Tuesday 21 May 2024

Carisbrooke Tennis win National Club League - Midlands.

Carisbrooke Tennis Club of Knighton, sponsored by Landmark Planning, have won the Midlands Division of the Men’s National Club League by beating Cardiff on Sunday 10-2. They have won every match this season and with one left against Warwick cannot now be overtaken. From here the club proceed to the national finals in September for the top 8 clubs in the country, where they hope to be seeded in the top four.
As coach Jack Simpson said: “It is a tough division to get out of, as you have to get your best players out nearly every week and likely win all your matches to top the division. We beat Cardiff without our best player, Henry Searle, last year’s Junior Wimbledon champion, which is testimony to the depth of the squad. I am really looking forward to September and particularly putting the team up against the top London clubs."

Thursday 2 May 2024

Modern Methods of Construction: Are they a Good Thing?

Essentially MMC are different forms of innovative construction or methodologies, which focus on off-site techniques such as mass production and factory assembly, as alternatives to traditional build.  You can see the potential advantages from less need for specialist skills to factory-controlled quality, speed and less on-site waste. Considering the concept and the related issues is important to all those in the development industry, from the initial planning to sales personnel.


Simon Jones, Technical Innovation Manager of the Vistry Group, a top 1 / 2 housebuilder first of all went through the seven categories of MMC. He obviously concentrated on Categories 1 & 2 which related to 3D primary or volumetric systems and 2D primary structural systems and which Vistry are promoting from their own factories. At present these are focussed on manufacturing a closed timber frame timber product, but hope to move to adding external cladding, roofing, doors and windows (Cat 2c).
 
He then discussed some of the potential advantages listed above, but at the same time talked about the challenges, including payment stages, early design freezes and the need for level sites.


 
Edward Jezeph is responsible for encouraging offsite construction and innovation for Homes England, the Government’s housing and regeneration agency. He went through the various tools that they use to try and increase the supply of affordable, quality homes (last year 190k against a target of 300k so work to do). These include giving funding to get sites ready for development, loans, grants for affordable homes and guarantees.
 
Construction is a tough job with limited productivity improvements constantly lagging behind the rest of the economy with a poor safety record and a dearth of skills. One third of UK waste comes from construction with 25% of materials taken to site wasted.
 
As with Simon, Edward pressed the concept of offsite timber frame construction with further advantages from cost certainty, improved health and safety and greater labour force diversity. He concluded with some case examples, including the famous and impressive timber framed, Goldsmith Street, Norwich.

James Wilson, MD of Davidsons, a major regional housebuilder focussed on commercial risk in the light of companies, such as Ilke Homes, an MMC advocate, entering liquidation with £319m of debts. He talked through a case study of, for him, the inflexibility of relying on a MMC contractor supply that puts the whole project at financial risk.
 
For his brand that introduces a lot of design detail and variety into its product it makes the timber frame designs more complex and therefore less economic. It is also more inflexible in terms of labour requirements and therefore less cost effective, having greater peaks and troughs in the need for specialised skills such as plumbers and electricians, which is less efficient.
 
He is not opposed to MMC as such, being disappointed that he is building in essentially the same way as 30 years ago when he entered the profession. At the moment for him MMC is better suited to such schemes as student housing, where repetition is the key.
 
There then followed a lively and very civilised debate. For low rise housing there is clearly a long way to go to reap the obvious benefits of off-site production, but it should ultimately be the way to go. At present sufficient benefits will probably be restricted to say the largest 5 housebuilders with scale to work with large production runs.
 
Our speakers could all speak from a position of substantial experience and authority, so it was a real privilege for myself and hopefully the 80 odd people in the audience. And everyone should have learnt a lot – the speakers said they did!

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Modern Methods of Construction: Are they a good thing?


Building parts or all of a house off site in factory conditions seems a no brainer, compared with working in what at times can be a hostile environment of weather or light, with supervision being harder for management.
 


But MMC has certainly proved problematic at best, with housebuilding companies like Ilke Homes, who promoted it falling into receivership and major players, such as Legal and General closing their factory production facilities. So, what are the issues and can or are they worth being overcome?

