Why the property industry needs to talk more with people than with politicians

Property firms could be forgiven for feeling under siege. Weaknesses and threats abound. Worse still, most of the issues seem beyond their control.

At a macro-level, Brexit and the economic climate are affecting confidence.

But the true weakness affecting the industry is in public opinion and the regulatory environment: planning battles, skills shortages, apprenticeship regulations, construction costs, land supply, green belt restrictions… The list goes on.

Why is it that the property industry gets such a raw deal from government and local authorities? It is certainly not for lack of trying; the sector has one of the best funded and organised political engagement operations around.

The answer it is that too often we are talking to the wrong people.

Try as we might to influence politicians, it counts for little if we don’t influence the people who elect them: ordinary citizens. In its communications and marketing, the property industry needs to be more customer-focused.

Take the example of the housing crisis.

The BPF, HBF and RICS have lobbied hard to promote diversity of tenures and the development of the private rented sector (PRS). Think tanks such as ResPublica and the Adam Smith Institute have emphasised supply-side reform to free up land through the planning systems and examine green belt regulations. These economic arguments have been advanced by leader columns in the Financial Times and The Economist.

It is hard to think of a more rounded policy proposal with a more compelling rational basis.

But while the argument has been made at length to policymakers, it has not been heard by local communities.

In fact, consumer communications from the property industry are too often stuck in the 1990s. Regional news releases promote part exchange offers in schemes that local people battled in planning. Glossy photos in fluffy advertorials promise an aspirational lifestyle, but viability constraints mean the reality is mediocre architecture and boxy space.

It is a stark contrast. Potential homebuyers are subjected to one-way communications and a hard-sell approach to sales. Meanwhile in the Westminster bubble, officials are engaged in endless dialogue over increasingly dense and detailed policy arguments.

The result for the industry is predictable. Voters speak to politicians who ignore carefully-thought through policy proposals in order to be seen on the side of public opinion.

At a strategic level, this disconnect means that a market desperate for supply-side reform has received only demand-side tinkering like Help-to-Buy and Starter Homes. At an operational level, the efficiency of developers’ marketing spend is often woeful.

But there are great examples of how things could be different.

In 2009, David Cameron made a “no-ifs, no-buts” promise not to expand airport capacity in the South East. BAA, which then owned both Heathrow and Gatwick, made a good case to government having anticipated growing demand. But it had not made the case to consumers. Voters feared that corporate profits would be put ahead of their quality of life, and its policy arguments fell on deaf ears.

Fast forward to the present day and BAA has clearly learnt the lesson that it had to convince ordinary people of why expansion was in their interest. Effective communications reframed the problem around the issue of connections to emerging markets generating jobs and growth. Now a new runway is going ahead.

The lesson is clear; in the battle for influence over official decisions, voters always hold sway. The property industry cannot overcome the planning, viability and regulatory obstacles it faces through its current approach to communications. Progress will only be made by making the case to the people who really matter: its customers.