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Interview | Richard Hepworth, Urban & Civic

Alconbury weald 30thaugust 2018  3

Richard Hepworth’s to do list is eyewatering.

As project director for developer Urban & Civic, he has 2,800ha to develop. It also includes getting planning consent for 23,000 homes. This could go up to 37,000 homes if all current planning applications are granted.

On top of that, Urban & Civic is developing 743,000m² of commercial employment land, with 93,000m² already delivered.

And then there are the 17 primary and five secondary schools, two of which have been built.

Richard hepworth crop

Richard hepworth crop

Hepworth: Major development programme

So, it is no surprise that when a civil engineering firm comes on board at one of his sites, Hepworth is looking to build relationships that could potentially last 20 years.

Urban & Civic, which describes itself as a master developer, currently has eight sites which, except for Newark, are all within 160km of London.

The firm takes brownfield sites, which have sometimes been difficult to bring to development, and puts together long term plans which take them from outline planning submissions, through procurement to construction and then all the way to people moving in and estate management.

The important thing is to establish strategies that can flex enough during a 20 year period

It delivers the primary infrastructure and issues licences, often to local housebuilders, to come onto the “plug and play” de-risked sites to build the homes themselves. Housing delivery is broken down to around 100 to 250 homes for each contractor, with Urban & Civic setting design standards throughout.

Remediation contracts are often the largest. “From a risk perspective, it is something we build into our acquisition from day one,” he says.

Of all of the sites currently in development, the most advanced is Alconbury Weald, a former Cambridgeshire Cold War airfield, which has outline planning permission for 5,000 new homes, four schools, facilities including healthcare, shopping, and employment space as well as a reserved area for a new rail station (pictured above).

Radio Station, Rugby development

Other sites include Radio Station in Rugby, a 473ha site where almost 6,000 homes will be delivered in a 50:50 joint venture with Aviva Investors.

There is also the 390ha site at Priors Hall in Northamptonshire where 5,095 homes will be built.

The contribution of civil engineering firms is essential to Urban & Civic’s work, from the civils design at outline consent stage, to detailed civils design and finally delivery of the infrastructure including sustainable drainage systems and highways.

The developer works with firms at all levels in the sector, including Peter Brett Associates and Breheny.

“The important thing is to establish strategies at a higher level which can flex enough during a 20 year period,” says Hepworth.

“Technology changes and we don’t want to tie ourselves up in knots by having an inflexible strategy for delivering, say, the foul water drainage to 5,000 houses, whereas we might find in a few years’ time everybody’s water consumption reduces and therefore foul water discharge reduces,” he explains.

“So we actually have some joined up thinking and we don’t allow a design if it’s not sustainable,” says Hepworth.

A slight increase, percentage wise, in cost can actually realise a greater value  

Hepworth, a civil engineer who has worked on projects including power stations, is the first to admit he is a demanding client and when asked whether the consultants he employs are delivering what he wants, his answer is “not all the time”.

Generally, Urban & Civic works on a framework basis, with these frameworks being set up on a site-by-site basis.

Once the firms on the framework get to grips with a job, Hepworth says they start to understand how their design will be interrogated.

“I’m a civil engineer and I think people are fairly used to me attending a design meeting and challenging the design.

Economic design

“Clearly, they are the designers, but I need to ensure on behalf of the business that the design they are proposing is both economic, but more importantly, is sustainable; that it is a design that we can roll out elsewhere.

“Because if we’re placemaking and we’re putting together a strategy for delivering over 20 years, we need to make sure that strategy can flex and deliver over a period of 20 years.

“So yes, I’m afraid I do give our design team a hard time.”

So can the designers go wrong?

“Very often designers don’t necessarily think about value,” he says.

“They think about cost all the time and they think that if they deliver something that has a lower cost for the client, they’re possibly providing the better solution.

“In fact, a slight increase, percentage wise, in cost can actually realise a greater value, not only in financial terms, but also it might benefit land take, or the amount of public open space we can offer, or amenity use.

Value in SuDs

Sustainable drainage is certainly an area where Hepworth sees value.

“For instance, rather than providing gravity drainage for surface water distribution, why not put everything in swales, that can be blended in with our requirement for public open space, and can provide a great landscaping feature that is actually then not cutting into any developable land?

“Combining swales and attenuation ponds within public open space areas provides a great civic amenity landscaping feature while making the most of the environment we’re trying to develop, rather than just automatically putting everything underground,” he says.

Hepworth admits relationships are continually tested and audited but says there have been very few casualties along the way.

With Network Rail encouraging private sector funding to build rail infrastructure, Urban & Civic has plans well underway for a new railway station at Alconbury Weald.

Unlocking the puzzle

It is currently trying to “unlock the final piece of the jigsaw”, which is integrating the station with existing rail infrastructure.

Alongside the huge developments, which are about 80% of its business, Urban & Civic undertakes commercial building projects such as new hotels, retail parks or leisure facilities.

The government is looking for firms such as Urban & Civic to deliver 300,000 new homes per year by the mid-2020s.

Hepworth and the team are looking further ahead than that.

He says his team look 30 or 40 years ahead to a final outcome, which is simply to build places where they would like to live. But in the short term the onus is on engineers to make it happen.

“The infrastructure has to keep ahead of housing, therefore we need a strategic approach to civil engineering design that can keep up with delivery rates required,” he says.



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