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‘The industry needs a code of practice to improve its reputation’

Five minutes with … Liz Peace CBE, the former CEO of the British Property Federation, who is now an adviser on property, politics and the built environment

You are well known in the property industry but tell us a bit about yourself and your current roles

I’m probably best known as the former CEO of the British Property Federation. I went into that job from government, so without any experience of the property industry but fortunately, civil servants have to be quick learners and I was also grateful that many of the major players at that time said ‘come and spend the day with us’. They were happy to give up their time – it’s a very generous industry in many ways.

The BPF could have chosen somebody from the property industry who knew nothing about government, or someone from government who knew nothing about the property industry, and they went with the latter. Of course, the advantage of being a complete newbie is that you can ask simple questions like: “Why do we do it that way? Why are leases written like that?” It’s good to be able to query that – and it was especially good to be able to query this whole issue of customer service on which, frankly, the real estate industry was way behind.

I got a very quick introduction into the industry’s thoughts on customer service at my first BPF conference. I was chatting in the margins to Howard Morgan, the founder of RealService, when a chap bumbled over, introduced himself and asked what we were talking about. I said we were chatting about customer service and the whole ethos around it. “Good Lord,” he said, “we don’t worry about that. We just see the tenants every quarter and as long as they pay their rent the rest’s a waste of time.”

Fortunately, I can’t remember the chap’s name, but I thought ‘blimey’ and it gave me a very useful indication as to what we were up against.

What are you up to now?

I decided in 2013 after nearly thirteen years at the BPF that it was time to stand down and thought I was going to retire to a life of leisure, take up botanical painting and learn Italian. I thought I might do some non-execs and then various people asked me to, so I got into a rather more extensive portfolio career than I had envisaged.

I had quite a strong feeling for public service-type ones so I chaired the Government Property Agency, Old Oak and Park Royal, which  is a mayoral development corporation, and I did work for the Palace of Westminster – sadly my little board got disbanded because we gave the politicians the wrong answer – but I also do some on the commercial side.

I spent a very happy period at an outfit called RPS Plc, who are an environmental consultancy. The thread that binds it all together for me is place and buildings. So even the charity work I do –  I’m chair of the Churches Conservation Trust –  is about buildings and how you can, in some cases, repurpose them.

I also chaired the Architectural Heritage Fund which was about using heritage assets, especially in town centres or deprived areas, where they can be re-purposed  by local people as a community asset.

Everything ultimately is about place and environment. It’s the environment around you that shapes you

Place has always fascinated me – everything ultimately is about place and environment, it’s so important. It’s the environment around you that shapes you.

So, currently, I’ve finished with Parliament, I’m still a non-exec with Howard de Walden, I still do Old Oak and Park Royal at least for another year and I chair the University of Cambridge Property Board which combines place and history, which I love.

I sit on the board of an outfit called the Connected Places Catapult, which is about innovation in place and I’ve just joined the board of Greencore who build truly sustainable homes. The next step there is to work out how to scale up to the mass market so these quality homes can be more affordable and help solve the housing problem.

You sound extremely busy – what’s in your in-tray for tomorrow?

Companies I’m involved with tend to be very well run – they have secretaries and that sort of thing – so you tend to spend more time with the charities because they don’t have that infrastructure. First thing tomorrow I have a call with the deputy chair of the Churches Conservation Trust because we have an interesting challenge trying to populate our finance and audit committee. We can’t find audit-qualified people who have enough time to sit on our audit committee. We need more volunteers!

Then I’m doing a sift for a non-executive director for our Old Oak and Park Royal board and I want particularly someone with small-business interests in the area. However, the trouble with running a small business is you’re too busy trying to keep the wolf from the door to sit on a board and pontificate on politics and planning.

You gave the Chapman Barrigan Lecture and emphasised the role of trust and reputation in an industry which is accused of lacking both. Tell us more.

There are two different levels on which to approach this; there’s the individual company – often helped by external organisations like RealService – which will choose to go down that path of building a whole customer-care ethos. They come to that generally because there are one or two inspiring individuals who ‘get it’, who realise the company will be even more successful if they do build trust, build a reputation, a brand.

