We need to be more self-sustaining; that in itself is an investment in our children’s future – Hackwood Group interview
The need for more housing and commercial development in the south is undisputed. But how do you minimise the impact of this on the environment in the short term? Christopher Goddard, managing director of the Hackwood Group, a construction and property development business in the south, is in no doubt: “Off-site construction is key, with the manufacture and part-assembly in a factory environment. There is still the issue of transporting the product to site, and the heavy side of bricks and steel work, but if the pension funds and mortgage lenders buy into it, that could potentially be the start of resolving both our housing and construction-related environmental issues.”
The ideal approach would be to take a higher plane, he suggests. “The sky is free, so the answer might also involve higher rise developments and on brownfield assets. It’s acceptable in London and towns such as Reading and Woking, but it can be difficult to get others to embrace that concept.
The impact of planning committees
“So while other sectors undoubtedly will talk about skill shortages as their major impediment to growth, ultimately the biggest block for developers is planning. The predisposition of a local authority planning committee can tend to be negative, and there is a lack of engagement in terms of the positive link of development with economic wellbeing and the best interests of the community.”
Goddard cites an example: “Even though a redundant office building will never attract new tenants and generate sufficient income, the owner will still be responsible for paying rates and maintaining the property. But while the general development order allows conversion to residential without the need to apply for planning permission, the local authority can zone the area for commercial use, which means the GDO procedure can’t be applied.
“So planning isn’t meeting the needs of the community, while the planners feel forced and dictated to by government. There’s a sense of a ‘them and us’ standoff, with the view that the developer is simply building for profit and that the council is all about social conscience. Our environmental commitment can be a means of changing that perception. Producing zero carbon buildings is going to be the right direction and I think we will be there in three to five years.”
“The prime consideration should be: does the development proposal improve our economic prospects and the lives of people? We need to become more self-sustaining; that in itself is an investment in our children’s future.”
This is why Goddard believes it should be a priority to unlock housing availability by removing some of what he says are the blockers, such as existing stock not enjoying the same lending criteria as new builds: “We can’t just focus on one portion of the market in order to address the problem of providing more housing. People should have the option to live where they want, rather than government driving them to new builds with incentives.
“The retirement sector is key to unlocking the top end of the chain. Most retirement developments are purchased on a needs basis, often the loss of a spouse who had always been responsible for the running of the house. If the widow or widower moves out of their three bedroom property, it’s released for those on the next rung down on the property ladder, and some of the surplus capital can be given to younger generations of the family as a deposit for their first home.”
There’s another dimension to his thinking: “I am concerned about the lack of foresight in pre-planning to serve an increasing population. The Government doesn’t seem to be making the association between the figures and the resource which is going to be required,” says Goddard. “The problem is that political parties make promises which they can’t deliver because the time frame for a serving government means it is an impossibility.”
Economically, he suggests that innovation is the way the south will keep ahead of the economic curve. “We are considered to be the Silicon Valley of motorsport for example,” he points out, “and we need to be perceived as a go-to centre for other sectors.”