Rebuilding trust in developers and the planning system

On 16 July 2019, Craig McWilliam, Chief Executive, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, gave a keynote speech to Centre for London’s conference ‘Developing Trust: Public participation in London’s planning system.’ The transcript can be read below.

Craig calls for bold public sector leadership and a new approach from private developers. He offers Grosvenor’s new openness and seeks a wider range of voices in the discussion of the choices and trade-offs facing communities, developers and local councils. He also shares Grosvenor’s new research which can be found here.

This great city faces some unprecedented circumstances. Its appeal, its ability to evolve for everyone’s benefit is going to be tested in the next few years. We all have a hand in a successful outcome.


At Grosvenor, we're long-term investors. The chance to invest is not just an opportunity, it's also an obligation. We’re not moving. London’s success is our success. We operate in 60 cities and 10 countries around the world and have a 300-year commitment to London that isn’t about to waver.


We want to transform our central London estate in Mayfair and Belgravia to see it working harder for London and the West End by being more active, more open, more integrated, greener.


And across London and the South East, we want to help ease the housing shortage, felt by too many. We have plans for a new neighbourhood in Bermondsey, inner London hosting 1,300 rental and discounted rental homes. And outside the capital, we aim to create a pipeline of 30,000 homes in the next five years across new neighbourhoods.


So we accept the country needs to build more homes. And we see the standoff between communities, councils and developers that too often prevents them. A standoff that has stopped a discussion of the choices and trade-offs we all face. I believe this standoff is partly the result of a failure of leadership.


At Grosvenor, like many property companies, we have failed to tell our story in clear enough ways. We have historically failed to describe development that is valuable in financial terms as well as to the environment and for society.


We have shied away from instigating and leading a more open discussion of the choices and trade-offs facing communities, developers and councils.


We haven’t made it easy for the public to understand the financial drivers and key decisions underpinning a development. And sometimes, we haven’t been transparent enough.


I reflect on the way our proposals in Bermondsey for a new neighbourhood and 1,300 rental homes were unanimously turned down this year. I am disappointed we failed to instigate and sustain a broad enough public debate about the choices, the trade-offs, the public benefits, the private gain.


And I am disappointed civic leaders didn’t air those choices. We were not open enough or brave enough to do that and we’re determined to rectify that in future.


Of course this project is not unique − nor are these circumstances. We need a fundamentally new model for more people to interact with the planning system and developers. Public and private sectors need to change.


We want to play our part. And with others, we want to generate a new model. To start, we created an evidence base. We canvassed councillors, businesses and over 2,000 members of the public. We wanted to understand the problem and see if some solutions emerged. Let me very briefly give you just a very few of the findings. The full set is online


When it comes to large-scale development just 2% of the public trust private developers to act in an honest way. Only 7% of the public trust local authorities to act in the best interests of the area. The people who engage in planning are more likely to think that development has had a negative impact on their local area solutions emerged.


Equally, private developers are closely associated in the public imagination with profit maximisation above all else. 75% of the public believes developers only care about making or saving money. At the extreme, people believe developers extract profit from their neighbourhoods and give the least possible back.


When it comes to large-scale development, distrust in local authorities is broader based. And because accountability for a place is blurred, perceptions of councils are partly shaped by perceptions of developers. 49% of the public believe councils only care about making or saving money. 43% believe that councils are not held to account on their promises.


We also asked what would help rebuild trust and raft of ideas came back from the public. They fell under three broad efforts.


First, trust would be underpinned by a better and broader understanding of the interaction of private profit and public gain, of risk and reward. How can we make it easier for the public to weigh the value and costs created by a development? And how have the costs and benefits of development − including private profit and public gain − been calculated and distributed?


Second, trust would grow if public and private sector actors were held to account to a greater extent than they’re seen to be now. How can they be better held to account when short-term decisions on large-scale development are complex, technical and come with long-term consequences? And how can the planning process be less opaque and come with more options to hold decision-makers and developers to account?


And finally, the public felt trust would be rebuilt if people had more meaningful, practical and popular influence over the results of large-scale development. How can the public’s influence over a place be opened by a more diverse range of voices than they are now? And how can that influence come with greater interest and understanding in the choices and trade-offs?


Developers and councils all need to be involved. To get more people involved in planning decisions. To explain ourselves better. To increase transparency.


At Grosvenor we’ve made some short term commitments to do that. And we’ve made a call to work with others and to generate a broader public debate about the homes we need. 


The prize is really worth working hard for: more homes and better places across the country, with closer and more creative collaboration between government and the real estate industry to the grow the public’s influence.


Bold public sector leadership is the starting point for success. And we need placemaking leadership from the public and private sectors with a compelling vision for growth, as well as an honest depiction of the trade-offs required to deliver it.

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