LESSONS LEARNT FROM RANDALLS WAY – THE FIRST BTR SCHEME IN MOLE VALLEY
Whilst there has been much buzz about build to rent (or BTR) in last few years, this thriving new housing sector is still a relatively new concept in the UK. So, what is BTR, and why is it booming?
In short, BTR is a housing product designed to appeal solely to the rental market as opposed to long-term home ownership. BTR schemes will usually offer longer tenancy agreements of three years or more, and will typically be professionally managed stock in single ownership.
A lack of affordable housing for sale, changing attitudes to renting, locational benefits, and the improved quality of accommodation and amenities offered by BTR are just some of the reasons why the sector is growing.
We acted as planning consultant on the first BTR scheme approved in Mole Valley District Council (MVDC). The project, located on a brownfield site on Randalls Way, Leatherhead, will deliver 214 BTR units, including 36 affordable rental units, along with a variety of communal facilities and amenities for tenants.
Most of the UK’s BTR development to date has occurred within major cities, including London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. However, smaller, well-located towns are also highly suitable for this type of development.
Specifically, Leatherhead was considered an excellent location for BTR given a number of locational and demographic characteristics. It represents a key commuter location, with excellent connectivity to London and the Gatwick Diamond. There are a wide range of facilities available within nearby Leatherhead Town Centre. The demographics of Leatherhead attracts a large number of renters, both in younger and older age groups. Leatherhead’s proportion of renters (as compared to homeowners) is higher than the UK average, indicating a demand for rental products. Finally, there were no purpose built BTR developments in Leatherhead or MVDC at the time.
Whilst BTR has recently been defined under the NPPF, many Local Planning Authorities are yet to recognise it within their Development Plans. As such, a number of specific characteristics necessary to the BTR model, can be challenging to adapt within the Planning System.
There were a number of design requirements specific to the needs of a successful BTR project. For example, the client knew the development would require a single site entrance, allowing for a concierge, and aiding in the resident experience. In addition, the scheme sought to deliver a flexible use residents’ lounge, as well as considerable amenity space.
Whilst these elements of the proposal created some misperception in the planning process (what was the purpose, could hours of operation be limited etc), they were all retained as part of the final approved scheme. Albeit, a compromise was met as to where the site’s singular entrance would be located within the site.
An additional design element worth noting was the importance of delivering some onsite play space. BTR is commonly considered to be a housing product for young professionals, it is equally important for families, who benefit from the security that the longer BTR tenancies offered. As such, this scheme provided an array of play space across the site, and thus caters to a range of household types in the rental market.
The project team understood that the BTR proposals would trigger less demand for car parking as compared to a typical build to sell development, given the heavy focus on commuter facilities, and the typical characteristics of BTR occupants. However, this required clear explanation throughout the public consultation and planning application process, particularly given the high rates of vehicle ownership within Leatherhead.
In particular, it was demonstrated that in line with 2011 Census data, tenure has an impact on private car ownership. On average across the country, car ownership levels for Non Owner Occupied dwellings (rental properties) is half that of Owner Occupied dwellings (privately owned properties). On average, non-owner occupied properties have 0.4 cars per household, compared to 0.8 for owner occupied properties (British Property Federation, 2017). Based on these figures, clearly BTR developments trigger lower demand for on-site parking as compared to typical build to sell developments.
In addition to demonstrating different levels of demand based on tenure, the project team submitted a Residential Travel Plan, which included measures such as appointing a Travel Plan Co-ordinator, and promoting public transport, walking and cycling. Finally, the scheme sought to deliver 5 car club spaces, allowing for shared access of vehicles.
As a result of these approaches, we achieved a car parking ratio of 0.5 spaces per unit on site, which represents a significant reduction compared to a build to sell scheme of a similar scale (1.1 spaces per unit). Overall, this was a positive and highly appropriate outcome, particularly given the site’s proximity to the Leatherhead Train Station and Town Centre, which enabled us to deliver increased landscaping onsite.
Securing affordable housing in a BTR scheme has different challenges to typical developments. In particular, this meant agreeing an affordable market rent and clawback provisions with the Council. It also meant ensuring flexibility for the client as to which flats would be affordable, to ensure low risk of vacancy. In addition, the s106 was required to include a detailed Lettings Policy, to ensure the developer and council worked together to fill the affordable units.
Finally, one further lesson learnt was the importance of messaging about BTR, both to the general public and councillors. Specifically, given the infancy of BTR as a housing product in the UK, it was important to educate all interested parties on the fact that rental property in an affluent area like this could be high-end, in an otherwise homeowner-dominated environment. As such, our messaging focused on the high quality design of the scheme, the success of other BTR schemes, and importantly, that once complete all units would be professionally managed by a single operator.
We hope that approval of the Randalls Way scheme will make way for other such BTR projects in MVDC in the future. If you are interested in learning more about BTR, or would like to discuss your own BTR project, please don’t hesitate to contact the Nexus Planning London office.
Authored by Heidi Duncan, Prinicpal Planner.