James Bishop: The power of partnerships will drive our recovery


The property industry is not well loved by the public. Negative stereotypes of greedy, voracious developers, caring only for their profits and not for the communities in which they work, prevail. Trust is at a very low ebb. Yet while there may be a small minority who live up to this reputation, most do not and there is an enormous amount of activity across our industry that should be celebrated.

Indeed, it has been cheering to read over the past weeks, as the coronavirus crisis has gripped the country, of the efforts our industry has made not only to support the NHS, in whatever way we can (through logistics, the use of empty buildings, the provision of beds in hotels for the homeless, or simply raising much-needed cash) but also to support the local businesses that are the life blood of our communities.

Our sector has done much to make me feel proud. But noting this does not mean we should expect thanks. At this time, clapping is rightfully reserved for the NHS and frontline workers who have done their all to help the country out the grip of this awful disease. However, as an industry, we should quietly make note of the civic mindedness that has come to the fore over the past few months and carry that with us into the future.

Because that sense of civic duty, that community spirit, is going to be vital in helping our towns and communities recover from this crisis. It will be the animating spirit of the successful partnerships that will be needed to drive recovery.

For while the government has stepped up to the plate with public intervention unprecedented in this country’s history to protect the economy, that action is necessarily finite. In the medium to long term recovery must be driven by the private sector. That does not mean charity but investment and enterprise – in partnership with government, local authorities, other public sector organisations, as well as smaller developers and businesses. We can’t do it alone. We all must play our part.

If we thought that after the Great Recession of 2008 that the public finances were in a dire state, then all the evidence suggests recovery from the current crisis is going to be even tougher. That is not a counsel of despair, but it does mean we must look once again, with urgency, at creative and innovative forms of partnerships that can drive recovery across our towns and cities.

These partnerships have never been more important. From our work we know that the best and most successful public/private partnerships are those where value is created for all involved. For the public sector, local communities and other stakeholders, that value can take many forms – regeneration done well has an enormously widespread positive social impact that can be hard to capture by any single metric – while for the private sector, that generally means profit.

Let’s not be reticent about that but simply understand that it’s necessary for investment – that the cash required to drive recovery will flow into areas where entrepreneurial, innovative and creative public sector organisations look to the private sector as a genuine partner to help transform places. And vice versa.

We must also look for opportunities to work with other partners across our sector. Smaller developers or landowners who have an opportunity but lack the risk capital or capacity to bring a project forward. U+I was born out of a marriage between a large property company (Dev Secs) and a smaller creative developer (Cathedral). Understanding how important these smaller players are and how they operate remains part of our DNA.

Take our recent success in achieving planning permission for the redevelopment of Newtown Works in Ashford. Here we are working in partnership with Quinn Estates and this is now our fourth project together. Together, we will transform this site, full of character and heritage, delivering much-needed homes, film studio space, offices, a hotel and parking to the Ashford community. The fact that the plans were given consent at a virtual planning committee also demonstrates how local authorities are innovating in response to the challenges the crisis poses.

We believe the outcomes that can be achieved through working in positive partnerships – either with the public sector or other private – are always greater than those that can be achieved alone. It may be generating employment, creating high quality and affordable homes, delivering new public parks and exceptional public realm, delivering public art, reanimating a High Street, or transforming underused or derelict land into productive uses.

These outcomes will be the result of successful partnerships, which are built on a shared understanding of the drivers of each partner and, in particular when it comes to PPPs, the parameters within which both public and private sectors work. That is where the civic mindedness that has emerged over the past months can help, generating a sense of shared purpose and mutual understanding that can drive our recovery.

Our industry has done its bit over the past weeks in supporting our NHS and other key organisations through the crisis. Now we need to step up and help stimulate recovery. For U+I that means actively seeking investment opportunities where we can bring our skills, expertise, insight and experience to bear. We recently completed the acquisition of Arkley Golf Club in Hertfordshire and a strategic site in Dublin that has been earmarked for future regeneration.

So while we may still all be working from home, our team  is right now as busy as ever seeking out new opportunities and prospective partners – whether in the public sector or the private – with land or projects that have the potential for transformative regeneration that drives our business. Because let’s be in no doubt, it is only through that form of positive value creation that our country will recover. It may be a long road ahead, but it starts now.

This article was originally published in Estates Gazette and can be found here.