Bob Weston should be a happy man. Pre-tax profits at his company Weston Homes jumped by nearly 40% last year and it’s just received initial planning permission to build a vast London-style mixed-use quarter in the heart of Norwich, with similar plans at several sites on London’s outskirts in the pipeline.
But like all builders in the UK, the challenges of doing business are never far away.
Its Anglia Square development in Norwich is a good example. Weston Homes has gained permission for a £300 million redevelopment in the city’s central zone, one of the largest urban renewal projects outside of London to date.
Covering 1.2 million square feet, it will include 1,250 homes as well as shops, leisure facilities, a 200-bed hotel, parking and plenty of public space.
But as soon as the decision was made, Historic England swooped in to say it intends to ask housing secretary James Brokenshire to call the scheme in, claiming the development’s main 20-storey tower would disrupt the “character of the cityscape”.
“We’re reasonably confident that the secretary of state will accept it’s a local, democratic decision and then we carry on,” says Bob.
“It’s not just about the height of the tower; Historic England basically don’t think a London-style development is appropriate for Norwich. That’s their view and opinion. But it’s not ours.”
Bob says that, assuming the scheme is eventually given the green light, his company expects to begin groundwork and demolition in a year’s time.
“We’ve got a massive amount of infrastructure work to do there including power relocation,” he says. “It’s 17.5 acres of a city centre so there’s a lot to do upfront.”
The Norwich scheme is part of Weston’s gradual move away from London, where it once built most of its homes, and Bob sounds exasperated when talking about the capital’s ‘crazy zone’ new-build market.
“Some time ago I took a conscious decision, and some people would say a clever conscious decision three years ago to get the heck out of Zones One and Two of central London because I could see the problem coming,” he says.
“The pricing is ridiculous – anything over £1,000 per sq ft is not affordable so why are we selling homes at between £2,000 and £5,000 per sq ft to a handful of people; it’s not the way to solve London’s housing problems.”
By contrast, Weston Homes build properties at between £300 and £800 per sq ft, and he says anything over £800 per sq ft means even a reasonable two-bedroom apartment is £500,000, and that “we can’t house the nation at that price”.
Punchy opinions like this are Weston’s trademark; during the interview his answers are thin on waffle and thick on no-nonsense views, including his thoughts on several fashionable issues within the construction sector.
The first is modular homes, which he says he is not a “great believer in” for the kind of high-density, brownfield urban renewal sites Weston Homes specialises in, which often make access difficult.
“We spent some time with the Broad Sustainable Building group in China which [famously] built a 30-storey tower in 30 days and we have talked to them and looked to bring their method to the UK,” he says.
“But theirs isn’t modular construction where you put one box on top of the other; instead you’re bringing in large slabs of building complete onto a site. We decided it would be almost impossible to be viable in the UK.”
Instead Weston Homes has taken a hybrid approach and recently established a factory in Braintree, Essex, where many components of each build are constructed – including entire balconies – and then taken to each site.
“I wouldn’t say we’re unique, but I don’t know anyone else who is doing it. Above all it means I can control the supply chain.
“Saying that, we are very much concerned with modern methods of construction and I guess you could call our ‘build off site’ programme a half-way house.”
Bob says he also sees modular in its historical context; non-standard forms of construction have been tried many times over the past 50 years including famously Wimpey’s ‘no fines’ houses, as well as both steel and timber framed construction.
“Another challenge for modular is resistance from mortgage lenders to modular homes because, like me, they’ve seen it all before,” he says.
“If I’m selling into the retail market place, I have to keep one eye on the lenders; I guess it’s OK for those who are building PRS developments and financing them through different models; then maybe you can take a wider and different view, but for us as a retailing residential builder we have other things we have to watch.”
Revenues at West Homes increased by £44.5 million to £198.6 million last year, which Bob says was generated largely by two or three large schemes coming on stream as newbuild prices increased overall, developments that he says were “nearer the £800 per sq ft” including its huge new Stratford Riverside tower in East London.
Bob is also wary of another industry trend; micro homes, fulminating against the way they are marketed as ‘affordable’ homes when in reality buyers are being offered “half the product for two thirds of the price” and that it’s rarely pointed out that micro apartments have higher per sq ft prices than traditional ones.
“I personally think that the current London space standards are about right,” he says.
The final challenge Bob has his eye on is the expected ending of Help to Buy in 2023. He says it’s been a very valuable tool for the industry and that many volume builders have come to depend on it heavily; it’s not unusual to hear of the scheme driving up to 50% of sales at some developments, although Bob says on average Weston Homes has a Help to Buy rate of 28.2% of its sold stock, according to its latest results.
“If and when it comes to an end I would urge government not to slam the door shut but instead phase it out,” he says. “Don’t create a cliff edge for something to fall off.
“The conversations we’ve had with Homes England would suggest the government agrees with us.” And so, as the interview draws to a close, Bob finally begins to sound like a happy man again.