In a good place

John Elliott, md of Millwood Designer Homes, is in a "nice place" with his design-led business, as it delivers on its five-year plan. Suzie Mayes talks to the down-to-earth boss about creating villages, what Brexit means to him and getting back on his bike

(Pictured) John Elliott onsite at Orchard Gate, a hamlet of 37 homes

John Elliott may be recovering from knee surgery, but he is in a buoyant, welcoming mood when Housebuilder comes to visit him at his rather stately office in Tonbridge, Kent.

Despite his penchant for the old-fashioned, this irrepressible, unaffected md of Millwood Designer Homes can be trusted to deliver an up-to-date, honest and entertaining viewpoint on the housebuilding sector. And even in convalescent mode he does not disappoint. Firstly though, there is plenty to discuss about the housebuilder’s progress over the past few years.

Five-year plan
Millwood is “delivering” on its five-year plan to build 180 - 200 homes per year by 2018. This year it expects to build just over 100. In 2016 sales were around £40 million on healthy profits and in 2017 a figure of close to £60 million is envisaged, with approximately 52% of homes sold on its 2017 target. Ahead, the business has named sites through to 2019. The business is targeting exponential growth as Elliott describes it, but the focus is very much on maintaining Millwood’s impressive customer satisfaction levels. Its latest independent survey revealed that 97% of customers would recommend the company to a friend.

“We’re in a nice place,” Elliott says. “Our figures can be calculated in terms of value or unit numbers. Whatever you use, we’re ahead in this point of the cycle. We’re doing incredibly well and giving out good vibes.”

Elliott is striving for “organic growth”, hoping to exceed the 200-unit mark in 2019. The multiple- award- winning business which builds traditionally-styled homes in Surrey, Kent and Sussex, does not stray beyond 45-unit schemes, Elliott says. He does not want to create estates, rather delightfully nostalgic villages.

His enthusiasm for this approach is evident. He refers to one of Millwood’s recent schemes – Orchard Gate – which adheres to the Millwood village template; a hamlet of 37 private homes, crafted in a mesh of characterful styles featuring reclaimed materials. The scheme won an Evening Standard award, adding to the several others that Millwood has amassed from the newspaper.

(Pictured) Lavender Fields in East Sussex recreates a village from times past

Elliott describes Millwood’s meticulous design process: “The design team starts with an empty field. Then we try to create something that was there 200 years ago. That’s our difference – we’re creating new villages. With another scheme, Lavender Fields (in Isfield, East Sussex), we’re building a manor house of 34 flats which could have there 150 years ago.” In a further hark back to simpler times, at Lavender Fields a butchers and blacksmiths reside nearby. But whilst the homes’ exteriors look bygone, the interiors are decidedly modern, Elliott says.

Local authorities praise Millwood highly, he claims. “They pick us up as an exemplar. Busloads of councillors come to see our sites,” he says bullishly, but without arrogance. “We increase the value of an area.”

Millwood’s robust sales also seem to vindicate its painstaking design approach. Activity has not faltered since that historic vote last summer. “Our sales have increased 2.3% in value over originally forecast prices pre-Brexit, so that’s on sites launched post-Brexit. We accurately monitor the traffic every week and we’ve not seen any reduction in site footfall. At our Ardingly scheme (Standgrove Field in West Sussex), we put 51 people through the opening day in July.” (For more on Millwood’s schemes, see box).

(Pictured) Standgrove Field in Ardingly features 36 homes which combine the best of town and country living

“The former chancellor George Osborne said house prices would fall 18% (on a "leave" vote) but six months later there’s been no let up,” he continues, switching to frank mode. The reason for the unfaltering market is “simple”, according to Elliott: “The government has been on a drive to increase the number of new homes by the target date of 2020. They’ve produced Help to Buy and new incentives to help SMEs with borrowing, and are continuing to remove barriers to building. How could anyone believe Osborne’s words after seeing a government that’s invested so much into an industry so it can expand? It’s insulting to think that house prices would fall that far.” Elliott is confident that housebuilding will ultimately not suffer from Brexit, thanks to its indigenous nature. “We’re a generally self-contained market. We mostly don’t import, which fuels the economy. Even on the thorny question of immigrants, in the suburbs it’s not an issue.” “Delighted” that the UK is leaving the European Union, Elliott looks forward to the country eventually extricating itself from the various EU Directives that, to a certain extent, have hampered housebuilding. With good humour but some degree of annoyance, he spends time detailing the numerous stipulations that currently must be adhered to in order to protect various walks of wildlife. “Crested newts are an endangered species but here they’re overbreeding. I’m hoping that the government will see that they’ve been the cause of hold ups.

“I’m happy to exist alongside nature, but between badgers and dormice there are only certain times of the year that we can start building. Then you hear from the technical team that you’ve missed the window.”

