Nigel Hugill: The Man Who Builds Homes for the Work-From-Home Revolution | Real estate

“Everything in front of you didn’t exist 18 months ago. Nigel Hugill stands in front of a playground, gesturing past the swings and climbing frame toward the park and houses behind.

It’s a sunny spring day in Houlton, just outside Rugby in Warwickshire, and residents of a large new housing estate are making the most of the weather, taking their children to the playground and having lunch in the cafe .

About 1,000 homes have already been built on the 1,200-acre site, along with a primary and secondary school, and another 5,000 homes will be added by the time the development is complete in 15 years.

Urban&Civic – the Hugill company co-founded with Robin Butler in 2009 and which he directs – is the “master developer” of this project and 13 others across England. This means that he takes responsibility for the site from design and planning through to construction by the home builders and completion.

Hugill created Urban&Civic with the “aim to build off the M25, but within 100 miles of London” in areas with the highest population growth, and therefore the greatest demand for housing. The company sees these big developments as key to solving the housing crisis, at a time when the government is pushing its leveling agenda.


Age 64

Family Married with four children; Hugill and his wife met as teenagers.

Education Teesdale School in County Durham; degree in politics from Christ Church, Oxford; Masters from the London School of Economics in Labor Law and Labor Economics.

Pay £1.3m salary and bonuses in 2020-21, the final year before Urban&Civic was purchased by the Wellcome Trust; he says his salary remains at a similar level.

Last holidays Two recent ski trips to Val d’Isere, where he owns property.

Best advice he’s ever received? “A great quote from Merchant of Venice, which is ‘With joy and laughter let the old wrinkles come’.”

Biggest Career Mistake “I was incredibly lucky. When I went to work for Chelsfield the alternative was working for Goldman Sachs before it floated. Economically, there is no doubt that would have been my biggest career mistake.

Words he abuses “Interesting and structuring.

how he relaxes “My wife would say ‘He never relaxes’”. However, he adds: “I fantasize about redesigning really modern hospitals. »

yourban&Civic only buy brownfields in key suburban locations – like Houlton, once home to Rugby radio station, where the first transatlantic telephone service began nearly 100 years ago. Others include a former RAF base at Alconbury in Cambridgeshire – the company’s first project, launched in the depths of the recession – as well as sites in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

The centerpiece of Houlton’s development is the secondary school, attended by 180 Year 7 students since it opened in September 2021. It has been built around the radio station’s Grade II listed buildings, including the transmitter room and the feeding room. Hugill, 64,’s enthusiasm for the project is clear as he climbs the stairs to the main building, saying it is the third secondary school he has built, the best to date. “Just look at them: they feel at home here. I love seeing it,” Hugill said as he spotted a few students.

Hugill is no stranger to superlatives: he recounts a dizzying array of facts and figures about Houlton – a joint venture with Aviva Investors – and Urban&Civic’s other projects.

A colleague, who has worked with Hugill for 15 years, describes him as someone who “cares about the details” and has the ability to “think five to six steps beyond what other people are obsessed with”.

Although he grew up in the North East and attended Barnard Castle Secondary School – which he jokes was made famous by Dominic Cummings – Hugill’s work has not always focused over the regions of England. He left home to study at Oxford University – the first student from his school to go there – before going to London for a master’s degree and then a first career in banking.

He entered the property after joining the small promoter Chelsfield, of which he became the boss, then, when he went public, managing director of a listed company at the age of 35. Meanwhile, alongside a stint at Australian property company Lendlease, Hugill began to shape the capital – the city he has now called home for more than four decades, although his County Durham roots are still audible. in its vowels.

The two London shopping centers owned by the Australian company Westfield to the east and west of the city, as well as the transformation of the unloved former industrial area around Stratford into an athletes’ village for the 2012 Olympics, were among the major regeneration projects Hugill and Urban&Civic co-founder Butler worked on. That track record is likely part of the reason Urban&Civic was acquired by medical research charity Wellcome Trust in 2021 as part of its investment portfolio, which Hugill says will help the business grow while giving him “additional political credibility”.

These developments in the life of the company come at a time when planning rules are back in the headlines, as last week’s Queen’s Speech proposed allowing greater local input into planning.
Since advising Sir Bob Kerslake at the Homes and Communities Agency, England’s former housing and regeneration agency, Hugill has been convinced that “the contribution of major new settlements or urban extensions, or of local authorities choosing to put a lot of new houses in one place” is essential to cope with population growth in the South East of England. He thinks so-called “infill” developments, where houses are built in undeveloped parts of existing settlements, will not create anything like the number of houses needed.

The Government’s new Leveling Bill, including measures to appease Tory voters in the ‘red wall’ seats won by Labor in the 2019 election, ‘all points in the direction of a pragmatic outcome in the south east of England’ with ‘more great sites’, he says. This is precisely the specialty of Urban&Civic.

New homes in Houlton. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The newfound flexibility of the post-pandemic working world has also made Rugby and other regional towns more attractive and given families the impetus to leave London. These relocations have boosted sales 30% above expectations during the pandemic. “A number of people in rugby work in London, theoretically. They used to commute five days a week and there’s no way they’ll come back if they have a choice,” Hugill says, adding that more time and money spent in your neighborhood “Helps in any sense of your identification with a locality. ”.

Houlton is four miles from Rugby station, accessible via the new link road built by Urban & Civic, and it is already served by a bus route. Commuters are clearly a target market: a large poster urging people to “join our growing community” is displayed prominently in the station car park.

This change will boost local economies, he believes, because flexible workers spend money locally during the week, not just on weekends. However, he cautions: “Care must be taken not to overestimate the change resulting from working from home, as it is fundamentally just a choice of the middle class. »

Working from home has its downsides too, particularly for city centers and smaller service businesses – from sandwich shops to dry cleaners – that depend on the trade of office workers, which is of concern to Hugill in his other role as group chairman of Center for Cities reflection. “Fridays seem quite vulnerable,” he says of post-Covid work patterns, with many office workers choosing to end the week at home.

Despite this new workplace flexibility, he believes working relationships are about to be tested: “At the moment people are being paid the same, and getting London weightings and everything else, and it won’t last for a period. »

True to his roots in County Durham, Hugill would like to see leveling in action, but does not believe this is achieved by simply building more homes in the north of England or moving government jobs to different parts of the country. . “You can’t create local economies just from housing,” he says. However, post-pandemic work patterns may also be part of the answer. “More working from home will, over time, to some extent reduce the London-centric nature of the UK economy,” Hugill said of the capital. “But he is more than capable of taking care of himself. »

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