“Most developers are not driven by any public good, they are driven by shareholder value.”

Is the tide turning against the traditional developer and housing association? David Smith-Milne of Place Capital Group thinks so. Founder and CEO of the regeneration specialists shares his thoughts during an interview with Somewhere Associate Director, Scott McCubbin.

“Regeneration shouldn’t be this thing that we dip in and out of. It should be a permanent feature of housing delivery.”


Scott: I’m Scott McCubbin, I am Associate Director at Somewhere, and I am speaking to David Smith-Milne.

David: Hi Scott. I am the founder of a company called Place Capital Group. We’re a developer that specialises in regenerating council estates. 

Scott: What makes Place Capital any different to any other developer who has to go into somewhere and basically maximise their investment? 

David: Nobody, really, is working to regenerate our old council estates outside of London because I think so many of them have become so stigmatised and so many people don’t see the potential. 

And we’ve had a housing policy really driven by a government which is obsessed with housing growth in the South East.

So really, delivering new homes in existing deprived neighbourhoods is the bottom of everybody’s list of priorities – including, perversely, the people who own these places.

Above: Associate Director of Somewhere, Scott McCubbin (left), Founder of Place Capital Group, David Smith-Milne (right)

David: Most housing associations that own these big housing estates have got development teams that don’t even know where their housing estates are because they’re so focussed on buying third-party land and building new homes.

I don’t believe in demolition as a development strategy per say, but actually, in a lot of housing estates that were built after the Second World War, non-traditionally built homes were created.

Many of them have got an awful lot of structural problems with them. You’ll never really be able to get them beyond an EPC C.

You’ve got the most vulnerable, lowest income households living in them, but they’ve got the most expensive environment to heat.

But the truth is, you’ll never be able to decarbonise these buildings to the extent they need to be, because of that, you’ll never be able to create a living environment which is very low cost to keep warm.

David: If you add on to that the fact that these homes were actually quite often built very generously in terms of garden plots and outdoor space.

The design ideology was that people would grow their own food, people would recreate in these garden spaces.

I, for one, feel completely against taking people’s space away from them.

But the truth is, the space is often so grave that it’s a liability, not an asset. And people don’t use these gardens to the extent they might once have done in the past.

So, actually, with some very careful development interventions which includes demolition, you can significantly increase density. We can get at least another 15% homes. 

Scott: My memories of estates – they were lacking in a lot of that basic infrastructure. You think of the estates of, say, Glasgow. You think of Skelmersdale. You know, getting in and out of town and going to the shops wasn’t that easy. Are you looking through this with rose tinted specs?

David: I place a lot of faith in the fact that actually an awful lot of our inter-war and post-war architecture was genuinely driven by the principle of utopia.

Most developers today – they’re not driven by any kind of public good. They’re driven entirely by shareholder value.

For all intents and purposes, private organisations, they might say ‘we’re a charity’ – but they’re not charitable.

Most of them are run by extremely well paid chief executives and leadership teams, and most of them are backed by major banking institutions. There aren’t that many developers that really operate with social value at the core of what they’re about.

Scott: But how can that change? What’s the shift? How’s that going to happen?

David: Not only do we have to create more social diversity in these places, we have to carry out stewardship which is much better than we’ve done over the last 20 years.

We’ve lost that whole housing management culture, we’ve lost that whole culture of being proud of the places we own.

The landlords have to step up.

There has to be an acknowledgement that there’s a degree of hierarchy in this relationship – and this is controversial.

Now, if the landlord cares, there’s an expectation that the tenant cares – and that dynamic is generally true. And we blame resources, but actually it costs more not to do it.

Scott: What could we do to solve this situation? Where are the hurdles that we have to try to overcome and act on?

David: First, It’s about regulation. Housing associations and social housing organisations are regulated primarily around governance and finance. There’s no aspect of place in that.

So, you can be an outstanding landlord as far as the regulator’s concerned but your neighbourhoods can look like a war zone.

So, we have to start regulating the quality of the places that these organisations are looking after.

Because if you start to regulate something, it starts to drive behaviour.

Regeneration shouldn’t be this thing that we dip in and out of. It should be a permanent feature of housing delivery.

Email Somewhere Associate Director, Scott McCubbin via [email protected] to learn more about our PlaceMaker Interview series or to get your copy of our downloadable PlaceMaker guide

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