Peter Freeman - Co-founder of Argent

Posted on 26 September 2019 by Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman
Hi.  I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to our Propertyshe Podcast series, brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum, where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the amazing world of real estate and the built environment.  

Today, I am absolutely delighted to welcome Peter Freeman who together with his brother, Michael, founded the Argent Property Group in 1981, floated in 1994 with a value of £140 million before taking it private for £240 million with backing from the BT Pension Scheme in 1997.  Argent are best known for developing Brindleyplace, Birmingham’s major 17 acre regeneration scheme, and subsequently the 67 acre mixed used King’s Cross regeneration scheme.  Argent was selected as developers for King’s Cross in 2001 and have transformed the area into a vibrant and thriving commercial hub that has attracted many high profile occupiers, including Google, Havas, Louis Vuitton and Universal Music to name just a few.  The King’s Cross regeneration project has won strings of awards, including the Most Innovative Development of the past twenty years at the Property Week Awards in 2015.  Peter remains actively involved as a non-exec director and investor.  Peter read History at Oxford and then qualified as a Solicitor.  He has been Chairman of the Investment Property Forum, a non-exec Director of Land Securities, a member of the Bank of England Property Forum and of the British Property Federation Policy Committee.  He is also a former Chairman of the leading public arts charity, Artichoke.  He is on the Council of Marlborough College and Chairman of its property sub-committee, and on the Board of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation established by the Government.  Peter is also actively involved in promoting new garden cities through Mayfield Market Towns and was shortlisted for the Wolfson Prize on delivering Garden Cities.  So, now we are going to hear from Peter Freeman on how he went from being a lawyer to founding one of the most successful property development companies of the last few decades.  Peter, welcome.  Just starting at the beginning, you trained as a lawyer, I believe you did your articles with your father’s firm, DJ Freeman, but you left the day you completed your articles.  Did that cause problems and why did you take off quite so quickly?
  
Peter Freeman
I don’t think I was a natural lawyer.  I thought the clients were having much more fun.  I also realised they were having more risk but while I think my father was delighted that I trained in his firm, as did my brother, at the end of the day it had changed very much from the firm we’d heard about while we grew up into something much larger and much more formal and I think we were ready to be entrepreneurs.  

Susan Freeman
Was the legal training in any way helpful?  Did it teach you to be analytical?  

Peter Freeman
I think the legal training is fantastic, particularly for the property industry, because in property, typically you have a relatively small company at the centre of the developer, and then it has to tie in land owners, bankers, tenants, builders, architects, and the mixes of contract is absolutely central and I think also the process of thinking out heads of terms, particularly for joint ventures and so on, the legal process I think it helps you thrash out a deal so that if you have one with another party, you really know you have it and you want it.  

Susan Freeman
So, you and your brother founded Argent in 1981.  What was your ambition when you started the business?  What did you have in mind?

Peter Freeman
We actually started two businesses on the same day.  That’s because lawyers tend to think that they are cleverer than clients and business must actually be quite easy.  That’s a huge mistake; business is very hard and the first business made a couple of Channel 4’s first dramas and the second business, Argent Estates, made our first property development.  And there is a link between the two because for a developer you need a producer in film, for architect you need a film director, for a piece of land you read a script so, again, it was bringing to together teams to produce a product we were proud of.  

Susan Freeman
So, when you started the property company, did you start with the intention of being a major development company?  What did you have in mind at the time?  

Peter Freeman
I think we were always ambitious to do things well and build better than average buildings but our first development was all of 4,000 square feet in Southampton, the neighbours were the Southampton Barristers who opposed our application and referred to me as ‘Mr Big’ aged twenty five, even though all I wanted to build was 4,000 square feet, but I think the first time we did a brochure when we had been going for about four years, we said the aim was to be one of Britain’s most respected developers.  

Susan Freeman
So, you started off on single buildings and in, I think, 1993, Brindleyplace came up and Brindleyplace was 17 acres so that was quite a step forward.  How did you come to be the developers on Brindleyplace?    

Peter Freeman
It was a quantum leap and a lucky piece of opportunism.  The site had been put together by Birmingham City Council and then sold to Rosehall who were one of the kind of red-hot listed developers of the ‘80s, I think market capitalisation of 600 million, and when they crashed to earth the receivers had to sell it because it was on a peppercorn lease from the Council and the Council threatened to forfeit the lease unless development started, so, enter us.  
 
Susan Freeman
17 acres, at the time was sort of quite a large scale development.  How did you get started on it?  Did you sort of sit and think, right, what are we going to do with this?  Did you bring your team of people who had done this sort of thing before?

