“Where are the new Lawrie Barratts?” incoming housing minister Kit Malthouse beseeched his audience at Property Week’s RESI Conference in September.
The short answer might be ‘nowhere to be seen’. It is hard to overstate how much Sir Lawrie revolutionised the housebuilding industry.
As well as founding the UK’s largest housebuilder, he single-handedly foisted the concept of marketing on an antediluvian industry, brought home ownership to thousands who never thought it an option and helped revolutionise building techniques.
Necessity was the mother of invention. In 1953, the then 25-year-old accountant couldn’t afford to buy his own home. So he built it himself. Or rather he bought five acres of land outside Newcastle, split it into seven plots, sold six for double the price he paid for the land and spent £1,750 building the four-bed house that is still there today.
He continued to buy and build and in 1958, formed the company that became the FTSE 100 group bearing his name. Almost half a million homes later, the company has published a history of the group to mark its 60th anniversary.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Barratt brought easy finance packages, part exchange and groundbreaking TV advertising to the industry (those of a certain age doubtless recall the ‘Barratt helicopter’). It was in the 1980s that he tapped into the zeitgeist of Margaret Thatcher’s home ownership revolution. Mrs T even bought a Barratt home in Dulwich, south London.
The nearest we have left to truly entrepreneurial founders of businesses among the major housebuilders are probably Berkeley Group’s Tony Pidgley and Redrow’s Steve Morgan. Morgan, a civil engineer by training, formed the company at the age of 21 with a £5,000 loan. A passionate and occasionally pugilistic figure, like Barratt, he returned to the company 10 years ago and, on Wednesday, bowed out for a second time. Tales of Pidgley’s early career are legion and regurgitated seemingly in every interview with London’s most famous developer.
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As competent as the current crop of industry chiefs are, it’s unlikely that any of them could now build a housing empire from a few thousand quid. What Barratt, Morgan and Pidgley shared, apart from sheer chutzpah, was access to lots of land and, vitally, a more accessible planning regime. Take note, Mr Malthouse.
The balance sheet required to hold land often through years of planning obfuscation is an insurmountable hurdle to challenging today’s industrial giants of housebuilding. Ideas and – a nod back to Sir Lawrie – brand power are the capital of today’s aspiring entrepreneurs.
Two figures stand out for me – one in London, one in the north. Urban Splash founder Tom Bloxham is a darling of the architectural establishment and a brand in himself, with his trademark hat, which never seems to come off, and extraordinary metal business cards.
Urban Splash’s colourful and quirky developments helped revive sites in Manchester and the north that even Sir Lawrie would have thought twice about buying.
While Bloxham started off selling fire extinguishers door to door, Marc Vlessing, the urbane corporate financier and founder/chief executive of Pocket Living, does not quite fit into the ‘pulled up by the bootstraps’ mould of Sir Lawrie et al. But innovative thinking has, again, marked his company’s rise. High London land values rather than seemingly non-viable Manchester sites are the circle Pocket Living has squared, via small but smartly designed units and an innovative, affordable housing model.
“Tom Bloxham is a darling of the architectural establishment and a brand in himself, with his trademark hat”
The hundreds of awards Urban Splash has accumulated and the acres of press coverage generated by Pocket have helped endear the companies to politicians and planners.
The shift in housing policy to a more tenure-neutral stance also suggests a redefinition of ‘entrepreneurship’ is needed. The top half dozen or so housing associations are run like FTSE companies.
The sector has gone through merger mania recently and one of the leading forces has been Geeta Nanda, former chief executive of Thames Valley Housing, who left to take the same role at Metropolitan, which then merged with Thames Valley. Like other leading chief executives, she has had to deal with vast portfolios and scattergun government policymaking.
Find out more - Housing associations: what’s in a name?
At Thames Valley, she oversaw a joint venture with the vastly wealthy Abu Dhabi Investment Authority to form one of the first movers in build-to-rent, which has the coolest brand name I’ve yet to see: Fizzy Living.
PM Theresa May’s conversion to council house building may soon spawn a further batch of entrepreneurs: heads of local authority development enterprises. They have the land; it’s a question of who has the ideas and the drive. Is there another Sir Lawrie lurking in the public sector?
Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and consultant