greens become the biggest party on Bristol City Council.

The Green party gained 74 councillors overall, most of which were taken from Labour. George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain also picked up four seats, including two in Rochdale. Their candidate in the Longsight Ward in Manchester unseated deputy leader of City Council Luthfur Rahman.

However, Labour would argue that winning across so much of the country despite this challenge puts them in a very strong position in the general election, when tactical voting tends to be more likely.

What does all of this mean for housing?
It was notable that many of the victorious Labour Mayors put social housing at the heart of their campaigns.

New West Midlands Mayor, Richard Parker attacked Andy Street’s record on social housing delivery and promised to do better.

Meanwhile, Andy Burnham followed up his victory by pledging to deliver at least 10,000 new council homes and to suspend the right to buy on new properties.

While Labour can rightly be criticised for holding their cards close to their chest on policy, one striking area of difference from the Conservatives is their explicitly pro-development stance. For many years, NIMBYism has been a default position for political challengers, seeking to use concern about new developments to secure a few extra votes. Hopefully, it has now had its day.

Labour leader Keir Starmer also recently set out plans to build 1.5 million homes in the first term of a Labour government. This would in part be achieved by new rules, which would require councils to prioritise building on brownfield sites and poor-quality areas in the green belt, described as the “grey belt”.

***NOW BACK TO YOUR REGULAR PROGRAMMING***

Back to business
Desperate to somehow revive their fortunes, Ministers will be out and about announcing and reannouncing as much stuff as possible. Yesterday’s big announcement was a £64 million pilot in 15 areas of England, which will see physiotherapists and mental health counsellors used to help the long-term sick back to the workplace.

This followed another recent Government announcement attacking what the Prime Minister described as “sick note culture.” Key policies include consultations on whether responsibility for issuing fit notes should move away from GPs to unspecified “work and health professionals” and whether Personal Independence Payments (which replaced Disability Living Allowance) should be overhauled and significantly cut back.

The proposals have a distinctly nasty feel to them, and have been attacked by several charities, one of which accused the Government of launching a “full-scale assault on disabled people”. The Prime Minister followed the announcement with a Sun on Sunday article announcing the party would retain the two-child benefit limit after the general election.

Things can only get better
The economy has also shown some signs of stabilising, with CPI inflation falling to 3.2% in March, down from 3.4% in February and well down from the peak of 11.1% in October 2022. The figure for April is set to drop further still, as will include the recent cut in the energy price cap, which saw the typical annual bill for a household fall by £238, to £1,690.

There is some hope that the Bank of England will cut interest rates on Thursday and that Friday’s GDP figures for the first quarter of the year will show that the U.K. is out of recession.

Rent settlement rollover
There was some welcome certainty provided for the social housing sector, with the government announcing that the existing rent settlement will be rolled over by a further year until April 2026. This means that annual rent increases will continue to be capped at CPI plus 1% for 2025-26.

The government’s homelessness policy stinks
The Government attracted a furious response from the housing and homelessness sector after announcing plans to criminalise homelessness in the Criminal Justice Bill, with punitive measures against people who are “nuisance rough sleeping”, including the threat of a £2,500 fine or a prison sentence.

A widely discussed line in the Bill suggested giving police the power to take action against rough sleepers for “excessive smell”, a measure which Ministers now appear to be rowing back on. Even in our culture war infested, bottom of the barrel scraping political sewer, this was a new low.

Insurance hikes
Inside Housing has published an analysis showing the significant impact of insurance hikes for high rises on social landlords. A survey of 143 blocks by the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA) found that renewal premiums rose from £7.8m in 2019-20 to £29.1m in 2020-21, an average increase of 374% per block. In addition to the increase in costs for high rises, the Social Housing survey found hikes in housing associations’ leasehold insurance of between 100% and 300%, and in property insurance of between 10% and 70%.

Housing laws make progress
The Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill continues to make its way through Parliament, but recent amendments mean that leaseholders will continue to pay ground rent for up to 20 years, which is a significant step back from Michael Gove’s original pledge to scrap ground rent. However, it has been reported that the Government will announce that annual charges levied on leaseholders will be capped at £250.

The Renters’ (Reform) Bill also continues to be debated, with progress having stalled on the proposed ban on Section 21 “no-fault” evictions. New analysis by Shelter found that nearly a million renters have been issued with s.21 notices since the Government first promised to abolish them more than five years ago.

Every garden matters
Our wonderful client Garden Organic was featured on BBC Midlands Today discussing what we can do to combat the dangerous drop in levels of birds, insects and wildlife across the country. Garden Organic’s new research report, Every Garden Matters shows that even small actions taken in urban gardens can play a major role in restoring lost wildlife. Catch the section at the 2min 50 mark on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001ydcp

New homes in Cheshire
Weaver Vale Housing Trust has enlisted M&Y Maintenance and Construction to resume building affordable homes in Winsford after a previous developer’s administration halted progress. Supported by £1.9 million from Homes England, the scheme will bring a total of 73 affordable rent homes to Winsford and revitalise this picturesque riverside location into a welcoming and accessible space for local residents to enjoy.

A sweet away day
A big thanks to Pete Apps and Alison Inman, who worked with Hough Bellis to deliver a fantastic team away day for our friends at Sweet Projects. Pete spoke to Sweet’s senior team and delivery partners working on major national infrastructure projects about his book Show Me The Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen. While Alison facilitated a conversation on how teams could explore new ways of working, collaborating, procuring services and measuring outcomes to ensure safety and quality remained at the heart of their work.

Thinking about your next away day?
Hough Bellis is working with landlords across the UK to develop sessions for senior leaders and boards on understanding and managing reputational risk.

We can create space for honest and open conversations about the challenges the sector is facing and whether your organisation is ready to stand up to intense media and political scrutiny. We’ve got great speakers and a few fun (coughs) activities to put you through your paces. If you’re interested in finding out more contact bobbie@houghbellis.co.uk

CommsFest
A massive thanks to everyone who attended CommsFest 2024 in Manchester. It was great turnout and we had a brilliant day! Special thanks to our speakers Amanda Coleman and Hannah Fearn – I presented too, but thanking myself feels a bit much even for me.

We’re planning more events looking at crisis comms throughout 2024, so watch this space, or drop us a line if you’d like us to come and do some work with your comms team.

Bobbie Hough
managing director, Hough Bellis Communications