Chris Roberts, Senior Political Counsel at Cratus, pays tribute to the late Tony Pidgley who was widely regarded as one of the most influential and inspiring industry leaders.
Following the plethora of tributes which have rightly been accorded to Tony Pidgley, I thought I’d take the liberty of adding a few thoughts of my own. These thoughts do not come from inside the industry but from one who knew him for over 20 years and from one who was variously an opponent, a negotiator, and a partner.
I led Greenwich during the regeneration of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich and also through the commissioning, demolition, and development of Kidbrooke Village. In addition, we worked on river transport, Crossrail, and the development of innovative housing initiatives which we thought would suit our respective requirements better than those handed down from Whitehall or City Hall.
We worked on new school infrastructure, care home provision, landscaping, and local labour. When we set up an Olympic charity, Tony came to one dinner with his directors and made sure they all bid very handsomely during the auction.
Tony was a force of nature. By any stretch of the imagination, the truest of working-class heroes. Rarely, in my experience, have I seen an individual who pulled himself up by his own intelligence, nous, and sheer hard work. He was a born raconteur, even when he was supposed to be negotiating with us. I’m sure that was just one technique, along with walking out because he claimed he couldn’t meet our demands, only to return five minutes later because he realised he hadn’t finished his coffee. Tony didn’t want my PA to think he’d refused to drink the coffee she had made him. So, he came back to make sure he didn’t upset my PA. Upsetting me was ok but not her. Or at least that’s what he claimed. It was certainly an excellent way to ensure he always had coffee when he arrived!
We negotiated and we fell out, but we never walked away from each other because ultimately we had a shared sense of what we wanted to achieve. We both knew at the end we would make the deal. To this day, I’m still not completely sure what was just Tony, what was just for show and what was a negotiating tactic. But it was all great fun.
It really helped to know what you wanted when engaging with Tony and what your own desirables and bottom lines were. I had always told him that whatever challenges he might face within a scheme, the one thing I could not compromise on was the affordable housing. He knew this early on and it formed the basis for our discussions throughout our time working together.
One of Tony’s greatest strengths was to identify and ask first what the council wanted from the scheme. He took the time and trouble to understand my bottom lines. His background gave him a deep understanding and, in an industry where empathy is often in short supply, he spoke movingly of doing right by people and making sure those in social and affordable housing had homes they too could be proud of.
Our partnership grew closer when government removed a proposed Crossrail Station at the Royal Arsenal from its Parliamentary Bill. We spent eight years working to overturn that, finally convincing the Standing Committee that it should be put back in the Bill. Our campaign ran across changes of Mayor, Government and numerous policy and technical advisors. The only constants were Greenwich Council and Berkeley Homes. It was a project we secured together.
While many in the industry will focus on his regeneration and development schemes, the pioneering partnership between us on Crossrail remains, I believe, unique. All of us know that transport needs to complement and, indeed, often drive future development. Yet so rarely does the opportunity arise to put this most obvious need into practice. The Woolwich Crossrail station is real legacy stuff.
Tony’s work on Crossrail, alongside Rob Perrins, was above and beyond what we could have asked for and it is to be hoped the lessons are not lost.
Of course, Berkeley would benefit from the station and the uplift in land values. But as I sit looking at a station yet to open, Tony and Rob have not only built the station box underground, the flats above have also been built and have been occupied for the past two years. The scheme even brought Marks and Spencer back to Woolwich. It is so sad that whenever this station does open, Tony will not be here to see it. It will cement the regeneration of a town which suffered chronic poverty and decline.
The former Arsenal council ward once posted a male unemployment rate of 62%, the highest in all Britain. Now it is the site of his Royal Arsenal scheme and of the Crossrail Station he did so much to bring here. No one who was around at the time will ever forget that he invested in the town when absolutely no one else would.
I last dined with Tony just over a year ago, when he was anxious to celebrate with my former Chief Executive, Mary Ney, on her DBE. Along with Chris Perry, my former finance director, we had the chance to meet and talk about what had been achieved and was still being delivered at Kidbrooke, the Royal Arsenal, and with Crossrail.
It has already been said that Tony had the best ‘nose’ in the business. I had this confirmed to me when I took one of his rivals to another area of Greenwich in need of serious investment. Having agreed with me upon the vast potential the area offered, he told me I should get Tony down to give me the best assessment of it.
Writing this also calls to mind the day when my former Chair of Planning took his committee on a visit to several completed schemes around the Borough.
I asked him how it went. He looked at me and said, “It started well but went downhill after lunch.” In explaining what had happened, the visit had started at the Royal Arsenal and moved on to Kidbrooke. “It went downhill from there”, my Chair confirmed. “Everywhere else we went, they kept asking why this scheme wasn’t as good as Berkeley’s. If I’d done it the other way round, it would have been fine”, he concluded.
And therein is Tony’s legacy. A commitment to excellence, to building what he said he would build (apart from coming back once or twice to increase the density) and making a genuine commitment to the area he had chosen to invest in. And at every stage, people were at the heart of his thinking. I cannot begin to calculate how many people’s lives, in my area alone, that he has enhanced.
One time he offered me a job. I re-read the letter upon hearing the tragic news of his passing. Had I accepted that offer, my professional life would have been very different.
Yet, while I have always been immensely proud of the fact he thought me good enough to work for him, somehow I doubt we would have had quite so much fun together if I had accepted.
To all those at Berkeley and to his family and friends, I extend the sincerest of condolences for the loss of their boss, colleague, husband, and father.
I’ll just miss one of the warmest and most inspiring human beings it has been my pleasure to know.
From left to right: Tom Dacey (Southern Housing Group), Sir Bob Kerslake (Homes and Communities Agency), Tony Pidgley (Berkeley Homes), Cllr Chris Roberts (Greenwich Council)