Any successful project starts with a sound understanding of the planning and development context, but when it comes to the build- to-rent (BTR) sector, research and engagement must go above and beyond.
Investors and developers must bear in mind that while the real estate industry might be obsessed with BTR, for those working outside the sector it is still considered something of an anomaly. Indeed, the average Briton still aspires to own their own home and in all likelihood does not know what BTR is.
Yet with many confined to secondhand stock within the private rental market, BTR offers a refreshing alternative. It brings an element of choice to renters, allowing them to enjoy beautiful, newly built, good-quality properties that have been designed with a sense of community and modern lifestyles. The trick for the property industry is to convey these benefits to the public.
So how to persuade people to see the benefits of, and even get excited about, a new BTR scheme proposed for their neighbourhood?
While the pros of BTR need to be ‘sold’ to the community, a property developer that begins the conversation by holding their hands up and saying “we don’t know you yet, but we’d like to” will get off to a better start with communities.
Getting out on to the streets, interviewing people and hosting pop-up events – truly engaging – goes a long way towards gaining a robust understanding of an area that will inform your proposals meaningfully. It also shows you are approaching the development with an open mind and are willing to listen and implement feedback into proposals.
In Wembley, for example, HUB is developing Chesterfield House (pictured), which is just about to top out. The previous building on site was filled with local charities, community groups and local businesses.
We have worked closely throughout with a tight-knit community that knows what it wants and what it does not want, and supported local activities, such as sponsoring the Heart of Wembley Festival. We are now just months away from delivering 239 apartments for rent, 68 discount market rent apartments, retail space and a new public square and community centre, which have been designed in collaboration with Wembley residents.
It does no one any good to wait until a week before the launch of a formal consultation to finally begin consulting – engagement needs to begin at day one.
Maintaining a sense of transparency, honesty and openness with planning authorities is also just as crucial as liaising with those who will be more directly affected. Forming trusting relationships with local authorities should be treated as investments that will place you in good favour with key decision-makers, who will welcome you back to build more in years to come.
Feedback from communities and local authorities must form the basis for the project itself, affecting the choice of architect, contractor and, subsequently, the appearance, materials and amenities.
Spaces in which residents can enjoy barbecues, bars, cafés and gyms create and enhance community spirit, while opening them up to non-residents amplifies this further. Crucially, the implementation of the community’s feedback into proposals must be seen to happen and when this is not possible it is important to be upfront with people about that early and share the details.
Proper consultation also leads to rental prices that are appropriate for the area, while providing affordable units that are the same specification as full-priced ones goes even further to resonate with local people.
A happy tenant then secures income for the building’s operator for years to come, which is increasingly appealing to investors, who are more willing to finance developers with a proven track record of delivering projects that are seen to have worked well for the local area.
By taking a genuine interest in the people of an area, appealing and reasonably priced new living spaces for rent can be planned, designed and built to have a positive impact on communities. This is the foundation for a successful BTR scheme and will be the key driver in moving the sector forward.
Damien Sharkey is managing director at HUB