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A marriage vow for society

‘For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.’ 

Solemn vows made between two people. Or, for many of us, myself included, hollow, meaningless words, as it transpires. Imagine though, that this was a commitment that we all made to each other, together, as a society and that we truly meant it. Ironically, it is possible, unknowingly perhaps, that we might have done just that! Mostly. 

Right now, four weeks into lockdown, we are all, for better or worse, dealing with sickness that will, inevitably, leave us individually, collectively and as a nation poorer. To the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. 

The thing with our society, this country, is that we can’t get divorced and find the better, richer and healthier life that we yearn simply by finding a new partner. We’re all in this together and the only way to achieve what we all want is to work bloody hard as a collective to get there. 

What we need now as a nation is to focus on true wealth and job creation. On an industrial scale (pun mostly intended). Upskilling, not short selling. Credit committees that say ‘yes and’, not ‘no but’. We will need a programme of investment the likes of which this country has never seen. Government and business will need to turn on the taps. 

But we must not be afraid of failure.  

Too much time is spent strategizing, planning, workshopping, focus grouping and laying out grand visions. As a property person through and through, I have seen the transformative effect of regeneration in towns, cities and run down areas around the globe. If there is a common theme amongst so many involved in such schemes though it is that a fear of failure can often lead to stasis and nothing happening. 

More often than not, whatever the masterplan looks like at the outset is not what gets built. The most important thing is to do something, anything. Get a spade in the ground and start to make things happen. Make change visible. The longest journey starts with a single step. What trainers you’re wearing and the direction of the step is way less important than the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. 

So where should we start? 

For me, the obvious answer is our town and city centres. My last blog touched on some of the benefits that might come from changes in our work and travel patterns for towns and cities. But how do you make it happen? The battleground here is frequently one of infrastructure. Not just the roads and public transport of my last note, but the community infrastructure that makes life liveable. We face an endless battle with the planning system in terms of Section 106 agreements and the Community infrastructure Levy. But still we don’t have a truly workable system and every sweeping change made to the planning process to make it slicker and simpler seems to make it slower and more costly. 

I believe that what is needed is strong civic leadership. Many of the hugely successful new developments I have visited across Europe started with a powerful, long-term move by the local government. Frequently, the local council would take on responsibility for developing the key transport and social infrastructure at the start of the development process and reclaim the cost for this from the developers of each plot as they came forward. This was a long-term investment and in direct terms, frequently low yielding, but as guardians of the place itself, the benefits came in creating great places to live and work with happy residents who were healthier, less needy of support and with lower levels of crime. Taken in the round, this investment was incredibly well made. 

In the States, where government has an aversion to growing too large, the solution we saw was ‘infrastructure bonds’. This was an interesting concept. A case in point was at Celebration in Florida, a massive new development by the Disney Corporation on spare land they owned. Here, if you bought a house from one of the many developers operating across the site, you also committed to paying your regular local taxes, but also a service charge for the estate for the upkeep of the expanse of open spaces, tennis courts and public outdoor swimming pools, but also for a period of ten years, an infrastructure bond. This bond paid for the strategic infrastructure on the development. Crucially, this was collected by the local council alongside the local tax meaning that there was an efficient collection system. It also meant that the Council could make some return on collecting the charge and the strategic developer having done their bit could move on to other projects. 

One of the other areas of endless debate is the timing of provision of infrastructure. Back in Celebration and running the completely opposite way to developments in the UK, Disney built the town centre first. They filled it with shops, bars and restaurants, then filled them with actors (eyes rolling at this point amongst you readers, I’m sure). What this meant was that when people came to see if they would like to buy a house here as opposed to any of the dozens of other developments in the area, they were immediately captivated by the buzzing lively centre and range of facilities on offer. They were not being asked to be pioneers in the midst of a muddy wasteland for years to come. It certainly worked as a strategy if sales values were anything to go by. 

Whether development is public or private sector driven, the role of local government is crucial and, I believe, it can do far more than it thinks it can to really make a difference. 

So, back to our challenges of today. In my view, one of the best ways to drive job creation and community wellbeing is to create new, well thought through, brilliantly executed new developments, creating real value from previously unloved, forgotten or overlooked spaces. These developments will need to put community and social value at their heart, but they will also need to address and consider a huge array of other massive issues lurking just round the corner; climate change, sustainability, social inequality, demographic changes, transport changes, changes in the way we work and the work that we do, the rise of robots and AI, the list goes on. 

don’t think there has ever been such a time when the most prevalent constant is change. I suspect my childhood was more like my grandparents than that of my own children and the rate of change is only accelerating. In the face of such challenges, it is easy to default to playing it safe or doing nothing. However, as we look to build our way out of the social and economic aftermath of the Coronavirus. Bold moves are needed and nobody is better placed to make these moves than local government. 

There is no doubt that we face a huge set of challenges in society, many of which were prevalent before the Coronavirus burst on the scene. However, it is so often the case that such turbulent times give rise to the greatest and most innovative responses. In many ways, it will be an incredible time to be involved in property and placemaking. We can be taking decisions today that positively shape our communities for decades to come. We all need to rise to the challenge and give of our best to make this happen. But, what an amazing time to be involved in tackling so many big issues. Let’s make a society that is better, richer and healthier. 

If you want to get involved, play your part and make a difference, say ‘I do’. 

Adam Cunnington