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Reflections from UKREiiF

Ruth Elsegood

The 2023 UK Real Estate, Investment and Infrastructure Forum (UKREiiF) was held in Leeds again this year, and thanks to Women in Planning and the support of my employer I was given the incredible opportunity to attend. One month on, I have been absorbing and reflecting on the experience, to put together some key lessons I have taken from UKREiiF 2023.

The wide range of talks hosted by Local Authorities, regional investment boards and industry-leading firms allowed delegates to explore topics of interest in professions outside their immediate field, tapping into current and upcoming priorities across our sector which have the power to shape the built environment.

Unsurprisingly, the transition towards net zero is the topic on everyone’s lips. National and local government were presenting visions, and pipelines of investment opportunities to facilitate green energy generation, resilience to climate change, and economic growth. Meanwhile, almost every industry panel I attended raised the importance of working towards a just transition through a range of means such as integrating micro-renewable energy generation and electric infrastructure into new schemes, and designing places which genuinely encourage use of public and active transport modes. The use of Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) and Nature Based Solutions (NBSs) was also frequently raised, in light of the requirement for 10% BNG being integrated into the Environment Act from November.

However, as most of us know, delivery will ultimately rely on whether any financial potential can also be realised. Investing in a beautiful, healthy, and green public realm can attract higher rents, retention and stickiness of tenants, and can boost the surrounding land values. What’s more, climate- and nature-insensitive schemes are likely to become less financially attractive through the loss of social license to operate, and the eventual consolidation of that sentiment in policy and law, become increasingly obstructive and expensive.

The cross-implications of the panels and pipeline presentations I saw suggest that moving to designing and delivering low-carbon/high-nature developments will soon have significant implications for the planning and built environment professions. Priorities are now shifting from the top down, and so consultant planners, landscape architects, engineers, and related professionals must quickly upskill. We have to be able to advocate for, advise on, and evaluate how projects can retain embodied carbon, minimise inputs of carbon, maximise the value of natural solutions and biodiversity, and provide mitigation or offsetting solutions where required. Meanwhile, Planning Authorities and Statutory Consultees will face the same challenges to ensure that new developments are suitably aligned with the changing legislative and policy landscape.

Several events also explored examples of how urban environments have been and can be improved for everyone through improving inclusivity, and by including a range of perspectives at the design stage and throughout the planning process. These included discussions of the importance of including the priorities of women and intersectional groups in the development of active travel and public realm infrastructure, including the success of Glasgow City Council’s feminist gender lens in developing a more liveable city that is accountable to being inclusive of minority groups. Another fascinating talk discussed how utilising an LGBTQ+ lens to critique design can generate safer and more attractive spaces for everyone. In an echo of the environmental issues discussed, similar challenges emerged with regard to the present lack of incentive for investors and developers to spend the time and money on creating inclusive places, as part of developments. However, I am hopeful that, despite the lighter emphasis on these issues, the additional design critique which will be required to get new schemes up to speed with net zero and BNG ambitions, will also provide opportunities to generate social benefits as a positive by-product.

As a Young Planner less than a year into my career, and perhaps even more so as a young woman, it would have been easy to succumb to imposter syndrome at this event. However, I was offered the opportunity to attend UKREiiF at the last minute, so had no time to hesitate. Although I did initially grapple with doubts over what I could achieve as a graduate at an event which caters largely to experienced professionals, I knew I had the support of Women in Planning, who sourced my ticket, and my Fairhurst colleagues who encouraged me in my preparations.

A positive of the quick turnaround was that it forced me to advocate for myself and then to take full responsibility for my itinerary while away; to balance my own professional development with taking the opportunity to network in rooms I otherwise may not have had access to.

To come away from UKREiiF with a new outlook on the future of our industry, a handful of potential new business connections, and feedback for both my employer and Women in Planning, is a success in my book. And I would also like to express my sincere thanks to Women in Planning for providing me with such a valuable experience for my career development, and I hope to see some of you at UKREiiF next year!

Ruth Elsegood is a Graduate Planner at Fairhurt and a member of the Women in Planning North East Committee.

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