One UK measure that has impacted Millwood is stamp duty reform. Thanks to 2014’s changes to the tax on house purchases (George Osborne again), the company is now not pricing homes in excess of £1 million. “The changes are still an inhibiting factor. It’s holding back Zones 1 and 2 and affects us.” And the rest of the market could be affected. “The government is naïve if it thinks that if you stimulate the bottom of the toothpaste tube, it’ll come out of the top,” he says pointedly. “They’ve depressed other parts of the market.”

The stamp duty rejig is partly the reason why Millwood is no longer producing its Yeoman-style houses. These 15th century-esque farmhouse properties became synonymous with the Millwood name in the company’s earlier years. “But also, these styles go in decades – you can find them in Mock Tudor and Georgian styles too. So we’re trying to break out of that mould.”

At the same time, Lavender Fields, with its oast houses and manor house, is a nod back to period housing. And with people still requesting the Yeomans, “there’s a high probability that we’ll go back to them.”

Elliott was the brainchild of this signature style, “when I had more direct contact in the business.” Now, after more than 25 years in the driver seat at Millwood, he is happy to let his team hone his creations. “I said at one time that I was ‘autocratically democratic’ in my leadership approach and to some extent that’s still true. When you have a competent board, they should be left alone.

Customer satisfaction
“My influence is at a higher level, looking at where we should be going and the conversations I have with our finance director. So my management style is now softly autocratic but democratic.”

But this restless, hands-on boss likes to be aware of what is happening, with all directors reporting to him. Elliott is actively involved in the monitoring of customer satisfaction levels. On all new developments, show house staff solicit feedback. Each Millwood home owner is interviewed by In-house, an independent third party. “Each buyer completes a form and I see all of them. We jump onto any problems straightaway.”

(Pictured) Woodlands View in Hastings, Sussex has been attracting first time buyers and "second steppers"

This year and beyond, Elliott will continue to help develop the quality that sells Millwood. He notes the challenges of increasing volumes. But he remains confident in the knowledge that people regularly buy his homes, and that customer ratings are high. He remembers “the Millwood groupies who would go to all of the launches”. Now the firm is inhabiting areas of the market previously unexplored, for example with its Woodlands View scheme in Hastings, Sussex. As Elliott plainly puts it: “Hastings is not the best place. But with prices on the scheme (lowest currently £195,000) we like to think we’re giving people more bang for their buck.”

Sitting smilingly at his expansive desk, in a room overlooking a charmingly small garden, Elliott says that his next really important goal is getting back to nature – and on his bike, knee depending. He has a break in Center Parcs to honour.

The Housing White Paper – Elliott’s view
John Elliott welcomes “many” of the proposals laid out in the government’s long-anticipated Housing White Paper. He supports a standardised way of consulting housing demand, and each local authority producing then reviewing its housing need every five years. He also praises the proposal to build at higher density and taller.

“I also support the presumption to build on brownfield land and the Lifetime ISA which will undoubtedly help first time buyers get on the property ladder,” Elliott adds. “I believe the Starter Home initiative is achievable, providing the cost of the land is of a sub-market value, to enable the homes to be delivered and available within the price limits of up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 outside.”

But he is concerned about the proposal to allow councils to issue completion notices demanding builders begin building within two years rather than three. “This is fraught with danger and will suppress housebuilding rather than ensure the government’s housebuilding targets are achieved,” he warns. “Once planning has been granted on a site, it can take 18 to 24 months before the planning conditions are satisfied, and to ask housebuilders to spend huge sums to secure planning over sometimes several years for councils to then decide the development is not valid on the new timetable, is unacceptable.”

But the government “cannot afford to lose the impetus that they’ve built up with housebuilding,” Elliott says. “Housing is people’s primary feelgood factor.”

Millwood’s designer homes
John and Jeff Elliott, who established the business in 1992, each live in their own Millwood Designer homes - “convincing testimony of the family’s total commitment to the Millwood product,” the company says. Jeff is deputy managing director.

Millwood says that it is dedicated to combining “all that is best” in local architectural history with the latest modern amenities. It has a few examples of this to hand. At Lavender Fields in Isfield, East Sussex, the 39 homes include a farm house, oast houses and a selection of smaller terraced cottages. Properties include The School House, The Forge, The Manor House, Keeper’s Cottage and the Meeting House, “each adding to the village character and mature setting,” Millwood says. Interiors are decidedly contemporary. All of these distinctive homes are a good option for those looking to “rightsize”. (the friendlier term for downsizing).

Meanwhile, first time buyers “or second steppers” have snapped up nearly half of the properties at Woodlands View in Hastings, Sussex, using the government’s Help to Buy equity loan scheme. These carefully arranged, high spec homes are in a mix of styles and nestled in idyllic surroundings backing onto woodland.

Recently launched is The Paddock in Ansty, (pictured) featuring five detached four and five bedroom homes which boast the latest fixtures and fittings whilst reflecting the style of the traditional Sussex setting.

And new to the market is Little Logmore in Dorking, Surrey. This is a collection of terraced and semi-detached homes, built in sympathy with the architectural ambience of the area using local materials. Open plan living and integrated appliances keep the homes up to date.

(Pictured below) Little Logmore in Dorking is a collection of terraced and semi-detached homes

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