In communications terms, the organisers of the recent London Real Estate Forum had done an excellent job in briefing their first-class line-up of commentators. During a packed programme of overlapping sessions, delving into every aspect of the industry, panellist after panellist was there to talk about the central theme of the conference: people, not property.
As a mantra, it’s a good one. Among the best arguments for working in the built environment sector is the very obvious impact it has on our lives as individuals, couples, families and communities. Without knocking alternative career choices too much, thinking up new ways to promote and help deliver a new type of breakfast cereal doesn’t hold the same appeal to me as a new place.
At the same time, one could argue that if parts of the property sector need a reminder that it’s about people and not just profits, then somehow they’ve quite badly lost their way.
The balance between development as an industrial sector, rather than a support service for our communities and economy is a very delicate one. At the Forum, compelling arguments were made that it was high time that we recognised and sought to rectify failings within our sector. If developers face high affordable housing requirements in London that challenge viability, that is because across the public and private sectors we have not delivered the homes that we needed – and now need to catch up. If new guidelines are introduced on space standards that is because – in the words of one representative from a major housing association – “we need to build homes that reflect how people live, not how we think they should live.”
Private capital doesn’t always have to be the sole solution to plugging these gaps, but we do need more conversations like those we had at LREF on what the answers could be. On both sides, it comes down to trust. Trust that the private sector will deliver results that are not solely focused on investment returns. Trust that the public sector will be able to deploy its resources effectively. Trust that both sides will meet the promises set out as part of a manifesto, or a planning application.
This was another key theme for LREF. Some of the most forward-thinking players in our industry are recognising that parts of the sector have become too combative, with investors and developers pitched against communities rather than working with them to explain a need case and make clear the benefits that investment brings.
Rebuilding that trust across the sector is good for both property and people. Although that may seem obvious to all practitioners, it’s always worth a reminder.
Matt Lloyd is an account director at Camargue