An interview with Leanne Tritton, chair of the London Society
As Chair of the London Society, Leanne Tritton has developed a formidable body of knowledge and insight about London through members, colleagues and the many events and publications that the Society produces. Knowledge is good, she acknowledges – but translating this to the people who live, work and play in our city is the at the heart of the Society’s mission.
Leanne is the founder and Chairman of ING Media, a PR and communications agency focused on organisations and projects in the built environment – “it is the only PR agency that can navigate the complex worlds of property, architecture, design, regeneration and culture to help brands, organisations and cities to thrive in a connected world” according to its website.
She came to the Society eighteen months ago at the request of then chair Peter Murray, founder of New London Architecture, Blueprint Magazine, and Wordsearch,who had led a committed revival of the Society’s mission and impact over the previous decade.
Established in 1912, the London Society was led by civic leaders in business, architecture and engineering, who were concerned with the city’s major challenges of the day – transport, housing, public health, public amenities and the economy – and which were not formally or publicly discussed elsewhere.
“At the time there was no formal planning process, and the Society became a channel for discussion, debate and influence on these issues” Leanne explains. “It’s interesting to note how enduring these issues were and still are - conversations about the channel tunnel and protecting the green belt started with the London Society at the time of its founding.”
After the war planning policy and practice became embedded within government and, according to Leanne, the Society gradually shifted to become a forum for non-partisan, non-political conversations about London.
The aims of the Society, according to Leanne, are to translate and bring clarity to issues facing Londoners.
Placing London’s changing built environment as a springboard for conversation and debate, the Society organises tours, lectures and events throughout the year open to its members and to all Londoners. Last month Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council and Chair of London Councils, spoke about London’s place in the UK and in the world. In June the Society will launch a series of events around public health with a talk by
Prof Kevin Fenton, London’s Director of Public Health with the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS London and the Mayor of London’s statutory health advisor.
The term “Built Environment” creeps up a lot in our conversation, and I ask Leanne what this means to her and the Society.
“We use this term a lot to connect and package infrastructure, housing, transport, commercial development, regeneration, hospitals – but it also includes the “unbuilt”. She emphasises the importance of the unbuilt environment - places that are impacted by things built and are critical to a flourishing city and healthy communities, and need protection as the built environment expands. “The Green Belt and metropolitan land are a key element of any discussion of the built environment, she points out.
Despite being a collective term, the built environment is often represented by multiple organisations, professional disciplines and campaigns with non-aligned agendas. Leanne’s experience at ING has often focused on breaking down silos within both organisations and projects. There is a delicate balance between architects, planners, surveyors, engineers, and builders at one end of the collective, and economists, accountants, public health practitioners, environmentalists, behavioural scientists at the other, who ultimately must inform and support each other to produce a quality project.
Increasingly there’s another group in the built environment collective which has significant skin in the game but is often silent – these are the stakeholders in pension funds whose money is increasingly behind investment in the built environment, and who are demanding that ESG principles and practices are embedded in all of their funds’ investments.
ESG and ESG activism in the property investment and development industry has been “a massive change in the last ten years” says Leanne. She argues that this has underpinned some of the conflict and frustration we are now seeing in delivering projects.
“Aspirations to deliver quality projects have never been higher”, Leanne asserts, “but gaining approval in a highly complex, often politicised planning system is expensive and time-consuming – and often ends in rejection” she adds.
She has seen this through the experiences of many of her ING clients, and believes it is an opportunity for the London Society to open up debate about the planning process with multiple stakeholders contributing.
Her experience at ING also underpins a recognition that there is “a lot the industry can do to improve its product and this goes beyond communications and into the heart of how these companies are managed and governed”.
I asked Leanne about what she sees as the biggest challenges London and Londoners now face as the built environment continues to develop and change, and how the proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and proposed levelling up legislation might impact what gets built in London.
She cites two main challenges: wealth inequality which manifests in many additional forms of inequality, including health and housing; and housing “which all roads and issues lead to”, pointing out that everyone has a fundamental right to a secure home and this right has simply been taken away for an increasing number of Londoners.
While she supports the levelling up agenda in principle, Leanne points out the practical differences in levelling up communities within London – which is crucial to maintaining a diverse and intergenerational population -- and levelling up regions of the country “against London”. “London has been and continues to be a core influence on the health and wealth of the nation, and is a centre of international influence in many areas. We cannot afford to compromise this.”
Returning to the planning process and the outputs it delivers across London, I asked Leanne if she felt there is a fundamental disconnect between property developers and community groups around placemaking and housing — perhaps centred around engagement and impact — that can be resolved. Is there an organisation or project that she can point to that is setting an example of good practice?
“The consultation process is difficult before you even start” she replies. “Most people are unaware of how the system works, and there is a fundamental nervousness and lack of trust between parties involved.” She compares this to the trust developed over time between consumers and companies around household brands that are frequently seen and used, commenting that unlike this process of trust-building the property developer introducing change into a local community is most often an unknown entity, and regarded as hostile. The Nimby and Yimby divide aggravates the situation even more. Which is why Leanne points back to the London Society, providing an opportunity for issues to be translated and clarified to all those affected by local development.
Two major developments in London stand out in Leanne’s experience as examples of good practice. The regeneration of Kings Cross, led by Argent , is one and the other is EcoWorld in Brentford. Both have had the benefit of sustained leadership, and community input, which have delivered a “high-quality product for local communities and all of London to enjoy”.
Leanne emphasises the importance of sustained leadership. “These projects take a long time, and short-term decision making is not helpful to continuity and ultimate delivery of high quality product”, she argues, pointing to the Olympic Park and how a process of “baton-passing” led to very different outcomes. This has been well documented in a recent book by London Society colleague Dave Hill.
Leanne’s personal vision of London present, past and future has been informed considerably since becoming chair of the London Society. Members have revealed “astonishing” levels of knowledge and experience and the Society’s events and initiatives have provided platforms for this to be shared. She sees these cross-cultural, -generational and -political exchanges as the greatest benefit that the Society can deliver to London and Londoners, and is keen to expand them. “It’s the quality and diversity of views expressed in these debates that are so critical to the future of planning in London”.
She adds that this is what the Society’s founders created – a non-partisan, non-political forum for Londoners to debate the issues of their time. They saw this as their civic duty to include all voices in this debate. Today’s London is a far more diverse and multicultured city than in the days of the Society’s founders, but Leanne is inspired by their vision and commitment, and regards civilised, inclusive discussion about the issues of our time essential to the Society’s mission. “It has its challenges, but it is a privilege to bring these voices together”.
Listen to Locals
17 April 2023