Craig McWilliam: London’s property developers must help restore public trust in their contribution to the city

Craig McWilliam: London’s property developers must help restore public trust in their contribution to the city

I’ve long believed London’s two greatest successes – its ability to attract and retain talent and its capacity to cater for a growing population with a growing quality of life – depend on its ability to create great places: urban neighbourhoods with rich histories and homes for people at all stages of life with mixed incomes and backgrounds.

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.

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, who 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. It seems to me that 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.

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. 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.

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?

At Grosvenor, 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.

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 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.

Craig McWilliam is chief executive of Grosvenor Britain and Ireland. This article is an edited version of a speech he gave at London First’s recent Building London summit.

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