Few have a better outlook on the region’s property development and investment landscape than Simon Tothill, Property & Development Director at Robert Hitchins Ltd
Interview by Nicky Godding
If you believe that a good work environment improves the quality of the decisions you make, it’s no surprise that Robert Hitchins has been so successful.
The company’s headquarters are at Boddington Manor, a 19th century Grade II listed manor house built in the Arts & Crafts style, although its history goes back beyond the English Civil War.
Robert Hitchins is a regional strategic landowner, promoter for the residential development market and a major commercial property and development company. Its commercial arm has a portfolio of more than 1 million sq ft of income-producing properties, predominantly industrial and office space.
Simon Tothill has been the company’s Property and Development Director since 2014 and has strong views on the sector.
“Change is a difficult concept for many people but we seek to develop for the better. Development has to be in right location at the right time and of the right quality,” he says.
“Development is quite rightly challenged and tested through the planning process. We seek to extol the virtues of development and reassure that planned development will enhance and improve the status quo and provide new and further employment opportunities.
Economic growth is needed to create and retain jobs, he says. “We are in a competitive environment from other towns and cities in the UK and also, given the increasing pace of globalization, internationally.
“We recently lost one of our tenants to the USA. If we can’t attract new companies into the area while retaining and encouraging existing businesses to expand, as a region we will falter.” Land for commercial development?
But there is a lack of development land. “As well as an ongoing housing shortage, there is also a shortage of well-located employment land close to existing centres of population, with suitable infrastructure,” says Simon.
“Quite rightly there is a focus on finding sites suitable for new housing, as the acute lack of supply is causing residential markets to become unaffordable to the local population. However, employment land is also needed for companies to invest and expand.”
The problem is compounded by many office buildings having been converted to residential or student use.
“Gloucestershire and the surrounding area has a huge number of high-tech, innovative engineering companies, from aerospace to nuclear and cyber, wanting bespoke buildings to allow growth,” added Simon
Simon develops commercial properties where they’re needed, delivers a return on current company investments and is broadening Robert Hitchins’ geographical reach across the South West, South Wales and Midlands.
Commercial rents had, until the last couple of years, risen little since 2008, but with construction costs rising and with a greater level of occupier demand chasing dwindling supplies of industrial and office stock, the market is now experiencing significant pressure on rents, he says.
A significant proportion of the Robert Hitchins development portfolio is in the office and industrial sectors: the company owns properties from Tewkesbury to Bristol and across South Wales. A particularly interesting site owned jointly with Redrow Homes PLC is the 300-acre site known as Westgate, next to the M49 and opposite Severnside on the outskirts of Bristol.
The company has been working with Redrow and others to secure a decision by Highways England to locate a new M49 motorway junction adjacent to the site which will provide a much-needed connection into the Avonmouth and Severnside Enterprise area, and unlock a major employment site.
Elsewhere, development opportunities are starting to crystallise for Robert Hitchins. In Oxfordshire, the company is building a 20,000 sq ft office building for Air Tanker, a major employer in Carterton which delivers aircraft, infrastructure, service, training and expertise in support of Voyager, the RAF’s new generation tanker transport aircraft. A soft spot for retail
Simon has a soft spot for retail, having undertaken some big retail projects across the South West.
That expertise will come in handy as the company progresses a major development project at Tewkesbury, after Tewkesbury Borough Council backed a £60 million designer outlet centre at Junction 9 of the M5.
The proposed 180,000 sq ft outlet village should create around 1,000 jobs. The location is as good as it gets: in easy reach of Birmingham, Bristol and immediately accessible to Tewkesbury, Gloucester and Cheltenham.
“We are not trying to be a Bicester Village,” says Simon. (Bicester Village is the epitome of luxury outlet shopping and attracts millions of overseas visitors).
“Tewkesbury will offer more accessible outlet shopping, and we have been delighted with the response from retailers interested in committing to the scheme.”
Designs are being worked up for consultation, which include plans to develop an 80,000 sq ft garden centre alongside.
With a career spanning 30 years, what project is Simon most proud of? The answer is unexpected: A B&Q in Torquay.
“This project had it all. We had to assemble five land interests including part of a private road and achieve planning for an out-of-centre retail development. Having pre-let the building to B&Q and started on site, we were hit by an 11th hour High Court legal challenge in respect of alleged access rights over the road. After many sleepless nights we won. It’s not necessarily the best architectural project that I’ve been involved in but it involved many facets of development.”
And the project with the most potential? “Junction 9 on the M5,” he says. Expect a little retail therapy from Robert Hitchins over the new few years. Simon Tothill on town centre retail
“High street retail will never fail because people are inherently sociable. We like meeting and talking to each other. Online retailing makes life easier but you can’t stroll around a website and stop for a cup of coffee with friends. Retail is a fashion business and although the provision of space within the high street may reduce there will always be a demand for it.”
Where does Gloucestershire do retail well? “Cirencester is beautiful, with a wealthy catchment, attractive environment and plenty of independent shops.”
And Cheltenham’s coup in securing a new John Lewis store shouldn’t be underestimated, he says. “Cheltenham had to provide John Lewis with enough certainty that it could deliver, before the retailer agreed to invest a huge sum in a new store. The council had to pull out all the stops and they did. With the work at The Brewery and on The Promenade, Cheltenham is on the up.” QUICK FACTS
- Robert Hitchins Group was established more than 50 years ago.
- Still a family-owned business, it has developed more than 17,000 houses and more than three million square feet of commercial property.
- It has extensive land interests across Gloucestershire, to the edge of Birmingham, into Oxfordshire and down to Bristol and South Wales.
- Originally a highly successful housebuilder, Robert Hitchins Ltd no longer builds houses itself, but has become one of the region’s predominant strategic landowners and promoters for the residential development market, and a major commercial property and development company.