Power to the people

28 September, 2018

Major housebuilders face an increasing challenge from the growing number of successful ‘community-led’ independent developers where profit is not king.

That was the mood among over 120 delegates at the second ‘How to Develop Small Sites’ conference in London this week, organised by Archiboo and Rare Space.

After hearing “the heroic stories” from one small-scale developer after another, the counter message to conventional routes to market was robustly summed up by legendary ‘alternative’ developer Eric Reynolds, pioneer of Camden Lock, Spitalfields and Trinity Buoy Wharf, who told delegates: “Don’t trust the banks, don’t trust the politicians and don’t trust local authorities.”

He singled out local councils for special mention “because they are not in control of themselves, so they can’t do anything other than try and control you, which is silly,” he said. “They deliver really poor value to the taxpayer, they waste time – they have no idea of the value of time. I’m 75 and I am still saying I’ll be dead before you finish it,” he quipped.

Eric Reynolds

He recalled how he bought Trinity Buoy Wharf for £100 – which he may “never have paid” – after persuading the Treasury that he’d formed a Trust, how he’d paid £70,000 for Camden Lock when there were plans to build a motorway over it but today had just been sold for £460m and how the cash flow from the Lock had secured a deal with David Sainsbury to build a superstore further along the canal.

Then followed a series of inspiring stories of ‘accidental developers’ who found themselves forced into a fight – but are coming out on top.

In the session ‘Why be a developer’, Christian Spencer Davies of AMODELS, a founding member of the Camley Street Community Project behind King’s Cross, with plans to create hundreds of new homes for local people, explained how he had become a developer because his offices were being threatened by a developer.

“So, me and the neighbours conspired to come up with a way of staying put.” At the same time, they had a dual focus of employment, adding to the existing 500 jobs in the area, because “industry is the real organism of London.”

The project was feasible because “there is a strong desire out there to do something good.” However, he admitted that it was “really hard working with local authorities because people keep changing and most of the time you have no idea of who you are talking to”.

Former finance officer Tony Wood told how he had become “an accidental developer” when his health authority in Haringey, north London, decided to offer two-thirds of a local hospital, St Ann’s to a private developer for 470 homes – none of them affordable.

Tony Wood, St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust

“Like Camley Street, we got to where we are out of necessity,” said Tony, recalling they had to have “a whip-round” to pay for the campaign’s first meeting.

They formed the St. Ann’s Redevelopment Trust, and set about buying the site. “But how the hell do we do that? We had no skills, so we went to everybody we knew. We found there were so many brilliant people out there in your profession – developers, architects, planners, financiers prepared to give their free time and support. But it was a huge learning curve – and we started from knowing nothing.”

Following an online community survey and a crowd-sourcing appeal raising £25,000, the group finally persuaded the GLA to buy the site, with a condition for 50% affordable housing but with a higher density of 800 homes agreed by local consultation.  The architects are Maccreanor Lavington and 6a.“There’s a lot of money out there”, he told delegates. “People are trying to lend money to community housing projects. But you have to have broad shoulders and it’s been pretty time consuming – about 150 hours a week all voluntary. But we got there.”

Another community-led development narrative came from Maria Brenton, senior ambassador for the UK Co-Housing Group. “I did not start as a developer”, explained Maria who has worked with Older Women’s Co-Housing group (OWCH) for 20 years. “I work with small groups who want their own housing developments – and there are many, many throughout the land, who are looking for not just housing, but housing with social connectiveness.

“I guess that’s what is meant by the jargon ‘place-making’. For older people, housing that “fostered social connectiveness with neighbours so they feel more secure and happier – loneliness is a huge issue now,” was important, an award-winning example being a successful project in Barnet, which was providing 25 homes for people aged between 52 and 90.

Another developer who “started with no capital whatsoever” was Neil Murphy, a former senior policy advisor at the Treasury, who spoke about TOWN, a pioneering developer and custom-build enabler whose motto was “Profit for Purpose”.

Set up four years ago, TOWN’s first project to go live is at Marmalade Lane, a 42-home co-housing development designed by Mole Architects with land bought from Cambridge City Council on generous build-now-pay-later terms in a joint venture with financial-backers Swedish housebuilder Trivshus.

“Investors usually want a track record, with some evidence of ‘skin in the game,” said Neil. “But if you don’t have capital, leverage your skills, leverage your position. And go for projects with an angle to them, a niche or a purpose.”

On a different scale, TfL  with 5,700 acres of land was “a property company whether we liked it or not – but we didn’t behave like one,” admitted Head of Housing Strategy, Robbie Erbmann.

The original staff of five had expanded to 80 in five years, he said, prompted by the prioritisation of housing by the Mayor, with a current target of delivering 10,000 new homes by 2021, half of them affordable, generating a “means of revenue for TfL, but also “because we want to leave a legacy of housing development.”

The emphasis on its small sites programme begun two years with a trawl through the first 1,000 TfL-owned sites then whittled down to 10, scheduled to produce 160 new homes, 66 percent of which would be affordable. “But it’s not easy – we have 160 people working on ten sites, the same number as if it were 1,000 homes,” said Robbie, who was in the process of appointing a Director of Estate Management.

The first 10 sites sold to “the highest bidder”, auctions had been resisted because “we wouldn’t get the most innovative people”, he told delegates adding that while data on plot values were “commercially sensitive’, details of “what went on with each site would be made public.”

John Smart of Craftworks said he’d “rather cannibalise myself” by becoming an architect/developer than wait for developers to take him over.

“It was a conscious decision to reposition ourselves into developers but a new skill set was needed. It became full time – we needed to learn about investment, about planning, about how to mix concrete, to look at the Land Registry and to have an exit plan. But if you dive deep you can find the pearls,” said John who now employs six people finding small sites.

Summing up, award-winning Roger Zogolovitch said people’s personal stories of undertaking developments were inspirational and “heroic”.

“They are taking on projects which are way beyond my abilities – but there is something heroic in them. ‘We really didn’t know what we were getting into to. We didn’t take a course in it, we didn’t have a PhD in it, we didn’t have a CPD in it, we just entered it with a blind belief that we could get there’ ”he said referring to Hari (Phillips), Maria ( Brenton) and Tony (Wood).

And rather like actors who went onto to become film-makers, architects who were “so used to being dealt with as – ‘never mind you Mr Architect – we’ve got project managers, we’ve got fund managers, everybody knows better than you’,” were seizing the time.

“What is enormously exciting about the stories you have heard this morning is that we have got the chance to develop our own futures – and that’s what’s so brilliant about this conference because it’s helping you as architects believe you can do that.”