Critical Truths in PRS: An Existential Crisis.


Life, even in the PRS, exists on a fairly basic level. Nothing that we are striving to achieve is terribly new or avant-garde. It may feel new to us, but that's generally because our industry has been a bit backward; hamstrung by traditional methodologies which we are only just beginning disassemble and look at with critical eyes. Technology has been our friend here because it has introduced to the property sector a fresh perspective and given us the freedom to explore the way we do things unfettered.

So what has this meant? Well, ever since the 2012 Montague Report and burgeoning government support, it's meant the rapid expansion of institutional PRS and Build to Rent. On the physical side; design and construction is evolving as we endeavour to create something new and demonstrably different from generic house builder stock. We are doing this because we want to match the physical embodiment of BTR with our desire to take the customer experience to a level hitherto unimagined by tenants and agents alike. Sentient nirvana. As a result of striving for holistic aesthetics in BTR, we find ourselves in a very busy place; a hive of PRS activity and where a great deal of intellectual currency is being deployed.

What makes it more interesting is that there are so many points of entry into the sector, that nearly everyone in the property business, or outside it for that matter, can find themselves a little niche from which to promote their credentials. This makes life extremely interesting for me. I see BTR as something akin to the metamorphosis of a butterfly: We've had the egg in the the form of Montague's report. I believe we're through the 'larva' stage where the sector has been greedily consuming all it can to put on enough weight, and we now exist as forms of pupae. But what exactly do these chrysalises contain? Will all that we have indiscriminately devoured, in our quest for enlightenment, result in something quite beautiful, rich and diverse, or will it be a Cabbage White?

I say 'extremely interesting for me' because I've worked in the sector before it was sexy. When it was plain old 'residential investment' in fact. Not only was it not sexy, it was looked down upon by the property sector as a whole as being just a bit grubby and unprofessional. We were, to put it plainly, 'Non-U' This experience gives me the authority to comment, forcefully occasionally, on the new pristine PRS.

I sit on the side of experience, but with a voracious appetite for the new. For me, there's no such thing as 'can't' or "but that's the way we've always done it" I am a sucker for tech' and marvel at the things we can achieve with a thin little slab we call a 'phone'. I'm deeply distrustful of the status quo, generally believing it to be perpetuated by vested interests and feel that disruption is both a cathartic and creative..... and that's where I, apparently, get into trouble. When I entitled this piece, it was to articulate a difficulty we all share: how to be honest in our appraisal of something, how to show integrity, without upsetting someone. In business this difficulty is compounded because whilst we may think and feel one thing, to articulate those thoughts, especially whilst in the employ of another, could put your job at risk if such articulation compromised a business relationship. To do so is seen as naive at best, or, at worst, reckless and damaging.

So, when I decided that, despite consultancy being rather lovely and liberating, I'd rather be at the 'coal face' and actually be responsible for delivering all that I preach and to use all of my experience, it all started to fall apart. People with whom I'd had a strong sector dialogue and who I knew well suddenly started not getting back to me, avoided me even, when I suggested I was keen to go 'full time'. This, of course, was very frustrating and so I emailed an industry friend and colleague with some of my frustrations.

Somehow, when the first sentence of her response was "I'm going to speak frankly because I think it needs to be said and I'm not sure anyone will" you just know that the rest of the email is going to be unpalatable. And so it was. What followed was 'liability', 'outspoken', 'risky' 'forthright' and 'cavalier'. My immediate thoughts were to throw a hissy fit akin to that of Malcom Tucker. But on reflection, and reading the email from 'my friend' again it highlighted a couple of things: 1: at no point did she say that any of my comments were factually incorrect. In fact she was rather complimentary saying: "Your knowledge base is unquestionable, beyond extensive, and that part of your reputation precedes you well" (followed by the inevitable, BUT). and 2: At what point does one sacrifice all that one knows, one's integrity, on the altar of vested interest? I guess the question is as old as time...

And so we come back to "Critical Truths in PRS: an Existential Crisis" I'm fairly sure that most people will say it's a matter of 'balance', of 'tempering' one's comments appropriately and I'm sure that there are some for whom diplomacy is a key skill. But I don't think this industry deserves flannel. It obfuscates the message, delays change and it's far too important to get PRS right at last. With so much happening in the sector all at the same time: in funding, construction, planning , design, technology and management it's crucial that any guiding voices are heard. Sometimes that voice has to be a little more strident to be heard over the noise of industry. Mark Farmer of CAST Consultancy put his head above the parapet with his brilliant publication 'Modernise or Die' it was controversial, but it was also a critical truth. And I think it's important that such truths are heard. As to whether they're listened to.... well...

So this leaves me with the 'existential crisis': what to do? I know when I'm discussing any aspect of PRS or Build to Rent, I'm considering all sides; without favour and with a critical eye. When I come to a conclusion, I do so with the understanding many years of experience have given me. I sense check myself. I look to see if my judgement is coloured by convention or bias and I rely upon common sense. Then I'll comment; whether it's on LinkedIn or Twitter. But do I continue in the same vein? Clearly it's had an impact any full time employment hopes I may have harboured. Despite the honesty.

The PRS and Build to Rent is just about the most exciting thing to have happened to the property sector in years. It signals a sea change in the way we may live and work in the future and, in that, it represents huge social change. It is our zeitgeist and I am exhilarated to be part of it. When the butterflies emerge from their Chrysalises, fat from gorging on the sector's richness, I am hoping they will be everything we have worked towards. There will be a few Cabbage Whites I'm sure. But for the rest, I expect a kaleidoscope of opportunity for our neo-renters. And this, of course, makes my 'crisis' all the more painful. It always does when it's something you love.

So I'd be interested to hear your views, whatever they are. Whether you've had similar experiences; torn between telling it how it is or compromising your integrity (but saving your skin), or cursed with truth Tourette's and a desire not just to be straightforward but to ensure the right path is taken. I doubt any of this would interest existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, but it interests me.


Richard Berridge.

Magister Ludi and PRS, Build to Rent Consultant. @ResiRichard.

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