Peter Freeman
We inherited a masterplan which basically worked, built around three main squares, so it was the first time we were building public open space as well as buildings.  We bought it for £3 million from the Receivers against a historic cost of £30 million and so we also inherited a £30 million tax loss and we just started from the bottom up.  We built the first building in the first square in year one and it took in all about ten years to build up 2 million feet and about fifteen buildings.  

Susan Freeman
And, it’s been very successful and it’s stood the test of time, it works as a community and there must have been learnings from that for King’s Cross when you moved onto King’s Cross.

Peter Freeman
I think one of the things we realised is, if you are building your own public open space, not only is it a privilege and a challenge, but it completely changes the dynamic of the buildings you are marketing because you are creating a place and you are creating your own destiny and, actually, in some ways it’s less risky to be marketing a whole area than to be marketing a single building because if the single building comes up at the wrong time in the cycle, nothing is really going to bail you out but if you are marketing and planning over a ten plus year period, you can ride out the downturn.  

Susan Freeman
And I think with, you know, the political cycles as they are these days, you have to be able to ride out what’s going on.  I hadn’t realised that Rosehall were involved with Brindleyplace because I think in fact they were involved in the early days of King’s Cross and I remember, I think the first MIPIM, Rosehall were there with a life size model of what they were planning for King’s Cross so, that must have been about 1995.  

Peter Freeman
‘89/90, I think.

Susan Freeman
But Argent, I think, were appointed as development partner at King’s Cross in 2000?
 
Peter Freeman
It took another year to sign the documents but 2000 we’re shaking hands.  

Susan Freeman
Okay.  King’s Cross is the largest mixed use development in single ownership to be developed in central London for, I think, 150 years.  So, you came in, in 2000/2001 and I think it took another seven years before any work started on the site?

Peter Freeman
That’s right.  I mean, five or six years of that was the planning process and we didn’t really show plans rather than consulting for at least two or three years and then there was another couple of years at the end which was really getting vacant possession because the Channel Tunnel rail link was running behind and they were using the land in the meantime.  

Susan Freeman
I read somewhere in an old press report, Roger Madelin talking about his team meeting 9,500 people during a couple of years of consultation.  I mean, that sounds massive. 

Peter Freeman
I think that’s probably true.  I think that was really Roger personally, with a little help from others but it was an extraordinary job he did.

Susan Freeman
Was there a lot of frustration at the delays and what caused the delays at the outset?

Peter Freeman
There were opposition groups, as there are to almost any development, and although what was there at the time was largely dereliction and nightclubs and prostitution, some drugs, people still don’t like change and they put forward unrealistic ideas so, some people said “all affordable housing”, some people said “all playing fields”, some people said “national conference centre” and we always knew that to make it a proper part of London, it had to be mixed use, it had to have streets and parks and places and it had to have employment and homes and leisure.

Susan Freeman
Now, I can understand that because I remember being involved in Blue Sky Think Tank about King’s Cross in, you know, the mid-90’s and we were talking about 24-hour shopping, we thought it would be an ideal place for 24-hour…  

Peter Freeman
That was before the internet.  

Susan Freeman
It was before the internet.  So, there must have been times during this process that you actually wondered whether anything was ever going to happen.  Did you ever give up on the dream?  

Peter Freeman
I don’t think we ever gave up on the dream because it was derelict land with six tube stations nearby so, sooner or later, something was going to be permitted and happen.  We did get sad at how long it took and when it finally, finally was the moment of truth, we had in principle a £700 million loan lined up to kick off with three office buildings, two apartment blocks and most of the infrastructure, and the loan just evaporated, just sunk into the sands because a company called Lehman went bust the week before we got vacant possession.

Susan Freeman
Ah.  That must have been interesting?  That is the problem with, I suppose, the long-term nature of development, you just don’t know what’s going to come up?  

Peter Freeman
Going back to my theme about mixed use and controlling your own destiny.  Although at that point, it would have been hard to fund the residential block and office building, we’d been talking to Central St Martins, and they are effectively Government funded, and they had a long-term need for a new campus and so our first user was Central St Martins.  

Susan Freeman
And, I mean, that, I think, was brilliant because that immediately injects colour, young people, life to the area so I think that was the sort of, one of the first things one noticed during the first phases that, you know, there were all these incredibly creative young people around the place because it must take time to actually establish a sort of feel of community and you had them there on the spot.  

Peter Freeman
Absolutely.  And I think they attract commercial occupiers because we are now in a world where sort of design and fashion and contemporary thought are critical for almost all businesses.

Susan Freeman
And then, how much of the success of King’s Cross do you think is down to the fact that you do have those wonderful heritage buildings as well as the modern design, because they somehow immediately create a sort of feeling of place and sort of ambience?

