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Propertyshe podcast: Olivia Harris Chief Executive of Dolphin Living

Posted on 04 February 2022

In levelling up, it does need to somehow focus on making sure that the money gets to the people that actually need it rather than it just being given to a location.  But yeah, it’s something that is really, you know I guess quite upsetting that London does seem to be forgotten in this levelling up argument because it’s seen to be rich but there are lots of areas of poverty in London.

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 world of real estate and the built environment.  Today, I am delighted to welcome Olivia Harris.  Olivia is Chief Executive of Dolphin Living.  Dolphin Living is a charity providing affordable rental homes to working Londoners on modest incomes.  The charity develops, purchases and manages build to rent properties in London.  Olivia was previously Finance Director at Dolphin Living.  She is a Chartered Accountant and has worked for more than fifteen years in the property industry.  Olivia is also the immediate past Chair of Westminster Property Association, sits on the Board of Westminster Community Homes and is a member of the British Property Federation Residential Board.  So, now we are going to hear from Olivia Harris about her career to date and the obstacles and challenges to providing affordable housing in central London.

Olivia, welcome.  Are you back in the office?

Olivia Harris

Thank you for having me, Susan, it’s really great to join you today.  Yeah, we’re back in the office.  We’ve pretty much, we’ve had to come in because of what we do as a day job but slightly less over the last few weeks but we’re back now to sort of two or three days a week. 

Susan Freeman

Just sort of going straight into your background, you trained as an accountant and I think it would be interesting just to know how you made the leap from accountancy into real estate and how, you know, how, how your financial background really sort of affects you know the way you run the business?

Olivia Harris

So, I suppose first of all, how I made the step, you know when I worked as an accountant, initially I worked for a lot of different companies but it became quite clear quite quickly that as an accountant within a property company, you were much more integral to the business because doing appraisals, doing the financing, looking at the tax structuring and so it was a really interesting sector for an accountant to be in and so I did a lot of work for Delancey, who were a client of the accountancy practice I worked at, and then went to work for an organisation called Mapeley, who were a property outsourcing company, to set up the finance department for their Abbey National portfolio acquisition and really it just went from there, I’ve worked in real estate ever since. 

Susan Freeman

So, it was sort of coincidence rather than thinking ah, you know, this is, this is the sector I should move into?

Olivia Harris

I think it was a coincidence that I initially got the exposure but having got that exposure, it was really apparent to me that it was a sector where as an accountant it was much more interesting and you could get much more involved than a lot of the other sectors that I had been working on where, you know, the accounts team do their stuff and they’re a bit more periphery, they’re not involved in the day to day business in quite the same way.

Susan Freeman

And when did you start working for Dolphin Living?

Olivia Harris

So, I joined Dolphin ten years ago, just prior to that I had been working about five or six years while my children were little, I’d been working as a consultant, working for different property organisations and really just because that fitted with me wanting to work part-time while my children were little and then I decided it was time to kind of form my career development, I’d been sort of treading water whilst doing that, using the skills that I’d already got but in order to sort of for my career development, I needed to go back into an employer and a part-time finance director job was advertised at Dolphin Living and I’d never seen one before.  They just, that sort of role doesn’t come up, a lot of the part-time roles were sort of much more junior and it had the skillsets that I’d used in previous roles so I applied for the job and eventually was appointed as Finance Director in 2012. 

Susan Freeman

It’s interesting so, you know you say working, you know having a senior part-time role was really unusual then, I reckon everything that’s happened over the last couple of years has probably changed that, I mean have you see, do you think it’s changed the way people regard part-time work?

Olivia Harris

I think it’s definitely changed the way people regard flexibility of work so, you know the fact that one of the reasons I worked as a consultant for those years is I could do some of that work from home because childcare hours can be quite restrictive if you’re trying to do a fulltime job but yeah, I think as well, I think one of the next steps to come will be people will have to realise that A, you have to trust people to just do the work and they don’t need to be there all the time.  That said, whilst I was part-time, on the days that I wasn’t employed to work, I was still contactable because there were often things that just could not be organised around the three days of work a week I was working or projects that didn’t stop just because I wasn’t in the office.  So, as well as requiring flexibility from the employer, it required flexibility from me as the employee. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, I remember the days of trying to juggle young children, you know with work and it is difficult, it is difficult to switch off, you can’t sort of say right, I’ve finished work, that’s it and it is a bit of a balancing act but it does seem, seem now that we somehow have come to recognise the fact that people do have lives outside you know outside work and I don’t know if it’s got something to do with the fact that we’ve all Zoomed into people’s you know, houses and bedrooms and everything and you realise that actually it isn’t, it isn’t all about work.

