Re-thinking ‘Property’ and the implications for our BCorp journey.

Two things strike me about the word ‘property’.

First, the inherent implications of ownership highlight issues of wealth and an implied financial advantage. ‘Property’ seems inextricably tied to the distinctions of ‘have’ and ‘have not’. This divide is becoming embedded in our culture through our obsession with home ownership; the great emerging social exclusion between those ‘with property’ and those without (and perhaps increasingly unlikely ever to cross that great divide).

Secondly, and related, ‘property’ and ‘ownership’ imply an exclusivity. What’s ‘my property’ cannot be yours, almost by definition. What’s ours isn’t theirs.

On both counts there’s a significant barrier, both semantic and psychological. Perhaps in a sense property is rooted in division.

This runs to the heart of some of the trust problems that the ‘property industry’ faces, certainly as I encounter it through engagement with local stakeholders and interest groups. There’s a perception (perhaps in part justified) that property developers are only focused on short-term profit.

If ‘property’ is an ‘industry’ then perhaps it’s often perceived to be akin to mining more than, say, agriculture: extracting as much as possible as quickly as possible with apparently little regard for the consequences or the long term.

And where there are attempts to ‘give back’ there’s a palpable cynicism that this is done to the most limited extent possible with little transparency as to how ‘fair’ outcomes are arrived at, and by whom. I fear there is also a lurking sense of being patronised. Developers keen to ‘give back’ - with the best of intentions - perhaps miss the point that for many people they’re being ‘given back’ what they felt was already theirs.

I’m not intending (at least here) to open a debate about the rights and wrongs of ownership and the nature of property. Valid and interesting though that debate is, we work within a system that functions well at delivering investment and change, albeit with plenty of scope for improvement.

But the challenging issues around property and ownership do highlight the unique characteristics of the work that we do and the nature of the ‘product’ we deliver. Whether buildings have ‘public realm’ aspects or not, they sit within the shared environment of a city, being a part of a jointly experienced street scape and skyline. Buildings are not like other designed artefacts that can be privately owned and privately enjoyed, a painting held in a vault for example. They are uniquely public works and so in some sense perhaps uniquely shared, defying exclusivity. Maybe, therefore, ‘property’ is the wrong word.

In trying to address these issues we’ve worked really hard to break down these barriers and find alternative paths to building confidence and trust with local communities and stakeholders.

In unpacking the issues around the word ‘property’ I find myself drawn to two other words not often discussed; time and control.

Time is important because so often developers are working with relatively short-term capital demanding near term results but with an impact that may, indeed on environmental grounds should, last for decades, perhaps centuries. Local stakeholders are often far more conscious of that. Embedded in our manifesto is the notion of patience and sustainable growth. Although we aim to satisfy the requirements of our capital, nonetheless we need to focus on nurturing the places and relationships where we work, shifting from an industrial sense of extracting profit towards the patient language of gardening/ horticulture/ agriculture.

As my old mentor the late Professor Bill Hillier said, “I’d grow a city, not design one”.

And in that lies a second critical and contentious concept – control. We’ve found it really important in building trust with local communities to be prepared to handover control. We own two parades of shops in a central Belfast quarter that is in desperate need of investment and ‘positive change’, and where passions over the changing face of the city run deep. In response we’ve established a place-making group made up of volunteers from social enterprise, the arts sector, local entrepreneurs and urban professionals. We’ve delegated to them the role not only of selecting the tenant mix for these buildings, but also setting the appropriate pricing strategy. They’re not advisers to us; we’re inviting them to take over.

This is an issue of legitimacy, a question of who defines what is “positive change”. Being prepared to give over control to local interest groups puts a valuable distance between our commercial considerations about the property we own and the outcomes that affect the shared ownership of the Belfast streetscape. It’s a courageous move for a ‘property’ company.

Courageous initiatives in Belfast are not our first. Our Paradise scheme in London is, we believe, the best performing whole-life carbon workspace building in the UK, largely because of our decision to break through the barriers to building in mass timber in the UK.

Uniting these environmental and social initiatives, we’re proud to be putting ourselves forward to become a BCorp. At the heart of this lies a commitment to rethink not only our relationship with the environment but also how we can respond to the demands of social capital as well as financial capital and rethink ‘property’ from the ground up, embedding ‘more than just profit’ into the DNA of our business.


Thanks to Simon Pates for the visual interpretation of this piece.