Q&A: Mark Dickinson on Anthology’s fresh approach

Since former military man Mark Dickinson founded Anthology four years ago, the company has built up an impressive portfolio across London by building homes for sale on relatively complex land sites.

Dickinson shares the story of his journey from the Royal Engineers to Anthology via Lendlease and outlines his plans for the growing company.

Why did you decide to launch Anthology?

I was previously head of development for Lendlease, working on Elephant and Castle, Stratford and across their property portfolio. It was a fantastic experience and I was lucky enough to work on some of the best regeneration projects in London seen for a generation, but in that senior position, you’re a long way from the detail and the customers.

There are 26 of us now at Anthology and 90% of us have stepped away from bigger companies to get closer to what we love doing. In larger companies you can often find yourself further away from the nuts and bolts of building homes. I feel more comfortable doing what I’m doing now. It’s less corporate.

What is your land acquisition strategy?

The core target for us is land in zones three and four and outer zone two. We look for sites that are well connected and of the size and scale we can build more than 200 homes on, and so far we’ve been pretty successful. We’ve bought five pieces of land, one in Deptford with 316 homes, one in Wembley with 195 homes, one in Hoxton with 198 homes and two in Haringey, one of which is in partnership with the GLA [Greater London Authority], so they’re helping to fund it. Deptford and Hoxton are currently under construction.

What kind of sites do you want?

Of the sites we’ve bought so far, one came with a consent and the others were tired pockets of industrial land that needed to be reinvented. We look for a little bit of complexity and one of those factors is making sure we get a consent that we want to build out. We want to take responsibility. Some of the developers who are looking in the middle market might be looking for land that’s more readily deliverable. We can be quite patient and get the right consent. It doesn’t give us carte blanche at all, but it does give us a competitive edge.

What is your most complex site?

The site in Deptford was interesting. It was industrial land but it was about to be rezoned. It had to be put together in three parts. We were opening a new part of Lewisham and the council wanted to achieve certain things. In the end, I think we’ve come up with something the community, the council, we and our buyers are happy with, but it took a bit of time to get there.

Have you thought about a move into the private rented sector?

We haven’t touched PRS. It’s not what the team is experienced at, and I think you should stick to your knitting. We are good at building homes and looking after customers. A PRS company is different operationally and you have to set up for a long-term property hold. We’re backed by private equity firm Oaktree and they are not looking for that sort of investment. That’s not to say that on a larger, phased project we wouldn’t work with a PRS partner.

How do you handle affordability in light of Sadiq Khan’s tougher approach?

Because of the sites we’ve got, we’re building or enabling a third of our total housing delivery as affordable homes. Hoxton, for example, is a kickstart project for Hackney, so the land receipt they receive from us has enabled the regeneration of the rest of the estate. While our two towers have no affordable homes, it’s the bigger picture that matters. In Deptford, we have affordable housing and 30,000 sq ft of affordable commercial space, so while the level of affordable homes is below 35%, the commercial element provision for the community makes up for this.

Is the mayor’s 35% affordable housing target achievable for you?

Anything’s possible. The strategic planning guidance on affordable homes is helpful in terms of setting out some firmer guidelines with a viability approach below 35% and a fast-track approach above 35%. It’s a clear policy. Below 35% is what we do now and that has had time implications and cost us money and we’ve not been sure of the outcome. I think developers and land vendors need to be realistic and that will take a bit of time to bed in.

What state do you think the London market is in?

A lot of market commentators are fixated on negative headwinds, but I think this is a normal market. I’ve seen a really good market and I’ve seen a really bad market. At the moment there are plenty of issues to deal with, but you can buy land, get planning, build and sell homes and you can look after your customers. You just need to be measured about it. I think anyone who’s sensible in terms of the way they invest, and who consults properly and listens to the communities in which they’re working, and the councils they’re partnering with, can build homes for Londoners, charge a fair price and make an appropriate and reasonable return to their investors.

What are the barriers holding back the market?

There are plenty of things we, as an industry, could be doing better. Politically, we need continuity through all the layers of government. I think London benefits with the mayor, but at times national policy doesn’t accord with what’s going on regionally or at borough level. Land release could be more effective and there’s the issue of resources and people. Undoubtedly, there was a period of time where people left the construction industry and I’m not sure they’ve been properly replaced.

I also think developers really need to work on the way they’re perceived by communities. It’s not helpful that at times there is a perception that developers cannot be trusted.

How do you deal with that perception?

I think the first thing you do is listen and be willing to actively engage with the local community. At times we’ve had some negative social media comments in areas where we are developing and whenever this happens I want to meet people and have a chat with them face to face. On one particular occasion I met with one local who said: “I’ve said lots of negative things about developers in the past and you’re the first one that’s come and had a chat with me. I still don’t agree with what you’re doing, but I respect the fact that you’ve listened to me.” I think that’s helpful and is at least a foundation to build a relationship on.

We’re very active on social media, and we do this as a team - we put a bit of heart and soul into this. And we take steps to engage our customers proactively; as an example, I phone customers up when they exchange contracts with us.

Do you have examples of how you’ve engaged with a particular community?

We’re in our fourth year of sponsorship for Deptford X arts festival. Before we demolished the old industrial buildings on the site, we ran an event called Deptford Stories for students from Goldsmiths to display their works in the old factory buildings.

You’ve got to put your time out there and properly engage. We engage with local charities quite actively - not just with a chequebook but through dedicating time from our team, and our team loves that.

How does your military background help you?

I was in the military for 12 years. I am a chartered civil engineer and was in the Royal Engineers. I left the day before 9/11. I joined Berkeley as head of customer service in one of its regions. I think that there’s quite a good fit and lots of transferable skills: there’s the need for organisation, being able to think things through clearly, being able to present yourself and talk to people and the importance of being measured and staying calm, so I think it works well.

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