There is a saying in the newspaper and magazine publishing world that readers “come for the news and stay for the features”. That is to say, they are enticed to start reading by the big bold headlines of the news stories, but once they do, it is the excellence and interest of the feature writing that keeps their attention.
As someone who started their writing career on the Features Desk, I always liked this saying – a response to the Billy Big Boots news bods who thought the whole paper revolved around them.
As events became more important to publishers, I developed this maxim to apply to conference planning. Delegates, I felt, would come for the politicians but stay for the experts. Again, the idea being that having a minister on the agenda would help sell tickets, but it would be the other speakers, less well known, who would ensure that the day was a success.Strong messages
Well to be fair, the politicians who spoke at the HBF Policy conference at the end of March certainly bucked that trend. Although there were plenty of excellent presentations on the day from experts, the politicians did not let us down. Both communities secretary Sajid Javid and shadow housing secretary John Healey had strong messages for the industry that grabbed the audience’s attention.
Unsurprisingly, Javid was keen to talk about the variety of policies contained in his recent Housing White Paper. But of interest here was how he packaged this. Instead of saying, “look at all the new initiatives we are delivering for you, aren’t we great?”, he turned it around somewhat, making it into more of a challenge to the industry along the lines of “what’s your excuse not to build now?”
“I can’t force you to build more homes,” he said. “But I can take away the reasons you may have not to build. And that’s what the Housing White Paper is all about.” To add to that clear challenge, Javid also called out the industry on quality and design and said it must improve.
“It’s fair to say that new builds don’t always have the best reputation for quality,” he told the industry. “It’s a problem for which, in 2017, there’s really no excuse.”
And there was more, as Javid also criticised some housebuilders for using leasehold terms inappropriately in their sales terms. “As a government committed to building a fairer society, I don’t see how we can look the other way while these practically feudal practices persist.” His solution was to ensure Help to Buy equity loans are only used to support new builds sold on acceptable terms.
So that was Javid, making delegates sit up and take notice. The fact that John Healey had some challenges for the industry was less surprising. He knows the housing brief and enjoys it and has spoken plainly to the industry before at our events.
This time his focus was on the support the industry is getting from the government and whether the public is getting value for money. “Can anyone tell me how much financial support the industry is getting from government?” he asked delegates, and was faced by the sort of awkward silence a maths teacher gets when asking pupils to prove that x = -1.
“£43 billion in this spending period,” he said, in reply to his own question. “How many of you can genuinely claim the public is getting enough (value) for their money?” Cue another period of silence in the room.
So what is this all about? I pointed out in this column some time ago that the spotlight will turn on the industry to deliver in terms of numbers and quality following the support from government. And this is coming to pass. HBF executive chairman Stewart Baseley said as much in his speech to the conference, when highlighting recent media attention on quality and leaseholds. ”No other industry has had the sort of support that we have, therefore it is inevitable that we will be a big topic of discussion for politicians and any negative publicity will be at the front of their minds.”
As Javid pointed out in several parts of his speech, in all these areas many housebuilders are doing good work, increasing the numbers of quality well-designed homes that they are building and selling them with fair terms.
But the few that are found not to be doing so are going to be under the spotlight – making it all the more important that everyone hits new heights of excellence in new homes delivery.