April 29, 2019
April 8, 2019
Developers Have To Give Up Control To Win Back Public Trust
One comment pretty much says it all.
“I don’t want to feel like a poor person in my own backyard.”
That was what one resident in Tottenham, North London, told developer Argent Related during its community engagement and consultation process ahead of a planning application for a new 1,000-home scheme.
It sums up the fear existing communities have of new developments and the people who build them — concerns of being economically excluded, pushed aside by new arrivals, by developers focused only on profit, and local authorities that don’t do enough to hold them to account.
“There is a fear that new people, with more money, will come in and disturb the status quo,” Argent Related Project Director Rosie Cade said.
“Developers are the new bankers,” Built-ID Chief Executive and founder Savannah de Savary said. “They’re seen as greedy, just coming into communities and taking, not giving. Young people have previously been quite apathetic, but in the post-Grenfell world, the built environment is becoming more important, and people want a say in their landscape and the place where they live.”
“Because of the way these things have worked, communities think development is something that happens to them,” Grosvenor Britain & Ireland Chief Executive Craig McWilliam said.
As this apathy slips away from the general public and development becomes more contentious, the old way of doing things is having to change. The planning system has its problems, and can make new development slower than it could be. But the kind of big, dense, mixed-use urban schemes that could provide large amounts of new homes and business space is often killed because local communities don’t trust developers. And the more acute the shortage of homes and business space gets, the more passionate local communities become about making sure new schemes benefit the many rather than the few.
Because people fear change and see development as a threat to the status quo, there will always be an inherent tension in the relationship between developers and local communities. But the problems are not insurmountable, and innovative and forward-thinking companies are finding ways to engage communities in new projects that allow partnerships to be created and the new development cities need to grow to occur.
It is not easy. It takes hard work, money, humility and above all empathy. Bisnow spoke to some of the companies that are blazing a trail. Not all of them succeed every time, and Bisnow also spoke to some of the opponents of their schemes, who outline the problems they still see. But these projects are laying the foundations for a new type of relationship between the real estate world and the communities it serves.
Go early and get cold
The best engagement happens well before a planning application is submitted, and allows people to feel they have genuinely provided input to a new scheme, to the point of being able to change elements they don’t like. A mindset where developers become more transparent and cede control to people they might previously have seen as opponents is required to succeed today. But many developers aren’t operating this way yet.
“I’ve been to enough of these consultation meetings where you just turn up with your well-healed consultants and talk at people in a language they don’t understand,” U+I Chief Executive Matthew Weiner said.
Argent Related began consulting on plans for its Tottenham scheme as much as 18 months before plans were submitted, and Grosvenor had initial discussions with residents four years ahead of submitting plans for a £500M build-to-rent scheme in Bermondsey.
Argent Related held open consultation meetings where anyone could come along and canvassed opinions on the street, which went down well in the recent sub zero temperatures earlier this year — residents enjoyed seeing the rich developers getting cold, Cade said.
But it also involved small design workshops targeting specific community organisations to get their input. The local council advised on the key groups that should be consulted to make sure hard-to-reach parts of the community that would never turn up to a planning meeting were brought into the process.
The specific concern of the resident quoted earlier was that as new, often more upmarket, apartments for rent and for sale were built, the shops and restaurants that were part of the scheme would be out of their price range. As a result, Argent Related will give existing residents input into the retail and leisure element of the scheme.
“We haven’t got far enough down the line to know how it will work, but it was a recurring theme, people wanted a say on the kind of retail and leisure operators there would be in their area,” Cade said.
Estate regeneration done well
Large-scale regeneration of existing estates have been a hugely controversial topic in London for the past two decades. Haringey Council scrapped a £2B joint venture with Lendlease to undertake such a regeneration following major public opposition, and CapCo is locked in a battle with local residents and Hammersmith & Fulham Council over its plans for two estates that form part of its wider Earls Court plans.
One huge scheme that has to a large degree avoided mass protests is Berkeley’s regeneration of the the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney, East London, where over 25 years it will replace 1,890 post-war flats with 5,000 new homes: a mix of new flats for existing residents, new socially rented flats and high-end apartments. The scheme is a joint venture with Hackney Council and housing association Genesis.
There has been some opposition, but far less than with other similar situations. Berkeley Pre-Development Director Daniel Massie puts that down to the company’s engagement with residents and the local authority early in the process, giving them a genuine stake in how the development proceeded.
It created a new vehicle called the Woodberry Down Community Association to consult on each stage of the planned development. It consists of 12 members, including six residents of the estate voted for by other residents, plus six from the three joint venture partners. The group has been required to reach consensus on what gets put forward for planning, before the first planning application was submitted, and on every element of the scheme since.
“It gives people a formal voice in the way their community is being shaped,” Massie said. “It brought people in early and allowed us to create a shared vision. There are common objectives between us and the residents: We all want to see better apartments being built for existing residents, better public realm, better community facilities. It doesn’t make for a quick process, but you need to build consensus, and it means both sides have a better understanding of each other. And if you do this work up front, it saves you a lot of time later.”
Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes
When looking to build trust with communities, it is important for developers to remember that trust is a quality that works both ways: Communities need to trust developers, but developers need to trust the community too, rather than just presuming ignorance of the development process and how it works.
“People can really take on complex information if you explain it patiently and well,” Cade said. “In Tottenham, we had sessions where we went through the viability assessments and explained how we got to the affordable housing numbers, or what specific buildings in the master plan would look like. People love being taken through things in detail.”
