The UKAA Conference: Das Glasperlenspiel

 

It might seem strange to consider a Nobel Prize winning novel by Hesse alongside the inaugural UK Apartment Association conference. But then again, perhaps it isn’t.

My interest in Hermann Hesse, his works, and in particular Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass bead Game) comes from an aesthetic philosophical interest and a strong desire, as a nineteen year old youth, to impress the girls with my huge intellect. It didn’t work. And, if you’d seen pictures of me in my late teens, it’s clear that failure with ‘the ladies’ can’t be blamed upon Hesse….

However, I did get to read the most extraordinary book, which led, inevitably, to other Hesse works and an appreciation of his brilliance. But what has that got to do with the UKAA Conference? Isn’t the magnum opus of a German-Swiss author a million miles away from an organisation representing the professional element of the PRS?

Yes it is. On the face of it. But I came away from the conference, as I have from so many of the PRS conferences in recent times, with a sense of déjà vu. This is not simply because many of the faces, welcome though it is to see everyone, are so familiar and the messages from the dais and panels well rehearsed. It’s something else, and It’s all starting to get just a little frustrating.

Within the industry, which is still both frustratingly and delightfully disparate, we’ve heard all the arguments surrounding institutional investment in the PRS: the planning, use classes, construction, location, facilities scale, etc, etc, etc. We’ve also listened to the management piece being disassembled and reassembled as a shiny new paradigm where the ‘tenant’ word is frowned upon and we herald the rise of the customer for whom the experience of renting will be second only to an orgasm. Or in some cases, better...

What’s this got to do with The Glass Bead Game? Well, Hesse’s concept is brilliant, the narrative just lovely and beautifully, beautifully constructed. But, and it’s a big but, it describes an austere-aesthetic fictional province, Castalia, run by intellectuals, who are entirely inward looking. Totally introspective, unconcerned with the outside world. And that’s why, as the clock ticked on, well past the 4pm close during the final session, the parallel struck me: the PRS is obsessed with talking about itself, to itself. We are inward looking, and despite heralding what we do as representing a 'new deal' for renters, we're not actually articulating that to the wider audience whose lives we rather arrogantly profess to be changing. At the moment, we seem to be living and feeding upon our own cleverness 'high fiving' each other on Twitter or LinkedIn for yet another 'insightful' comment.

This is not, as it happens, a criticism of the UKAA. Far from it, The UKAA is probably one of the best things that could happen to the sector. It brings a determination to professionalise, to educate and maintain standards, to benchmark, to develop industry recognised qualifications and, despite being akin to herding cats, to speak with a unified voice. The UKAA has some deeply impressive people within it to which I can attest, from knowing a good number of them. The organisation will be a huge success and I do know some brilliant things are happening behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the UKAA conference has come after a huge number of such events where the discussion has just not moved on. Liv Consult's Iain Murray, during the final session, was moved to articulate his frustration at the lack of progress PRS conferences are making. He used the word 'real', meaning, I think, in opposition to 'theory'. And he's right.

Some of the panelists are painfully aware of the theoretical nature of these conferences. Lesley Roberts, Executive Development Director at Allsop's is one of those looking to expand the range of topics. As chair of the panel containing Jeff Kayce of Bozzuto, Félicie Krikler of Assael Architecture and Matthew Bench of Crest Nicholson, She was very keen 'to move things on', and, using a different format, I think she was largely successful.

Still, there is an argument for turning our heads and looking in the opposite direction. Six months ago, perhaps a little more, I wrote on LinkedIn that we, in the PRS, were not big and not clever. As an example of this, I said if one types PRS into the Google search bar it's not until page three that what we know as PRS gets it's first mention. It's still the case. Unsurprisingly, It's the LIV Group. Not Greystar, Be:here, Tipi, Essential Living, Fizzy Living, Places for People, Get Living London or any of the other operators, funds or managers. What PRS means to the community at large is 'Performing Rights Society!' The wider PRS community, the 'customer' mostly hasn't the faintest idea we exist. As a sector, we have to be more outward facing and we have to engage with those people who are going to live in our flats. It doesn't matter if we don't have anything to give them right now, whet their appetite, draw them in. Educate!

Of course, an industry conference is possibly not the best place to talk about engaging with the customer, since the word 'industry' rather gives it away. But, really? Why not? Do we need any more PRS conferences? We've been having them for three or four years now and I'm pretty sure we're all talked out and, like myself, many have heard it all before.

So let's change tack. We've talked amongst ourselves about how we're going to make the PRS and Build to Rent the biggest thing since sliced bread, now it's time to tell everyone else. Perhaps the UKAA could look outside itself too and coordinate a campaign of educating the customer. Telling them what to expect from us, raising their expectations, increasing anticipation at the next scheme to hit Manchester, London, Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol etc...

The Glass Bead Game is an example of 'bildungsroman' or 'coming of age' and this is where we, in the PRS, are. The principal character, Joseph Knecht, whose surname means 'servant', cognate with the English 'knight' (clearly a dual metaphor for the today's PRS), eventually reaches the stage of 'Magister Ludi'. In doing so, he realises that the austere Castalian way of introspection is narrow and intellectually barren. Despite his request to leave Castalia being denied, he leaves anyway, and by doing so is able to use his knowledge and intellect for the betterment of society as a whole. Anyone who has read the book will know that that is the precis to end all precis... But, are you getting the picture?

The point is this: we, in the PRS, have one of the greatest stories of the modern building age to tell. For heavens sake let's reach out and tell it to everyone.

 

Richard Berridge. PRS Consultant.

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