Olivia Harris

I think there’s a, I think one of the recognitions, and this will support part-time working, is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be done in the 9.00 to 5.00, you know lots of people during lockdowns, because of childcare or because of other restrictions, had to slightly flex their hours and whilst I think the contact in the office is important and we do need to maintain that because of innovation and creativity, there is work that could be done and it doesn’t have to be done between you know 9.00 and 5.30.

Susan Freeman

No, I think, I think that’s going to be interesting to see how things now evolve as we sort of move back to whatever, whatever the new normal is.  So, you became CEO of Dolphin Living in 2017, having been Finance Director previously, did that mean that you had to you know change the relationship that you had with colleagues because you, you know you were now, you were now the boss and did anything change?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, I think, I think what had happened before I became Chief Executive, and it often happens with a finance director is that essentially, I had been seen as the second director, if that makes sense, after the Chief Executive but you are right, there was still a bit of a shift from being seen as a bit more senior to being people’s line manager.  I think one of the requirements therefore was that the way that I had to run my management team was quite collaborative, I you know, I couldn’t kind of come in and kind of say I’m your boss and therefore you need to do what I tell you to do but I think also, because they’d seen, previously seen me as a contemporary, but I think also when you take up a step to be in a CEO role, you know my background is finance and whilst I’ve got quite a lot of experience in real estate, I don’t have the experience that my Development Directors have or my Operations Director have in their area of expertise so I think it was really important to, you know to listen to them anyway.

Susan Freeman

No and I’m sure, I’m sure that’s right.  And tell us a little bit about you know about Dolphin Living and you know how it was set up, how it’s funded. 

Olivia Harris

Yeah, so, Dolphin Living, or the Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation was formed in 2005 and has been gifted proceeds of over £120 million from the sale of Dolphin Square in Pimlico, the sale by Westminster City Council and the Dolphin Square Trust.  When I joined in 2012, it owned I think about six or seven homes that it had purchased but also a number of sites so, it set about developing those sites and also predominantly with affordable housing, and also buying other affordable housing through Section 106 opportunities and once the buildings are complete and income producing, we use them to raise more debt against those to continue to fund our growth.  Dolphin Living is quite a, I know lots of organisations say they are unique and special but we focus on intermediate housing so that’s housing for key workers and in fact there’s a much wider definition of key workers than the traditional teachers and nurses and I think that’s come about during the pandemic so, really we’re looking at housing people who from their earned income can’t afford market housing near their place of work but need to be near their place of work and, like is said, from the pandemic, that definition has become much wider and we define it really as anyone who needs to be in London to do their work.  So, now we have 800 homes in and around in inner London or within a sort of commutable distance of Westminster, which is our sort of home borough. 

Susan Freeman

And how do you manage to provide housing that you know this extended definition of key workers can afford when you are looking at areas like Westminster because one thinks of you know central London as being expensive and unaffordable?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, I think we were really fortunate that we, after 2008, the then Board authorised the purchase of a number of pieces of land in and around Westminster that rates that we could probably only dream of now, which has enabled us to deliver for example a building on Vauxhall Bridge Road where 80% of the homes are at intermediate rent, so they’re at about sort of between 50 and 70% of the local market rent, so that does make it affordable to key workers.  We’ve also grown, Westminster City Council have got a policy of promoting housing with intermediate rent, in fact their affordable housing policy, I think it’s 60% is delivered with intermediate rents so we’ve purchased quite a lot of Section 106 opportunities, Section 106 homes.  Because we’re a charity, we don’t make any distributions to shareholders so we can run on lower returns than a commercial organisation and so when we, when we’re looking at a potential opportunity, we’re always appraising both financials to make sure that we can continue to keep growing but also the charitable benefits that we’re delivering, so they feature very strongly in our appraisal process, you know how many homes are we delivering that are affordable, what are the rent levels, what sort of household incomes are those going to be affordable to, what’s the discount to market rent in that area? 

