Antonia Swinson, the chief executive of London’s property advice charity, the Ethical Property Foundation, reflects on its recent summer achievements.
Summertime and the living is easy. I’m not sure what George Gershwin would have made of our dusty hot Square Mile this year, but certainly his great line conveys the right idea: school’s out and anyone who can is down at the beach.
Yet for the rest of us life goes on and people working in London’s voluntary sector still need property advice, and so the phone still rings here at the Ethical Property Foundation.
Today, we have just been commissioned to give a property health check to a very old and still working building, large bits of which were built in the 14th century – back in the day when London’s mighty John of Gaunt still had his Savoy Palace down on the Thames, before the revolting London peasants torched it.
We are looking forward to working with this client who, unlike big John G, recognises that risk plays a big part of all property management.
Another summer highlight for me has included chairing a property round table with various charities on the 38th floor of the Gherkin. Yes, it’s a masterly building, sparkling glass from floor to ceiling, but boy, was I glad to be back on terra firma. I suffer from vertigo you see and discussing ethics in property while looking at that view is seriously scary.
Still, I consider the role of ethics in charity property to be a great summertime occupation, for it is at this time of year that we have the creative space to take a step back and consider what is charity is for?
A central London charity contacted us last week commissioning a property strategy specifically to align the ethics of its
social mission with its letting policy as a landlord.
Some would say this is a praiseworthy attempt to join up ethics and Mammon – at a time when commercial rents are under pressure.
Yet with community cohesion at the heart of this client’s charitable objectives, how will it affect the sort of tenants they take, the rent levels they can charge and how will they monitor community cohesion?
No one ever said it was easy trying to be on the side of the angels. One thinks of John of Gaunt, who lost his palace and everything in it, because the marauding mob blamed him for introducing the poll tax – a cause you may remember which made another leader unpopular some centuries later: thinking about it, clearly what John of Gaunt needed was a community centred property strategy.
Summertime also gives us space to walk about our wonderful city, look about us and take in all the sights – not least the empty shops in the high streets and all that void shopping centre retail space. We are surely living in revolutionary times – Brexit and internet shopping being just two drivers radically reshaping our physical retail environment.
So how should we be using these buildings? Do they need pulling down? There is going to need to be an honest conversation about what all this space is for.
Will shop owners sit down and discuss it, not just with the investment community and local politicians but with the voluntary sector too? This is not a plea for more charity shops but for a far greater diversity in the use of retail space.
It will be exciting to see how our urban experience will be transformed down the line. The money men should not ignore the contribution the charity sector can make to an innovative, future proofing conversation.
We have huge expertise and as we work beneath the rich people’s radar, we really do know what is going on and take steps before the bricks fly. It is always good to learn from history: back in that long hot summer of 1381, John of Gaunt missed a trick.