In recent years regeneration as a concept has become toxic, a byword in the public mind for gentrification, social cleansing or some other negative practice. It is often thought of as something done to communities, not for them — and certainly not by them.
In many ways the development industry only has itself to blame. Too many in property think only about what lies within the red line of their development and the bottom line of their balance sheet. For many communities, developments seem to land in their area like spaceships, without their input and alien to their neighbourhood’s character.
It doesn’t need to be this way and shouldn’t. The first step in remedying this comes at the very start of the development process.
At HUB, we believe deeply in the importance of genuine community engagement from the outset. How this is carried out can be so important, because if done badly it can backfire, helping to drive a wedge between developers and existing communities.
I hope the rise in populism will begin to manifest itself in healthy community pride rather than isolationism and intolerance. As property professionals, we have the opportunity to contribute to society in the most visible ways – we have the power to strengthen as well as decimate communities.
I hope the sector continues to recognise and prioritise collaboration and engagement with everyday people, takes a wider view than just bricks and mortar and looks at how we can use what we do to hold together what could be a progressively more fractious society.
Brexit will have a huge impact and will undoubtedly slow sales volumes further. The prime residential market will continue to correct downward. The continuation of Help to Buy, low interest rates and a healthy demand for homes will make our part of the market (the middle) more resilient than others.
Resolution: To spend more time with my family and those who have supported me over the years. Commit more time to A Band of Brothers – the young men’s mentoring charity I am a trustee of. Basically to save some more of my energy for things not related to HUB. I’ll be 40 this year and it feels a big milestone – as good a time as any to try and redress the balance a bit.
There are no easy routes to successful community engagement and our industry is guilty of doing too much of the wrong kind of consultation. Too often we adopt a tick box approach, diving straight into a presentation of ideas and building typologies – an approach that tends to lend itself to those with the loudest voices.
We have all come up against this problem of how to reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who turn up to meetings. How can we reach the marginalised, who have as much of a stake as anyone? How can we reach the young? And how can we talk to people in a language that ‘engages’ rather than just ‘consults’? Developers and communities rarely speak the same language, but it needn’t be that way.
We need to look at different formats for engagement, both small-scale, subtle approaches and larger-scale festivals and events. We also need to reach those who may have positive things to say about development – if not a silent majority, a quiet mass of people not exercised enough to give their view. The planning process all too often encourages confrontation, giving voice to objections, and can fail to capture the full range of views.
An honest conversation
To engage properly, we need to widen the conversation as much as possible. This requires imagination and hard work. But an honest conversation must be at the heart of the process. Some of our best consultations have been simply having a cup of tea with someone and talking about what is going on in their community, putting project-related issues aside for a few minutes and just asking: ‘What’s going on for you?’ Just talking to people about stuff… it’s as easy or as complex as that.
Perhaps sometimes we are all guilty of being too professional – consultation and engagement has become a process and an industry. But it will not be effective if it is not founded on honesty and integrity. Having that honest conversation, on a human level, is a great place to start. The downside of that approach can never be that bad.
Steve Sanham is managing director of HUB