Brighton started out bright and sunny and then quickly deteriorated to become wet and gloomy. Our Mishcon de Reya and LCA Property Shapers Dinner sponsored by Essential and New West End Company was a bright spot. Once again our glittering array of guests included council leaders, property companies, housing associations and thought leaders who were addressed by our guest speaker London Deputy Mayor for Housing, James Murray. Shadow Brexit Minister Sir Keir Starmer was, as in previous years, due to talk to us but at the last minute was called away on conference business.
James Murray in his opening remarks explained that the big pivot for the GLA was its involvement in the land market. They want to play a bigger role in bringing land into the system. A question is how to bring Londoners with them when confronting tricky issues such as high density and overseas investors. A key issue for him is making affordable housing part of the mix. In the night's first mention of the word 'collaboration' he said he wants to work in collaboration with councils, housing associations and house builders.
Our chair, Estates Gazette Editor Damian Wild asked what the GLA wants from the real estate sector. Murray said he wants the GLA to spend more time identifying new opportunities. He also flagged the fact that councils could build more if there was more borrowing. He wants London to work in partnership with other cities.
L&Q's CEO David Montague described collaboration in the early days of the housing association as 'the suppression of mutual loathing in pursuit of funding.' However after the 2008 recession necessity created lasting partnerships which have stood the test of time and they have now created an exciting model of collaboration and are investing in skills and off site construction to create a different way of working.
A number of successful public/private sector collaborations were discussed and Camden leader Georgia Gould described Kings Cross as 'a brilliant collaboration' and referred to the potential of development around Euston.
Much of the discussion turned around housing. Concern was expressed that the politicians have been clever in outsourcing responsibility for producing housing to the developers who take the blame for failure to build enough housing. Historic evidence suggests that we won't see increase in housing said one guest 'Until government lets councils borrow and build'.
There is the added concern that whilst pre Brexit there was more focus on housing product, the new government is now focused on supply. Post the election there are conversations about different tenures including build to rent. Ealing leader Julian Bell talked about the focus on build to rent and referenced Greystar building 2000 build to rent units in Greenford. 'It's also about collaboration with the GLA', he said. Some round the table were keen on a separate use class for build to rent and felt this would encourage more investment but others disagreed. Others cited the challenge of fitting new flexible mixed uses into the existing use classes. This prompted Tony Travers to suggest a zoning experiment. Pat Brown commented perceptively that development is about relationships and vision. Her question was 'how do we create relationships and not one night stands? It takes time to create places, she said. How do we convert and inspire more people? She also suggested that collaboration with developers isn't understood and is not communicated properly. 'Collaboration can be interpreted as in the pocket of the developer' she added . Jace Tyrrell CEO of New West End Company explained that his BID is a collaboration and said they need more flexibility in use classes. Brian Bickell CEO of West End property company Shaftesbury talked about their redundant upper floors which could be made into flats. Tony Travers pointed out that 'heritage considerations overwhelm rationality' as the desire to conserve overwhelms the housing crisis. Local authorities have to take a view on what's right for London. The point was also made that planning objections often come from older people and we need to hear from different voices. David Montague pointed to the huge societal divide, saying that 80% of housing association chiefs voted to remain whilst their tenants voted to leave the EU. He spoke about the growing anger of young people and the need to address this. There were also concerns about gentrification in that if development is successful then people won't be able to afford to stay there. It sounds as if the developers just can't win! Damned if they do and damned if they don't. As at last year's debate there were concerns about moderate Labour councillors being ousted by the far left of their party so we will watch next year's council elections with interest.
In the conference the London Lounge was bristling with shadow ministers. The fringe programme seemed to be a bit thin with very little on housing. I went into the conference hall to hear London Mayor Sadiq Khan's speech which was well received. 'Keeping Londoners safe is my top priority' he said. You can't argue with that!
The New West End Company's hosted tourism lunch with guest speaker London Deputy Mayor Rajesh Agrawal included representatives of commerce, aviation hospitality and retail. It was reassuring to hear how the Deputy Mayor had been able to progress his role since he spoke to us at last year's conference shortly after being appointed. There was concern expressed round the table about the anti-London feeling elsewhere in the UK. The business concerns expressed at the lunch centred around access to talent, and access to the EU single market. Guests wanted reassurance that the 3 million EU nationals already here will be allowed to stay. The uncertainty is already deterring EU nationals from coming to the UK. Agrawal said that 'Brand London is much stronger than brand UK' and London needs to make it clear that it remain open for business. There was also concern expressed about visas with calls for the government to give clear signals of what post Brexit visas will look like.
In order to get some much needed perspective on the many issues raised, I took a trip up in Brighton's answer to the London Eye. The newly constructed i360 whizzes you up 450 ft in a giant pod for a helicopter view of Brighton. The views were great but the attraction wasn't oversubscribed which I understand has led to questions over the council's investment in the project. But then the London Eye wasn't well received initially!