Susan Freeman

And is Dolphin Living sort of unique, unusual, or is it similar in the way it operates to say a housing association?

Olivia Harris

There’s a lot of similarities with housing associations although they mainly focus on at social end properties, so those people that have a lot more acute housing need.  Our residents need to be able to afford their rent, which is the discounted market rent, without recourse to housing benefit so, from their earned income, and I think we have much more of a commercial relationship with our tenants, we don’t offer lifetime tenancies, we offer three year tenancies which are subject to renewal, so we’re, we sort of sit in between the affordable housing sector and the Build to Rent sector, kind of Build to Rent without the bells and whistles.

Susan Freeman

That’s interesting, that’s interesting.  So, if somebody is renting from you and they stop working, you know for whatever reason, would the expectation then be that they find somewhere else to live?

Olivia Harris

No, no, we wouldn’t terminate a tenancy and you know we have had a number of tenants who for short-term periods or during the pandemic, have lost their jobs but the majority of our intermediate rents, the rent is below the local housing allowance so if people need to claim benefits because they’re not working or if their work has been reduced, they should still be able to afford our rent from benefits and we, you know again this similarity with housing associations, we will do what we can to help people maintain their tenancies. 

Susan Freeman

Okay and you must have been, you must have been working pretty hard during, during lockdown because I imagine people had all sorts of you know difficult problems and losing jobs and you know not having income so it must have been particularly challenging. 

Olivia Harris

Yeah absolutely, although I think you know as we all know, in a large number of cases, people have been supported by the furlough scheme and we haven’t had a massive increase in people struggling to pay their rent since the end of the furlough scheme but we have entered into payment plans with a lot of our tenants to enable them to maintain their tenancy.

Susan Freeman

And I read somewhere that you operate a personalised means tested rent system, how does, how does that work?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, so that operates at two of our properties at the moment, the largest of which is the New Era Estate in Hackney and because when we purchased that estate, there were existing tenants on site but there hadn’t really been a sort of tenant allocation policy looking at people’s affordability and whether they needed the discounted rents that for historic reasons operate at that estate and so we said we needed to come up with a fair rent policy so what we did is we looked at what a household needs to live on alongside their rent and then compared what they could therefore afford to pay, based on their earnings and what they needed to live on and so that’s how we created this personalised rent policy.

Susan Freeman

And you mentioned the New Era Estate and I think actually it would be really useful to focus on that a little bit because it you know it’s an estate in Hoxton, it was in the press you know quite a lot, it has to be said, before you bought it so, I think it would be really interesting if you could tell our listeners a little bit about the history of the estate and what you are planning there.

Olivia Harris

Yeah, absolutely.  So, Dolphin Living purchased the estate in 2014 after, as you said, a fairly high profile campaign by the residents that involved Russell Brand and marching to Downing Street because the estate had been purchased by an American hedge fund and the tenants were fearful that they would lose their housing, the landlord had put up the rents and essentially the tenants forced the sale and we stepped in and purchased the estate.  And I still remember the first tenants’ meeting that I went to with the then Chief Executive, to meet the Residents Association and there were three, three women who were sort of the Residents Association and they were obviously scared and you know they’d been put under amounts of pressure because you know if Hackney Council had received you know almost a hundred families being turned out of their homes, they don’t know where they’d have been housed and it would have broken down so many things around family relationships and you know a lot of these residents were people that were working but they wouldn’t have been able to get discounted housing near their place of work.  So, we’ve worked really hard to build a really strong relationship with those residents and to bring them alongside whilst we talked about redeveloping because they were asking for improvements to their homes that we couldn’t make because these homes are undersized and they’re not well insulated and they’re not well built so we had a tenant ballot as part of our planning application and 91% of the residents voted in favour of the planning application.  We got planning consent a couple of years ago but it’s taken quite a lot of time to work with Hackney and now the GLA to obtain grant in order to make the redevelopment viable because of the, we need to bring the original tenants back into the property and they pay quite low rents. 

