A Real Estate
Roger File has been the Property Director for Blenheim Estate and Vanbrugh Unit Trust for the last 11 years. Arriving in Oxford in his late teens to attend Oxford Brookes Polytechnic he has made Oxfordshire his home. Frank Webster visited him at the estate to talk about his career and the huge task of managing Blenheim’s large property portfolio.
How did you come to work for the Blenheim Estate?
My background is in commercial property and property development. Immediately before joining the estate I spent four years running a property asset management business with a business partner in Hertfordshire – even though I lived here. Before that I spent 10 years as part of a team managing a £1.4 billion property investment and operational portfolio for P&O. I heard about the position at Blenheim in the Estates Gazette. The asset management business I was running was going in two different directions and this opportunity came along just as I was tiring of travelling the 75 miles between my business and my home. I decided this opportunity was far too interesting and good to miss.
Were there many people applying for that role?
It was a new role and I was told the number was somewhere over 80. The estate used to be run by a traditional land agent; however, the Trustees decided they wanted a change. They decided that the business needed a professional management team in place and so in early 2003 John Hoy joined the team as Chief Executive with a mix of land agent and visitor attraction experience and then strengthened the commercial team in order to move the business forward.
How do the operations differ from when you first joined?
Traditionally, the agricultural land supported the ‘Big House’. Houses on the estate supplied housing for farm workers and there was still an element of that here. When I arrived, things were beginning to change as the estate had come out of direct farming. However there were many empty houses on the estate and they were undervalued as an asset, being regarded by many as an instrument ancillary to carry out farming functions. Now – other than for key staff – we have stopped housing new staff, as we believe it benefits both parties: being in tied accommodation has implications for staff’s ability to apply for mortgages, for example, (benefits in kind are not the same as income) and we were able to generate additional income from renting those houses out. We have 10,000 acres of farmland and just over half of it is farmed by five tenant farmers and the other half is farmed by a contract farmer. The only direct farming we do is a flock of sheep in the park – it’s more efficient than hiring someone to cut the grass for us!
What do you oversee in your position as Property Director?
I was fortunate to have a fairly blank canvas when I started. One thing that was obvious was that the portfolio was heavily weighted towards the residential and agricultural, so the estate took the decision to diversify and to invest in more commercial property. We haven’t made lots of acquisitions but we did acquire WindrushIndustrial Park in Witney in 2011.
You must have been pretty confident about the Witney economy?
West Oxfordshire is a district with only three relatively small main commercial centres, and we feel there is a scope for growth in them. There has been a lot of growth happening in Witney in the last 10 years and there is going to be even more in the next few years. Residential property here is growing rapidly: there are 1,000 houses going up in the housing development on the north Curbridge site and there are other sites in Witney with a couple of thousand houses likely.
Do you also look after Blenheim Palace?
The repairs and maintenance of the Palace are things that I am responsible for. There is an effective maintenance team that deal with the day-to-day things brilliantly. However, it can be quite challenging managing the larger projects that are required on the house because there are only a limited number of specialist contractors who can do certain things. We have to plan several years out for big restoration and refurbishment projects; stonework repairs are a big project and we have a seven-year rolling external redecoration programme of the entire elevation. Also, the house has old float crown glass which was the original glass and it requires a lot of care when undertaking any project as it’s irreplaceable. Our biggest project currently is replacing the Palace’s heating system. The very old 1950s gas fired boiler generates steam which is then passed through pipes to heat the rooms. This is a very old and inefficient boiler which doesn’t give us much control over the temperature within the Palace as it is either on or off. We are replacing it with a highly efficient new gas boiler.
Why have you decided to invest in a hydro electricity generator?
We carried out a review of our property strategy and one of the threads of that was to explore how we could invest in renewable energy, partly because of the good it does and partly to reduce costs. We have been looking at a number of environmentally friendly solutions, the Archimedes Screw down in the Bladon Dam being one of the highlights. Other projects include installing two biomass boilers, one of which heats the Palace greenhouses. We believe you get your best return from renewable energy when you generate the energy and use it yourself.
We once read that Blenheim had 50 planning applications for the residential units at one time. Is this an area of the estate where you have been pushing the business forward?
Over the years we have developed over 100 residential units, the majority of which we keep for our ‘let’ portfolio. We only sell them if we feel there is a disproportionate benefit in doing so. For example, a barn conversion value will be disproportionately higher than that of a new 3-bedroom house. We typically get planning consent, then we hand it on to our construction manager and internally coordinate and manage these projects as a main contractor.
Are there any new developments or any investment opportunities in the pipeline?
The Strategic Housing Market Assessment identified that 100,000 homes over and above the number previously planned need to be delivered in Oxfordshire between now and 2031. We have some strategic land opportunities that we are pushing forward with ourselves and in partnership with a local developer. We are always looking for investment opportunities, joint venture situations, where we can put in capital or expertise.
Have you considered owning land outside of Oxfordshire?
The vast majority of the portfolio is within ten miles of Woodstock. We manage the majority of our property interests ourselves and to do that effectively you need to be able to get to it. We always think that we have a competitive advantage by investing locally – we know many local politicians, property agents, and most of the local big businesses. That knowledge is worth quite a lot to us.
Finally, what is it like working at Blenheim?
There’s never a dull moment! You are always dealing with something different whether it is the repairs and maintenance of the Palace or running a small construction company or asset managing the investment portfolio. There are a lot of new ideas to keep up with and it is important to have a good team of people around. An important part of our job here at the Blenheim Estate is to constantly balance the desire to be commercially astute with the respect that this is also the Duke’s private home. The Duke’s family has been residing at the estate for over 300 years. He regards himself as custodian of part of the nation’s heritage and he takes that role and responsibility very seriously. The family are very much involved in every aspect of the estate.