Just over a year ago, we had just been crowned ‘Large Business of the Year’ at the 2019 Mercury Business Awards. The award win was the icing on the cake of what was another fantastic year of growth for the business and a year that had seen us oversee the design and delivery of numerous high-profile projects, including the completion of several major retail and leisure destinations, prime mixed-use developments and retirement villages. Of course, nobody could have foreseen what was waiting around the corner!
As we head towards the end of 2020, it’s interesting to reflect on how many of the assets that contributed to us winning the Mercury Business Award have seen us through a year that has been dominated by the global impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. The successful business growth that so impressed the judges was largely down to the fact that we have continued to apply the same rules as we did as a small business as we’ve grown – and that same ethos has been applied throughout the pandemic to great effect. Having created an inclusive and supportive place to work, we were able to involve all staff in the swift and decisive decisions that were required to keep the practice smoothly operating at the height of a national lockdown.
Adapting to the new normal
That’s not to say that the early stages of the first lockdown didn’t test us. Like many businesses, we had to adapt very quickly – and adapt we did! We were fortunate that, just prior to the pandemic taking its hold, we had already started to look at more flexible staff working arrangements – the lockdown immediately accelerated that process and our investment in an IT infrastructure to ensure everybody could work successfully from home has paid dividends. It has ensured quick response rates and continuity for clients, whilst also allowing our teams to collaborate and maintain a consistent level of service, understanding and creativity on projects.
Video conferencing has, in many instances, also proved popular with employees who feel that they can be more efficient when not having to worry about spending time stuck in traffic or on a train when travelling to meetings. These are positive lessons we can take forward post pandemic. However, we cannot wait to get back to being sat around a table as a team, thrashing out our ideas noisily and passionately and reaching the creative and considered conclusions for which we are renowned.
A broad and diverse specialism
As part of our award entry, we detailed how the business had purposefully started to diversify its portfolio as part of the year-on-year growth strategy. That strategy has truly paid off this year, as having a broad and diverse specialism that takes in everything from retail to leisure, later living to residential and has reduced our exposure to any one sector facing difficulties during the national lockdowns.
Inevitably, we saw a dip in retail and leisure work as lockdown measures started to bite, but our later living expertise has very much been in demand and we are working on a number of significant schemes in the sector with several more in the pipeline. Perhaps it is no surprise that the later living sector has come to the fore over the last 12 months, as conversations about how and where older people choose to live have taken on extra meaning during the current health crisis. With many elderly people living in remote locations, in towns and cities where people don’t know their neighbours, or their families and friends live far away, the concern is not only the lack of physical support these older people might need, but also the massive change in the quality of their mental and social lifestyle.
With the UK’s ageing population growing – the Office for National Statistics projects that more than 24 percent of people living in the UK will be aged 65 or older by 2042 – we firmly believe that there needs to be an increase in purpose-built later living communities where older people can socialise within their household and closer neighbourhoods. As this pandemic has proved, retirement villages can provide a controlled environment for the elderly, whilst still allowing for an active social lifestyle.
Whilst retail and leisure has certainly had a rough year, many businesses in the sector are now starting to contemplate a post pandemic future and we are seeing a growing number of enquiries as retail and leisure property owners seek ways to minimise the impact of the last 12 months on their assets. Even before the pandemic, the growth of ecommerce and a change in consumer behaviour had started to have serious impacts on the retail landscape and we have been helping landlords think differently about the spaces they own for a good number of years, especially the opportunities to be had in converting or redeveloping existing assets into alternative or complementary uses such as offices, hotels or even housing. For many landlords, the pandemic has added more urgency to that process and our expertise in the sector places us in a strong position to help.
Connecting to the local community
Whilst our morale has remained strong, we cannot deny that there have been one or two disappointments this year, not least the fact that we had to cancel our annual charity golf day. However, our attendance at last year’s Mercury Business Awards brought us into conversation with a local mental health charity called MindSpace who were there to collect the award for ‘Best Social Enterprise’. The charity was looking for new premises to further expand its offering and to bring together all its existing drop-in and therapy sessions.
Connecting to the local community and giving something back to the area that has contributed so much to the practice’s success has always been at the forefront of our vision. Ever since we met at the Mercury Business Awards and heard about MindSpace’s vital work we were keen to help out in their efforts to find a new and improved space for their work.
Once the unoccupied premises on Broad Street had been identified and secured, a 34-strong volunteer team from Urban Edge set about ripping up old flooring, stripping wallpaper, clearing the garden, and redecorating the interior of the new premises towards the end of the last year in preparation for this year’s opening. It was a brilliant few days, and a great team builder with everyone just getting stuck in. In February this year, we were delighted to see MindSpace finally move into their own larger premises and increase their reach into the community at a time where mental health support is even more important
Confident and forward looking
This year has certainly contrived to throw a lot at us, but we have continued to move forward and have even recruited four new team members during lockdown, including another significant appointee to our growing Landscape team. We have learned some valuable lessons, have significantly invested to ensure robust operational systems can deal with every eventuality, and we finish the year confident and forward looking. So, whilst it’s incredibly difficult to predict what next year may hold, based on our projected workload and the dedication of our hardworking staff, we are cautiously optimistic that 2021 will prove to be a good year for Urban Edge.