People are instinctive: what we value above all else – deep down – are things such as food, security and a sense of belonging. So when faceless developers impose huge structural changes upon a community, is it so surprising how we react?
Fear, suspicion and anger come to the surface: “These new arrivals are unfamiliar. They’re different to me, richer than me. Unrepresentative. Where did that ugly glass tower come from? I’ve had no say in this.”
It can seem like an alien invasion – huge, irrelevant, inhumane buildings stomped by outsiders onto our townscapes, then described in alien-speak as 'trophy' assets. Anonymous housing estates, and unintuitive out-of-town retail parks taking over the countryside.
We have learned this the hard way, first-hand: when the people of Deptford found out in 2014 that the 121 flats within our development had been sold 'off plan' to investors, the aliens were us.
We’d established, seven years earlier, a £48m long-term Public Private Partnership (PPP) with Lewisham Council, and our brief had been – put simply – to use private residential development to boost the local economy and reinvigorate Deptford High Street.
After riding out the downturn, then securing planning, the pragmatic option for getting the scheme built had been to sell these homes in bulk to a firm that would market them overseas, as buy-to-let investments.
As soon as these off plan sales went public, we became the gentrifiers du jour – branded by locals, bloggers and irate journalists as parasites, blamed for piggybacking on 'Shoreditchification' and profiting from the perceived displacement of local people. Lewisham Council, having put its own land into the agreement, was also lambasted for its role.
Were they right to hate us? Maybe they were…
Other developers tend to classify all this 'noise' as a hazard of the trade: despite the permanent humanitarian impact of our actions, we herald changes so slow and indirect that any duty of care is someone else’s problem (usually the Government’s).
And I think our detractors are quite right in viewing property as unrepresentative and unaccountable. The stereotype is accurate: property is dominated by distant, rich white men.
It’s easy to see why the industry is so far behind other sectors in this regard – compared with faster-moving, more consumer-facing industries, the property market can seem impervious to fluctuations in consumer sentiment.
But I believe we are foolish to dismiss people’s real concerns. I believe that the world is starting to change, and we can’t walk past any more, muttering “Haters gonna hate”. Ignoring public dissent is not only ethically questionable, it also represents an unsustainable business model, looking ahead to the future.
We’re launching a private-rented residential brand. Potential customers? They’ll shun us if they don’t trust what we represent. So will the talent that we’re trying to attract to our organisation.
If we don’t become more representative, inclusive and humane, then we could get left behind. It’s the only intelligent route.
And it’s not enough for this to happen at just a corporate level. It has to happen on the ground too, in practice. We’ve been left with several vital lessons by our detractors in Deptford. The first is that community engagement, consultation and proper communication is a never-ending process.
During the seven-year gestation of The Deptford Project, our programme of 'meanwhile uses', our intensive public consultation, our transparency and collaboration with our public partners were all, arguably, exemplary.
And yet as we went from promises and planning into delivery mode, we became complacent. We failed to communicate or engage people over the realities behind the choices we’d been forced to make, or the direction that the Council had asked us to take. It’s no wonder the off- plan sales seemed like such a cynical and pragmatic move, after all the preceding talk.
The second lesson is even more important. It is about substance – about backing up what we say with what we actually do. Ultimately, our reputation will change for the better if our places do, repeatedly, because just as people are instinctive about the negative aspects of change, so too are people instinctively hopeful and craving of many other kinds of change too.
Indeed, we will embrace change if the underlying substance of that change is irrefutably positive.
People hope for a better, more secure future for their family. A good education for their children. A new library, or a reinstated high street for their market town. A vibrant cultural life locally. When John Cadbury built Bourneville in Birmingham, he delivered jobs, shops, green space and homes for his residents. He was a developer not just of buildings, but of hope and happier lives, and he was liked. Why not us?
The irony in Deptford, a U+I project that has now completed, is that the scheme was far more integrated and nuanced than the headlines ever suggested. Our motives did have real substance, and the scheme itself fulfilled a huge socioeconomic wish list.
We renovated the site’s Grade II-listed carriage ramp; filled 14 railway arches with a mix of commercial spaces (guaranteeing small businesses a significant discount on rents there for five years); refurbished St Paul’s House to provide affordable flats; transformed an unloved car park and a backstreet illegal drugs corner into a public piazza and market; used inspiring architecture throughout; and instilled life and vibrancy.
The list goes on – we have made a significant difference to the fortunes of Deptford High Street, cultivating small businesses and injecting new life.
But let’s bring it back to instincts. On top of things such as security, food and a sense of belonging, what we also need universally is shelter. And it’s fair to say that the newly revitalised Deptford town centre means little to the person who can’t afford to buy a home in Zone 2.
If most of our industry continues to repeat mistakes, then it should be easy for a company (and the places that this company is responsible for commissioning) to stand out as different, as better.
That’s why we’re focusing increasingly on areas of real need for housing and economic growth – from Hayes to Sittingbourne. It’s why we’re tackling the Private Rented Sector head-on. It’s why we're exploring new residential formats, and challenging things such as density in tighter, urban areas. It’s why we’re a consistent partner of choice for accountable public bodies, from Transport for London and the London Fire Brigade to dozens of local authorities.
As an industry, we have to excite people with the prospect
of change and hope, rather than change and hate. If more developers wake up to that, then it will become a race not to the bottom, but to the top.