Susan Freeman

So, you mentioned the ballot, I think you must have been one of the first private landlords to ballot your tenants?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, I think we were the first private landlord and we did that, you know there was no legal obligation on us to do that but if we wanted to, first of all to support you know Hackney and the GLA and their housing policies, they were keen that we did this, but also if we wanted to access grant, we needed that ballot in order to support those applications. 

Susan Freeman

It must be, it must be difficult to get the residents on board because people don’t like change and you know even if the you know you know that your flat, house, whatever you know is a bit damp and is a bit cold and it could be a lot nicer, actually agreeing to change and having to live somewhere else for a while must be quite difficult for people. 

Olivia Harris

Yeah, I think it was and we did a lot of work with the residents, we held several resident meetings at different stages of the planning application.  I think the other thing that we need to understand is, people just want to be heard, they want to feel like they’re being listened to and we did a lot of listening and sometimes we said no, we can’t deliver exactly what you want but we set out to them the improvements that they were going to experience and we’ve also given them a rent promise that they won’t have to pay more rent than if we hadn’t rebuilt the estate, for the rest of their tenancy and for as long as they want to stay at the estate but they’ve also understood that the benefits to the wider community of this because it will double the number of homes on the estate as well improving the quality and the size of those homes for those residents.

Susan Freeman

So, I mean in order to be able to meet that promise and you know not put their rents up, have you had to increase density, I mean what has been necessary from your point of view to make the whole thing viable?

Olivia Harris

Yes, so the planning consent that we’ve got is to increase the estate from 96 homes to 200 homes and some of that’s done through height and just better use of the, of the sort of land at the estate.  We’re also going to provide a communal garden in the middle of the estate but it’s in an area where there’s quite a lot of development that’s been going on so in a way, this estate was being left behind and we’re you know bringing it up to the standard of the sort of surrounding redevelopment whilst maintaining the same number of homes and they will be delivered as affordable into perpetuity.  At the moment, the homes on the estate are affordable because of historic reasons but they’re not legally affordable homes so we will make them legally affordable homes into perpetuity. 

Susan Freeman

That’s great and when do you, when do you hope to start building?

Olivia Harris

So, we’re really hopeful that we’ll start in the next year/fifteen months but as you know, this process is not always straight forward. 

Susan Freeman

No, that’s true.  And is this a sort of exercise that you’re, you’re likely to embark on again, actually buying, buying a site that’s going to require redevelopment?  Is that, is that part of the business model?

Olivia Harris

So, we have got a couple of other properties in our portfolio that give us those opportunities and you know and I think yeah, the opportunity to secure the future of a community is one that I think we would, we would take again.

Susan Freeman

And has, I mean since you joined Dolphin, has the focus of the business changed or has it sort of continued sort of very much as it was when you joined?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, no, so when, as I said, when I joined, we were you know we were a charity that owned seven homes and had a lot of opportunities for development and you know development agreements from Section 106s, whereas now we are, we have 800 homes so we are now a landlord in a way that we weren’t ten years ago and yeah, so it’s shifted the balance.  We are now a landlord who does development, rather than a developer who happens to have a few homes. 

Susan Freeman

In my last, in the last podcast that I recorded, which was with Darren Rodwell, Leader of Barking & Dagenham, we talked about a memorable London Councils Housing Conference that he put together with Tony Pidgley and I know that you were also at that, at that conference and I mean to me is just seemed a sort of, quite an unusual occasion, Tony Pidgley had brought along you know one of the residents from one of his estates, I mean was it memorable for you as well?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, that resident speaking was particularly memorable just really unusual.  You know, I’ve been to Build to Rent conferences where you know the host has said could anyone who is a renter put their hands up and there’s so few people that are renting actually in the audience making those decisions so, I think that, that event in itself was unusual, I do think though there is much more of an onus on the institutions and the corporates to work with the affordable housing providers and local authorities and that’s something that’s emerging and there are quite a few housing associations that have entered into ventures with you know some of the funds, to accelerate the delivery of housing, you know one’s got capital and one’s got sort of land resources and a development scheme, so there does seem to be a natural tie up with those.  But, yeah, I do really remember that conference, it was really thought provoking. 

