Time to celebrate innovation and disruption in UK housing

COMMENT: We threw a bit of a party for UK Regeneration the other day – in the poshest of posh London clubs (in Pall Mall doncha know), where we had the most excellent bash, with around 90 of your closest friends.

The whole idea started out as a “thank you” to my professional team for successfully securing the UKR planning consent for our new settlement in Biggleswade in March, but it broadened somewhat to include all the folk who have been on the journey, not just those whom we paid (hopefully handsomely, and hopefully on time) for technical services, but all the people who have contributed to our mission to be innovative and disruptive in the housing industry.

In the end, we had a most eclectic range of folk: community leaders, industry gurus, journalists, senior civil servants, local government types, think-tanky sorts and – for good measure – a couple of knights of the realm, the president of the RIBA and even a cabinet minister, alongside our transport, planning and designer peeps.  All of whom were happy to raise a glass and toast to “everybody deserves better”.

And a jolly time was certainly had by all.

Being a market disruptor is pretty hard work, it has to be said. I made a little speech to say how grateful we were to everyone who has helped us in our campaign to build houses at scale, at pace, and at quality, in a place where people want to live; how committed we were not to ride roughshod over the local community; and how scrupulous we were about not compromising the natural environment.

That seemed to go down quite well. And I guess it is an ambitious enough series of objectives. However, reflecting on it the next day (as I was, perforce, taking things quietly), it occurred to me that my team and I are also running on at least three other agendas.

Strength in diversity

The first is our commitment to the diversification of personnel in the property industry, as loyal foot soldiers to EG editor Sam McClary’s REWIRE initiative. As my business partner is a gay Highlander and I am a voluble woman, we are already very much the Odd Couple of the real estate world (as the property partner of Clyde & Co once put it, rather quaintly, “nice to meet people in a different uniform”).

But nothing short of full-on feminisation of our industry is our aim. We stipulate that we expect our professional teams to be at least 50/50 women and men, and I am proud to say that we’ve achieved better than this. Our chief consulting engineer is a woman, as is the head of our legal team. Hurrah! And I bear the scars; it has been a long three decades since one of the great legends in our industry told me, crushingly: “We are not training girls to be engineers.”

In common with many, we are critical of much new-build housing stock in this country. We just do not think it will stand the test of time

Learning curve

The second is to strive always to have a “learning culture”. We’ve been on the winding path with UKR for nearly ten years now, and throughout all of that time we have held regular roundtable events known as the “UKR Forums”.

It is a simple format. A friendly law firm or real estate consultancy lends us a big boardroom and fields a bit of breakfast, and then industry leaders and experts turn up and generously give of their expertise for free for a power hour, debating all manner of subjects, such as the PRS, the future of the suburbs, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, innovative transport solutions, MMC, energy and garden cities – you name it, we’ve debated it. We write it up. We digest. And all the newest, freshest thinking is incorporated into our plans for our new settlement.

The long view

Our third objective is perhaps the most ambitious of all: it is to plan seriously for the long term, and not relinquish ownership or control. And in this we model ourselves on the methodology of the Great Estates.

The UKR company motto that “everybody deserves better”, crucially, holds for future generations too. In common with many, we are critical of much new-build housing stock in this country. We just do not think it will stand the test of time.

We are trying to design homes that are not only appealing to the eye, but have decent space standards, aiming for 25% above the norm. And with proper storage – everyone needs somewhere to put their ironing board. And more: we are great believers that home is where the heart is. We start from the point of family, neighbourhood and community, and of belonging.

Our mission is to seriously improve the living conditions and prospects of ordinary working people, reconnecting them with fresh air and greenery, enabling our children to run around and fill their lungs. And in seeking to deliver an exemplar community, we were grateful to Her Majesty’s government for according us “garden community” status, as one of its 19 pilot settlements, in June.

So, all in all, there was a bit more to say really. And rather a lot to do. Hopefully, we’ll get it all further along before we throw another party.

Jackie Sadek is chief operating officer at UK Regeneration