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The rise of the place shapers

Projects portrait1Public sector real estate is having a real resurgence, writes Chris Plumley.

I was at the recent MIPM UK property conference and it really struck me just how much of it was led by the public sector. Five ministers were there!

Some ten years after the start of the property market crash councils are now playing a vital part in bringing real estate back to life. Back then developments stalled, sales and funding paused and everyone held their breath. So what is the public sector's role in getting developments moving again?

The public still focus on councils' empting the bins, sweeping the roads or administering social care. In fact, one of the biggest and most important roles for councils is regeneration, property development and place making in the communities they serve. There has been a great shift in the last couple of years in how councils approach this obligation and that has had a massive and positive impact on property redevelopment.  Major infrastructure schemes, retail, residential, social and leisure – councils have driven so many of them. 

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As we know councils come in all sizes, shapes and political colours and so they all do things differently. There are common threads leading to new developments.   

First – the change in the political and commercial landscape. The changes in staffing, culture, funding and approach of local government have all played a part. Councils used to have a short term approach and local politics often got in the way of the longer term view needed for holistic regeneration and place shaping.  It made it very difficult for council officers to plan and properly use their property assets. That’s changing. Also Central Government has massively reduced public sector funding so councils need to generate income and working their land assets are a great way to do it.

Next is People. In recent years there has been a greater degree of joined up thinking with the public sector. Whilst maintaining a public service ethos there has been a move to greater commercialisation and entrepreneurialism. That’s been an important shift for many councils.

So what about the land itself? Councils are still large landowners. The Government previously encouraged councils to sell their surplus land; often for arguably poor financial reward. The ridged confines of s123 doesn't always make a sale a good deal as our recent "Hard to Value" study with Oxford Brookes University showed. Increasingly councils are investing in sites, working with private developers and using their borrowing powers to make sites more viable and more attractive to the market. By investing instead of selling councils get to stay involved and get a better long term income stream and financial return rather than a quick capital receipt from a sale. 

The final major shift is collaboration. Councils, developers, funder, lawyers, agents, contractors – they have all got so much better at working together for a common goal. When I first started doing development work it was a very confrontational environment full of “one-upmanship”, theatrically and bravado. Happily, those days are gone and the successful deals are the ones where all of the stakeholders work collaboratively. 

It’s a changing and exciting time to be involved in public sector real estate and long may the resurgence in this sector continue.

Christopher Plumley is a partner, specialising in public sector led regeneration schemes, at Trowers & Hamlins. He can be contacted on 0121 214 8817 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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