Nigel Hugill: the man who builds houses for the revolution of working from home | Property

“Everything in front of you did not exist 18 months ago.” Nigel Hugill stands in front of a playground and gestures past the swings and climbing frame to the park and the homes behind.

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

Around 1,000 homes have already been built on the 1,200-hectare plot, as well as a primary and secondary school, and a further 5,000 houses will be added when the development is completed, in 15 years.

Urban & Civic – the company Hugill co-founded with Robin Butler in 2009, and which he leads – is the “master developer” of this project and 13 others across the UK. This means that it takes responsibility for the site from idea and planning to construction of house builders and completion.

Hugill set up Urban & Civic with “the purpose of building outside the M25 but within 100 miles of London” in areas with the largest population growth and therefore greatest housing demand. The company sees these major developments as the key to resolving the housing crisis, at a time when the government is pushing its equalization agenda.


Age 64

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

Education Teesdale School in County Durham; political degree at Christ Church, Oxford; master at the London School of Economics in Labor Law and Work Economics.

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

Last holiday Two recent ski trips to Val d’Isère, where he owns a property.

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

Biggest career mistake “I have been incredibly lucky. When I went to work for Chelsfield, the alternative was to work for Goldman Sachs before it flew up. Financially, there is no doubt that it would have been my biggest career mistake.”

Words he overuses “Interesting and structural.”

How he relaxes “My wife would say ‘He never relaxes’.” However, he adds: “I fantasize about the redesign of properly modern hospitals.”

Urban & Civic only buys brownfield seats at major commuters – such as Houlton, once home to Rugby Radio Station, where the first transatlantic telephone service began almost 100 years ago. Others include a former RAF base in Alconbury, Cambridgeshire, – the company’s first scheme that started in the depths of the recession – as well as locations in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

The centerpiece of the Houlton development is the high school, where 180-year-old 7-year-olds have attended since it opened in September 2021. It was built around the radio station’s class II list buildings, including the transmission hall and the power room. The 64-year-old Hugill’s enthusiasm for the project is evident as he walks up the stairs of the main building and declares that this, the third high school he has built, is the best so far. “Just look at them: they feel at home here. I love seeing it,” says Hugill, noticing some students.

Hugill is no stranger to superlatives: he reveals 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 an ability to “think five to six steps beyond what others are obsessed with”.

Although he grew up in the Northeast, and the high school at Barnard Castle – which he jokes has now become famous by Dominic Cummings – Hugill’s work was not always focused on the regions of England. He left home to study at Oxford University – the first student from his school to go there – before heading to London to pursue a master’s degree and then a first career in banking.

He entered the real estate market after joining the small developer Chelsfield, became its boss and then, when it launched, the CEO of a listed company as a 35-year-old. During this time, along with a stay at Australian-owned real estate firm Lendlease, Hugill began to shape that capital – the city he has now called home for more than four decades, though his County Durham roots can still be heard in his vocals .

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

This development in the company’s life comes at a time when the planning rules have once again returned to the headlines, as last week’s Queen’s speech suggested allowing more local input into the planning.
Since his time 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 large new settlements or urban extensions, or local authorities choosing to place a lot of new houses in one place “is crucial to cope with the population growth in the south-east of England. He believes that so-called” infill “buildings, where houses are built in undeveloped parts of existing buildings, will not create anything like the number of homes needed.

The government’s new equalization law, including measures designed to reassure conservative voters in “red wall” seats won by Labor in the 2019 election, “all point to a pragmatic result in the south-east of England” with “more big places”, he says. Which is exactly what Urban & Civic specializes in.

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

The newfound flexibility in the post-pandemic world of work has also made Rugby and other regional cities more attractive and given families the incentive to move out of London. Such relocations pushed sales 30% above expectations during the pandemic. “A lot of people in Rugby work theoretically in London. They used to commute five days a week and there is no chance that they will return to it if they have a choice,” says Hugill, adding that more time and money spent in your neighborhood “helps the whole sense of your identification with a locality.”.

Houlton is four miles from Rugby train station, accessible via the new connecting 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 prominently displayed in the station’s parking lot.

This shift will strengthen local economies, he believes, as flex workers spend money locally during the week, not just on weekends. However, he gives a warning: “You have to be careful about overestimating the change that comes from working from home, because it’s basically just a middle class choice.”

Homework also has its drawbacks, especially for city centers and the small service businesses – from sandwich shops to dry cleaners – that rely on trade from office workers, something that occupies Hugill in his second role as chairman of the Think Tank Center for Cities. “Fridays look pretty vulnerable,” he says of work patterns after Covid, where many office-based employees choose to end the week at home.

Despite this new flexibility in the workplace, he believes working conditions are being put to the test: “At the moment, people are getting the same in pay and getting London weighting and all sorts of other things, and it will not last for a period of time. “

True to its County Durham roots, Hugill would like to see a level up in action, but does not believe this will be achieved by simply building more homes in the north of England or by relocating public jobs to different parts of the country. “You can’t create local economies just out of housing,” he says. However, post-pandemic work patterns may also be part of the answer. “More homework will, over time, to some extent reduce the London-centric nature of the British economy,” Hugill says of the capital. “But it is more than capable of taking care of itself.”

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