For our latest CPD in a pub event (which incidentally we have now been doing for over 10 years) we have moved to the Marquis of Wellington from the Parcel yard. (Its only because the latter has closed and is about to be demolished for Leicester’s railway station regeneration). The Marquis has a very good ambience for a pint and some learning & socialising. And it definitely has better parking close by!


To make it work we have our usual set up of three main speakers, with 10 minutes each, before a group discussion and back to the bar by the hour. 

Simon Jones is the Group Technical Innovation Manager of the Vistry Group and sets the technical scene. This includes describing, in particular, the difference between Category 1 and Category 2 MMC. The former is based upon volumetric construction involving the production of three dimensional units in controlled factory conditions. Category 2 is a systemised approach using flat panel units for basic floor wall and roof structures. The open panels or frames are skeletal with services, insulation and internal and external finishes installed on site.

Edward Joseph from Homes England will set out the agency’s enthusiasm for MMC and particularly the advantages and incentives for developing the art and science of house building fit for the twenty first century.

James Wilson, Managing Director of major house builder Davidsons will present an alternative viewpoint, as a counterpoint to what is often seen as the general enthusiasm for MMC.


It could be considered that MMC should only be of interest to those directly involved in the construction of homes. But, in fact, it should be of interest to the whole development industry. Take Planners for example - well divorced from the realities of the physical work, but very much interested in the outcomes. We need the building of homes to be more efficient; we need them to be as sustainable as possible. In the current climate we need them to be built as quickly as possible, to the highest standards, but we also need them to relate to their locale and be able to maintain a distinctive character, not just become part of any town anywhere.

Finally,  I want to acknowledge the help of Ryan Pritchard of Countryside Partnerships and Nicola Pettman of SGP in putting this programme together. They know more about the subject than I do!

Thursday 8 February 2024

The Future of City Centres: A few thoughts

At hot topic at business forums in Leicester at the moment appears to be the future of ours and other City Centres. There are further meetings of both Leicester Business Voice and Procon at the end of February on this issue.

 

The conversation at present appears to be relatively negative and has been so for a few years now. Clearly, the internet has wiped out a significant proportion of the retail offer of most centres and latterly the increased trend for working for home has only added to those woes in City centres.

 

Inevitably, the discussions in business circles tend to be by middle class, middle aged people such as myself, and this can be somewhat biased.

 

At a recent Friends of New Walk meeting I opined that I had visited the centre of Leicester recently on a Tuesday night and certainly on the Gallowtree Gate axis it was busy on a day I did not expect. I did remark that it was a very different demographic from myself being young and significantly of Asian background. While I was very positive about this, the aspect that made it a bit uncomfortable for me was the absolute proliferation of cycles and similar in the pedestrian areas, frequently travelling at significant speed. I did not feel relaxed and felt I had to keep my wits about me all the time.

 

Cllr Liz Sahu picked me up on this at the meeting by saying I had missed that it is also largely male (probably me being a male!). And of course she is right.

 

I think this focus on a limited demographic is a weakness, discouraging a wider range of visitors to act as customers for greater variety of businesses. If the profile is young and male it can be a more combustible environment prone to behaviours, which discourages other groups visiting when there are a limited range of people in view.

 

Parallel to this I was reflecting on a report of immediately before covid by the Centre for Cities thinktank. From memory it reviewed the largest 36(?) centres in the UK and their ‘office’ offer. Leicester, I believe, was the second lowest proportionate to its size in the UK. This is a big weakness of our city, as such employees are generally in better paid jobs than the average and have a clear opportunity before and after work, as well as at lunchtime to visit the plethora of retail, leisure and hospitality businesses. They also breed more familiarity with the City making it more likely they will visit at other times as well. And, of course, provide greater spread to the demographic issue flagged up above.

