Reflecting on a successful year – award wins and UK firsts: Geoff Raw: Managing Director Be First

As we bid farewell to another year, I’d like to reflect on the incredible milestones Be First has achieved during 2023. This year has been nothing short of extraordinary, marked by a series of significant achievements, innovative projects, and a steadfast commitment to regenerating the borough of Barking and Dagenham. From the outset, our mission has been clear: to accelerate growth and regeneration in Barking and Dagenham, so no one is left behind. The highlights of the past twelve months – from groundbreaking developments such as Town Quay Wharf to community-driven projects such as the Cycle Hub at Becontree – demonstrate how we’re delivering on that mission.

The year kicked off with the announcement that our partner Wates would be working with us to deliver a further 334 new homes in our Gascoigne Neighbourhood. Over the past 12 months, Gascoigne has provided safe and affordable housing with the community at the heart of every decision made for the development. We’ll continue to provide local homes for local people and a space that is green and safe for the community of Gascoigne. I’m excited to see what next year brings for this particular development.

We’re honoured that our work has been recognised by our peers and we’ve won a number of awards this year – A House for Artists won the Neave Brown Award, recognising the UK’s best new affordable housing, and was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize. It was a privilege to deliver this innovative project for Barking and Dagenham Council with Apparata, Create London and the GLA. The scheme is a UK first, offering artists reduced rent in exchange for services to the local community – it is a brilliant example of how developers can support homegrown talent and foster community spirit.

Our focus on collaborative working has continued to grow, exemplified by our new architecture-led Design Framework that will replace the existing design Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS). The new framework is aimed at supporting us in our ambitions to build up to 4,000 homes in Barking and Dagenham over the next four years. The framework will see a small pool of architects, designers, consultants, and all those involved in the design process come together to ensure the homes we build are sustainable schemes and attractive communities for the people of Barking and Dagenham. We hope to make use of the best the industry has to offer in helping us achieve our goals for the borough and are looking forward to collaborating with our new partners.

Here at Be First, the community ethos of the borough drives everything we do, and we’ve been proud to showcase this through a series of events this year. The YARD is a community-driven project launched this summer and is an indicator of how we’re transforming the local landscape, encouraging Barking’s cultural offerings, and creating opportunities for growth in the local economy. Our Summer Bus tours are also a great example of how we put community at the heart of what we do. The tours took ticketholders to key locations across the borough, both old and new, to highlight how far Barking and Dagenham has come and to give people a sense of what we’ve got planned for the future.

We were proud to open Industria in September. It has set new standards for sustainable, multi-storey industrial workspaces and is a particular highlight from the last year. It is a perfect example of intensification, has been designed to achieve a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating and is the capital’s first scheme to respond to the London Plan that provides a new stacked industrial building. We were very happy to share that Industria also won ‘Best Use of Brownfield Land in Placemaking’ at this year’s Planning Resource Awards – a brilliant recognition.

A large part of the work we do to regenerate our borough happens at the planning stage – a critical and often underestimated phase that lays the foundation for the success of any project. We’re delighted that this year the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham was ranked joint first in the country in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ Planning Performance Tables for on-time major and non-major decisions.

Our focus on sustainability is something we have driven tenfold this year – for us, embracing sustainability is not just a moral imperative but a decision that aligns with our long-term goals. That’s why we’ve included district heating system connections to many of our developments – Gascoigne Neighbourhood being a perfect example of this – and continue to design our builds with energy efficiency in mind. We want a legacy that stands the test of time and will continue to promote a more healthy, active lifestyle for our residents, which is why we’ve also encouraged an active cycle programme, promoted walking to school and work, and grown our green spaces across the borough. Gascoigne West phase one was even shortlisted for the Housing Design Awards this year – having come such a long way since the project first launched in 2018, we’re very pleased that it has received the recognition we feel it deserves.

None of the work we do at Be First would be possible without the incredible team we have built up over the past five years. It brings me great pleasure that our very own Caroline Harper, Deputy Managing Director for Be First was awarded the Inspirational Leader of the Year Award at this year’s Royal Town Planning Institute Awards. This prestigious accolade underscores the exemplary leadership and dedication that Caroline has brought to Be First, inspiring not only the team but the entire community.

Another inspiring individual who has most recently received an award is our very own Kathryn McAllister, our Senior Development Manager who was just awarded a Rising Star Award from BAME Planners as part of its Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Recognition List 2023. The list focuses on planners in the first 10 years of their careers who have made contributions to the planning profession, making this achievement so early on in Kathryn’s career, even more commendable.

As an organisation, Be First has achieved a number of accolades this year and has been shortlisted for even more. A few highlights include 200 Becontree being shortlisted for an impressive three Brick Development Association Awards – the development incorporated historical elements of its 1920s origins design and was designed with a ground-floor community space in mind. We were also shortlisted for the ‘Local Authority Planning Team of the Year – an achievement we are particularly proud of and one that is reflected by both our Gascoigne Neighbourhood and Industria schemes being shortlisted for separate awards.

Here at Be First, our team has also been sharing insights and learnings with people through numerous speaking events – Amandeep in our Place & Design team has spoken extensively about retrofit and sustainability, our Transport Planning Manager, Lucy, has been sharing how transport planning is evolving and Emma in our planning consultancy has spoken about Industria and the future of the industrial & logistics sector, to name but a few. We’re proud that our team is in a position where they can share their expertise and knowledge with the wider sector and we hope to expand this in the new year. We’ve already had our Principal Transport Planning Manager Lucy Foreman invited to speak on an NLA Expert Panel next year, a true testament to the work she is doing, reinforced by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) recognising Lucy as one of their 35 under 35 young professionals for 2023.

I reflect on this past year with a sense of pride in all we have achieved at Be First. It has been a remarkable journey and this year has been a testament to the collective commitment of all involved. Having delivered over 1,400 affordable homes to date, developed the most housing completions by a Council-owned developer in 2022, received multiple awards, cemented our sustainability vison, and delivered real community impact. Whilst 2023 has been a brilliant year in terms of what we’ve achieved, 2024 is set to be bigger and better, so on behalf of everyone at Be First I’d like to say thank you and Happy New Year.