INTERVIEW: Robert Soning of Londonewcastle on the art of developing

Londonewcastle chief on identifying potential, creating a legacy and staying in fashion

Londonewcastle has been behind some of the capital’s most exciting resi schemes of recent years, and is currently working on a pipeline full of design-led projects that runs right the way across town. Here’s the firm’s Co-Founder and COO Robert Soning on identifying potential, creating a legacy and staying in fashion… 

Robert Soning

  • Londonewcastle has delivered over 500 units in the last two decades; which development started it all off, and of which are you most proud?

It was a scheme in an old Rosehaugh development of office B1 units, centred around a lovely courtyard. It was the time of the recession that hit the market in the mid-90s and was just sitting there empty so the employment issue was not much of a problem with regards to planning permissions. It converted very nicely into apartments and town houses.

  • Which key elements are today’s buyers typically looking for in a new-build scheme? Does this list differ to when you started 20 years ago?

Yes I would say the main difference today is the expectations of the actual building and its services i.e. interesting entrance lobbies, good communal spaces that the occupiers can use and that doesn’t necessarily mean just a gym. Obviously there is the media and AV which goes into the apartment itself which depends on the price point of the building.

  • Are there any ‘bonus’ features you can see becoming ‘must-haves’ 20 years from now?

Difficult question, apart from the fact that I can only imagine what type of technology we will be putting in buildings then. I think the level of people’s expectations in terms of the facilities in the communal areas is going to be more and more important i.e. entertaining spaces for dinner parties which will include a kitchen so you can bring caterers in, libraries, cinemas, office facilities, health facilities and sophisticated concierge services at hand which imitate a hotel.

  • Which other world cities or schemes have you been inspired by?

New York in terms of service is in a different league from anywhere else I know and also Hong Kong.

  • Your acquisitions have ranged from factories and land in the East to retail parks and apartment blocks in the West; what are the predominant features you look for in a prospective site?

Most importantly we look at different areas that we feel have mileage to be regenerated. We like edgy areas that we feel have potential to move forward in terms of regeneration so obviously transport links are very important and a good solid community atmosphere. Architecture and an understanding of why people have lived there and what we can do to bring new life into the area.

62-68 Roseberry Avenue: 2014’s conversion of a Victorian factory in Clerkenwell
  • These developments have required a broad range of expertise, you’ve taken on new-build, extension and refurbishment; historic and listed; resi and commercial uses; how is your core team structured?

Our business is split into three different departments all of which play an integral part to any birth of a building. We have an excellent Development Management Team, Acquisitions Team and Sales, Marketing and Branding Team that all work closely together.

  • What sets a Londonewcastle scheme apart from your competitors’ projects? 

Identifying the right locations, market making, attention to detail in terms of interior design services and location, and most importantly our ability to collaborate with people from outside our industry i.e. leisure, fashion and art industries. We like to use people who can look into what we are doing as opposed to looking out. The people we collaborate with are essentially our target market.

  • Londonewcastle schemes are typically billed as design-led; how do you make sure they don’t go out of date?

Good question, but essentially what we have to understand is that we are in the fashion industry. Fashion means what is good one year might not be good the next and therefore we have to constantly depict what type of finishings we want to use in each building.

  • Queen’s Park is best known for its Victorian family houses; what research did you do before deciding there was a gap in the market for Queens Park Place (below), a high-end apartment scheme?

Queen’s Park has always been a really popular location for young professionals and families who have often migrated from other areas like Notting Hill and Hampstead. It has been a very attractive area for these type of people because of its open spaces, gastro-pubs, restaurants and transport links. From an architectural point of view there was only two types of property you could buy in the area – either a Victorian house or a converted apartment so Queens Park Place has offered a standard of living that you just could not buy in Queen’s Park in terms of a modern block with 24 hour concierge and underground car parking.

  • How have sales been going? Have any buyer trends emerged yet?

Sales have been going very well particularly for owner occupiers and sophisticated long term local investors.

  • Are there any other areas of the capital where you’ve identified a similar gap in the market?

We are working on quite a few schemes at the moment ranging from Whitechapel to Peckham, all areas we feel have potential mileage.

  • How’s your development pipeline looking? Are there plans to launch any other schemes in 2015?

Our development pipeline is looking extremely healthy at the moment. We are involved in planning in 7 or 8 key areas and will hopefully be on site again by the end of this year with the aim of launching in 2016.

  • Regional hubs around the UK are outperforming many areas of the capital at the moment; would you be tempted to explore opportunities in any other parts of the country? If so, where?

Yes we are very protective of our brand and where it goes. There is probably only two or three other locations we would look at in the UK ranging from Edinburgh to Brighton. Fundamentally speaking we are a London developer and plan to stay that way.

  • As a developer, do you feel any pressure to build – and market – units for owner occupation, rather than investment?

We are an owner occupier developer and that is how we made our name and how we wish to continue our development pipeline. However, with the larger schemes, there are other pressures from a finance point of view and therefore in the future maybe we may have to look at selling off-plan to the overseas market but it is not something we wish to make a habit of.

  • Londonewcastle makes a big point of supporting the arts by putting vacant spaces to use by London’s creative community; given the current outcry over the so-called sterilisation of Soho, do you think London is at risk of losing its creative edge? If so, how can it keep it?

I don’t think London is at risk of losing its creative edge, I think it is probably the best city in the world at the moment and I cannot see that changing any time soon. There are certain areas which are becoming extremely creative in parts of Central London, East London and South East London so I don’t think London will ever lose that edge.

  • If you could make one policy change to improve the way the UK property industry works, what would that be?

I think we need to take a good look at the way the planning system works. It is far too complicated and schemes are quite often held in limbo to the detriment of the London Property Market.

  • What are your views on the so-called ‘construction crunch’ being reported by some developers in the capital? Have you found it harder to find the right suppliers or contractors lately, and if so, what’s the solution?

It has definitely become more difficult and I think it is a problem all developers are currently facing.

  • Where do you hope to see Londonewcastle in ten years’ time?

In 10 years’ time I hope that Londonewcastle will be developing the same type of buildings in London with its same principles intact. We are motivated by creating a legacy not just for Londonewcastle but the areas we develop in. Hopefully in 10 years’ time we will be doing the same thing with the new generation running the company.

  • Where would you personally buy tomorrow, given an unlimited budget?

Primrose Hill, parts of the City and Marylebone.

  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

If you wouldn’t live in it yourself don’t build it.