Legal perspective: five minutes with Forsters Head of Build to Rent

BTR News spoke with Helen Streeton, Head of Build to Rent at Forsters to discuss her role, the challenges and the future of the sector.

Helen Streeton, Head of Build to Rent, Forsters | BTR News
Helen Streeton, Head of Build to Rent, Forsters.

With the Renters (Reform Bill) now being examined in the House of Lords, conversations around what can be done to speed up delivery of rental product, assist renters with affordability and developers and investors with viability, will return to political agendas.

Building safety continues to be a topical subject as developers and owners including landlords and housing associations navigate how the Building Safety Act will affect their businesses.

We sat down with Helen Streeton, Head of Build to Rent at law firm Forsters to discuss her role, the challenges, and future of the Build to Rent sector in a year where both the political agenda and macro-economic factors are driving conversations. 

Tell us a bit about your background and your role as Head of Build to Rent at law firm Forsters?

I have been working in real estate for over 30 years – around four recessions! Each lifecycle brings its own challenges and opportunities. What I do has evolved over those years in terms of asset classes, but overall, what I do and (mainly!) love involves development/regeneration. Over the last several years I have been working on a big housing regeneration project in Greenwich, and a Build to Rent scheme in Croydon. The housing market for both sales and rental product is in crisis; people need affordable homes. 

Everyone who is anyone in the sector agrees. The BIG question – what to do? Everyone has a point of view – the big crossover in views is that government, central and local, needs to be more joined up in terms of housing delivery, and the planning system does not need more change at this time. Just more planning officers who understand Build to Rent!

I joined Forsters’ Commercial Real Estate team as a Partner at the turn of the Millennium. Build to Rent did not really exist then and our living sector was considerably different. London was back on its feet after the early 1990’s recession and, according to data from the Land Registry, the average London residential property was £132,705. That figure has dramatically changed with London homes now averaged at £730,885.

Every day is different, and I love working with my team and with different clients – developers, funders, asset managers, operators, landlords and occupiers alike. What clients want and need is straight talking and commercial advice, which analyses risk and helps clients assess risk. There is nothing worse for a client than being passed information without the value add of what they should do.

As Head of Build to Rent here at Forsters, I drive forward initiatives within the business to raise our profile in this area, and I am part of a wider Build to Rent community, which discusses economic and policy constraints on development and investment in Build to Rent, and lobbies government with proposals. The British Property Federation (BPF) Build to Rent committee does excellent work in this area and really cares about rental housing delivery and affordability. The excellent Movers & Shakers also recently held a Breakfast Networking Forum to look at the block to providing Homes for Everyone – lots of interesting research and different view on what to do.    

What is it about Build to Rent that you find most interesting?

From a socio-economic perspective, the delivery of affordable rental homes is vital in this country, as is a fairer playing field for tenants. All schemes must deliver mixed tenures to provide social and intermediate housing.

I enjoy the ‘bigger picture’ policy elements, as well as the thinking piece always involved in development – vacant possession, rights of light, planning, construction, tax, forward funding, golden brick sales – you name it, it is all in there. I enjoy working with my colleagues from other teams to get the client the best advice and solutions.

What attracts people to Build to Rent? 

I think a sense of community is really important to the younger generation who are likely to occupy Build to Rent, so amenities that provide that – gyms, cinema screening rooms, flexible co-working spaces, cafes –  are attracting renters who have larger amounts of disposable income. 

Wellbeing is high on the agenda for workplaces, and similarly for Build to Rent developments; amenities will look to enhance the wellbeing of renters.

Being well connected to local transport hubs and other infrastructure is also really important and these factors are important drivers in locations for development. 

Build to Rent is relatively new and is thought of as a ‘premium’ product. It is important that it can be accessed across a wide and diverse population. Some developers are using innovative blind tenure proposals – for example a scheme with a tenure mix which favours all product being at a (variable) discount to market rent. Some planning authorities are early movers on this front, recognising that the need for housing delivery in its locality may need a more innovative approach to s106 and intermediate product in order to maximise additionality. 

What do you think is the future of Build to Rent? 

Post War Britain saw the creation of and demand for tower block style living, urgently replacing war destroyed buildings and meeting demands of growing populations – mainly in what we now see as our big cities. 

While Build to Sell was, and has, always been a key focus for the government and for people who want to own their home, rising housing prices, high interest rates and tight mortgage criteria, plus an ever  growing population has created a demand for rental product which massively outstrips supply. It is estimated that we need 300,000 new homes each year until 2031 to meet demand. 

A strong pipeline of Build to Rent is now being delivered, but there are constraints on viability within the planning system and with new legislation and economic headwinds creating uncertainty. Keynes’ ‘animal spirits’ are not in abundance right now. 

I’d like to see more focus on speeding up the planning process so there are more starts each year, more uniformity across London and outside of London in terms of planning guidance, and what is required of local authorities, in terms of tenure mix and housing need. Changes should lead to an increase in supply which will help with affordability.

Legislation wise, is section 21 of the Renters Reform Bill staying or not? While the current draft bill suggests abolition, proposed amendments will cause delay – especially as the government tries to reform the court system to cope with the expected spike in s21 applications. Additionally, charities such as Shelter and Crisis have released figures highlighting a rise in homelessness in correlation to no-fault evictions. The bill has generally been well received in the Build to Rent sector as operators want tenants to stay, however the reforms to the court system need to catch up to make the new system work for everyone. 

Thriving locations with good local amenities, access to jobs, services and infrastructure are key anchors which attract people to Build to Rent. Housing should play an important part in party manifestos in the upcoming General Election campaigns, and it will be interesting to see how Build to Rent and affordable housing fit into the mix.

What piece of advice would you give to anyone looking to start a career in property law?

Law is an interesting and long career, and the property industry is full of great people. If you are happy to work hard, have a curious mind, and stay interested in the bigger picture, you will probably enjoy it. But don’t quote me on that!  

Tell us a fun fact about you? 

I’m a Spurs fan, home to the largest club stadium in London – it’s the most amazing stadium ever! Now we just need Spurs to win those last matches! 

I’m also a qualified teacher – taught economics to sixth formers in London comprehensives – a sprint not a marathon – every day! Young people are fabulous – one gets so much diversity of thought by listening to them.