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Developers aren’t the enemy, but they must do more to win over the public

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Southwark Council recently rejected KPF’s £500 million redevelopment of a former biscuit factory site in Bermondsey. Craig McWilliam of Grosvenor, the scheme’s developer, believes his profession has a public image problem

I’ve long believed London’s two greatest success factors – its ability to attract and retain talent and its capacity to cater for a growing population – depend on great places. 

Yet building in our crowded capital is fraught with difficulty. The heady mix of politics, policy, public opinion and the financial realities of development rarely make good bedfellows. 

People too often feel planning is something done to them, not with, or for, them. All the while, growth is putting pressure on our communities, infrastructure and quality of life. 

Our project, and most other build-to-rent schemes, cannot support as much social housing as the council would aspire to

In the last few years, we have allowed development to be perceived not as part of the solution but as the problem. This failure rests jointly with our civic leaders and our industry. We have not been open or willing enough to share and discuss the choices we all face. Partly as a result, the debate is often binary, oversimplified and exhausting. 

Recently Southwark Council rejected Grosvenor’s planning application for 1,300 new homes to rent on the site of a former biscuit factory in Bermondsey. This experience is a pertinent, live, example of the interplay of all these issues. 

Throughout the last five years, we’ve worked hard to talk to the community and the London Borough of Southwark about the benefits our scheme would bring. Chief amongst these is the fact that it would provide homes for the growing majority of Londoners who simply cannot afford to buy and will never be eligible for the few social homes available. 

Inevitably the economics of this design mean that our project, and most other build-to-rent schemes, cannot support as much social housing as the local borough would aspire to as it does not generate as much profit as a build for sale scheme. We have been equally open about this. 

It is astonishing that just 2 per cent of private renters in Southwark could afford to save the deposit for a new home let alone afford the mortgage. So, a for-sale scheme would ultimately deliver more affordable homes but would not deliver any more benefits to those who live and work in the area. 

If the local authority doesn’t talk about those trade-offs then, on the ground, people just hear a binary argument: that developers are not contributing ‘enough’. 

We recently surveyed the UK’s largest real estate owners, investors, developers and their advisers with the British Property Federation. An overwhelming majority did not believe public trust in the UK’s planning system (85 per cent) or real estate industry (75 per cent) was ‘strong’. 

We have failed to demonstrate how our investments and actions are valuable to society

But it’s also true to say that the benefits of new and great places are rarely associated with the actions of developers. 

Like many, we have failed to tell our story clearly or to demonstrate how our investments and actions are valuable to society. And we have failed to genuinely open ourselves and our designs up to public opinion. 

While developers are commercial businesses and need to make profits, their investment needs to be beneficial to the communities they operate in, and society as a whole. 

However, like much in life, achieving both requires difficult choices and trade-offs, often between competing benefits, to be made.

In Southwark, I regret that the broader benefits of build to rent schemes are not being talked about – only the fact that a scheme like ours cannot deliver as much affordable housing as a for-sale scheme, which would deliver truly affordable homes to only a tiny number of people.

I’m an optimist – you have to be if your job is nursing projects that might only come to fruition after you have retired. With that caveat, I genuinely believe that if both the public and private sectors can adapt, there is an enormous and positive opportunity to recast and rehabilitate these relationships. 

At Grosvenor, we know we need to change so, as part of broader efforts, we have committed to an experiment. 

By opening ourselves up to scrutiny and new ideas, we want to see if a fuller, more representative democracy can characterise development in London. 

We will take 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. 

Shaped by conversations with the industry and politicians, we are undertaking the largest ever canvassing of views of trust in placemaking and testing appetite for new ideas for ways of working together. 

Seeking a fairer balance of power between community, planning authority and developer is slightly scary and may well be messy. But if we don’t try we risk at best entrenching anti-development views further at a time when we need to be at our most creative or at worst a damaging inertia. Are you ready to get your hands dirty? 

Craig McWilliam is chief executive of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Southwark council are probably wary of developers not building affordable homes for good reason. Developments like Elephant Park have created this negative public perception for good reason

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