Inside business: All right on the site

Roger Trapp reports on a housebuilder that is trying to reconcile rapid growth with green issues

John White, chief executive of the housebuilder Persimmon, admits his industry has an image problem. On one hand, the construction business is notorious for what has been termed "over-promising and under-delivering". On the other, developers such as Persimmon are increasingly under attack from environmentalists for building on greenfield sites.

But on quality and care his response is robust: "I think housing development is better than it was only five years ago. But if you went back 20 years it would be like being in a different country." As for the environmental question, he says everybody is aware of the need to preserve the countryside, "but people want and need houses to live in - and their aspirations are higher. There's a conflict between the two."

Nevertheless, Persimmon has unveiled two initiatives aimed at dealing with the issues.

The Persimmon Pledge announced at the beginning of this year is designed to offer purchasers of the company's properties "the same high standard of customer service" wherever they are in the country. Mr White points out out that an industry operating as "an outdoor factory" cannot always be perfect. However, he acknowledges that his sector has caught up with the realisation in other industries that customer care is paramount.

More recently, Persimmon has set up a separate company, City Developments, to "concentrate on bringing life back into Britain's towns and cities through redeveloping urban land to meet today's housing needs".

Even without this venture, Persimmon is at pains to stress it has not been hell-bent on ripping up the countryside.

"A bit over 50 per cent of our houses are built on brownfield sites. I am sure that percentage will increase. We're quite willing to build on them," says Mr White, claiming it is a myth that these developments are less profitable.

But he emphasises that such projects are dependent on being allowed to build what will sell in particular locations. "I'm not prepared to risk the business by building the wrong product in the wrong location," he adds.

That is understandable, given the progress the company has made in recent years. Founded by current chairman Duncan Davidson in 1972, and floated on the stock market in 1985, the York-based company has grown to the point where it is Britain's fourth-largest housebuilder with operations from Scotland to the south-west of England.

The just-announced results for the six months to the end of June showed the company following up last year's record performance with a 27 per cent rise in interim pre-tax profits to pounds 35.7m. Turnover during the six- month period was up 18 per cent to pounds 317.6m.

Clearl, the current economic climate has helped, with house prices rising as rapidly as they did in the late 1980s. But Mr White believes other factors have helped distinguish Persimmon from some rivals.

In particular, he points to continued streamlining of the business following the acquisitions of Ideal Homes and the Scottish division of Laing Homes in February 1996 and April 1998 respectively. Moreover the company is following the current management thinking of seeking to expand sales as well as drive down costs. "We're growing all the time," says Mr White, explaining that the organisation is about to establish another company in the North-west.

Then there is the way in which the company is run. The housebuilding sector is undergoing substantial change, with some smaller businesses deciding they would be better off returning to private ownership rather than remaining public companies, and others bulking up through a consolidation policy that has yet to run its course.

Such a situation is bound to put pressure on costs. But while it handles financial matters at the head office, Persimmon is determined not to centralise too much decision making. Its 1,200 employees are spread around nearly 20 operating divisions that have a good deal of autonomy.

This means that the local companies employ local architects and other professional advisers when carrying out their developments, says Mr White. "Obviously we try to get some economies of scale within regions, but we don't want to tie our guys down," he adds, claiming that the company has about 200 different house styles on offer.

"It won't work for everybody, but it does for us."

While the average selling price of a Persimmon home is about pounds 86,400, the company is at pains to stress that it offers a wide range of properties - from bungalows and apartments to five-bedroomed detached houses.

It is all about justifying the Persimmon claim that "We don't just build houses - we help to create communities".

But while the company has enough land with planning consent to last it more than four years at the current rate of building (nearly 7,000 houses a year), Mr White realises that its ability to live up to the claim and continue to prosper will to an extent depend on public attitudes to development.

A life-long builder who joined Persimmon in 1979, after starting in the industry as an apprentice, he believes the rising cost of property will force planning authorities to relax curbs. If that happens, it will not take a racing man to bet that the company, named after the 1896 Derby winner, will be seeking a share of the action.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own