But then there is the industry-wide perspective and the trouble with the industry as a whole is that it has not been good at tackling its image and the lack of trust that is prevalent amongst its various stakeholders. It needs to do more around educating people about what the industry actually is and then ultimately there has to be something that’s almost statuary, almost compulsory, that might be a brand-marking organisation. You can’t set up a bank unless you’re regulated by the financial services world … Is there some sort of corporate code of conduct that the property industry should set up to which people would subscribe?

Central regulation is very, very difficult but I don’t see otherwise how you can force the ones who are behaving badly – and giving the industry a bad name –  to do it better.

My original philosophy was that when there are enough good guys, the bad guys will go out of business and that’s the argument I used to put to select committees when they were discussing bad residential landlords.

Unfortunately, that’s a slow process and a big problem so I do think you have to give them a bit of a kick … But it’s an industry which seems to prefer 50 million different ways of doing that rather than focussing on working together on one big – and effective – initiative.

We are so fragmented … everyone wants to do their own little thing

When I was at the BPF I counted the number of different industry bodies I had to work with – 33. I counted them again for the lecture – 37. We are so fragmented; everybody wants to do their own little thing. If you want to build brand, you have to work on it, pull together as an industry, create resource and constantly raise awareness.

You also have to call out people who aren’t doing it well. We started down that route with a code of leasing practice when we were having a big argument over upward-only rent reviews and the industry tried really hard to pull that together.

But what was really interesting was that even one or two of the good companies every so often would say: “We don’t want to go down that road, that’s going too far.”

Well, I don’t know that that’s acceptable anymore. At the end of the day, the customer is king, and it simply comes down to that ethos of care. Are you caring for the people to whom you are providing a service, as opposed to just flogging them something for the biggest number?

In essence then, there’s two levels – and if we want to go beyond the individual we have to have some sort of collective responsibility which would allow us to get everyone to the party – so some sort of code of conduct to which individual companies have to subscribe if they want to do business. It would be, in effect, a kite mark that provides a licence to operate.

How would you start that?

I’ve been talking to Bill Hughes at the Property Industry Alliance, which I had a hand in setting up but which I don’t think has ever been as effective as it could be. I think someone like Bill has the standing to pull in the big players and get them around the table. We need to make a concerted effort, put resource into a pot and do something bigger and more creative about improving the image of the industry. There’s got to be leadership, someone to crack the whip. It’s time to do something.

Call it ‘wokery’ but our core needs to be about caring

We made progress when I was at BPF – not enough – but you can’t stop because the bar moves so quickly. We need to recognise the current ‘mores’, movements, focus; call it wokery, but our core needs to be about  caring.

What keeps you up at night?

My sons say I’ve been a part of a lucky generation – no world wars, free university education, no problem with jobs – so I worry most about the future we’ve created for my grandchildren.

Suddenly the world seems much more challenging, and in particular the climate situation is just downright  scary.

One of my little obsessions is water; I’m fascinated by climate and rain. I think, what would we do if it didn’t rain for a year? Water company privatisation has been a disaster, worse than rail, absolutely criminal – even more so than the privatisation of power.

Let’s end on a positive note. How has the property industry improved?

I would say it’s a darn sight better than it was 20 years ago when I joined it.

It has definitely modernised and made progress in areas like gender equality – there are so many good women around now it’s positively awesome – and also acceptance around the LGBTQ+ community – but not so much in ethnicity. I am a huge proponent of the diversity organisation that I helped found called Real Estate Balance and I am delighted to see how many companies are joining it to promote not just gender balance but a fairer and more equitable industry for all.

But there are too many pockets of society who don’t feel the industry is for them, who don’t sit around the family dinner table where the parents are  saying : “Why don’t you become a chartered surveyor, or why don’t you go and get a job in property?” So we must get the message out that it’s actually an industry with roles for everyone, whatever their gender, ethnicity, or social background.

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