Susan Freeman

It sort of seemed to be more about people than the you know, the usual…

Olivia Harris

Yeah.  You know, we are delivering, it’s interesting some of the, some of the words that people use around this.  They talk about delivering units but we’re delivering homes and we’re creating communities and that does need to be remembered in everything we do.

Susan Freeman

And do you work in joint venture with private sector developers or has it not, not happened yet?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, yeah, so, we would.  So, so far, we’ve always been essentially the, the purchaser of something that’s been delivered by a house developer and so, I wouldn’t say it’s probably, it’s probably not quite an equal partnership but you know we have input quite heavily, not necessarily to the layout of properties but to the design specification within the homes that we’re purchasing.

Susan Freeman

And so, do you think we should be seeing more collaboration between the public and private sector or is it happening naturally?

Olivia Harris

I think it’s happening naturally, I think you know a lot of, a lot of the funds are interested aren’t they in investing for example in Build to Rent and that sits alongside affordable housing, particularly because if you deliver Build to Rent, you’ve got an obligation to deliver affordable housing.  So, but I think it’s a real opportunity to sort of understand the two different cultures and that actually people aren’t that different, you know what people want is a home and affordability shouldn’t be the thing that totally, you know that drives where you can live. 

Susan Freeman

I mean, you know, we, we talk about the housing crisis and you know we know it’s particularly difficult in London for people to find something you know to rent or to buy that is affordable.  I mean, do you think, do you think it’s right that the private sector is expected to you now effectively provide affordable housing as part of development or should we see you know local authorities actually you know going back to building more?

Olivia Harris

Both actually, I do think we’ll see Local Authorities because you know they have huge estates which give them opportunities to be able to build but I also think it’s right that developers, if they are being given, they’re being given an opportunity through development to make a profit and therefore they should be delivering something for the benefit of the local community whilst the make that profit. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah, I think that’s the way thinking, thinking is now, is now going and I know one of the initiatives you are involved with is the Westminster Home Ownership Accelerator.  So, can you, can you tell us a little bit about that and why, why it’s a sort of slightly different product?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, so, when things like Right to Buy operate, what happens is, you, someone lives in the home that is social housing and they buy that and they remove that from the housing stock, whereas what our scheme, Westminster Home Ownership Accelerator, which is sort of funded by, partly funded by Westminster City Council, is that a household will live in one of our homes for a period of three years, they have to be on a route to home ownership when they take on the tenancy, so they have to have started saving for a home and during their three year tenancy, they receive house price growth on the deposit that they’d had at the beginning, which then does what it says on the packet, it accelerates them into home ownership at the end of their three year tenancy but they don’t buy that home, they are given a grant to buy a home somewhere else in greater London. 

Susan Freeman

And is, that seems to be like a good way of dealing with it because you know with Right to Buy obviously one depletes the supply of council housing so, how many, how many tenants have you been able to sort of get onto the ladder with this, with this scheme?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, so, the scheme is in the, in its early years but we’ve helped almost thirty tenants get onto the housing ladder and we’ve got fifty homes, some of which have only been in operation for two years actually, but we’ve got fifty homes which will be used up to, for up to fifteen years in order to sort of accelerate people into home ownership.

Susan Freeman

And one of the, you know of the issues that obviously we are all focussing on now is sustainability, so as well as you know being able to provide affordable housing, one’s now got to actually you know think about you know retrofitting in the case of older housing stock, how are you dealing with carbon reduction across your portfolio and you know are there other issues, I mean obviously fire safety is something which is sort of very much in the forefront of our minds, I mean are these things you are having to deal with across the portfolio as well as thinking about building new homes?

Olivia Harris

Yeah, so, in the housing association sector, there are three, well there’s just been added a fourth, but you know there’s fire safety, there’s sustainability, you know there is the delivery of new homes and actually inflation has just added another, another sort of stress and strain to our planning, budgeting and delivery of housing and I suppose as an organisation, we’re quite fortunate, because we’re quite new, so 600 out of our 800 homes are newbuild and therefore don’t have the sort of the problems associated with sustainability that our older homes have, we do have 200 older homes, including the New Era Estate, which we are going to redevelop and we’ve done quite a lot of work on them replacing fire doors but also we’re starting to survey them so that we can look at what improvements that we can make to improve you know the fabric of the building so that we can improve their environmental performance and we’re engaging with a company called Suss Housing who provide a sort of environmental impact assessment of us as an organisation, our properties that are in operation, our properties that are under development but also how we operate as a business and once we’ve got that benchmark, that will come with some recommendations on how we can improve and we will measure annually our environmental impact and the improvements that we’re making.

