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Q&A with Lifetime Achievement winner Stephen Hill

Stephen Hill MRICS is the first winner of the RICS Social Impact Lifetime Achievement Award. He reflects on his 50-year career and on the communities he empowered to build their own futures

Author: Brendon Hooper

11 January 2021

Photography: Michael Leckie

Stephen Hill MRICS is a founder and director at C2O Futureplanners, where he provides strategic advice on development and regeneration projects. RICS’ Lifetime Achievement award recognises Hill’s huge personal impact on society and the built environment.

Over a career spanning more than 50 years as a surveying professional, what would you say was your proudest achievement?

Probably leading the neighbourhood revival of Limehouse Fields and Ocean Estates in east London in the mid-1990s. 

The local authority, Tower Hamlets, had two large estates in need of refurbishment, with a large Bangladeshi population living in overcrowded conditions. Our consultancy team was unusually committed to involving residents as much as possible in real decision-making. 

The project really changed residents’ perceptions about what their housing options could be, how they could be their own agents of change; what they wanted looked like what we now call “sustainable development”. 

 

“We persuaded the council to insist that the residents’ association must open itself to non-white members. At the time, it had none”

 

What did you do differently to traditional regeneration schemes?

We – the team and residents – quickly realised that the project needed to become an overall redevelopment, not just a refurbishment of the existing estates. We sought a private meeting of the leader of the council and persuaded him that the council must insist that the residents’ association – which we were required to work with – must open itself to non-white members. At the time, it had none.

The project changed perceptions at the time about how residents can empower themselves to set out their own aspirations for where they will live, and to become active co-producers of the new place. 

Many people in the community had come from rural Bangladesh, where they were used to growing their own food. So residents were keen to have gardens where they could grow fruit and vegetables. Food poverty was still a big issue in the area. This project formed the basis of the RICS research project, Real Cost of Poor Homes-Critical Review 1996 and Real Cost of Poor Homes – Footing the Bill 1997, which demonstrated that if you don’t invest in good-quality housing, other government budgets will take the strain.

 

“I’ve always had a very simple idea about ethics – to take an ethical position is to assume responsibility for ‘the other’”

 

What role has RICS played in developing your career?

The goals of RICS have always helped me focus on what’s important. For example, in the RICS Charter, it states that the Institution and its members will always strive “to secure the optimal use of land and its associated resources to meet social and economic needs”. It’s such a brilliant summation of what I’ve always felt, ever since my old university professor helpfully convinced me to switch my career trajectory from town planning (“How dull,” he said) to surveying.  

Throughout my professional career, I’ve always had a very simple idea about ethics – to take an ethical position is to assume responsibility for “the other”. But I currently sense a kind of timidity about what our ethical aspirations should be. It doesn’t need to be complicated. We should just say, everything we do should be about delivering the UN Sustainable Development goals… not just its business ethics parts. This would give us a strong sense of responsibility and common purpose.

Seven years ago at an RICS event, Victoria Edwards, a prominent land economist, asked me if I had considered doing a Churchill Fellowship. I had always thought the fellowship was for much younger people, but I applied, and soon began a fantastic research programme that took me to 12 cities in the US and Canada, to meet community organisers and politicians working in housing and neighbourhood revitalisation.

My research explored the crucial relationship between the citizen and the state. I was very proud to be awarded this fellowship, particularly because it helped encourage a wider public debate about the role of land in serving the common good, how we define and strengthen the public interest role of professionals and their institutions, and how we can give the demand side of housing markets an effective voice in policymaking.

 

What advice do you have for people joining the profession?

Follow your heart! And look for opportunities where you may be exposed to challenging situations. It’s important for the profession to work with big employers to provide structured and purposeful short-term assignments, which can give young or less experienced surveyors a higher degree of responsibility.

It is essential for new surveyors to learn from experience, and it’s a win-win for the employer too, because if the person handles it well and increases their managerial and organisational skills from it, they will always bring greater long-term value to the business.

Find out about the RICS Social Impact Awards 2020, and all the award winners, here.

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