JS: How long have you been involved in development and regeneration?
RU: For the last 30 years I have been involved in property and commissioning things and building places.
I was born in London in Stepney. I went to a pretty brutal school in Eltham called Crown Woods. The best thing that happened to the school was it got knocked down. It was violent and racist. It was intimidating and an example of how not to create a place which was supposed to be inspirational and educational for young people.
It had a design and technology department and I could go and hide myself in there and the teachers would allow me to go in and draw buildings and make models of buildings so I have always had that passion for buildings but I wasn’t talented enough as a draftsman to be an architect. I also wanted to commission and start stuff so I studied Property Development.
I founded a development company called Cathedral which was part of a wider company called Mount Anvil, now one of London’s leading house builders. In 2014 Cathedral merged with Development Securities to form U+I Plc – a listed property regeneration company.
JS: Both at Cathedral and now at U+I I you have been focused on mixed use developments. Can you talk about why mixed use and your approach…
RU: Most of our projects are very mixed in use. Mixing things up together is hard work, funding wise and development wise but it is actually what most places need and want.
Philosophically we like making great places and great places need a seasonality of occupation. They need students coming and going; people going to the theatre; people eating out; people sitting in the sun; people working. The rich tapestry of humanity that washes through places is much more fascinating in a mixed use project. Done well it makes for happy inclusive communities which in turn create more and lasting value for developers and society.
The Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes is a great example. We bought London Gate, an 18 acre site, which was a failed business park. We bought it at the bottom of the market for £16m and everyone said we were mad and that it was a white elephant.
We presented to the council a hugely mixed scheme that would double the density and we called it the Old Vinyl Factory. Their initial response was “are you sure, this is Hayes?” and we said if you’re not going to be ambitious for your town then no one is. They were. We were.
The Old Vinyl Factory was born and it has attracted businesses like Sonos and it has a music academy. There will be 650 homes on the site. There is a public realm called The Groove and it is working as a cohesive place.
JS: What is the key to getting mixed use schemes right?
RU: Development should be local. The feeling is local, the history is local, the architecture is local and it’s shouldn’t be a product to be applied everywhere with a one size fits all. On every single site we work on I, or one of my team will probably know the history of that site better than anyone on the planet. That is out of respect for the bit of soil that you’re standing on. And a key responsibility in understanding place.
A great brief is also vitally important. I am constantly amazed how few developers or commissioners start with a great brief. They say “can I have a library please, 20,000 sq meters and no more than two stories”. Really? That’s the brief? Isn’t the brief about inspiring children to learn? Aren’t some spaces actually about asking how do I liberate the right hand side of the brain? Or the left, or to encourage mindfulness? Isn’t the brief about how do I stitch the historic beauty of this place and the dysfunctional problems of socio-economic opportunity in the area into a new building or a fantastic place that makes money so it can pay for itself?
If we took more time to write great briefs, then we might get better answers.
JS: How important is regeneration in helping to not only create new communities but also to tackle social challenges which exist in communities?
RU: The much maligned term re-generation is maligned because it has been poorly delivered as a process.
The regeneration that we provide must surely look after people better than we have in the past. If we create better places we will better manage social issues, policing issues and health issues so that there is less of a burden on the State and everything works a bit better and everyone is happier.
We have a housing crisis but we also have a lot of treacle to get through which is anti-development with hordes of people saying we don’t want development and they are saying that because most development is shit. Of course people are standing up against planning applications because it’s not for them, it is exclusive and gated. It doesn’t promote diversity and opportunity for all. The planning system is clogged up with all of that rubbish and then you get even more of a housing crisis.
Perhaps if the quality of architecture tried to be exceptional with attention to history and place and inclusivity and independent local businesses benefitted we might start as an industry to earn the respect of those nimby’s with (actually) a just cause. That would ease a housing crisis.
As a property industry if we try a bit harder to think about creating better places then we would massage out some of the irritations in the system, create more and lasting value and have a great deal of more fun doing it.
Big idea… A new way of doing regeneration
We need a new word because the word re-generation has been ruined. It now gets tarred with the suggestion of ‘fake news’.
The developer community has to look harder at itself and ask how did we get in this mess? Why are we not sitting at dinner parties being hugged like heart surgeons for repairing something that was bad? Places that encouraged prostitution, poor health, crime and crucified all hope. Those are the areas where we go to work, to repair and grow the productivity of our Island.
We really do a great job when we do a great job. When we do a bad job it lasts for the same amount of time. We mess on our doorstep and it stays there for a 100 years. We exclude people, we don’t provide opportunity, but create welfare issues and alienate people.
Developers, politicians and communities need to find better ways of working together; asking difficult questions and searching for better answers. Straight, constructive talking; joint ventures, partnerships joined at the hip.
London is becoming hollowed out, dysfunctional and exclusive. London doesn’t have opportunities for all. We need to fix that and developers have a huge role to play.