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Place North West asked 15 property professionals to weigh in on what was the biggest lesson learned in 2021. Credit: PNW

What was the biggest lesson learned in 2021?

Julia Hatmaker

In a year of lockdowns and subsequent re-openings, huge swathes of government investment and growing awareness of the climate crisis – what will we actually take away from 2021?

We asked a panel of engineers, planners, architects, developers and more to weigh in on two questions. The first of which is published today: What was the biggest lesson learned in 2021?

The second had them look forward to what 2022 will bring the industry.

But back to the question at hand.

What was the biggest lesson learned this year?

Caroline Baker, Cushman And Wakefield, P Caroline BakerCaroline Baker, managing partner for the North West at Cushman & Wakefield | The need to be flexible! Most specifically in term of our relationship with the office.  Going forward we need to be more flexible about how we approach new development given the increasing importance of sustainability. We need to be developing buildings which can adapt to changes in how we live, work and play. Those town centres that have large inflexible shopping centres at their cores have struggled most to adapt to changes in the retail sector. We need to ensure that future buildings are able to be more flexible in what we might expect from them.

Euan Kellie, Euan Kellie Property Solutions, P EKPSEuan Kellie, director of Euan Kellie Property Solutions | The need to communicate and collaborate. There are always degrees of uncertainty in the market but the last two years have been like no other. We have all had to think on our feet, make big decisions, reshape our strategies and adapt our ambitions.

In this context, the last 12 months have been a great reminder that we are a blessed with a fantastic business community in the North West. It has reinforced to me the value of having a good network of fellow professionals – people you trust and with whom you can share and discuss ideas and problems.

Stephen O'Malley, Civic Engineers, P Civic EngineersStephen O’Malley, co-founding director of Civic Engineers | Net zero has moved from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ and COP26 has acted as a catalyst in this change, bringing focus and profile to the agenda. The property industry has also recognised that ESG-led business cases can be profitable and there are commercial advantages to the adoption of climate-responsible real estate. This affects all aspects of the built environment, from the repurposing of struggling shopping centres through to estate renewal and development programmes.

Barry Roberts, Morgan Sindall, P.Tom CarlinBarry Roberts, managing director of Morgan Sindall Construction | This year has brought home beyond any doubt the urgency of the climate crisis. As outlined in our environmental strategy Decarbonising Communities, it’s our belief that merely complying with legislation or relying on carbon offsetting to minimise the impact of emissions is not enough. If we’re going to save the planet, more needs to be done – and faster. We’re determined to demonstrate leadership that will result in the transformation of how carbon reduction is delivered within the construction industry.

Joanne Roney, Manchester City Council, P Manchester City CouncilJoanne Roney, chief executive, Manchester City Council | Despite many commentators suggesting that Covid would signal the end of demand for office space, city centre office lets have rebounded strongly in 2021 and are likely to end the year around the 1 million sq ft mark.

Nigel Sedman, ForHousing, P ForHousingNigel Sedman, group director of homes at ForHousing | That in these interesting times it’s very difficult to predict the future when it comes to property. In the midst of a pandemic, house prices have still continued to rise and the demand for private rented sector homes did not falter.

Demand for affordable homes continues to outstrip supply. At ForHousing we are continuing to work hard to tackle the housing crisis by bringing forward new developments across the North West and creating aspirational places where people want to live.

Justin Cove, Hive Land And Planning, P Hive Land And PlanningJustin Cove, director of Hive Land & Planning | The North West land market in 2021 is probably as competitive as it has been for a long time and the availability of land, or rather lack of it, has had a major influence on the market activity levels. The lack of availability has in part been driven by the lethargy of the local plan making process.

Our experience in 2021 has confirmed that the gap between the ability of local authorities to resource the local plan preparation process and the amount of evidence and engagement needed to prepare a local plan has never been wider and this needs to be addressed.

Adam Higgins Square, Capital And Centric, P Capital And CentricAdam Higgins, co-founder of Capital&Centric | Stick to your guns. Doom-mongers last year predicted the death of the city and people fleeing for the countryside. But in the end, the death of the city just didn’t transpire. Cities bounced back quickly and the demand for city centre living have returned in full force.

