Shaping places and public trust

On 12 June 2018, Craig McWilliam, Chief Executive, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, gave a keynote speech to the London Real Estate Forum.

Good evening, I’m Craig McWilliam, Chief Executive of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. It's great to see you all here. The team at the London Real Estate Forum have done an incredible job putting this year's programme together.

Grosvenor is a British, privately-owned property business, in 60 cities and 10 countries across the world. 

With the capital’s growth - and the pressure it is putting on our communities, infrastructure and quality of life - we want our estate in Mayfair and Belgravia in the West End to be more active, more open and more integrated: a more popular place, working harder for the capital.

And we have plans for one of London’s great new neighbourhoods in Bermondsey hosting 1,300 rental and discounted rental homes; alongside a pipeline of 9,000 homes in new neighbourhoods across the south east.

London’s success is our success, and as long-term investors, we see the chance to invest as an enormous opportunity, as well as an obligation. 

And of course the entire real estate sector has delivered fantastic places across London as the capital’s population has grown in the last 20 years: successful commercial districts hosting new jobs and opportunities; and mixed urban neighbourhoods with new homes.

But it’s also true to say that the benefits of these places are rarely associated with the actions of developers. In fact, developers are often perceived to be the problem rather than part of the solution.

The space and places for new jobs, homes, schools, parks and public spaces - the infrastructure and amenities that allow communities to thrive - they're too often judged by a poor quality public debate about development.

That debate prevents a discussion of the choices and trade-offs to be made.

Of course we're in the hands of policy and decision makers - the local planning authorities, the Mayor, the regulators - and ultimately, public opinion. And like all businesses, we face the growing call to demonstrate and explain our value to society.

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 how development is valuable both in financial terms and to society.

So we’ll need consistently and openly to explain our purpose and our point of view. And we'll need to do more to meet the public's aspirations for the local benefits of private investment.

Public trust in the planning process and the intentions of the real estate industry is deteriorating. Creating and managing great places is complex. Clearly we need developers to make profits and their developments to deliver social benefit. And like much in life, achieving both requires difficult choices and trade-offs to be made.

Those trade-offs have to be explored and better understood - what the Resolution Foundation recently called the need to ‘animate the debate’.

We know for example that we need more homes, particularly in the capital, and that it will be a challenge. Local councils face budget cuts and caps on their ability to borrow to deliver homes. Land is scarce. Private developers are willing to invest, but only at a rate of return that justifies the risks they bear.

And because there is no single solution to the housing shortage, complexity makes simple assertions attractive - with a stand-off between communities, developers and the public sector. We have a binary debate instead of pragmatism, honesty and creativity from all sides.

So what’s the way forward?

A starting point is public sector leadership to cut through that binary debate. We need to see greater confidence created by leadership and stable policy to encourage private sector investment at scale.

And the industry needs to play a leading role.

  • How can we be more transparent, so that the choices being made and the outcomes being achieved are understood by all?
  • ​How can we achieve deeper collaboration with the public sector to speed up the delivery of benefits locally?
  • How can we better explain our purpose and point of view and grow trust with our communities? 

I think we have an enormous, positive opportunity to recast these conversations together - and with it to recast the approach to creating and managing great places.

We stand ready to play our part.

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