Ian Robertson: Warm-up act takes centre stage as the curtain rises on a new era for housing

Wilson Bowden's boss has put folk singing behind him to help more Britons buy their own homes, he explains to Clayton Hirst
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Close your eyes and picture a property developer. Chances are you'll have gone for the stereotype - the gold signet ring, the large cigar, the perma-tan and the flash car. You could be forgiven your preconceived ideas: the industry is still populated by many opportunists profiting from the nation's insatiable demand for new homes.

Close your eyes and picture a property developer. Chances are you'll have gone for the stereotype - the gold signet ring, the large cigar, the perma-tan and the flash car. You could be forgiven your preconceived ideas: the industry is still populated by many opportunists profiting from the nation's insatiable demand for new homes.

Now open your eyes and take a good look at Ian Robertson. The 57-year-old chief executive of housebuilder Wilson Bowden will confound your expectations.

For a start, there are not many property developers who admit to having been folk musicians. During the late 1960s Robertson and his friends formed a band and gigged all around Glasgow, even appearing on BBC Radio Scotland. "We once shared a stage with Billy Connolly when he was playing with the Humblebums. We were the support act," he confesses. "Eventually the band became bigger than us and we had to give it up."

Then there are the not-so-obvious differences. Yes, he runs Wilson Bowden, a volume housebuilder that in the first six months of the year completed 2,500 homes. And, yes, Wilson Bowden builds properties that are generally poo-pooed by the north London chattering classes. But Robertson - who lives on the outskirts of Nottingham in a house built by a Wilson Bowden subsidiary, David Wilson Homes - has positioned himself as a leading figure in the debate over Britain's future housing needs. He has done this through the Treasury-sponsored Barker review of housing supply. While some of his industry colleagues paid little attention to the study, Robertson became closely involved, providing opinions and advice throughout the consultation process.

Published in March, the report - now being scrutinised by ministers - offers solutions to the current imbalance between housing supply and demand, which is pricing buyers out of the market. "It debunked some of the myths about the housing industry," says Robertson. "It persuaded some politicians that their understanding of it was flawed."

The report recommended a reform of the planning system, making it easier for land to be released for development. Robertson would like to see Barker's recommendations implemented in full. "If we could count on the land coming through, then I wouldn't be in a situation where I am sitting on a £1bn land bank. I would be able to invest the money in other sites and deliver more [housing volume]. Why has our balance sheet got so much land on it? Because I know that on average it will take two years to get from the planning application stage to building the show home."

Robertson has two big worries about the Barker review. First, he fears the Government may sit on it until after the general election. "If this happens, it could be five or six years before we see any changes coming through [in housing supply]," he says.

Robertson's other concern is that the Government will fudge its response to the review, picking the easy bits and leavinge out the tricky stuff. "Well, I'm sorry, it won't work like that. It's got to be 'take the rough with the smooth'. We, as housebuilders, have to improve our act in several areas, but so has the Government and local government."

One of the most controversial recommendations in the report is the introduction of a so-called "planning gain supplement", which would be charged to landowners after planning approval is granted. "The theory is fine, but the fear in the industry is that it will become just another tax, and politicians in the future will say, 'We need a bit more revenue, let's rack it up'," says Robertson. The supplement is designed partly to replace the controversial Section 106 agreements, under which planning authorities can require developers to build community facilities in return for full planning approval. "Institutional bribery" is how Robertson describes the use of such agreements. "Once we get outline approval then we have to negotiate with the local authority over what it wants in return. We get the director of education, the director of recreation, the director of roads all making bids," he says.

But, hold on a minute. Isn't the debate about housing supply and affordability now irrelevant? Almost every day, economists and mortgage lenders tell us the market is cooling. If this is the case, won't houses become more affordable without the need for new planning rules?

Robertson thinks the market will indeed cool this year. But this, he argues, will involve a return to "normal" market conditions rather than price deflation. "I am not one of those who believes the market is about to fall off a cliff - but housebuilders are going to have to work harder for a living."

By working harder he means offering more incentives - part exchanges, discounts and deals on fixtures and fittings - to potential buyers. "We have come through a market in the last six months where we were able to cut back on incentives. So this is really just a case of reminding our staff: 'Don't forget to use all the tools you have been given to drive the volume through the business.'"

Despite the anticipated return to a more normal housing market, Robertson was disappointed by comments made in June by Mervyn King. The Governor of the Bank of England warned that house prices could fall, triggering a temporary stall in the market and a sharp drop in the share price of housebuilders. "What did surprise me about [his statement] was that I could already see - and the other housebuilders could see - the first signs of a slowdown in the figures," he says. "I felt the statement pushed the market down further than necessary."

Robertson has taken some defensive measures to protect Wilson Bowden from a slowing housing market. In particular, he has raised the profit margin the company allows for when calculating how much to bid for land. He says this won't affect his chances of securing sites because most other major housebuilders have taken similar steps.

Certainly, there are no signs of a slowdown appearing in Wilson Bowden's finances. In its results for the first six months of the year, the company reported a 28.6 per cent increase in profits to £118.2m on a £592.9m turnover. But the City is still getting nervous about the sector, and some smaller housebuilders have been hit as traders have reached for the "sell" button.

Partly due to its unreconstructed image, the housebuilding industry has never been a favourite of the stock market. So, to ride out any storm in the housing market, it will be necessary for Robertson to play to his strengths - as someone who doesn't look or behave like the "typical" property developer.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 1947

Education: Queen's Park School, Glasgow.

Career (1968-82): worked in the finance departments of various companies, including Whitbread.

1982-87: worked for United Biscuits as chief accountant at its Tollcross factory and financial controller of its subsidiary Terry's of York.

1987-93: finance director of Northern Foods' dairy division; later promoted to group finance director.

1994-2001: finance director of Wilson Bowden; later promoted to

deputy chief executive.

2003-present: chief executive, Wilson Bowden.

Other posts:

1973-84: member of Eastwood District Council.

1974: ran for the Conservatives as parliamentary candidate for Paisley.

Since 2004: president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland.

Comments