We need to regain communities’ trust if we are to tackle the housing challenge, says Grosvenor’s Alex Robinson
As the new government looks to get to grips with a full in-tray, housing remains a huge priority for the electorate. A recent poll from the Chartered Institute of Housing found that 73% of the population believe we now face a housing crisis in Britain. Perhaps encouragingly for those looking to tackle that crisis, 52% support the building of new homes locally – up from 40% five years ago.
Our own research, however, raises a key challenge: public trust in the planning system and the property industry is at an historic low. Over the summer we published data showing that just 2% of the public trust developers, and only 7% trust local authorities to make good decisions about large-scale development.
What these two surveys, in short, tell us is that when it comes to housing, developers are seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Just 2% of the public trust developers
So, what can be done? An important starting point is to build strong relationships with local authorities. The perceived adversarial nature of the planning system – pitting councils against developers – doesn’t serve communities in need of new homes and facilities. Partnering directly is one way to challenge perceptions and it’s a route we have taken forward ourselves at our Barton Park development in Oxford, where we’ve formed Barton Oxford with Oxford council. Delivered through a master developer model, the objective behind Barton Park is not just to build homes, but to meet the wider social, health and community needs of the wider area too – with a primary school, sports pavilion and new transport links forming an integral part of the project.
We need to start a proper and honest debate about the choices and trade-offs of development
To deliver these benefits, however, we need to start a proper and honest debate about the choices and trade-offs of development – including viability. We should be concerned by the statistic from our research that suggests 75% of the public think developers only care about making or saving money. That’s a stark call for the industry to be more communicative about the social goods we provide alongside new homes: amenities for the use of local residents, such as open green spaces, highway improvements, and funding for new GPs or schools. Importantly, we need to make sure these conversations happen as part of a dialogue on which facilities a community values most. By being clear on the trade-offs involved, both sides can start to rebuild their faith in the development process.
The discussion on those trade-offs also needs to start early. By being transparent about the process, unafraid to engage with the communities in which we’re building, and genuinely willing to adapt our proposals in line with feedback, we can help local people to feel as though development is being done for them, not at them. In the past, our industry has been guilty of presenting plans as a fait accompli, looking to justify a planning requirement rather than for genuine feedback. In this scenario, local campaigners are easily dismissed as nimbys – rather than gateways to understanding community priorities and concerns that are essential to making new developments work in the long term.
This is informing our approach to another development, the Oxfordshire Cotswold Garden Village, where we recently ran a four-day design charette. The aim was to allow local people to feed in ideas for the scheme well in advance of planning. Many were pleasantly surprised – they hadn’t experienced anything like it before and had enjoyed taking part. More importantly, the discussions we’ve held are helping us to understand the areas of local need that the scheme can address, as well as the trade-offs that both sides may need to make as the project comes forward.
Many other parts of our industry are working in similar ways, but unless we raise standards across the board then the sector as a whole will continue to be viewed with suspicion. If we are to meet the public’s calls to overturn the housing crisis, then we’ll need first to gain its trust.
Alex Robinson is director of development for Strategic Land at Grosvenor Britain & Ireland