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Inspired Series – Interview with Liz Peace: from the Ministry of Defence to the BPF

She ran the British Property Federation, which is the lobbying organisation for the commercial property industry in the UK, for 13 years before retiring in December 2014. Prior to that, Liz Peace spent 27 years as a civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, working on an exciting range of projects from nuclear safety, to defence finance, public inquiries and land acquisitions. It’s therefore safe to say that this she is one of the most respected faces in British property, working within the heart of the government.

You were the CEO at the British Property Federation for 13 years before retiring in December 2014. Tell us about your time spent there?

Well, I could’t have picked a better or more interesting time to work in the property industry. First of all there was a lot of growth and then came along the collapse of Northern Rock and Lehman Brothersfollowed by the worst recession we had ever witnessed.

It was a very gradual climb back from that. The industry has successes, but there’s no denying that it is a different industry now . The recession showed the sheer reliance the industry had placed on debt and debt structures. When a recession hits, it attacks values and everything seems to fall apart. That recession definitely made people more cautious.  There are now new mechanisms, new forms of valuation, and we now behave more sensibly and responsibly. However, the difficultly in property is that you need to be brave.

How did you first get into property?

I had as a career civil servant for many years at the Ministry of Defence, and it was actually there that I got a taste for real estate. It sparked my interest in regeneration and investment. I helped to set up and then move towards privatisation the defence research establishments which became QinetiQ plc, and in 1985 I pioneered the principle of part-time working for women in the MOD.

I eventually felt it was the time to move onto something different. I saw the advert for the BPF CEO role in The Times and I went for it. I didn’t think I would get it, so it seemed a bit of a punt. However, they had a decision to make. They could either hire a property expert who knew everything about real estate, but didn’t know about talking to the government. Or, they could hire someone who knew all about negotiating at Westminster, but needed to learn about property. Luckily for me, they went for the latter. I found it very interesting that they ultimately went for a woman, who didn’t have a property background, when it was a very male dominated industry at the time.

The MoD to BPF was a large change…was it an easy transition?

The lobbying side and the advocacy with the government turned out to be very similar, just a different department. However, the common element was the Treasury. The most difficult aspect was to learn the language in property, and coming to terms with financial complexity. I had had no idea how complicated the financial side of property was! I learnt that property is part of a capital market, whereas I initially thought it was purely about planning and building houses. Property is also incredibly old fashioned in so many way! That was another thing I had to get used to.

We are currently experiencing a UK housing crisis, where we don’t have enough supply. What’s the solution?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. I’m involved with the government in reviewing many things, including the speed of planning, which is crucial. Planning is a serious problem. Many local authorities don’t want to build the housing numbers we need. We need to reconsider how we plan and allocate, and how we deal with things like the green belt. We need big strategic sites, not just small 30-40 size schemes. Our government needs to really get their heads together and make sure we are on target. We need to embrace large changes, however, it is exceedingly difficult to get it right and to keep everyone happy.

Fundamentally, we need a new programme of social housing construction. I don’t think we can provide the housing that is needed via the private sector, as it is simply too expensive. Many can’t afford the private sector, and we need to realise that. During the 80’s the social backbone in the UK was due to the fact that people could own a council house and be proud of it.

Some research suggests that we are due for a crash in 3 years time. Do you agree with that?

I think property is cyclical and you can’t get away from that, and I think it’s more of a down cycle that we are heading for as opposed to a crash. In terms of residential values in London… it’s absurd. I’m not sure how sustainable these values are when considered from an economical or a social point of view. However viewed, London house prices are a fundamental economical weakness. I do think something needs to change.

You are building up your own career portfolio even more. What are you currently involved in? 

I am indeed increasing my career portfolio and it’s already grown bigger than I intended it to. I have taken on many advisory roles and have also started working with charities. In addition to that, I now have two exciting jobs with the government, including the role of heading up the New Property Model, which is essentially an arms length government property body . Last year, I was named as the chairman of the Curzon Urban Regeneration Company, overseeing the regeneration around Birmingham’s proposed HS2 station.

What lessons have you learnt so far in your life in terms of your career and staying positive?

I am a strong believer that if you do something you enjoy, you never have to do a day’s work in your life!

What have been your career highlights?

I’ve had 3 career highlights. One was launching QinetiQ . Then when I moved to the BPF as CEO. And finally, when I was awarded the CBE in 2008 for services to the property industry.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

My first boss at the MoD gave me the best piece of advice. He always said that when someone asks you to do something, you are to do your research, then make a decision. You won’t always be right, but always make a decision. Do something with it! An example of me making the right decision was to go to the BPF. An example of the wrong decision was to invite a television crew into QinetiQ to do a documentary. It was a total disaster and took a long time to rebuild the bridges. Television crews and scientists don’t work well together.

What advice would you offer to women wanting to work in property?

It’s funny you ask about that because I have just come from a meeting at JLL about their Women’s Network. My advice would be to just go for it! It’s an amazing industry and you can have a wonderful career with it. It may still seem ‘laddish’, but go for it!

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