UKREiiF 2024 – worthwhile investment or expensive talking shop?

Last week saw more than 12,000 real estate professionals descend on Leeds for the annual UK Real Estate and Investment Conference, UKREiiF. The event reportedly doubled in size since last year and is expected to expand even further in 2025, with the dates for next year already confirmed. Held at The Royal Armouries, the Conference has a festival feel, spread out across the site – it’s a format that works well, creating a relaxed and informal vibe, with plenty of space and opportunities for chance encounters. 

As an Independent PR and marketing consultant, it’s important that time out of the office for any networking and learning is a good investment – and, let’s face it, UKREiiF is pretty costly to attend. But given the growth of the event in recent years, and positive feedback from clients and contacts, I bit the bullet and decided to join what felt like the entirety of the UK’s real estate industry and head to Leeds.

We were blessed with sunshine for the first day of the conference, with delegates gathering outside The Canary, Marketing Manchester and Opportunity London’s base for the week, and around the many marquees in Pavilion Square and Pavilion Avenue, coffees in hand replaced by beers as the day wore on. 

The headline speaker for day one was Angela Rayner; the conference team packed as many delegates into the Bury Theatre as possible, a huge line having formed to hear from the woman expected to become the UK’s next Deputy Prime Minister. Angela delivered a polished address, well received by those in the room, though was swiftly ushered off the stage despite attempting to take a seat to answer questions. As one would expect from a room full of real estate bods, there were many queries about the New Towns Code. 

With a hefty tome full of panel events across the three days, there was no shortage of interesting sessions to go along to – however, it’s important to leave space in the calendar for unexpected meetings. A couple of events on ESG and social value had caught my eye but the hours slipped by having bumped into several old contacts unexpectedly; do keep things flexible and build time into the diary for meetings and coffees.

One of the best panel discussions I managed to attend was the Building Britain’s Homes: Unlocking SME Delivery session at the Lloyds Bank Pavilion. With several small developers among my client base, this one grabbed my attention. Eleanor Deeley, Joint Managing Director of Deeley Group, was clear and forthright on what SME housebuilders need from the government, policymakers and local authorities to help get new development on site. Outlining the current situation, she highlighted the toll high interest rates and the absence of a First-Time Buyer scheme is having on the market and the impact on sales. She also revealed it is now taking three times as long to get on site due to planning delay, while the cost of capital per site has doubled. The business is delivering a third of the homes forecast annually; a significant fall in volume for a business that has been around for 80 years. Several panellists expressed surprise at the lack of incentives for first time buyers ahead of a General Election, while Eleanor also suggested ringfencing planning fees to bring down the case load of planning officers given delays are hurting SMEs financially. 

Homes England’s Nigel Barclay advised that while there is a strong pipeline of lending opportunities, it remains a fragile market, saying we need a period of sustained good news and some interest rate projections but it “feels like we’re now at the bottom, looking up the mountainside.” 

Prompted by the chair, Eleanor suggested various solutions to the challenges discussed, reminding attendees that what SMEs need now is action. Among her ideas was a Help to Buy scheme to reinvigorate the market, an alternative planning process for schemes with fewer units and a reinvigoration of messaging to remind that housing is a social need and new homes desperately need to be built.

Neil Jefferson, MD of The Home Builders Federation, referenced its State of Play Report published earlier this year, echoing the call for a scheme for First Time Buyers. He raised the need to lift barriers on the supply side, while tackling the politics of planning and reinstating the former housebuilding targets and highlighted the use of ‘grey belt’ land and the reality that we do not have enough brownfield. 

An interesting panel with plenty of food for thought; both for SME developers and policymakers. 

Next up was the Is Social Value the Key to Productive People and Prosperous Places panel at the Bidwells pavilion, which raised some interesting points around best practice and making social value count, including the role of Citizen Scientists in creating a sense of ownership and generating funds to deliver projects locally. The panel discussed the importance of long-term thinking and considering the impact of places 30 years down the line. 

Organisations must be able to measure and act on social value – but how many do this, and act on it? Liam Ronan-Chlond, Head of Engagement at Socius, advised that not enough people are talking about productivity, which impacts health and wellbeing too. They also outlined work they’re doing in using the time while they’re awaiting planning decisions to work with local schools and communities, ensuring young people are aware of opportunities and ready to start training when the project is on site.

As you’d expect, reputation was also central to the discussion, and the fact that, while businesses can create social value, they can also destroy it. Financial damage is a real risk as a result of poor practice and behaviour, but when social value is managed well, it will enhance your organisation’s reputation. 

A jam-packed day one ended with a stroll over to the Lamb & Flag, for a welcome glass of wine in the Leeds sunshine with client, Proximity, whose first-ever UKREiiF event was a resounding success.

DAY TWO

Unfortunately, as the second day of UKREiiF dawned, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Delegates were greeted with torrential rain, which continued throughout the day. I joined the crowds in purchasing an extortionately priced umbrella from WH Smiths and headed out into the city for the first of the day’s networking events. 

Pinsent Masons hosted the Build Up Network at its One Park Row office, where I enjoyed a lovely breakfast and had some interesting conversations with other built environment communications specialists. 

From there, it was a soggy walk across to Leeds Dock, where I managed to find a solitary seat to dry off a little bit and check emails. With the site set up for pleasant weather, it was near impossible to find a comfortable spot within any of the pavilions, with everyone looking to shelter from the rain. It did put a damper on things and I know I’m not alone in hoping for more seating and meeting space for 2025. 

Dried off, I headed over to New Dock Hall and the Exhibition Hall to hear The Developers Club launch their new manifesto. TDC is an exclusive group of young developers who are passionate about delivering quality homes at scale. The network aims to deliver 10,000 new homes by 2030. It was great to hear from the team representing both TDC and their own businesses and their journeys in development to date.

After a busy morning, I made my way over to Tournament Gallery for Lunch with EG. It was a unique setting for the magazine’s UKREiiF sessions and I enjoyed taking a breather from the hustle and bustle of the event, networking over a relaxed lunch and setting myself up well for the rest of the afternoon. 

My final afternoon of the event included several panels squeezed in amongst meetings, before heading back to Manchester. I confess I did head back slightly earlier than expected, keen to escape the relentless downpour and relieve myself of my now pretty-soggy trainers! I did end the conference with an eventful water taxi trip back to Leeds Station, however, with some impressive manoeuvring from the captain against the currents in the waterway!

Despite being let down by the northern weather, I thoroughly enjoyed UKREiiF and had a worthwhile and productive couple of days in Leeds. I look forward to returning next year with more great networking opportunities, insightful panels and – hopefully – sunshine! 

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