Housing developers discover the advantages of attitude research

Given that house building is such an emotive subject, the ability of housing developers to use attitude research is opening up real possibilities to avoid the usual stand-off. By objectively understanding not just residents’ concerns but their potential hopes from the outset, developers now have a potential way forward when faced with a very vocal and yet often minority group of objectors.

Interestingly, Government funded research through the British Social Attitudes survey, undertaken in 2018, showed that 57% of people said they support more homes being built in the local area, against 23% who oppose it. The challenge to win residents’ hearts and minds comes when ‘more homes’ are located in ‘my back yard’.

The resulting protracted, costly and painful battle commences. A developer proposes a new housing estate and immediately a vocal group of campaigners against it come up with a wide range of plausible objections and define the debate invariably in purely negative terms. More importantly they claim to represent all residents. But what about the benefits residents could be achieving in terms of local infrastructure and the environment if a development went ahead? For example road improvements, enhancing school provision, funding for a new doctors surgery or an ecological project?

Research undertaken by Cognisant in the last 12 months suggests that the level of support for local development the government identified back in 2018 remains consistent today. Inevitably this will make for uncomfortable reading for those vehemently opposed to development, but that shouldn’t stop them reflecting on the proportionate and considered use of research to inform the public debate on future housebuilding.

As with everything in market research it is essential that the sampling method is robust. Not only is it important to generate the right number of responses, these must be representative of the population you wish to reflect. It is also important to avoid bias by making sampling as random as possible, ensuring interest groups on either side of the debate aren’t over represented. Inevitably bias has a way of finding its way into attitudinal studies such as this, possibly because those most likely to respond to the survey hold a different view to the rest of the population. However, if this is the case it is essential to anticipate and then mitigate any potential impact that might undermine the credibility of the study.

After sampling, the robustness of the market research approach is the next priority. As a Market Research Society Company Partner we adhere to the MRS Code of Conduct and MRS Company Partner Quality Commitment, placing the rights of the respondent at the heart of what we do. Yet that hasn’t stopped critics of our work claiming we have made people feel they are in the wrong if they won’t say they support development. We’ve been accused of cold-calling hundreds of residents as part of a public relations exercise, when in truth we’d contacted thousands as part of a legitimate market research study.

The appropriateness of question design is critical in providing our clients with the insight they need to inform their not just their high level decision-making process but their communications messaging, often now a days through social media, to the wider resident base on the ground.

Asking a leading question will undermine the credibility of a study in the same way as inviting a self-selecting sample. The truth is that the critics of development need to open their own minds to the possibility that members of the public don’t hold the same views on development as they do. Indeed, it’s also worth reflecting on how well informed the local community is about local development, as our research has shown that only a small minority are even aware of planning applications, let alone whether they’ve formed a view on whether they oppose them or not.

Analysis is the final consideration to ensure evidence is presented accurately, not simply to fulfil a predetermined outcome. Whilst this can prove challenging, genuine insight can only be gained from truly understanding a problem, be it that local residents are genuinely opposed to a proposed development or that there are benefits that come from a development that are genuinely liked. Analysis can also identify the existence of bias. In one recent study the results provided by one specific respondent cohort were so different to other groups it became clear that they represented a co-ordinated effort to influence the outcome, enabling us to normalise the impact of this bias on the final analysis.

Local development is undoubtedly an emotive subject, but that doesn’t mean that the debate should become a hostage to hyperbole. Understanding local attitudes towards development means understanding the spectrum of opinions the public holds, from those eager to benefit from a new home to those opposed to development at all costs. In communities where opposition to development and specific Planning Applications is strong it must surely be better to accurately understand resident’s attitudes. However, for the results to stand up, it is essential to take a structured, dispassionate and robust research approach.