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29 August 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:19pm

Planning and public trust

The CEO of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, asks how trust can be restored in developers and the planning system

By Craig McWilliam

The UK needs more homes. Too often though, we see development and regeneration halted in stand-offs between communities, councils and private developers.

The planning system is complex and not readily accessible to people outside the process. Pairing this with the historic failure of developers to be open or transparent, it’s unsurprising that the often confrontational debates that surround development are underpinned by a lack of trust.

At Grosvenor, we recently conducted research into the public’s opinion of developers and the planning system. We canvassed councillors, businesses and over 2,000 people to help us understand the problem and see whether any solutions would emerge.

Our research revealed that, when it comes to large scale development, just 2 per cent of the public trust developers to act in an honest way. 75 per cent of respondents attributed their distrust to the perception that developers only care about making or saving money. Where developers and local authorities present the benefits of investment – for example affordable housing, new parks or schools – these are sometimes perceived as “balancing items” or pale attempts to redress an imbalance of gain.

Developers, including ourselves, have evidently failed to communicate the costs and benefits of large-scale development, and still struggle to talk about the necessity of taking on risk and making a profit to deliver wider societal and environmental gain.

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The problem of distrust is not exclusive to the private sector. Our research also found that only 7 per cent of the public trust local authorities to act in the best interests of their area. This shared issue can, we believe, only be addressed through shared initiatives and through bringing more voices into the conversation. We acknowledge that the planning system is not conducive to public engagement and want to find ways to increase interest and understanding across a far broader segment of society.

Taking the lead from our findings and the public’s suggestion of what may help to rebuild trust, we’ve identified three areas to focus our efforts on, and we want to bring all involved together to seek solutions. Firstly, we want to look at where we can make it easier for the public to weigh the benefits and trade-offs inherently created in the process.

Secondly, we’ve identified that trust would grow if the public and private sectors were held to account to a greater extent than they are seen to be now. Together, we need to look at ways to make the planning process more transparent, accessible and for there to be more options to hold local decision-makers and private developers to account.

Finally, the public felt trust would be restored if people had more meaningful, practical and popular influence over large-scale development. We need to increase the public’s influence over a place and open the floor to many more voices.

At Grosvenor we’ve made some commitments to get more people involved in this conversation and, at the same time, to explain ourselves better. We’ve also made a call to our peers in the public and private sectors to generate broader public debates about the homes we need. The prize of more homes and a better built environment delivered faster is worth fighting for.