Interview with Anna Swaithes, Head of Sustainability at The Crown Estate
In a newly created role for the Crown Estate, Saxton Bampfylde was delighted to have been involved in Anna’s appointment. We were really pleased to have the chance to interview Anna Swaithes as she works through her first year as Head of Sustainability. Her background includes a strong mix of public and private sector senior experience focused on sustainability and social value which combines to offer a whole organisational approach for the Crown Estate as it moves forward. Anna’s experience and commitment to partnership working to build, support and enhance communities is very clear and promises to bring new perspectives at Group and wider organisational level.
As the world focuses, rightly on the climate and sustainability, there are wider economic and political pressures at play, and we welcome Anna’s insight; sustainability must be embraced and progressed: it is not an option.
Can you tell us about your role within The Crown Estate?
I am Head of Sustainability, which is a role created last year to help establish The Crown Estate as a leader on sustainability, from an environmental, social and ethical perspective. Of course, sustainability isn’t new, but the impetus for creating this role now is that The Crown Estate is seeking to join up different parts of the portfolio in a more integrated way. Our new strategy – launched in 2021 – has three objectives: anchored in our contribution to the UK’s net zero goal; our contribution to thriving communities, urban renewal; and our role in tackling biodiversity loss as stewards of the natural environment.
My job is to ‘bring the outside in’, challenge the level of ambition, and transform how the business approaches sustainability – so that we live up to our purpose of creating lasting and shared prosperity for the nation. To me a sustainability team has to be the focal point for building wider capability and commitment, so I am keen to create a sustainability community, as well as a team.
In my view sustainability has several horizons from near-term action to very long-term considerations, and it needs to be embedded across so many people’s roles. These horizons are cyclical and sustainability needs to keep evolving as a response to what is happening externally, as well as internally, and what the organisational or business needs are.
How do you identify good sustainability talent?
The Crown Estate’s purpose is to deliver benefit to the nation, and I already see how this is a major factor in attracting good people. The market for good people with sustainability experience is extremely constrained, but we are better placed than many, and I am a big fan of thinking laterally when building a team.
Finding people who are passionate about what we are trying to achieve is not hard. We may need to build up the sustainability knowledge as part of the skill set, rather than taking a binary approach where we must find people who have only worked in sustainability. In the past I have worked with many brilliant people who have developed sustainability knowledge and skill sets having come from a completely different background.
This is being demonstrated currently as we work to address our net zero goal, which was set at the end of 2020. A lot of work has been undertaken internally to set the trajectory and targets required, as well as identify key enabling roles. We need to build the right capabilities and responsibilities into a range of job roles, and that is less about my team doing things themselves and more about them supporting and skilling up other people appropriately. We play a very strong coaching and challenging role across the organisation to achieve the scale of change needed to achieve this goal.
How does The Crown Estate consider social, environmental and financial value?
The Crown Estate exists to create lasting and shared prosperity for the nation and our role as custodians is to take a broad view of how that value is defined. When we think about social, environmental and financial value, it is through that lens of ‘lasting and shared prosperity’. Our ultimate stakeholder is the nation, which is a very different starting point from a public or privately owned company.
We have to be financially sustainable and successful to function and we need to generate returns to the public purse and to reinvest, both in the long-term value of our assets and to keep them healthy in the shorter term. It is an interesting model undertaking many of the same activities as private sector companies, but with genuine purpose of public value. We have the ability to take a longer-term, more patient view and therefore be able to contribute to the kind of transitions that need to happen in markets to make them fit for the future.
With a vast portfolio of assets around the UK, how important is partnership working?
Partnership is absolutely key and will only become more so. For example, if you consider the marine space we are the manager of the seabed and much of the foreshore around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, we are far from the only decision makers on the marine environment, so need to work closely with commercial and regulatory bodies. Much of what happens is influenced by the organisations that we award rights and leases to – for renewables and habitat creation, but also for things like aggregates and cables. How we work with them through commercial relationships, and with communities and stakeholder groups who have a perspective or local interest is essential.
How do you work to balance partnership needs?
When you think about land and sea there are an enormous number of competing demands for that space to meet many human needs – food, energy, wellbeing, environmental services, public access – and also the needs of nature and planet like sequestering carbon. When it comes to balancing competing demands – for example sequestering carbon versus producing food versus protecting nature – there are big questions. We have the responsibility of carving a path which meets each of these needs and most importantly protects the natural environment for future generations.
To find this balance we need to engage with a diverse group of interests. There can be a complex mix of different stakeholders, but successful engagement is ultimately about relationships and about transparency – creating the space for competing and sometimes complementary points of view to be aired in order to arrive at an approach that different interest groups can support.
We do often think about partnerships between organisations, but of course trust happens between individuals – so I find this whole dynamic quite fascinating – individuals nested in organisations, which in turn are nested in systems, all aligning to effect change. It sounds complex and slow, and it can be, but when the alignment happens, real change is unleashed.
The issue of ‘greenwashing’ is being reportedly increasingly. What impact does this have on the sustainability agenda?
It creates a credibility issue and without effective mechanisms for the public to distinguish between what is and what isn’t greenwash it makes it even harder. It can be very difficult even for someone who has worked in sustainability for a long time to make a call on whether something is genuine or not. It would be great if we could presume positive intent from all and that action always followed public commitment, but that just isn’t the case.
The more we have accountability mechanisms the better able we will be to call out greenwashing but also, very importantly, highlight good practice. There are mechanisms such as the World Benchmarking Alliance, as well as other benchmarking approaches, but they are often issue-specific.
There are also a number of media outlets trying to provide an evidence-based view, such as Tortoise media, and that is really needed. Negative headlines provide a skewed view which is not always helpful, as the greenwashing stories tend to be better news hooks than the stories of genuine progress.
As the economy faces increasing pressure can we retain a focus on sustainability or does this risk slipping down the agenda?
There is a risk, but I think it is really, really important that we don’t get into a sustainability versus security debate, whether it is energy, food or income security. Ultimately many of the root causes of sustainability and security issues are the same, and of course the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis are no longer future problems. They are playing out now alongside other pressures are, so we need to look for pathways that tackle multiple challenges. This will mean having the courage to make some big changes to how societies and economies work.
How does your previous experience with large FMCG businesses feed into your Crown Estate role?
Fundamentally all organisations are agents in bigger systems, so the questions I am asking are the same: ‘What are those systems that we operate within? Which levers can we pull to transition ourselves and support wider change? Who do we have to work with?’
Much of the context I am thinking about is the same – but the levers I am thinking about now are very different ones because of the sector as well as the governance and ownership.
Interview featured in CANVAS – Built Environments and Social Housing edition, 2023