Restoring public trust in placemaking and developers

Craig McWilliam, Chief Executive, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, outlines a new initiative to restore public trust at the 2019 Building London Summit.

This great city faces some unprecedented circumstances. Its appeal, resilience and ability to evolve, for everyone’s benefit, will be tested in the next few years. We all have a hand in a successful outcome.
At Grosvenor, London’s success is our success. As long-term investors, the chance to invest is not just an enormous opportunity, but also an obligation. We’re not moving.
We operate in 60 cities and 10 countries around the world. We are a British, privately-owned property business with a 300-year commitment to London that isn’t about to waver. Quite the reverse.
The capital’s population is growing and the pressures on our communities, infrastructure and quality of life can’t be ignored. So we want to invest in the West End to ease those pressures and see it thrive for everyone. It is London’s cultural and economic powerhouse, but its sustained success isn’t guaranteed.
We will transform our central London estate in Mayfair & Belgravia so that it works harder for London and the West End − being more active, more open, more integrated and greener: giving more to Londoners and visitors; making a greater contribution to society and the environment.
And across the South East of England, we want to help ease the housing shortage, which is felt by too many. We have plans for a new neighbourhood in Bermondsey, inner London, which will deliver 1,300 rental and discounted rental homes − accessible to those locked out of the housing market. While outside London, we have plans for a pipeline of 30,000 homes in the next five years across new neighbourhoods.

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I’ve long believed London’s two greatest success factors depend on its places: its ability to attract and retain talent, nationally and internationally, particularly as we leave the EU; and its capacity to cater for a growing population with a growing quality of life.
In order to do both, London needs great places: urban neighbourhoods with rich histories and homes for people at all stages of life with mixed incomes and backgrounds: the diversity that gives London’s its strength and appeal;  and commercial districts that can host new jobs and opportunities for all: changing to people’s changing needs.
To create and manage such places in London is profoundly challenging. We need closer and more creative collaboration between government and the real estate industry. But bold public sector leadership must be the starting point for success.
Our civic leaders should be judged on the quality of the places their policies create. We need placemaking leadership with a compelling vision for growth, as well as an honest depiction of the trade-offs required to deliver it.

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Where we have seen that kind of public sector leadership, the private sector has delivered fantastic places in the last 20 years as London’s population has grown. But it’s also true to say that the benefits of these places are rarely associated with the actions of developers. As you know, developers are often perceived to be the problem rather than part of the solution.

The space and enterprise for new jobs, homes, schools, parks and public spaces − the infrastructure and amenities that allow communities to thrive − are often judged in a poor-quality public debate about development. That debate prevents a discussion of choices and trade-offs we all face.
It seems to me, this is partly the result of a failure of leadership. The truth is, 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 terms of the environment and society.
And we have also failed to open ourselves up enough to public opinion. We are, of course, in the hands of policy and decision makers − the local planning authorities, the Mayor, the regulators − and therefore, ultimately, public opinion.
We’re not alone. Across London, you will have seen public trust in the planning process and the intentions of developers deteriorate. Creating and managing great places is complex. Clearly developers need to make profits and their investment needs to be socially beneficial. Like much in life, achieving both requires difficult choices and trade-offs to be made.
These trade-offs must be explored and better understood − what the Resolution Foundation called the need to ‘animate the debate.’ But when there is no single solution − particularly to the housing crisis − complexity makes simple assertions attractive. And too often we end in a stand-off between communities, councils and developers.
The result? Old homes become obsolete; fewer new homes are built; infrastructure becomes unfit for purpose and the space for new jobs, schools and public spaces is not delivered. Quality of life in our city deteriorates.

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So what’s the way forward? The first condition for success is public sector leadership to cut through this binary debate. We need greater confidence from that leadership and stable policy to encourage private sector investment at scale − with a recognition that development cannot solve all of society’s challenges. 

And the industry needs to play its defining role. How can we be more transparent so that the choices being made and the outcomes being achieved are understood by everyone? How can we collaborate more creatively with the public sector so that the benefits of our investment are felt more quickly by local people? And how can we demonstrate our social and environmental purpose, and build public trust?

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We accept at Grosvenor we need to change to grow public trust. So as part of broader efforts, we will commit this year to an experiment.  We will take our plans for a new development and throw ourselves open to public opinion – so that we better explain ourselves, seek a wider range of views… And cede control.

By opening ourselves up to scrutiny and new ideas, we want to see if − over time, and with others − a fuller, more representative democracy can characterise planning and development in London, in place of the febrile, oppositional debate today.
We will start with the largest ever canvasing of public views of trust in placemaking. Shaped by conversations with the industry and politicians, we will take the question of trust to the public. In the largest ever survey of its kind, we will test appetite for new ideas: new ways of working together to create great places.
We will discuss the options we all have − our councils, their communities and developers − to hold the public and private sector to account. Because it seems to me both public and private sectors need to change. People too often feel planning decisions are done to them, not with, or for, them. We need a fundamentally new model for more people to interact with the planning system and developers.

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I think we all have an enormous and positive opportunity to recast the approach to creating and managing great places in London. With a bold public sector vision for growth that extends opportunities to all, backed by an honest discussion of the trade-offs in delivering it. With politicians, as community leaders, understanding the cost and benefit of development − and communicating both. And with a fairer balance of power between community, planning authority and developer that brings to life pragmatism, honesty and creativity from all sides.
At Grosvenor, we stand ready to play our part.

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