Susan Freeman

And I think with all these things, as you say, you are dealing with people so, you can play your part in terms of carbon reduction and but then you need to sort of bring your tenants on board so that you know they want to do it as well so, you know it seems that there’s a whole education piece there as well. 

Olivia Harris

Yeah, and I definitely think there’s an opportunity there.  I think once we have this report, it’s something that we will use to talk to about our tenants because they could improve their recycling, for example.  I think as well actually, that we’re providing homes in inner London for workers that need to travel into work, that is another major contributor because it’s, it’s reducing the amount of travel that people have to undertake in order to get into work but you’re right, the next piece will be to work with our residents but I think we wanted to have this benchmark, we wanted to have some information that we could share with them, to then talk to them about how we can improve things.

Susan Freeman

Just sort of changing, changing direction slightly, obviously you’ve talked about combining a career with bringing up children, has that sort of been difficult or did you just decide, you know, you’re going to work part-time for a while and then you know when the children were a little bit older, you were able to sort of increase you know your working hours or you know obviously you know we’re still working in an industry where you know there aren’t as many women as there should be, I mean has it been, has it been an issue for you being a woman in real estate?

Olivia Harris

I’ve never found it to be an issue being a woman in real estate and I think, I mean we’ve previously discussed, you sort of get used to going into rooms where it’s mainly male and I’ve always found people to be, you know everybody, men, men and women to be courteous and welcoming so it’s never been an issue for me.  Was it difficult?  I think like lots of people, when I was having my first child, I was absolutely convinced my life wasn’t going to change, I thought I’d come back to work part-time but I was convinced it wasn’t going to change, so I didn’t really anticipate the sort of, the different pulls that it has on your, has on your life and you know there were times where it was not totally straight forward in finding my way through those but I’ve been really fortunate, obviously to have been supported by you know family and friends and my husband and have some really supportive employers, it was actually my predecessor at Dolphin, he said Olivia, you know, your children are now at school and you really, you know you could have the opportunity, you have the ability to do more than you are doing.  If what you want you to do, work part-time, that’s fine but just believe that you can do more if you so choose to do.  So, yeah, I’ve been really fortunate to have lots of support from people around me. 

Susan Freeman

I think it’s important, I know I, I sort of felt when my children were growing up that I had to prove that I could you know do, put in as many hours as my male colleagues so I sort of ended up probably not seeing as much of my children as I should have done but I just sort of felt I had you know I had some sort of point to prove.  So, let’s talk a little bit about Westminster Property Association because I mean I checked how long Westminster Property Association, it’s 33 years and when you took over as Chair, you were the first woman so, that is quite a landmark.  One of the things I wondered, you know the focus of Westminster Property Association, certainly when it started, was very much commercial property and you know commercial, commercial you know property in Westminster has, has I think been the focus of going forward so you came at it with a residential property background, I mean did that enable you to have a different perspective do you think?

Olivia Harris

Yes, I think, so I suppose part of the perspective that I brought was that the City Council want to deliver housing and so I think that was quite helpful bringing that perspective onto the Board.  And it is, you know, it is still mainly commercial property developers or commercial property investors, you know I did have some experience before I joined Dolphin of that of commercial property and real estate.  I think it gave me possibly more of an insight into what the Council wanted to achieve and so could provide more of a bridge to that than some of those that had been much more focussed on the commercial.

Susan Freeman

And you actually took over in January 2020 so literally, I mean January 2020, I think we, we really had no idea what was you know coming down, down the road, Covid was…

Olivia Harris

We were all in denial. 

Susan Freeman

No, so well Covid was this problem in China and we, I don’t think had any idea what was going to happen.  So, you took over in January 2020, lockdown started you know shortly thereafter, it must have been a really challenging year but I suppose with those challenges you possibly were able to achieve things or you know deal with things you wouldn’t otherwise have had to, had to deal with so, how was it in February/March 2020?

