Speech: Marcus Geddes, WPA Chair’s keynote speech from the 2023 WPA Annual Lunch

17 Nov 2023

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, honourable guests, The Right Worshipful Lord Mayor.

Welcome to the Westminster Property Association’s 35th Annual Lunch.

What a great video and fantastic to see how public-private partnership is delivering transformative change and social prosperity.

Along with many other charities, WPA’s partner, Young Westminster Foundation does truly incredible work in the City.

When my predecessor, Paul Williams spoke here last year, the worst of the pandemic was behind us, the markets were still reeling from the infamous mini budget and we had yet another prime minister.

There’s no doubt that 2023 has had its challenges; high interest rates, high inflation and the continued cost of living crisis. Capital is more expensive, harder to secure and more risk averse than we’ve seen over the past 15 years… if you’re under 35 years old in the room today, this will be unchartered territory.  Things are unlikely to get easier quickly.

That said, the West End is, once again, back to its busy and vibrant best. By harnessing this energy and working with our partners and our peers, I am confident that we can create opportunity in tomorrow’s economic and societal shifts.

As we approach what’s likely to be a General Election year, the polls tell us that the Labour Party could well form our next government after 14 years in opposition.

There is also the matter of the London Mayoral elections, and locally, Westminster City Council’s ‘no longer new’ administration will reach the halfway point of its term next year. Local elections will loom in the blink of an eye.

To give his perspective on this and more, our guest speaker is Alastair Campbell, who spent a decade at the heart of Government with Tony Blair’s New Labour. Alastair’s also generously agreed to give his time to speak at a Westminster school in the coming months.

And immediately after lunch he’ll be signing copies of his latest book  “But what can I do?” on the balcony behind you.  WPA has bought a healthy consignment with all profits going to Young Westminster Foundation, so please do give generously……AND you get to take home a nailed-on stocking filler…

And in one of the great battle lines of 2023, you’d also be helping Alastair in his head to head on book sales with Rory Stewart, his co presenter on the Rest is Politics podcast…

In Paul’s speech last year, he was right to remind us that Oxford Street desperately needs bold action to rejuvenate the nation’s High Street.

It’s in the spirit of partnership that the property sector, New West End Company and the Council are co-funding investment to transform the high street with new greening and more space for pedestrians.

Not only is the property sector contributing directly, but Section 106 and CIL receipts equally provide tens of millions of pounds a year towards the Council’s budget to help fund its priority expenditure.

Everyone in this room is part of an important eco-system to further Westminster’s future built environment…..creating access to opportunity and ensuring it’s one of the very best cities to live, work and visit.

BUT cheek by jowl to its core commercial districts are some of the most deprived wards in the country. We all have a responsibility to ensure that this opportunity is being spread fairly across the city, so that all of Westminster can feel the benefits of its success.

Many of our members are already working closely with charities across the City to make sure that young people from all backgrounds have access to these opportunities – not least through Young Westminster’s Foundation’s Mastering My Future programme.

In a sign of our commitment to this initiative, I am delighted to announce a quarter-of-a-million-pound, three-year partnership between the WPA and the Foundation – funded by a number of leading member companies, including my own, Landsec.

The partnership aligns with the Council’s focus on social mobility and provides a property-specific careers programme for young residents in Westminster.

We have a group of 15 young representatives from the Foundation and their delivery partner 2-3 Degrees here with us today, so if you get the chance, please do take a moment to speak to them later.

In a few years I hope they’ll be joining us here again as WPA members, leading some of the amazing companies in this room..…

This work is important. It doesn’t happen by accident. It takes commitment, partnership, and funding that’s reliant on the right economic and policy conditions nationally, and crucially for our sector, locally.

Westminster City Council has an important role to play in fostering those relationships, and creating an environment where economic and social prosperity go hand-in-hand.

Uncertainty in planning ‘decision making’ deters investment and risks stalling growth and the decarbonisation of our commercial buildings.

A lack of guidance on how to assess the relative merits of both retrofit and redevelopment have left planning authorities and the industry grappling with how to balance all three of the stated objectives of sustainable development, namely economic, social and environmental.

Local politicians and planning officers are in the invidious position of trying to balance these very complex and fast-moving considerations.

We must consider where does carbon’s BEST value lie. Do we leave it locked up in poorly performing existing buildings? When is carbon expended by demolition in the public interest? How important is economic growth and social prosperity?

These decisions involve very real trade offs and we must be honest with what these are.

We also need to recognise that not all buildings are suitable for retrofit. I’m pleased that the Council acknowledges the importance of retrofit first, whilst accepting this cannot be retrofit only.

The current partial review of Westminster’s City Plan is tasked with working all this out. It’s so important the Council gets the balance right.

Developing in Westminster can be rewarding, yes. But it is also probably one of the most complex, expensive and therefore riskiest areas to invest in.

And given the cost and complexity of investing here, the majority of developers do take a long-term view. They are committed and take a deep interest in the communities in which they operate.

But if the risks outweigh the benefits there are other areas to invest. Across London, and indeed around the world.

Over the last six years, Westminster has seen an alarming 75% fall in major planning applications.

This might not feel like a huge surprise when you put Brexit, Covid and economic turmoil in the mix…..indeed competing boroughs have also seen falls…… but not to this extent.

When we work together with a shared objective, we can do great things and when I think of that partnership in action, my mind also turns to our industry’s shared commitment on decarbonising the built environment.

Alongside the City Council, we pioneered the Sustainable City Charter last year – the first of its kind in London.

Almost 50 businesses and organisations have so far signed up, representing over 28 million square feet of commercial space.  A further 70 have expressed their interest in joining.

If Westminster is to achieve net zero carbon by 2040, we need more businesses to sign up, big and small, and I would urge everyone in this room to seriously look into how the Charter can help our important journey towards net zero.   Before I close, I would like to thank the Board for its support, including our Vice Chair, James Raynor. I must also give a special mention and thanks to Charles Begley and the WPA team for all their exceptional work.

My final thanks is to you all for attending. Please do spread the word of our work, which can only continue with the support and engagement of our members and stakeholders.

The theme of today’s lunch is Future Westminster.

We all want Westminster to succeed. Let’s work together to make sure we can put that beyond doubt….

Enjoy your lunch and have a fantastic afternoon.

Further Reading:

Press Release: Westminster Property Association partners with Young Westminster Foundation to inspire young people from diverse backgrounds to join the property sector