 

Since Covid the numbers of office workers actually in situ in the City has plummeted. Many office based businesses struggle to get their experienced employees to return citing the benefits of teaching and supporting junior staff and new starters; better collaborative working; greater management direction; and improved productivity (studies from Goldman Sachs to my small business size cite that overall there is a 25% reduction in productivity with full home working). I was very heartened to read at the end of January of an Employment Tribunal case where a senior manager at UK’s financial regulator, the FCA, was ordered back to work because of the business benefit, even though it was acknowledged that her work, as such, was satisfactory.  

 

I was also heartened to read that Sadiq Khan, worried about the detrimental effect of the WFH movement on the London economy, was looking at ways to incentivise working in the office, like cheaper travel, on the highest days for working from home.

 

So, in this perfect storm of challenges for the city centres, I don’t pretend to have many answers.

 

But we do need:

 

Senior businesses leaders, as well as the large public organisations based in the city, need to take the lead on getting staff back to the office to both support all the secondary businesses,  as well as broaden the demographic making the City more comfortable to women, older people and affluent people from outside the City who have more disposable income.

 

In Leicester we must continue to try and improve our transport offer as currently because of the tram and the greater public control of buses we lag behind Nottingham.

 

We need some way of achieving national control and enforcement of speeding and pavement riding of electric bikes / scooters.

 

With the changing patterns of working we need to understand how we can improve the whole office environment to make it more attractive to staff and conducive to the advantages of office working such as training, company cohesion and collaborative working.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Trains Can't Stop Us.

Pictured here alongside me are John Scott from the Peak Park Planning Authority and Steve Pointer from Notts CC in a day trip to Peak Park. Of which more later. Our experience getting there from Market Harborough is another aspect where we need to improve our rail services and incidentally also why the environment for closing ticket offices is far too premature. I had never taken my bike on a train. Nervous that I might be able to get a cycle reservation on line, I went in a week early to the station at Market Harborough to book my tickets to Matlock. It took three very friendly members of staff (probably 10 minutes) working together to get me a reservation for my bike on Midland Mainline to Beeston (as reservations are required and only 2 places per train are anyway possible). I was told no reservations are possible on the East Midlands train to Matlock from Beeston but ‘you should be fine.’ On the day the train arrives in Market Harborough on time, like on all of our four journeys that day. That is a good news story. Or so I thought. Of course, when our connection arrived in Beeston the guard would not let us on the train, as there were already two bikes on the train. Next train was an hour later. What do we do if the same story endures in an hour’s time? The intervening period was spent planning something around Nottingham. Anyway, the next train did not have any bikes on board, so the pair of us scrambled aboard. What was there though were two persons in wheelchairs. Occupying the space where the bikes are meant to go. Only one of us could put a bike out of the way of the corridor. So, my bike was left blocking the corridor. Did not worry me and no one minded as the train was not busy. But how all this works in busy times goodness only knows. In conclusion there are two problems here. One: no joined up thinking in terms of different operators having different policies re cycles and insufficient space provided in any event on many modern trains. After we were refused access at Beeston another customer approached us to ask why, as he was thinking of travelling to Glasgow and taking his bike. He said there and then he would drive now. Secondly, if I struggle to buy a cycle ticket and so does the ticket office the whole process needs to be radically simplified if more ticket offices are to be closed. Sustainable it certainly isn’t. And the trip to the Peak District? The rest of the day went brilliant, and coming back late meant that there was plenty of room on the trains and there were no issues. We cycled the High Peak and Monsal trails and bits in between. We had a wonderful reunion with plenty of healthy exercise and I would do it again. Among other matters we reminisced about our nearly 90 years’ service collectively on the various management structures of the East Midlands RTPI ! Getting like Last of the summer wine if we are not careful!

Wednesday 10 May 2023

Lessons in Delivering Development


Nearly 80 professionals joined us in the Parcel Yard pub, Leicester to consider this topic. The speakers (Richard Julian, Chris Leeson, Mike Denby and myself) could aggregate over 120 years experience between us. Hopefully we had learnt something in that time; especially as the audience were also prepared to throw in their ideas.

