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Construction industry ‘is run by dinosaurs’

Sarah Chambers meets up with a man who believes you can help the environment while still getting the best value out of your land and assets.

Nicholas Woolley manages assets for companies, institutions and landowners from his historic home near Bury St Edmunds. He also holds passionate views about fighting climate change. Sarah Chambers meets up with a man who believes you can help the environment while still getting the best value out of your land and assets.

Nicholas Woolley doesn’t mince his words when describing today’s homebuilders. “Our construction industry is run by dinosaurs who are imperilling our planet, conning our home-buyers and are only interested in achieving their maximum short-term profit. The sooner they follow dinosaurs to extinction, the better it will be for all of us,” he said.

It is a sentiment many environmentalists might share, but not exactly the kind of unequivocal comment that on the face of it you would expect from someone whose job is to get the most out of landowners’ assets.

Mr. Woolley, 60, runs his own land and project management company, Woolley & Company, looking after the assets of an array of corporate companies and individual landowners, and has worked for a wide variety of clients including Zurich Assurance, DEFRA, the Countryside Agency, now known as natural England, the East of England Development Agency and Waitrose.

He set up the company, based at his home in Freckenham, in 1995 after a series of high-powered roles, including 12 years as chief land agent to the Prudential Corporation, where he was responsible for 85,000 acres of land, and eventually administered £5 billion property division. His role is to get clients the best value he can for their assets, and he sees no contradiction in that and his passionately-held views on combating climate change and looking after the environment.

He is aware that the world is changing, and sees changing with it, by countering the effects of climate change, as a no-brainer. “I believe it’s a win-win situation,” he said.

“I think our job is to see there are other ways which may not only be much more stressful in being environmentally-friendly, but will also achieve planning consent in a short time frame, which is important, and indeed would achieve a planning consent other buildings would not have a hope of achieving. It must be remembered that buildings to be eco-friendly don’t have to look extraordinary”.

It is an approach grounded in pragmatism, and he points out that land and asset-owners who fail to improve their eco-efficiency may find themselves with redundant buildings with no tenants in a few years’ time unless they do something about it.

Mr. Woolley is a past chairman of the Suffolk branch of the Country Land and Business Association and was also on the national CLA steering group for their major research paper; Climate Change and the Rural Economy, and it is an area in which he has become deeply involved.

“In our future planning and development, we simply cannot afford to rely on an oil-based economy,” he argues.

“The technology is now with us to use non-fossil alternatives and I believe that, taking a hard-nosed financial view, I must advise my clients to move in this direction.”

Adopting plans which have regard for the environmental and the social impact they will have increases their chances of success and the speed of consent when they are going through the planning process, he said. “We see there’s a real opportunity for clients to achieve quicker planning consents the more in harmony with the environment, and at the same time have buildings which are vastly cheaper to run in the future,” he says.

From his 10-bedroom home, a former rectory set in 10 acres, he looks after a vast array of land assets, and his work takes him from Inverness to Torquay.

The house, built in 1540, and updated and changed over the centuries, is Grade II Listed and it is here that Mr. Woolley will occasionally bring people to thrash out a planning issue around the kitchen table.

“They change their whole philosophy on the project just because they are here,” he says. Working alongside him is James Sims Williams, 29, who joined the company five years ago and is now a company director. Both men are chartered surveyors.

Mr. Woolley: “At the end of the day we have to see what our client actually wants”.

“Most of our clients do care about their image”.

His work brings him into regular contact with master planners, architects and other professions, who are all grappling with the implications of recent planning policy changes. With 505,000 new homes planned and future problems with farmland irrigation, the potential effects on the environment and financial prosperity and the land are huge. “We have to change the way we develop. I see this as a colossal challenge, but in fact it’s a huge opportunity if we change the way we think about building things,” he said.

“The world is changing, and there are opportunities for fabulous buildings that actually cost virtually nothing to run. Those opportunities are fantastic and eco homes and buildings are not only eco-friendly they improve the quality of life of the people who live in them”.

