The surprise news in the Autumn Statement (link opens in new tab) that social rents in England are to be capped at 7% in 2023/24 has been welcomed by housing providers. In its consultation (link opens in new tab) published in August, the government had said its preferred option was a 5% cap — there had even been mutterings in Whitehall of opting for a more drastic 0% cap. This would have seen housing providers forced into some very difficult decisions to cut costs, such as scaling back development plans, reducing essential services and making redundancies. So, in that context, a 7% limit is good news.
Yet, customers in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis will still face a significant hike in their rents come April. Housing providers already reeling from disrepair failings will still have to make savings to balance the books. So, how should housing associations and local authorities communicate about the rent cap at this crucial time?
Decide to respond now or wait
First, housing providers should decide what they say to customers and other stakeholders when communicating about the rent cap in the immediate aftermath of the Autumn Statement. To help manage expectations ahead of the rent decision, some housing providers have chosen to share the headlines from their response to the government consultation. Others have decided to post a simple statement on their websites sharing the news of the 7% decision. It is also an option, of course, to keep your powder dry until you know more about what this means for your organisation.
Once your board or cabinet committee has decided on what level to set rents in 2023/24, it will also be clear what the consequences are for your service offer. For most housing associations rents will likely be increased by 7%. But local authority landlords may face a more difficult challenge implementing the full 7% rise, as there is likely to be significant political pressure to go for a smaller increase.
Communicate board decision and impact
Once the rent level and implications are known, this will need to be carefully communicated to customers and other stakeholders. Here are some points to consider when communicating about the rent cap:
- Although the rent increase is steep, it is still significantly below inflation – currently at 11.1%. This means a real-terms drop in income for your organisation and so you have to make some difficult decisions to balance the books
- How do the decisions your organisation is taking reflect your purpose? What are the principles guiding your actions?
- Whatever the implications for services, it should be clear you are pushing as hard as you can to support customers and deliver on existing promises
A final point here concerns emails and rent notices sent to customers. Often comms teams don’t get sight of these crucial pieces of communication beforehand. While many such letters are clear and strike the right tone, often, however, they fall short and can be confusing or even inflammatory. Housing providers should work with their comms teams or external support to avoid these pitfalls.
Listen and engage
Finally, offer a clear and easy way for customers to ask questions and respond to these issues. Many people will be concerned about the impact of rent increases and their ability to pay. Ensuring customers feel able to share these concerns and that they will be listened to is crucial.
Monitoring comments on social media and engaging where needed is also very important. For instance, where people express concerns or ask questions, it is sensible to engage and correct misinformation. Don’t get involved in everything though. Try to avoid getting dragged into debates about problems or services online — take them offline wherever possible.
Although the 7% cap is much better news for housing providers than it might otherwise have been, there are still very tough times ahead. Many customers will be badly affected, including by increased rents. How housing providers communicate around these issues will go a long way to ensuring customers access support where needed and see housing providers as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
To find out more about how we can help with customer and stakeholder communications, please call 0121 827 6622 or email email@example.com . See ‘Our work’ (link opens in new tab) for recent case studies too.
Stuart Macdonald, Managing Director, See Media