There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the shared ownership model, but a new campaign is seeking to better educate the public about its potential. Sometimes that means facing down some fierce criticism, as our latest thought leadership event revealed.
By Mark Cantrell, former editor of Northern Housing
In association with
WHEN the National Housing Federation (NHF) launched its new shared ownership marketing campaign earlier this year, it provoked a certain degree of negative backlash on social media.
But if that sounds like a case of a comms nightmare, the experience rather proved an instructive episode – and very much in keeping with the whole point of the campaign.
Few people in marketing like the negative (real or perceived), of course; sadly, it’s a fact of life, but the smart marketer understands it’s a whetstone they can use to hone their message.
Okay, so this may seem an odd starting point for our excursion into Northern Housing’s latest Working Lunch housing leaders’ event. But it illustrates the beating heart of the issues the campaign seeks to address; namely to challenge the myths and misconceptions that surround shared ownership. You can’t correct a misunderstanding, or counter a criticism, if you don’t first identify it.
Twitter storms brew up over a teacup, these days, as we all know so well, but according to Sandy Kelly, who serves on the NHF’s campaign steering committee, much of the flak that came its way had little to nothing to do with shared ownership.
In effect, a lack of understanding about this model of “affordable” home ownership is itself entangled with a mash-up of – some very real, if disconnected – bones of contention simmering in the wider housing market.
“There is a lot of negativity generally around leasehold and issues – genuine and very real – around cladding, service charges, and lease extensions,” said Kelly. “As a sector, and as the NatFed steering group, we need to start looking at how we can work together to change some of these negative perceptions. It’s about separating out which of these criticisms are specifically about shared ownership, and which are around leasehold and bad practice.”
This is exactly what the NHF has set out to do, with a range of FAQs addressing the concerns, as Kelly explained during her brief presentation on the campaign itself. In that sense, it was an instructive episode for the campaign as it moves forward.
Despite those niggles referred to above, the campaign has proved a positive undertaking. As of the time of writing, 45 housing associations are signed up, and the door very much remains open for more to get involved. Consideration is also being given to offering private developers of shared ownership properties the chance to get onboard; further building up the marketing clout to raise public awareness.
“The point about this campaign is strength in numbers, really; it’s about being part of something bigger,” Kelly added.
For those not yet familiar, the three-year campaign was launched in January 2020, after a couple of years in development by the NHF and its partners. The organisation is working with Property Booking and marketing agency AMI to deliver what is predominantly intended to be a digital campaign, but with a strong presence in print and other media too.
Later this year, The Guardian newspaper will be featuring a run of advertorial content under the banner ‘Shared Ownership: Decoded’. Again, as with the wider campaign, its about raising awareness and challenging the myths that have come to surround this hybrid tenure as it has moved from its niche origins to a mainstream housing offer.
At the core of the digital campaign is the sharedownership.net website, which links through to the Property Booking site where potential buyers can see what properties are available, register their interest and so begin their buying journey.
Linked to this, the campaign maintains an interactive presence via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where conversations can begin, and questions answered. In so doing, it aims to further the buying public’s understanding of what shared ownership is, and what it offers for those locked out of the traditional property ladder.
Though the campaign is in its early days, so far analysis of its impact has proved encouraging, Kelly explained.
“The digital campaign has reached seven million people on Facebook and 4.3 million on Twitter, based on the analytics that they have provided,” she said. “There’s been over 40,000 new visitors to the sharedownership.net hub, and 92% of those have come directly from the campaign, which is really positive.
“Out of those 40,000 new visitors to the hub, 13% are then clicking through to Property Booking to look at the properties that are available. So there’s about 5,000 people who have gone through. Property Booking itself has seen an increase of 60% in registered users, a 62% increase in unique users, and 4% of those are actually creating an account.”
This is the kind of tangible data that can be analysed to generate sales leads and to further hone the campaign, but there is a less tangible side, which is inevitably harder to quantify.
“This is around the sentiment, understanding and the awareness part of the campaign, so the measure of that understanding and awareness is a little bit difficult to measure,” Kelly added. But there is a way to gauge impact, as she went on to explain.
“The NatFed did a poll before they launched the campaign, asking the general public about their understanding and awareness of shared ownership,” Kelly said. “After the first year of the campaign, they will do that again. Hopefully, that will show a gain in awareness and understanding among the general public.”
