Last year’s scrapping of PFI was a low point for the reputation of public-private partnerships. But if revamped, they could still have a vital role to play in regeneration, argues U+I developer Matthew Weiner
Public Private Partnerships: are they still fit for purpose? As PFI and large-scale public sector outsourcing have fallen out of favour over the past year – ultimately being abolished by the chancellor in the wake of Carillion’s collapse – while controversial schemes such as the Haringey Development Vehicle faced scrutiny, PPP’s reputation has undoubtedly been tarnished.
Challenges to the PPP concept are valid. Its core purpose has always been to develop public sector land using the best of private sector capability and knowledge, but in some cases, developments have drifted away from this ideal. We can all recall poor PPP schemes that can only loosely be termed ‘partnerships”. Schemes where communities feel a development has been thrust upon them, or where a new facility doesn’t really meet their needs. Schemes where developers have been left exposed to too much political risk, or where public authorities have been forced to sell off valuable assets.
We can all recall schemes where communities feel a development has been thrust upon them
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that while 78 per cent of British adults agree that public sector organisations should ensure their unused land is developed to provide housing and create new places and public amenities for local communities, 45 per cent feel negatively about the use of PPPs to develop publicly owned land.
Yet we recognise the huge value that PPP can bring to the towns and cities of the UK, many of which have undergone an extraordinary renaissance in the last decade. And much of that renaissance has been delivered by enlightened and genuine partnerships; the coming together of developer, the public sector and the local community where there is a shared vision and purpose. This kind of partnership is key for developers, but it is also important for architecture, too. The only way architects can design great buildings is by working with the public sector and community to understand what they need – if not in formal partnership, then in collaboration and consultation.
So how do we make sure PPP remains a positive route to regeneration? More than that, how can we make it even better? These are the questions we set out to answer through our recent consultation and subsequent report, PPP: The Reset.
Through a series of roundtable discussions and interviews, we spoke to a range of voices from the public, private and civic sectors, bringing together representatives from Homes England, Network Rail, the NHS, Transport for London and the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership, to name but a few. And listening to their views helped us distil what lies at the heart of great PPP.
If you get the community to buy into your long-term vision, they will become project champions
First and foremost, partnerships should be between equals. So many of the problems that result from PPP schemes are down to an imbalance of trust and power. We need more creativity and collaboration from the way we mitigate risk to the way we approach land values and financing, and to the masterplans we design for a site.
Secondly, community must be the focus. We need to ensure that profit has a purpose; that a project is delivering social as well as economic benefit. That kind of authentic engagement means taking time, genuinely listening and responding to those who will ultimately end up using a development. If you get the community to buy into your long-term vision, they will become project champions and, more importantly perhaps, project guardians.
Doing this requires action and a commitment to change. This is why, following the consultation, we have made a series of bold commitments to hold ourselves to account in how we deliver our PPP schemes. These include establishing an independent community challenge panel which will bring together representatives from the public sector, civic society and other developers – and the appointment of a new non-executive director to oversee it. On certain schemes, we’ll also share any profit we make above an agreed financial return with our public partner and the local community directly via a community profit share arrangement.
We hope this standard of best practice delivery of PPP projects will help build better places which genuinely respond to local needs. We also hope it is something that others in the sector will be proud to join, thereby ensuring a healthy future for the public and private sectors working together for the benefit of the community.
Matthew Weiner is chief executive of property developer and investor U+I
AJ Summit: Collaborate to Create takes place on 4 April at U+I’s head office in London Victoria. To find out more, click here