Mr Woolley, who works with several award-winning architects, believes so firmly in this approach, that in December last year, they started a new venture. Prudent Estates Ltd, based at the same site, and involving a third partner.

The development company adopts the Woolley & Co ethos, and is currently going through the planning process with its first medium-sized development.

“The thinking there was our expertise is obtaining planning consents for difficult situations for clients and obviously achieving profits for them and why on earth don’t we do it ourselves?” he said.

They have bought two plots near Newmarket which had planning for housing, but they want a scheme which blends in to a far greater degree.

Both men check the reports they commission and query any areas which they are unhappy with the author:

“We really do work as a very close team on just about everything and we edit each others’ work which I think very few people do,” Mr. Woolley said, “It’s quite alarming on occasion how many people don’t get it right. We spend a great deal of time looking at these things.”

They look after about £50 to £60 million worth of assets for their clients. Last year, for one client alone, they had over 70 projects running. For each of these projects, they will have a detailed action plan.

“The real art of what we do is have a very simple, clear and attributable form of monitoring which takes up the least amount of time, so it’s time as well as cost-effective,” said Mr. Woolley.

“A typical example would be we have a large estate, a very complex estate-agricultural, sporting, forestry, development land, redundant buildings, commercial properties, oil wells. We have to make sure our land agents at the beginning of the year product asset plans, actually achieve the optimum results from that overall investment.

” I’ll have got them to write their action plans and everything else – it’s a team effort.”.

One of the organisation they have helped in recent times is the National Autistic Society Suffolk service which was trying to build a care centre near Mildenhall.

“They failed to get planning consent and as a result were in some difficulty. They heard of us and James was able to resolve the situation,” explained Mr. Woolley.

The team was able to iron out the planning problems, and present a scheme which addressed planners’ concerns.

A few years ago, Mr. Woolley was approached by a client who had reached his wits’ end after being knocked back by planners over a scheme for his land.

“He had been working with an architect and planner for ages – I think it went in to a couple of years – and each time they had to withdraw the application because it wasn’t going to be consented. He heard of us, and asked: “What do you think of it?” he said. “I said I’m sorry I don’t think you have got a cat’s chance in hell.”.

Mr. Woolley suggested an alternative approach, and they went to see the chief planning officer and made quite a bit of progress. He found a different architect and put together a different scheme which was accepted.

“He was highly delighted with what we achieved. Our fees weren’t huge, because I was trouble-shooting in the areas that needed trouble-shooting,” he said. Since then, the landowner has returned with a new venture.

The firm has also helped set up the Home of Horseracing Trust at Newmarket, advising on the transfer of assets between the state and the charity, and preparing grant applications and a full business plan.

“It’s a very exciting new project. We aren’t running that. I was brought in because of the work I do all around the country and the network of contacts of various people, many of whom we brought in,” said Mr. Woolley.

“One of the things that sets us apart is we have got a better understanding of social and environmental issues. We do research work.

“We have done research work for a whole number of government and other bodies looking at social, environmental and economic issues,” he adds.

“We have walked away from things. We believe in doing things that are successful and that create profit and achieve our clients’ objects and if we honestly feel it’s not going to work, we are very prepared to be up front and say so”.

Landowners can throw a huge amount of money at a project bound to fail, he explains.

He said: “These costs can be enormous. If we honestly think something is going to ultimately fail because of our due diligence it’s much better we say so up front.”

“With the coming of the 2004 Planning Act, a completely new planning agenda was required where everyone was required to look at the social, environmental, economic impact on the world around it. To understand how a planning project is going to work and impact upon people. That has plainly been fed into a huge amount of work we have done and our own research work.”.

Research, and ensuring the impacts of any development are minimised are key to the success of projects, the firm believes.

“The whole climate for planning has changed so much, and deep down we are very passionate about the environment”, he says.

“We need to see look ahead and see how we can actually work with nature not only to protect the environment, but also to do it in a far more commercial and profitable way.”

East Anglian Daily Times | 07/04/07

April 7th, 2007
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