Olivia Harris

So, in taking on the role, I’d, you know I’d got the support of my husband and my children to understand that I wasn’t going to be around as much because actually quite a lot of the things that you know it would being Chair of Westminster Property Association is involved in, you know more you know after hours meetings with you know local councillors or you know going to events in the evenings or going to breakfast meetings and so I wasn’t going to be around very much or not as much as I had been and obviously that’s not quite what happened.  But what was really interesting during that period was the increased relationships with Westminster City Council and other stakeholders within Westminster so, I think it really helped build bridges and sort of reinforce the relationship and make people understand how, you know, even more we needed to work together to deliver you know and what benefits real estate could bring to the City Council, you know they’re not just, it’s not just the real estate, in the same way as home, you know housing provides homes, commercial real estate provides jobs and also the employees that come into London to work in offices provide more jobs for, in retail and leisure because you know they’re supported a lot by the office workers as well as the tourists that come into the city centre.  So, yeah, it was a really fascinating year, working totally what I didn’t, not what I expected but working with lots of really amazing people and learning huge amounts about how the city operated and how we could support each other. 

Susan Freeman

And I think Westminster Property Association has about 240 members, of which we are, we are one, and how were your members able to support local, local businesses during that time because you know just from nothing, everything closed down so, any sort of hospitality businesses, any businesses that relied on you know on tourism just you know there was no, there was no income so, were your, your members able to work with these businesses to sort of ameliorate what was going on?

Olivia Harris

So, I think in the same way as we as a residential landlord worked with our tenants to arrange rent deferment, rent holidays, you know lots of individuals and individual businesses took their own approach but to work with their tenants to arrange rent holidays, to forgive rent, I know the City Council announced at one of our first meetings they were forgiving the first three months rent and there was a kind of intake of breath but I know a lot of landlords have taken their own individual approach to work with their businesses because ultimately, for them as well, their business is about that location and they need to support that location and they need tenants so, enabling a tenant to survive that was much more important than you know draining the last bits of money out of them so that they couldn’t operate once, once things opened up again. 

Susan Freeman

And in your, your role with WPA, were you able to have any dialogue with the Government you know to put the case of the you know of the property owners because it did seem during lockdown that you know the actual landlords were expected to shoulder a lot of the, a lot the difficulties and I just sort of wondered whether you know there was any dialogue with Government or whether Westminster had any opportunity to talk to you know to the Government to put the case of the property industry?

Olivia Harris

I know that the Leader of the Council was in regular contact and kind of advocating for Westminster and that included the landowners during the whole pandemic and as Chair of Westminster Property Association, I joined calls with Nickie Aiken, who is the Westminster MP, along with representatives from retail and hospitality and the theatres, really trying to understand the issues that each other were having but trying to kind of come up with a collaborative approach and I think there was also opportunity, you know we did write, as Westminster Property Association, several letters to you know Government departments, whether it was Treasury around you know we were being asked to forgive rent, as landowners, but we were still having to pay interest on our loans and sharing the sort of information that we got back from Treasury or from well, what’s now the Department of Levelling Up, with our members, to give them guidance on the approaches that they should be taking. 

Susan Freeman

And you mentioned the Department of Levelling Up and I know, you know one of the points Darren Rodwell made when we were, when we were talking was that you know there are parts of London you know that are deprived, there are parts you know and that seems to be ignored, there seems to be this you know assumption that you know London, London is wealthy and doesn’t need help but you know I said with Westminster, well you know it’s expensive but there must be parts of Westminster where you know people are living in difficult circumstances and need help. 

Olivia Harris

Yes, so I mean I think 25% of the homes in Westminster are social housing.  So, yes, and I’ve written articles or spoken on other sort of seminars or podcasts to say that levelling up shouldn’t forget London.  I think also the perception that if we just put money somewhere, it’s going to create levelling up.  You know, London is seen as wealthy and yet as you’ve just said there are areas of huge poverty in London so in levelling up, it does need to somehow focus on making sure that the money gets to the people that actually need it rather than it just being given to a location.  But yeah, it’s, it’s something that is really you know I guess quite upsetting that London does seem to be forgotten in this levelling up argument because it’s seen to be rich but there lots of areas of poverty in London.  

