Regional Build to Rent necessary to retain talent in UK’s knowledge economy

Regional Build to Rent is necessary to retain talent in the UK’s knowledge economy, says Managing Director at Assael Architecture.

Lounge at The Almere Build to Rent scheme. Image credit - © Robert Greshoff | Assael Architecture | BTR News
Lounge at Packaged Living's The Almere Build to Rent scheme in Milton Keynes. The scheme has attracted a large range of residents from university students and staff to junior researchers essential to the growth of the Oxford-Cambridge knowledge economy. Image credit: © Robert Greshoff.

Within regional Build to Rent’s pipeline of 110,000 homes under construction or in planning, it’s a surprise to find Oxford and Cambridge conspicuously absent. But their omission is not for want of demand. Cambridge City Council and Savills’ joint market report of Build to Rent need, published in 2020, identified declining housing affordability, low void rates in the city’s private rented sector, and a high concentration of knowledge capital as fertile ground for professionally-managed rental accommodation – fundamentals that have only sharpened over the last two years.

By Pete Ladhams, Managing Director, Assael Architecture

Oxford’s situation is almost identical. Considering its above-average job density – 1.33 compared to 0.84 nationally, of which 71% are employed in knowledge-intensive industries – and a young population supporting its innovation economy, Build to Rent is a ripe solution to attract and retain talent as housing affordability deteriorates.

So why the alarmingly low supply? JLL attributes the mismatch to ‘constraints on growth within the city boundaries’ – ie there is a structural ceiling to the UK’s R&D hotspots which is pushing talent away from our centres of scientific excellence, without specific policy to support Build to Rent development.    

The proof is in Oxford and Cambridge’s weakening gravitational pull. While these S&T hubs should be attractive propositions for the region’s graduates, a study by the Centre for Cities found that both Cambridge and Oxford retain less than 20% of their graduates compared to nearly 80% in London. This echoes the sentiment expressed by the National Infrastructure Commission, that the central challenge to the rise of our own Silicon Valley in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc has been the lack of suitable housing and infrastructure in and around these areas. 

As the age of first-time buyers steadily rises, cities need rental properties that recent graduates and young professionals can see themselves living in well into their 30s. The availability of jobs alone is not sufficient to retain talent in areas like the Oxford-Cambridge Arc if the fundamental cost equation that makes a place liveable for new scientists can’t be made to stack. 

How do we bridge the affordability gap, to ensure that our knowledge economy is free to grow sustainably? Can we continue to attract global talent if the characteristics that once made Oxford and Cambridge alluring places to live and work are much weaker than they were? For a while we’ve been answering these two questions with separate solutions, when both are readily answered by local Build to Rent policy.

Build to Rent developments offer graduates more flexibility, opportunities, and choice in accommodation and give university towns a better chance at retaining talent without pushing these demographics to the fringes. A report by the British Property Federation, Dataloft, London First and the UKAA analysed 89 Build to Rent schemes in England, finding that a third of the residents earn the average national salary, showing the overall affordability of Build to Rent.

The same report revealed that over four in ten residents in Build to Rent developments fall within the ages 25-34, showing Build to Rent popularity among young professionals at the start of their careers.

The Almere is a case-in-point. As a significant Build to Rent project in Milton Keynes, a city home to Cranfield University and a central supporting pillar of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, Build to Rent creates a home for graduates that is sustainably located in an area otherwise unaffordable for young professionals.

Developed by Packaged Living and designed by Assael Architecture, The Almere, which comprises 294 Build to Rent apartments, has already attracted a large range of residents from university students and staff to junior researchers essential to the growth of the OxCam knowledge economy. Offering communal and co-working spaces, Build to Rent developments such as The Almere generally promote a more modern and progressive lifestyle and a sense of community within one’s home, a distinct contrast to the average subdivided house offered through the traditional private rented sector. 

Build to Rent developments such as The Almere can ground talent in a region, rather than renters turning to substandard homes as amateur private landlords up prices or sell up. In 2021, over £4bn was invested overall into Build to Rent developments to fund the 2,119 schemes currently under construction and the 99,273 schemes at planning stage. But new Build to Rent developments still fall behind the rate of decrease in available rental housing: the decrease of 97,000 available properties on Rightmove from 2019 to 2021 far outweighs the new Build to Rent supply, which has been increasing by roughly 15,000 homes per year. 

Even greater commitment to Build to Rent schemes must follow if we are to appeal to and retain the knowledge capital in the UK’s major university cities. Science and technology and R&D in which these institutions excel will be vital to continuing UK GDP growth in the next few decades, and we need to start viewing the growth of talent in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc through strategic eyes.

Britain’s scientific prowess on the world stage will never materialise if key knowledge hubs remain impaired by a lack of availability, low quality and unaffordability in rental properties, during an age of unprecedented competition for talent.