What was immediately obvious is that the development process is an extremely extensive continuum from conceiving an idea to disposing of the asset created; requiring a vast range of professional skills. And that no one can have a detailed handle on more than 2/3 skills. So the speakers were deliberately chosen from different parts of that continuum.

The link between Richard’s and Chris’ talks was certainly the financial aspect, with the necessity of having a clear properly costed plan that is sufficiently robust to deal with all sorts of unexpected events and yet still deliver a profitable return. That might be particularly necessary for a long term continuing company, such as Taylor Wimpey, to secure enough return to acquire new sites and maintain the development cycle. This is as we look to create not only the number of homes desperately needed, but also reduce the building carbon footprint we currently have.

Richard Julian, Peter Wilkinson, Chris Leeson Mike Denby

 However, given that 20% profit is considered the minimum for any major company with shareholders to continue as a business, it does not resonate with the public. The general public in general is usually hostile to development probably because of a fear of change; poor development in the past; but also just not respecting that a profit is essential and certainly not at the usually required rate of return.

Profit has become a dirty word (like other words over time that were once respectable but with constant use become ‘blighted'). The example I used was after the first world war, with all the permanently injured soldiers, the term ‘cripples’ was a politically correct term. Now the very use would be considered appalling. "Risk return" instead of profit might sound better, but others may have better suggestions?

Aside from the hard issue of money most of the focus was on the softer interpersonal skills that are really applicable across all aspects of the development continuum. This ranged from effective leadership to great team work. 

But a particular theme related to "Trust.” And this comes in many guises: from within and between the development team and between them and the client and regulatory bodies. The number of construction companies that continue to fail is an ongoing problem in the industry and this has to be no good for anyone. Generating Trust depends on many things, but personal relationships are clearly one key. In an era of TEAMS calls Trust can be even harder to achieve, if one is not making regular personal connections, but the confrontational approach and lack off trust is a recipe for failure, when everybody or everything is so interdependent.

The final aspect of the discussion, not raised in the talks per se, focussed on the essential nature of securing and maintaining sufficient expertise in the industry. Here it is clear that overall we are seeing it reducing not increasing. Making the Industry more attractive, especially to new entrants and then having the companies prepared to offer and support apprenticeships has to be critical. Good examples were discussed, but the current volume is just inadequate.

Overall another good and convivial session with an hour’s CPD and a decent drink in the bar afterwards.

Monday 3 April 2023

Well done to public sector planners

 Well done to public sector planners

 

It may just be me, but I always feel a little underwhelmed reading posts on how wonderful the postee or their company has been. This planning consent has been won or that award secured. It comes over a bit like a zero sum game, rather than striving to secure the best outcome for any particular circumstance. I try and avoid, even if subconsciously, falling into that trap. Sure I could post some successes and I could also mention some failures, but to find them out you will have to take me for a coffee! (And to be honest you can learn more from your failures than successes in many cases anyway). However, we don’t want to write about those failures for understandable reasons.

 

I find it much more interesting if posts try and advance our knowledge or express an opinion on an issue of the day. Hearing both sides or indeed all sides of an argument has to be beneficial; in my case for advancing the art and science of town planning, but really knowledge in general.

 

All that said I want to now praise three public sector planners with whom I have been involved in long running planning issues; two of which were enforcement related and all have been finally resolved in the last month. Due to the very nature of their work such planners are generally not high profile and indeed not expected or encouraged to be. So, they don’t get the praise generally and on Linkedin in particular.


So with a little bit of trepidation, I would like to praise and thank, in alphabetical order, James Croucher of Peterborough City; Ian Davies of Blaby District; and, Mark Patterson of Harborough District for providing good old professional service and going more than that extra mile to achieve an outcome as beneficial as possible to all parties. There was no personal benefit to them of devoting extra commitment and not a little skill to these issues; other than the satisfaction of a job well done.

 


 But it meant for me when picking up the phone or receiving an e mail from them it was very likely a positive experience towards resolving a problem. And it was more likely to be a solution rather than another problem.  It was one where one could look forward to receiving a message rather than dread. 

 

So thank you so much guys.