That’s not to say we didn’t learn things. People’s lifestyles changed dramatically. They spent more time in their homes and earned an appreciation of what contributes to their wellbeing. That’ll drive positive trends in property. Developers will have to think creatively about nurturing communities in their buildings, delivering inviting green spaces where people can relax.

Stuart Rogers, Faithful+Gould, P Faithful+GouldStuart Rogers, director for UK & Europe of Faithful+Gould | People remain at the heart of the industry and every success we have realised. Investing in people during a period where there is a serious resource shortage across the industry has helped deliver quality and efficiency across our business.

Environmental, sustainability and carbon issues really do matter and need to be dealt with in construction. Our work with Manchester City Council and Manchester Climate Change Agency to develop a new Manchester Standard for Carbon calculation is clear evidence of this. The pan-industry enthusiasm and commitment is there, and the shared collaboration across organisations has been refreshing to be part of.

Michael Swiszczowski, Chapman Taylor, P Chapman TaylorMichael Swiszczowski, director of Chapman Taylor | 2021 demonstrated to us that our ability to design, collaborate, innovate and crucially generate and nurture relationships is not as hindered by remote working as we feared. 2021 also saw us return to something near to normal, so we also re-learned how valuable face to face collaboration is.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is understanding that physical proximity has become less of a barrier to working beyond the geographical regions of our studios. As well as growing our portfolio of work across the UK, we have further diversified from our Manchester studio by entering new markets overseas.

Leigh Dimelow, Tp Bennett, P INGLeigh Dimelow, principal director of TP Bennett | The continuation of home working has created a shift in the mindset of client occupiers. Wellness and work-life balance are no longer ‘nice to haves’. Additionally, the development of IT services has changed how occupiers work and supported hybrid spaces. This has allowed us to design for a more collaborative and agile occupier, with businesses now better understanding the importance of tailored workspaces. Although these conversations have been dominated by the workplace sector, this also feeds into other types of spaces – at home, hospitality places, public space – as we feel freer to make decisions about where and how we spend our time.

Michael Dong, Investar, P InvestarMichael Dong, chief executive of Investar Property Group | The key lesson from 2021 is ‘people first’. An adaptable, proactive and visionary team, both internal and external, is the core reason that things happen despite challenges.  Any instability will likely bring equal amount of opportunities. 2022 is a year to be bold in our decision making and to take advantage of opportunities especially supporting public sector schemes.

There will be challenges and headwinds. Build cost inflation is something that, in particular, we need to manage carefully. The key is to buy sensibly and to control the cost to maximise the value, while not compromising on quality.

Katie Tonkinson, Hawkins Brown, P INGKatie Tonkinson, partner at Hawkins\Brown | COP26 triggered a tangible increase in public awareness about the environmental crisis. It has been at the top of our agenda to understand what this means for the buildings and cities we are designing or adapting in the future and our creation of climate-resilient cities. The pandemic exposed extreme inequalities in our society and galvanised the efforts of those calling for things to change. As a practice we spent a lot of time thinking about how we can be a more equitable and inclusive employer, and how this is reflected in our spatial practice, designing with equality and equity of access and experience for all in mind.

Mark Vaughan, Hive Land And Planning, P Hive Land And PlanningMark Vaughn, director of Hive Land & Planning | The market sustained the end of the furlough scheme. The demand for new homes remains high and when combined with the supply side issues of land coming through the planning system, the combined impact is a very competitive and busy land market. Due to general levels of activity in the residential industry the consultancies are all busy. Far from there being considerable job losses, we are now seeing strong demand for good people. Housebuilders, consultancies, local authorities and other public bodies are all competing for the same candidates, resulting in a very competitive job market.

Phil Mayall Square Photo, Muse Developments, P MusePhil Mayall, board director at Muse Developments | The biggest lessons for 2021, which are absolutely in our DNA, are the importance of being patient, keeping the faith and most importantly listening to what our customers and partners need to repurpose their areas to bring life and vitality back.

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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