Back in the summer of 2001, I answered a job advert in The Times for the role of director-general of something called the British Property Federation.
I wasn’t too sure what exactly it did or indeed what the industry it represented covered. But I knew I had always liked buildings (my father was the building manager at Cadbury’s in Bournville) and I had seen plenty of examples of how bad places could be transformed by beautiful new buildings and the creation of elegant spaces around them.
What I did not know at the time was how my professional life would be transformed by becoming part of such a creative, energetic, charitable, sometimes tough and ruthless but always welcoming and sociable industry, which is why I was so deeply flattered and honoured to be selected by Property Week to join its Hall of Fame – especially as I am such a relative ‘newbie’ compared with my fellow nominee, the renowned and irrepressible Sir John Ritblat.
I spent my time at the BPF endeavouring to convince a sometimes sceptical world and an often indifferent set of politicians that the property industry was both a vital part of our economy and also a huge potential force for good in rebuilding those parts of Britain blighted by industrial decline.
But the property industry, while all of the things I have described above, was also in the late nineties and early noughties still deeply traditional, wedded to long institutional leases, focused on winning the leasing deal rather than looking after the tenants once the deal was done and only half-heartedly engaged in the community side of planning and development.
Over the past 17 years, we have changed massively. Customers or occupiers have replaced tenants; lease lengths have tumbled and flexible occupancy is the order of the day; creating quality places has become as important as creating lettable buildings; sustainability and a focus on corporate social responsibility have become (almost) mainstream; and the need to listen to communities has been widely embraced.
Equally importantly, politicians do respond to the views of the industry and occasionally give us the regulatory or legislative change that we need. REITs are the best example, but the decision not to legislate to ban upwards-only rent reviews was also important for us as an industry, along with the many changes to planning regulation.
The trouble is, while the industry has modernised, society has also continued to change at an even more rapid pace. As such, the changes of the last 20 years in our industry are no longer seen as sufficient – and we are under even greater pressure to respond to new norms in matters as diverse as design quality, financial contributions to infrastructure, placemaking and environmental performance, community engagement and, of course, diversity and inclusion in our workforce. These pose tough challenges for us.
But I am sure this vibrant industry that embraced me so warmly and allowed me to forge a hugely enjoyable second career out of helping it to adapt will continue to evolve under its current leaders.
And from my vantage point in the Hall of Fame, I will continue to do my bit to tell anybody who will listen just how much we have to offer to society, to our economy and to the continuing improvement of our built environment.
Liz Peace CBE is an adviser on property, politics and the built environment and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Property Awards 2019