Peter Freeman
I mean, I think all of those things, the canal and the heritage buildings, give a sense of belonging and if everything had been brand new, it would feel more like an artificial business park, a Chiswick Park or Canary Wharf, so we are delighted it came with those buildings.  

Susan Freeman
And, of course, one of the latest phases is Coal Drops Yard which, again, makes the most of those old Victorian buildings.  As you developed in phases, are there things that you learnt from the early phases that sort of changed the way you thought about some of the later phases that you’ve done or has it sort of very much gone as you had planned it at the beginning?

Peter Freeman
I think it’s largely gone as we planned.  I think probably the biggest change is the decreasing world of cars.  When we were planning and seeking an application, we felt it was very important to have basement parking in nearly every block and we regarded the Boulevard from the station across the canal as something which certainly took buses and taxis, even if not private cars.  In reality, almost everybody is coming there by public transport.  From the earliest days, the number of people walking up the Boulevard was extraordinary, I think sort of half of Islington and Campden must be deciding it’s an attractive shortcut and so we’ve now decided that the Boulevard will basically be pedestrian forever.  

Susan Freeman
In terms of actually getting the community to engage with what you were doing initially and getting everybody on board, I remember one of the things you did very well in the early stages, was the meanwhile uses and actually the temporary things that sort of went in during the planning stages and I think quite recently, I don’t know if you’ve still got it, but there was some wonderful, a swimming place…

Peter Freeman
The swimming pond.  The swimming pond was actually a temporary art installation, even though you could swim in it, and it was meant to be there for a year but the planners extended it to two years but it’s now been replaced by a bigger, grassed public square and play area.  But other temporary things, there were the theatres, the Donmar had an outpost, there was the Railway Children on the site which is now becoming the Google site, and still running is something called the Skip Garden which started in the earliest days when we wanted children, locally, to be able to come and plant a garden and then we thought that, what happens when we need to use the plot on which they’d planted the garden, so we actually got them a whole load of skips that we could then move to another part of the site and it’s still operating ten years on.  

Susan Freeman
So, on a project the size of King’s Cross, you must be working quite closely with the Local Authorities.  How important has collaboration with the Local Authorities been through the development of King’s Cross to date?  

Peter Freeman
I think it’s tremendously important and there was a magic moment after we’d got planning, when the Local Authority asked to come to a board meeting of ours and we thought, slightly strange but if they would like to come and in effect, I think it was the Head of Finance, the Head of Planning and the Head of Estates, really just came to say that it was the most exciting project they’d ever worked on and they were delighted we were going to build them a new town in the middle of it, so the relationship is pretty close.  

Susan Freeman
You can’t ask for more than that, can you?  Moving on to one of you other interests, Mayfield Market Towns which is, for our listeners, it’s that you are planning 10,000 homes in a new market town near Horsham.  So, you clearly, you have a keen interest in housing.  I remember you remarked that crises are normally short-lived but after twelve years and eighteen housing ministers since 2000, why does the housing crisis still show no signs of being resolved?  I mean, do you have any thoughts on why we are still talking about it and not really doing that much?

Peter Freeman
I think that it’s an outcome of where we’ve got with the planning system and with delivery of housing, mostly by a few major house builders.  I don’t think anybody is really to blame but it’s become a sort of not virtuous circle.  Housing has not delivered wider community benefits because housing has normally been monoculture, it’s been a housing estate stuck on the edge of an existing settlement and it hasn’t brought new schools or playgrounds or health centres or jobs, so it’s seen as overloading the existing services, as putting more people on commuting into London and therefore although everybody lives in housing and should be grateful for the house they have, many of which have been built post-war, there is a reluctance to have more housing and the reason I am interested in the Mayfield’s project is to try and demonstrate that if you build a whole community with schools and jobs and leisure space and parks, you can actually cut down commuting, you can improve quality of life because people aren’t spending so much time commuting, you can get children walking to school again.  If we could just do Mayfields right and get that through, maybe that would be an exemplar and help more people to get large schemes through that had a holistic approach.  

Susan Freeman
The Government’s talked about garden villages but I am not sure that anything has actually really come through yet.  

Peter Freeman
There’s a few but mostly more 2,000 to 5,000 homes.  For me, every extra thousand homes adds to the critical mass.  You are not really going to a senior school until you’ve had maybe 5,000 homes.  To start getting jobs there, to start getting doctors surgeries there, to start keeping people there because you’ve got your own leisure centre and a pool and a climbing wall or whatever, suggest scale but it should be scale that also tries to relate and support local existing villages so that you can benefit from their population and they can benefit from what you bring.  

Susan Freeman
How are you getting on with the Mayfield project?  