There’s a learning curve, not just for the public but for politicians too. Later this year – coronavirus permitting – the NHF is looking to host an event in Parliament to take the campaign message to MPs. Meanwhile, it’s preparing a ‘toolkit’ of lobbying materials that associations involved in the campaign can use to reach out to their MPs and councillors locally.
Some might feel it’s a pity the NHF and its members can’t put as much effort into lobbying and marketing social housing, but that’s not to decry the need for shared ownership as a route into affordable home ownership. We need more affordable housing across the board, and the mix varies from locality to locality; so too does the awareness of shared ownership as an affordable housing option, hence a further need to raise awareness.
Typically, the public is far more familiar with shared ownership in London and the South East, where it also tends to be an easier sell – literally and metaphorically – but the regions aren’t entirely strangers to the model. This isn’t to say there are no North-South differences.
“The biggest difference is we don’t achieve the same level of off-plan sales that areas of very high demand do, and I don’t think organisations always understand what that is,” said Sovini Group’s Helen Reddington. “In certain areas we just haven’t got the same level of demand; we’ve got different options for people.”
Again, this harks back to variances of existing and required tenure mix in different localities, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is no demand for shared ownership.
“I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that shared ownership doesn’t work in low value areas; it’s about understanding customer aspirations and what their local offer is,” Reddington added.
Riverside’s Lucy Parr has worked for housing associations in London before heading up North, so she has seen the differences and familiarities first-hand.
“Your buyer is a little bit difference,” she said. “People do understand shared ownership more [down South]; it’s more prevalent. The average age for a buyer at Riverside is 42, but we also have a lot of people from relationship breakdowns here, which I never really saw in London. Buyers there were generally young singles or couples. They were earning higher salaries and they were quite well informed.”
Parents can be an issue up North, too, according to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s Sofia Leroux. “[They] want to get involved in everything, I find, and parents don’t understand shared ownership,” she said. “They didn’t have it when they were buying a house, so they find it really odd. I would imagine parents put off a lot of people.”
Helen Spencer, of Great Places Housing Group, suggested the notion of a North-South divide in the understanding and acceptance of shared ownership is perhaps a little over-hyped; the real differences are between and within regions, even here in the North of England.
Rochdale is a case in point, Leroux suggested. “Stockport, everyone seems to know about shared ownership, but in Rochdale nobody seems to know about it,” she said. “There is demand, I just think it’s getting people to understand it.”
So, it’s about “understanding local markets” as Reddington observed.
“The Devil is in the detail”, then, as is so often the case. Indeed, this was an oft-used refrain throughout the discussion, especially when it came to some of the more speculative elements. A case in point was the Government’s suggestion of introducing a Right to Buy for shared ownership. This was ‘hot off the plate’ when our guests gathered, a sub-text to the Chancellor’s Budget announcement of a £12 billion extension to the Affordable Homes Programme.
In a sense, it surely indicates the prominence of shared ownership, and its perceived importance as a means of tackling the crisis in home ownership. Yet for the people sat around the table, whose organisations are tasked with delivering a range of “affordable” tenures, not just shared ownership, the implications are nonetheless sobering.
The concerns are familiar from conventional right-to-buy: the potential loss of “affordable” rental homes, the revenue implications for building replacement homes, but there’s also the knock-on consequences for the delivery of further shared ownership properties.
There’s a lot there for the housing sector to consider, whether or not they are involved in the NHF’s shared ownership campaign. But, then, that’s the job. A better informed public can only make it easier to deliver people’s housing aspirations, no matter the tenure.
Sandy Kelly, head of sales, Onward Homes
Lauren Fisher, head of home ownership, Forbes
Jennifer Hankinson, partner and head of housing, Forbes
Helen Spencer, director of development, Great Places Housing Group
Sarah Tate, commercial and leasehold manager, One Manchester
Sofie Leroux, sales and marketing manager, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing
Helen Reddington, head of sales and commercial housing, Sovini Group
Lucie Parr, sales manager, Riverside
Mark Cantrell, [then] editor, Northern Housing magazine
This Working Lunch took place in March 2020, prior to the COVID-19 lockdown. This article originally featured in Issue 8 of Northern Housing magazine, published in April 2020.