Susan Freeman

One of the interesting things about you know even I suppose the most expensive parts of London, you know Mayfair where I sort of worked in the early part of my career, the assumption is that’s just for wealthy people but actually if you, if you look a little bit you know closely around Mayfair, you know there, there are Peabody Estates, you know there are you know social housing estates sort of actually you know side-by-side you know with big town houses and you know that, that you know it’s been like for you know hundreds of years and that actually seems to you know seems to work quite well.  So, has anyone, I mean, through your career to date, has anybody you know been a role model or an inspiration or you know particular source of support?

Olivia Harris

So I think I previously mentioned my predecessor at Dolphin Living who was Jon Gooding and he was hugely supportive of me.  You know, I’ve got other friends or people I now call friends that I’ve met through work who at different points in my career, right from when I started as an accountant, you know I’m still in contact with the partners at the accountancy firm that I trained at and you know at Delancey, there were some amazing people, Jamie Ritblat and his team that I worked for.  I think it’s changed as I’ve gone through my career, I guess probably because of the step from accounting into real estate and then real estate into housing, it’s changed but I’ve been you know really fortunate to be supported by lots of people and had lots of people to look up and see you know how to do things better. 

Susan Freeman

And you mentioned the firm where you trained, I think that’s where you met your husband, is that right?

Olivia Harris

Yes, yeah.  Yeah, yeah, we met at work, although he’s gone off in a very different route, he works for start-up businesses. 

Susan Freeman

Oh, an interesting, interesting space to…

Olivia Harris

Yeah, in sort of technology start-up businesses, so totally different from what I’m doing. 

Susan Freeman

I saw this morning that London has been voted the best city for young entrepreneurs, which is you know is good.  Just is there anything, I mean looking, looking at sort of what you’ve done to date, is there anything you regard as your sort of best career decision or you know anything that with the advantage of hindsight you know you would have done differently?

Olivia Harris

I think in terms of best career decision, I think I’d have to say moving to Dolphin.  The opportunity to use the skills that I’ve learned working in real estate and in property and apply them to something that makes meaningful differences to people’s lives, you know is a huge privilege and something I’ve hugely enjoyed and it’s really challenging.  Would I have done anything differently?  I think I would have probably been more realistic about the impact of having children and what that was going to do to my career but I think, you know I don’t think anything, I don’t think anything anyone can prepare you for that and I think you know I think lots of people would agree with me on that one. 

Susan Freeman

And do you actually have any spare time?

Olivia Harris

Yes.

Susan Freeman

And if you do, how do you spend it?

Olivia Harris

Yes, so I’ve obviously spent a lot of time with my family, I go to the theatre quite a lot, I do quite a lot of walking, I did a walking marathon a few years ago and I do try and make sure that I exercise quite regularly and in normal times, I would be going travelling when I can so, I’ve just booked to go skiing, it’s the first time I’m going to leave the country in two years, I’m very excited about it. 

Susan Freeman

Ah, that’s, that’s fantastic.  Well I think, I think we’re all, all looking forward to a little bit of you know of travelling so, that’s really great, Olivia.  Thank you so much, so much for your time and…

Olivia Harris

Thank you, Susan.

Susan Freeman

…I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Olivia Harris

Yeah.  Soon.  In person.

Susan Freeman

In person.  Exactly.

Olivia Harris

In real life.  Alright, thank you ever so much.

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much Olivia, for talking to us today about the enormous challenges of providing affordable housing for lower paid workers in central London and of course your experience of steering Westminster Property Association at the height of Covid lockdown.   So, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast coming very soon. 

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 subscribe to on your Apple podcast app and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  Do continue to subscribe and let us have your feedback and comments and, most importantly, suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe and on LinkedIn for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Olivia is Chief Executive of Dolphin Living.

Dolphin Living is a charity providing affordable rental homes to working Londoners on modest incomes. The charity develops, purchases and manages build to rent properties in London.

Previously, Olivia was Finance Director at Dolphin Living. She is a Chartered Accountant and has worked for more than 15 years in the property industry.

Olivia is also the immediate past Chair of Westminster Property Association, sits on the Board of Westminster Community Homes and is a member of the British Property Federation Residential Board.

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