Bob Weston is a straight-talking construction boss who builds “affordable homes for normal people”. Chairman and founder of Weston Homes, he adds: “There are builders in London who build at the top end, but that market is very limited, subject to bubbles, and doesn’t represent 99.9 per cent of real buyers. Central London has an oversupply of it.
“If I build for £300 per square foot, a one-bedroom flat can be below £200,000. That sounds more like the world normal people live in. If I build above £1,000 a square foot, a one-bedroom apartment costs £600,000, a two-bed £750,000, and a three-bed about £1.2 million or £1.3 million. That’s not affordable. My target is £300 to £800 per square foot.” His targets are met.
Weston, 60, began his career as a civil engineer. He strikes you as a sensible man — what you see is what you get — with a bit of flair. Born in Margate, the family moved around the country when he was growing up. “My dad was in the air force, in radar, when radar stations were up and down the coast.”
He started with housebuilder Fairview before setting up his own company in 1987 with a plot he bought at auction for £55,000. When he bought his own first home he was so broke that he didn’t put the heating on for two years. Now he enjoys the good things in life, and has just built himself a big house in Essex, near Stansted.
Weston Homes properties are generous, with decent room sizes and extras you’d expect in a pricier build, such as recessed shelving, external shower taps (“so you don’t get your arm wet turning it on”) and double fridges in larger units. In kitchens, instant boiling taps are standard.
“We do bulk-buying deals. Our porcelain tiles come from Dubai. We import direct from manufacturers. There are no middlemen. I bring better quality for the money.” His company builds homes north to Peterborough, west as far as Oxford, and to the south and east coasts. Weston relishes a restoration project, turning an ancient monastery into homes, tracking architectural salvage to return to his listed buildings.
He has secured Denham Film Studios for restoration into new homes in Buckinghamshire, while in London he has schemes in Stratford, Greenwich and on Hackney Wick’s Fish Island. “We all want something bigger and in a nicer area than we can afford, just as we did 20 or 40 years ago. But aspiration — fuelled by the fact that everyone today has satellite TV and a mobile phone — has increased.” It’s not his job, he says, to trample on aspiration.
He’d advise first-time buyers to balance affordability with transport distance. “Take a train 30 minutes out from the centre, walk around and see what you can afford.” He describes what he calls “the halo, a band that starts on the edge of Zone 2 and goes to the other side of the M25, with Crossrail 1 and Crossrail 2 bringing other places closer a little further along the line.”
Weston thinks Crossrail is “one of the best infrastructure projects for 100 years, people don’t realise the benefits that will come from it”. Those opposed to it “have just got to be ignored”. And he points out that Crossrail will also accelerate the eastward shift to places such as Barking, where the usable brownfield sites are located.
THE HOUSING SHORTAGE: HAVE WE HIT ON THE ANSWER?
Weston says the Government’s aim of building 50,000 new homes a year is “proactive” and Help to Buy is “very effective”. He praises interest-free loans of up to 40 per cent of a new home’s value for Londoners who have five per cent deposit, and the 20 per cent starter homes discount for first-time bu+yers, both announced in November.
The freeing-up of land for building, such as space for 24,000 homes at Old Oak Common, will help too, he says. But he’d like to see the planning system overhauled. Councils have development control departments — why not development enabling departments? Planning consent doesn’t mean a developer can start building, he says, only that they can make applications for “maybe 80 more bits of paper” to fill in, 20 of which will be “conditions precedent”, so no building work can begin until they are cleared.
Weston says it’s a myth that developers sit on land with planning consent, hoping it will grow in value. “I don’t make money until I build something.” He also has a pithy take on the obligation to include social housing in new schemes. Margaret Thatcher’s government “sold off the family silver and asked the developer to replace it”, he says.
His daughter Claire works for Credit Suisse bank, while his son Shaun works for Weston Homes and is doing a degree in construction management. For relaxation, Weston restores vintage cars and enjoys golf. “I’ll only play where it’s warm,” he says. Sometimes, it seems, location is the priority.
HOMES FOR YOUNG FAMILIES
The most important considerations when buying or selling homes are not “location, location, location”, says Weston, but “product, price and presentation”. His company’s spacious, well-finished homes sell for less than £1,000 per square foot — with some for just £140,000 each — mostly to first-time buyers and young families in outer London and the home counties.
Weston Homes’ turnover is £138.5 million, up £22 million on last year, with pre-tax profits up 116 per cent. Reservations and completions are up 15 per cent, with 139 of the total 845 reservations enabled by Help to Buy. Weston has spent £62.5 million on land acquisitions and is launching big schemes in Barking, Dartford and Southend, from new builds to the conversion of a listed hospital. He aims to sell 1,200 homes a year, from the current 1,000.