A revolutionary vision

By Ann McGauran | 17 July 2023

Richard Upton is a developer who says he’s never seen property in quite the same way as everyone else, and he is undoubtedly happy to be thought of as a maverick.

He’s articulate, opinionated and extremely tuned in to the potential of property and regeneration to deliver the social and economic impact that local government needs.

But he’s scathing on progress so far. He tells The MJ: ‘It’s still a bit of an amateur game, which is really disappointing I think – an amateur game both for the property industry and for local government.’

In 1998 he founded the Cathedral Group plc, turning it into a pioneer in public private partnership developments. He says Cathedral was ‘all about going into places with local authorities that had difficult issues, and listening’. He merged Cathedral with Development Securities in 2014, which became U+I the following year. Landsec acquired U+I in 2021, when he became a part time senior adviser.

He truly believes in nurturing the community and cultural value in his projects, and has a particular belief in supporting localised artistic communities. For example, gig venue and brunch spot Amazing Grace has opened within the 17th century St Thomas Church in London’s Southwark, on a 15-year lease. He is continuing to scope the possibility of bringing old churches back to life by turning them into music or entertainment venues. And in Bexhill in East Sussex he is behind a social enterprise in an old ambulance station, providing an affordable space for creative industries in the town.

On the question of whether we’re getting place making right, he says: ‘Mostly not. Ask your friends where the great new places have come up in their neighbourhoods, and there won’t be much of a response.

‘The examples to be held up are few and far between. That is a desperate acknowledgement of failure of local government leadership, and of the property industry I would say of equal proportion.’

He adds: ‘It’s down to us as entrepreneurial development companies to be societal and to deliver great places. That’s our expertise. It’s down to local authorities to create a vision for their home town. Because they are the only anchor tenants who will be in that home town in a hundred years’ time.

‘John Lewis will be gone, Cadburys will be gone, Marks and Spencers will be gone, but Croydon Council will still be there. And so they have to think in terms of hundreds of years, not in terms of five years of politics.’

Namechecking all the local authorities that are now mired in financial crisis, he says those that ‘double down, and try to be – respectfully to them – entrepreneurial, have perhaps lacked the skills and expertise or the judgement of managing cycles of economic activity, to not get themselves in trouble’.

He says that, based on his talks to local authorities, it is ‘anathema’ to him that property and regeneration ‘isn’t considered very carefully as a key solution to local authority finance issues for the growth of social inclusion, economic growth and social impact’.

He sees a homogeneity in approach from the industry that needs much more careful thought if it is to resonate as great regeneration in each local place. ‘That needs much more thought and perhaps smaller development companies that are more local, more agile, and that listen as a collection of people and perhaps are more representative as a group. A group that is less male, more diverse, more representative, is going to get a more representative product’.

He owns monumental sculptures that he makes available to public bodies including councils and schools. He says: ‘What I’ve found is it’s the first thing to be lost in a regeneration project, but the first thing to be loved if done well.’

As an avid art collector, he realises the ‘joy and connection’ that these installations of temporary and permanent art can bring to communities.’ He finds that in wider Europe there is much more civic engagement with public art.

Local authorities look at their land receipts rather than the impact that the right mix of partners in a development might deliver, leveraged effectively over the long term. He praises Brighton & Hove City Council, under its recently deposed Green Party leader Phelim MacCafferty, for its approach to place making. He says the council was looking for a progressive developer for two sites, including one in Moulsecoomb, ‘that between them were losing half a million pounds a year for between 12 and 25 years’.

‘With the benefit of development they produce a net economic benefit every single year of £44m.’ He is clear our councils ‘have to be visionary, they have to be thoughtful about the next hundred years not the next three or four’.

What’s crucial in his view is looking at how change in local places will ‘optimise the social and economic impact and looking very carefully at leaving the legacy of the built environment that we are proud of and gives us a sense of belonging’.

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