Peter Freeman
Slow.  We are going through a local plan process in Horsham.  They are considering, I think, eight major sites of which ours is the second biggest, the Homes England proposal is the biggest.  There’s probably room for two of the larger proposals, or three of the small proposals to come through.  We’ll know next year.      

Susan Freeman
And, are you looking at using offsite construction and modular-type houses or have you not got to thinking about that yet?

Peter Freeman
We went up to see a factory called TopHat near Derby which Blackstone or Goldman’s have now invested in.  I am going to go and see Tony Pidgley’s factory shortly with him.  I think it is coming.  I think if Berkeley decide it works, they are normally ahead of the field but it’s not really working as of today.  

Susan Freeman
No, well I think the Sekisui investment into Urban Splash might help, we’ll get some Japanese knowhow and maybe some scale but it’s beginning to happen.  So, we’re just thinking about your career so far.  Is there anything, with the advantage of hindsight, you would have done differently?

Peter Freeman
I don’t think you can really have a masterplan for a career.  I think it’s a mixture of sort of what interests you on a day or year and happenstance and opportunism and chance, who you meet or what sites come up but it’s been satisfying.  

Susan Freeman
And, has anybody been a role model or a real inspiration to you?

Peter Freeman
I don’t think any sort of one individual but in different ways there have been people probably typically twenty years older who I have seen and in the way they conduct themselves in all sorts of different ways, when they are full on the pedal, when they are off the pedal, how detailed or how big picture I definitely learnt from.

Susan Freeman
So looking at it the other way, talking to young people coming into real estate now, what advice would you give them?  Would you advise them to train as a lawyer first or skip that step and go straight in?

Peter Freeman
I think it’s changed quite a lot and this may just me becoming older and more cautious but I think it is more difficult now.  I think there is far more international money in UK property, there’s far more other people’s money you know, whether it’s hedge funds or pension funds or whatever. Planning is infinitely difficult, both Steven Morgan and Tony Pidgley have made that point that you know when they started they could buy a site and be on site a few weeks later kind of thing and now you can be you know, six months, a year, three years, five years in planning even for something not that big so the risks and the hurdles to get going are more now. I think because the capital available has got more sophisticated there could be more case for going to Business School, for having an apprenticeship with a property kind of hedge fund but I think when I started, particularly for doing development, I think law was a very good background.

Susan Freeman
And what do you do when you are not focussing on your various property endeavours?

Peter Freeman
I’ve got five children and six grandchildren which fills up some time. I have run marathons and play tennis.  I read a lot.  I almost never watch sport, I keep watching sport to the cup final and the Wimbledon final whatever.

Susan Freeman
And have any of your five children gone into real estate?

Peter Freeman
My second daughter who knew your son at school, is a sort of flat developer, interior designer in London and jolly good at it.

Susan Freeman
So one out of five.

Peter Freeman
One out of five.

Susan Freeman
Okay well that’s not bad going.  Peter thank you very much for sharing your time today.

Peter Freeman
My pleasure.  Thank you Susan.

Susan Freeman
How fantastic to hear from Peter Freeman who despite the name is no relation.  He has literally been responsible for reshaping the face of our cities.  As he says, luck is important if you are a property developer as is engaging with the community and clearly you have to have patience.  So that’s it for now, I really hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next Propertyshe podcast interview coming very shortly.  

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at mishcon.com/Propertyshe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to download on your Apple podcast app, the purple button on your iPhone and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  And please continue to let us have your feedback, comments and most importantly, suggestions for future guests and, of course, you can also follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, prop tech and the built environment.

Peter Freeman read history at Balliol College, Oxford and then qualified as a solicitor. He and his brother, Michael, founded the Argent Group of property companies in 1981 and floated them in 1994. In 1996, in the first ever industry-wide awards, Argent was Developer of the Year and the Freeman Brothers shared the Property Personality of the Year Award.

Argent developed Birmingham’s major 17 acre regeneration scheme, Brindleyplace, and is now completing the 8m sq ft, mixed-use, 67 acre Central London scheme adjacent to King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations.

Peter was chairman of the Investment Property Forum from 2007 to 2008.  He was a non-executive director of Land Securities PLC from 2002 to 2004, a member of the Bank of England Property Forum and a member of the British Property Federation Policy Committee from 1995 to 2002. 

Peter is a former Chairman of the leading public arts charity Artichoke. He is on the Council of Marlborough College and Chairman of its Property Sub-Committee and on the Board of the United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial Foundation established by the Government.

Peter is also actively involved in promoting new garden cities through Mayfield Market Towns Ltd. and was shortlisted for the Wolfson Prize on delivering garden cities.

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