Part of bridging the gap between developers and local communities is about understanding how those whose environment is about to be changed might see that change. With that in mind, Argent Related held a “hackathon” as part of its consultation for another scheme at Brent Cross, where each member of its team was given the persona of a different kind of local resident or user of the scheme, and was told to think about how that person might feel about the planned development. The aim was to create as much empathy as possible with the people whose lives would be affected. They might be a young professional, busy mum or long-term resident with mobility issues.
"It showed you that even people who didn’t use the scheme that much and might not attend a planning meeting could have strong opinions on what you are planning,” Cade said.
Technology and making a game of things
Reaching those people with quiet voices is a big challenge for developers, and incorporating the views of those who don’t want to engage face to face or at a meeting is an important process, and can potentially be hugely beneficial in terms of winning crucial support from the local authorities that ultimately give consent to new schemes. And technology can potentially assist this.
Built-ID recently launched a new tool which seeks to utilise social media and technology to engage as many people as possible in the planning process. Give-My-View allows the local public to digitally vote on elements of a new scheme being built near them. The tool can be geo-fenced so that only people near to the scheme can vote on questions related to it. To incentivise people to engage, when they vote, donations are made by the developer to a local charity, with the voter picking from a range of causes offered. The tool is an example of gamification, a major trend in consumer technology.
“A lot of people, if they’ve got any kind of normal life, don’t have time to go to their town hall for a planning meeting,” Built-ID’s de Savary said. “And it can be an intimidating environment, especially if you’re not a middle-class professional, and that environment can put a lot of people off. Social media can be great in this respect. You can engage with people from different backgrounds, and you can engage with thousands of people, and use what they think to create data to drive decisions: 70% of people think A, so we should be trying to do that with our scheme. It is about relinquishing control to a degree.”
Grosvenor is one of the companies trialling the tool on a new scheme it is planning.
“We are trying to be more open, and we are looking at ways to engage people that wouldn’t normally be part of the planning process,” Grosvenor’s McWilliam said. “We are trying to create a structure where people can respond and feel like they are being listened to. We’ve done a lot of research and polling on this issue, and we’ve found that people don’t associate the benefits of new schemes with the development process; they associate that with the public sector. They don’t trust the outcome, they think that somewhere along the way something gets eroded, so we are trying to be as open as possible at all stages. You need to be clear about the economics, about what you can and can’t afford.”
There is another topic that bubbles under the surface of every interaction between developers and a local community: money. Communities think that developers make a profit without giving any benefit back to the community. And large property companies inherently have greater financial resources when it comes to hiring the consultants needed to argue their case in the planning process.
So one developer is looking to redress that balance. U+I has been looking to reshape the image of public-private partnerships, where developers create joint ventures to provide new homes and commercial buildings on public land. As part of this process, it has put in place a series of structures which are essentially seeking to prove to local authorities and the communities they represent that they are not just out to make a quick buck.
For all its developments it will now create a community engagement fund, a pot of money that the local community can use to pay for services that will help people better understand the impact of a new scheme. It has also agreed that if its profit on a scheme rises above a certain level, it will share the excess profits with the local community.
“I think people understand that if a private company takes a risk, then it has a right to make a profit,” U+I’s Weiner said. “What they object to is when a developer makes a super profit, so we are saying if a project makes a return above a certain hurdle, then we will share that with the community.”
This is likely to come in the form of a menu of options the community can choose to have the money spent on.
Weiner said that the commitment might make it unpopular with local authorities — it already undertakes profit shares with its public sector partners, and this would cut back some of the profit that flows directly to public coffers. But he said it is important to show the public the direct link between their schemes and the benefit for the community they can create.
In terms of the community engagement fund, Weiner said it was about giving local communities the ability to engage in the planning process as fully as possible.
“If you are not lucky enough to live in somewhere that there is a barrister that can help out with the planning process, then you might not have the best representation. This fund means there would be money available for planning advice. Or it can sometimes be hard, even if you are told a building is 12 storeys high, to understand what that looks like, but the fund might allow you to pay for virtual reality technology that means you can better understand what the scheme will look like.”
Ultimately, community engagement is something that is hard to get right, and nigh-on impossible to do perfectly. In spite of how innovative Argent Related seems when put against the majority of developers, its Tottenham scheme still only won planning permission from the local council by six votes to five.
Grosvenor clearly thinks about this problem deeply, but its £500M build-to-rent scheme in Bermondsey was rejected by the local authority earlier this year. One of the opponents to the scheme said the company did almost everything right, but it still wasn’t enough.
“It was a shame really, because it was a really long process, and they did engage with the community, and got involved with lots of events,” Liberal Democrat Councillor Anood Al-Samerai said. “They got to know the community well, and there were plenty of people who spoke in favour of the scheme at planning meetings.”
Where things went wrong is that exact details about the height of the scheme and the exact levels of affordable housing were not revealed until relatively late in the process, she said.
“They had been engaging for four years, and then only revealed these details in the last four months. And after that they became a lot less transparent and responsive.”
McWilliam for his part contests this.
“We were always very open and transparent about the heights and the issues around affordable housing and how the economics of build-to-rent are different from conventional sale,” he said. “I think the idea that we hadn’t been open just suited the political agenda of some of the people who were against the scheme.”
The problem is hard, but one that needs to be addressed. And from adversity can come better outcomes. Cade talked about how, during the consultation process, Haringey Council was subject to a high-profile change, which saw its leadership, perceived as part of the centrist group of the left-wing Labour Party, being ousted by more hard-left leaders. This led to the scrapping of the £2B joint venture with Lendlease.
“During the consultation process the atmosphere became much less pro-development, but I think that was actually a blessing in disguise,” she said. “It meant that we had to really examine our strategy, run more events, think creatively and work even harder to engage, and I think people appreciated that.”
Fail again. Fail better. The growth of city economies needs it.