An interview with Rebekah Paczek, Director of Public Affairs and Community Relations, Earls Court Development Company
A strange thing happened this week on the pages of the Guardian – a story was published about one of London’s largest landowners who, together with Delancey, is regenerating a site of 40+ acres in Earls Court and appears to be doing so in a responsible and sustainable way. Its community engagement is being led by the Earl’s Court Development Company, and I asked Rebekah Paczek, its Director of Community Engagement, some questions about the project.
Q: What is the background to the Earls Court Development Company? Who owns it and is it rooted in Earls Court?
A: The Earls Court Development Company (ECDC) is responsible for bringing forward the regeneration of the former Earls Court Exhibition Centre site, covering around 40 acres, on behalf of the Earls Court Partnership Limited – a joint venture between Delancey (on behalf of its client fund DV4 and the Dutch pension fund manager, APG) and Transport for London (TfL) that was formed in December 2019.
We are very much rooted in the local area; our offices are based on Empress Place, SW6 and we have a new Community Hub on Aisgill Avenue, West Kensington which is staffed by local people and which is a huge part of our outreach and understanding of the local community. Being based locally is so important for us, it is how we get to know people, understand the area and pick up on things we would otherwise miss.
Q; What are the biggest challenges facing the community in redeveloping Earls Court?
A: Great question! For all communities, major development can be challenging, obviously in terms of construction and how you manage that but not just that. This is a huge site (circa 40+ acre) and it has lain derelict for a long time. Whilst the communities around the site almost universally want to see redevelopment, with that come concerns about what the development means for existing residents and businesses. Ensuring that the future of Earls Court very much reflects current and existing communities, positively connecting to the existing streetscape is a priority for us. When the exhibition centres were demolished, the local economy suffered and many career and employment opportunities disappeared, this has created long term challenges for the community which we can look to begin to address with the redevelopment of the site.
Q: What is the role of partnerships in driving the vision, mission and activities of the ECDC?
A: We have put forward a vision ‘to bring the wonder back to Earls Court’, which has evolved from extensive discussion with communities. This is based on four priorities – to open up the site for the first time in over 150 years, giving back to communities; to create a showground of world class ingenuity; to create a better piece of city; and to respond to the climate emergency. There is a big role to play for partnerships of all kinds – whether with communities, third sector, specific experts, educational institutions or others. ECDC has brought together a team of experts in their field and we work with a range of consultants who are also experts in their subject. However, no one has a monopoly on ideas, knowledge and experience so we are constantly looking to challenge our own thinking through partnerships and engagement.
Q: Your community engagement initiatives and activities are impressive. Can you tell me about your approach to community engagement, and how you build on what you learn from listening to locals?
A: This is a 40+ acre site in Zone 1 & 2 of London, it is surrounded by very well-established communities with deep roots. It would be naïve of us to think that we can possibly understand how best to develop this site without engaging properly with local people. From the beginning we have taken the approach of looking to engage both widely and deeply, being open and responsive. We are not shying away from the difficult issues and it is important that people understand there are parameters which we are working within however, this does not mean there is no scope for influence and change. We are running workshops, digital engagement, community outreach, skills programmes etc and we have also recently set up a Public Realm Inclusion Panel who will work with us as we develop the masterplan, specifically in terms of the way in which the public realm is designed to be welcoming, accessible and inclusive.
We started by talking about the wonder of Earls Court, what it was and how it can be brought back. This has driven a lot of our thinking in terms of the masterplan so far but our engagement also changes the way in which we engage in future – for example, we have moved away from having exhibitions in places where people need to come to us and are focused on going to places where people are and having engagement across a much longer time period than is usually the case.
Q: What is the feedback from the local community? How is this reviewed and considered in planning new initiatives and ultimately in the shaping the overall development?
A: As you can probably imagine, the feedback is as diverse as the communities we are rooted within. However, there are some universal themes around open space and green space – there is very little accessible green space and well-designed public realm locally – the need for employment, jobs and creativity, the desire to see culture and innovation brought back to Earls Court and the desire to have a development which offers something to the existing communities and gives them a reason to come. We have consistent and regular sessions as a team, bringing together our architects, designers, planners and creatives with the community feedback so it is continuously reviewed alongside the evolution of the masterplan.
Q: What do you think you’re doing differently from most large-scale regeneration schemes in terms of engaging with the local community?
A; The sheer scale of our engagement is different – our last consultation entailed over 30 events. Our Public Realm Inclusion Panel also takes things a step further, bringing people into the design processes as we move forward. We are also focused on engagement which isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of the masterplan but is about the opportunity which the development can bring - we have an Earls Court Future programme for young people which aims to start looking at skills and training with a view to developing a local talent pool for future businesses as well as supporting other local education and skills builder initiatives.
We also have an extensive early delivery programme - we have reinstated Empress Place, which were derelict Victorian townhouses, bringing them back to life with residents on one side and creative workspace studios on the other. We have brought life back to Lille Road, putting in shops and cafes including a Pop-Up shop available to small businesses on a month-long rent free basis. We have The Lost Estate coming to one of our buildings in West Kensington, an immersive theatre and dining experience and, of course, we have had Underbelly Festival for the past two summers.
Added to this, we have an annual Community Fund and a hardship fund which supports local groups; this isn’t just about providing financial assistance but also increasingly about providing support through regular contact, volunteering etc as well.
All of our work is underpinned by an approach to social value and economic inclusion which recognises the responsibility that we, as a large local business and long-term steward of the local area have to bring positive transformational change through our programme.
Listen to Locals
August 19, 2022