In the fifth interview of our Southern Powerhouse series, Rupert Batho, commercial director of Frasers Property UK, discusses the importance of creating work spaces that are effective for businesses and their employees, and how we can do more to help the environment and utilise the land we have available.

It’s often said that there is a shortage of development opportunities in the southern region attributed to a lack of land availability but Rupert Batho, commercial director of Frasers Property UK, isn’t of the same voice.

“There’s the old adage that ‘they don’t make land any more’, and you always hear the complaint that there is not enough of it, that the shortage is reflected by how much it costs, and that the consequence is a stifling of economic progress,” he says.

Taking an holistic view

“But we take a more holistic point of view. Yes, the supply is restricted and you have to compete for it, but I get the feeling that things are broadly balanced; in some places there is over-supply and in others under-supply. There is not much office space being developed for example, but that’s not a land issue; it’s economic uncertainty and changing working practices. Land allocation put in place by local authorities through zoning works quite well.”

“It’s not about providing more offices, industrial or retail space, but a question of providing better space. Transport, accessibility, and IT infrastructure are far more important to occupiers than simply having more space to choose from. Workspace has to be agile to respond to changes in the way that businesses use space. Particularly in the office sector, what’s needed is better quality buildings able to accommodate high density and fluidity of use.”

“Twenty years ago, each person had the equivalent of about 150 sq. ft, but now they have about 80 sq. ft,” observes Batho. “The intensity of use has almost doubled, so two companies could occupy the same amount of space as one. Desks are smaller because IT is more compact, and more people can be accommodated by the same space with agile working policies and a more fluid, nomadic workforce.

Energy efficient buildings are essential

“Buildings will need to become increasingly more energy-efficient,” adds Batho, “ because occupiers are now really sensitive to issues such as consumption and carbon footprint, and want the property they occupy to reflect their environmental credentials. It’s also a reaction to the expectation of young people entering the workplace. Developers and business owners have a responsibility to ensure that what we put into buildings is appropriate, talking to the occupiers so that we don’t operate in isolation but to ensure that there is a circular conversation.

“Using less energy is an absolute, as is creating interesting spaces that make people feel good about the place that they spend so much time in. If those spaces are not appropriate, companies will have difficulty in attracting and retaining people, so again it’s a circular debate. If I was an occupier, why would I go somewhere where I couldn’t attract and retain good staff? And if you have high staff turnover or low wellbeing, how does that help productivity and a company’s competitive position?”

The solution is broader than just having energy-efficient buildings, of course. It’s the bigger idea of ‘place’ and having features that will attract people to work there. At Winnersh Triangle business park, for example, Frasers Property are investing £6 million over three years into improving the infrastructure.

If spaces are not appropriate, companies will have difficulty in attracting and retaining people. If I was an occupier, why would I go somewhere where I couldn’t attract and retain good staff?

“At 1.5 million sq. ft, this park has the population equivalent of a small town, so it needs appropriate facilities,” says Batho. “We’re working on landscaping, amenities and sports facilities. There will be cycle hubs, sports pitches, urban gardens, and even beehives. We have activities such as language workshops, financial advice sessions, flower arranging demonstrations, and Pilates classes.”

About 13% of those who work at Winnersh Triangle come via the station, which was built in the 1980s to serve the growing park. “That doesn’t seem that huge a number, but it equates to hundreds of cars not coming here on a daily basis,” explains Batho.

That’s important, since Frasers Property actively wants to reduce car use and emissions on the development. As part of this goal, the company has been working with the local enterprise partnership and a local growth fund to improve a park-and-ride system, making it easier for people to leave their cars at home.

Take a deeper look at connectivity

“Because Winnersh Triangle is under our single ownership, we have the ability to create a vision and plan coherently, working with all the stakeholders from local authorities to investors, to create that environment. That’s more difficult for actual towns, which are fragmented in use and ownership, and lack capital. Some are trying to make a difference but it’s really difficult for them to patch everything together to get continuity of purpose.”

Batho believes that the region needs to think more deeply about the idea of connectivity: where people live and work, how they move around and how they get to their workplace; this extends to the broader concept of creating community connections. Explaining that Frasers Property are talking to the local authority about helping to manage thirty acres of nearby meadows, Batho adds: “On the other side of the motorway is another 250 acres of wildlife space; is there a way that we could get connected to that? These might appear to be little things, but they’re all part of the connected community aspect that makes people enjoy their work.”

At present, the region’s infrastructure is “adequate but needs to raise its game”, not least through addressing the energy network. “There are currently fewer than 2,000 electrical charging points in the country and we need more than 200,000,” says Batho. “That means significantly more infrastructure needs to be installed in a very tight time frame, as all new cars will be electric in a decade or so.”

“We need to think about how to deal with it. Should it be the responsibility of building owners and employers to provide that infrastructure? Perhaps people should be charging their cars at home.”

Diversity is essential

The future of development in the region, suggests Batho, is delivering increasing diversity of use. “Town centres will need to be better at being mixed-use locations and offering experiences that people want to go to: leisure, arts facilities, and independent retailers.”

The trends are similar in other parts of the world, he goes on. “Looking at what’s happening in London, Sydney, Singapore and other areas around the world in terms of the connection between how people live and travel and work and the spaces they go to, I see developments not being just shopping centres or office parks. They will be multi-faceted, actual communities so that people will have only short travel times to get to work. There is interest in having dual function sites as a way to use land more effectively, such as having a distribution depot with retail, residential, and leisure on top.”

It’s sometimes said that conversion of town centre offices to residential under permitted development reduces the amount of workspace available. But Batho makes the point that much of the stock being redeveloped would not have been fit for purpose as offices, regardless of refurbishment, because of its age; what occupiers are looking for is Grade A offices – 90% of take-up last year in the Thames Valley was for such space, he says.

“Then, if you have better space you get better occupiers and better terms,” he points out. It’s an ongoing cycle, he adds: “We have capacity to develop a further 500,000 sq. ft on this site, which would accommodate up to 5,000 people or more. By the time we have done that – let’s say it takes us ten years to get to the end of that cycle – buildings that are now twenty-five years old will be thirty-five years old and it might be time to refurbish and upgrade them to create better buildings for the occupiers and better returns for the shareholders.”

Interestingly, Batho has no issues with the speed of the planning process. “Yes, in some parts of the world, decisions are made faster, but their situations are different; for example we have a lot of listed buildings and heritage sites in this country. We can achieve good outcomes by having a good working relationship with local authority planning officers and by articulating well what we want to do.”

Find out more about the Southern Powerhouse here, or please contact Nick Leavey.