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Real engagement in a virtual world

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By Mark Woodrow, Managing Director, Packaged Living.

I should be stood awkwardly in a cold, dusty community centre, staring into a plastic cup of weak tea mixed with condensed milk.  As a Developer with a real interest in making sure there is meaningful public benefit to our schemes I am looking forward to our first public consultation session and meeting the people of Piccadilly East, Manchester.  However, instead of the aforementioned community centre I find myself sat in smart shirt (and hidden shorts) in front of the laptop at home in Buckinghamshire.  The impressively named ‘Webinar’ opens to reveal the project team, our prepared information slides and a list of emoticon initials representing interested people of central Manchester.  This is public engagement ‘lockdown style’ and one similarity is that I am delighted people have turned up, or should I say logged on.  The session is a big success – a mix of semi-scripted presentation, impromptu questions from a very switched-on crowd and feedback, as always varied and open, just the way we like it.     

It’s mid-May 2020 and Packaged Living, one of the largest BTR specialist developers in the UK, are preparing the planning application which will take us over 1000 Build to Rent homes on site, or in the planning process.  With a total pipeline of over 2000 homes, end GDV of nearly £500 million, there has been much talk since early March of how we would approach the lockdown period.  A discussion which started just as soon as I myself recovered from suspected Covid in early March, following a meeting with a prominent architect and BTR specialist who will remain nameless.  Whilst our flagship scheme on-site with Invesco in Milton Keynes was being shepherded skillfully onwards by our contractor partner, we considered whether we should halt activity on our schemes in the planning process.  Could we collaborate effectively as design teams? Could we share a vision with local authority officers and councillors? and could we most importantly engage and listen to the man and woman on the Clapham Omnibus?

The answer to all that has been a resounding yes, or thumbs up in zoom language.  From screen sharing and scribbling (I love playing architect, very very badly) to online pre-application meetings with officers to the innovative ‘webinar’ the projects have bounded forward.  Even the opportunity to join a virtual conference panel and opine on the Manchester/Salford BTR market, which has come a long way since my business partner, Ed Ellerington, and I started visualising Clippers Quay nearly ten years ago.   

As we reach the ‘end of the beginning’ of the Covid crisis, pushing on would appear the right thing to have done.  With more institutional and long term capital seeing the residential investment sector as a safe haven in these turbulent times we are confident this will leave us in a good position post lockdown to put brick on brick and help drive the construction activity that will help the country through this difficult time.            

Back at the webinar we have exhausted the questions, queries and are feeling well placed to address the comments in the coming weeks as we finalise our scheme.  Now, as long as I shut down the screen before standing up to reveal the lime green shorts and flip flops which I paired with the crisp white shirt, then we are winning….