Lord of all he surveys

Some people go to work by bus, some by train. Matthew Hill might take a boat or a helicopter.

Some people go to work by bus, some by train. Matthew Hill might take a boat or a helicopter. STEVEN RUSSELL joins him for a trip that links the past and the future

BEING a chartered surveyor must be pretty dull, mustn't it? If you're not writing a report about rising damp, you're standing by the drizzly A11 with a theodolite in your hand, aren't you?

Er, not necessarily. The world of chartered surveying is a broad one. Take Matthew Hill. He doesn't have to pick up a tape-measure in anger and probe a crack in the wall. But his job does take him to some unusual and far-flung corners.

Suffolk-born Matthew works for Trinity House, the organisation that ensures ships can safely navigate the seas around England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. Two colleagues, a civil engineer and a mechanical engineer, take care of the fabric of a long list of Trinity House buildings and the workings; Matthew's niche is in asset management: in everyday language that means making sure each building and plot of land is earning its keep - as much as is possible, anyway, bearing in mind that the holding includes 71 working lighthouses. Any non-operational use mustn't interfere with the crucial matter of marine safety - Trinity House's raison d'etre.


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So while the lighthouse at Cromer keeps shipping safe off the coast of Norfolk, for instance, a former keeper's cottage can pull in some welcome money by acting as a holiday home. A dozen lighthouses have visitor centres, including Lowestoft and Southwold. And its base in the capital, overlooking the Tower of London, can be hired for civil weddings.

Matthew keeps his eyes peeled for further opportunities.

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“One of the problems we've got with our holiday cottages is of course that they're next to an operating lighthouse with a foghorn!” says the 42-year-old. “If you're on holiday and the foghorn's going for three days, it's a consideration.” He knows what he's talking about: only this morning he was rudely awakened by the foghorn sounding at Harwich - at 5am.

Some recent work has shown that imaginative approaches can be found, if you think out of the box. Take the lighthouse Royal Sovereign, squatting in the English Channel three miles off the coast of Sussex.

It might look like a smaller, tidier version of an offshore oil platform - what looks like portable buildings on top of a concrete tower - but to Matthew it's a property deal in waiting.

He's just finalising a contract to rent out a couple of thousand square feet of surplus accommodation space to a helicopter-owning businessman (Royal Sovereign being slightly off the bus route). He'll no doubt enjoy the kudos.

“What we've agreed with him is that he'll rent it for a couple of years, and we'll look at how we can develop that - to do that sort of site sharing. Essentially to us it's redundant space.”

Working out a rent took a bit of thought.

“The formula I put to him, and which we agreed in the end, uses Eastbourne as the nearest town. I looked up the office rents for Eastbourne. We didn't make an allowance for the fact there obviously aren't any amenities around a lighthouse in the middle of the Channel; my counter argument was 'but you've got exclusivity.' So we more or less agreed on that.

“We made an allowance for the lack of power and light, because he has to take his own generator. We jiggled it about a bit and came to a rent.

“It's money we wouldn't otherwise get. And because of the way we're funded, that money goes back into the General Lighthouse Fund. So, overall, it's contributing to keeping the light dues at good levels.”

An ongoing story involves Lizard Point in Cornwall: the most southerly point of Britain. There's a small heritage centre, an operational lighthouse at one end, a non-operational lighthouse at the other, and half a dozen holiday cottages in the middle.

Over the last 15 months Matthew and his colleagues have been trying to find people to run the centre, and they've now got a couple in the pipeline.

Next is an application for Heritage Lottery Fund cash to help develop the heritage centre by installing interactive displays, for instance - “all the modern things that you see nowadays”. It should boost visitor numbers and raise understanding of the Lizard itself and Trinity House as an organisation.

This morning we join Matthew for a trip to Orford to take a look at the lighthouse on the end of the 13-mile shingle spit - a structure that gives yet another take on the gloriously varied buildings and locations that form the Trinity House estate.

There's only one way to travel from Harwich to Orford, and that's by sea, though the fog that indirectly woke up our chartered surveyor is proving stubborn and refuses to lift.

Mind you, it's no problem for the Trinity House vessel Ready. With 900 horsepower and electronic charts at her disposal, she rides the waves with ease, travelling parallel to the coast at about 25 knots before snaking up the River Ore at a more measured pace.

The lighthouse looms out of the fog. Attendant Keith Seaman, who works part-time for Trinity House and looks after lighthouses at Orford, Southwold and Lowestoft, phones the control centre at Harwich to report our arrival.

The operator already knew the door had been opened. All lighthouses are automatic - have been since November, 1998 - and are monitored and controlled from Harwich. Symbols on a screen in the operations control centre show, for instance, if the intruder alarm has triggered. A blown bulb can be changed by remote control. It's even possible to press a button in Harwich and sound a foghorn in south Wales.

Warning aids were introduced at Orfordness in 1637, and a glance at the history books shows why. In just one disastrous night in 1627, for example, 32 ships hit trouble on Orfordness, with great loss of life.

The lighthouse we see today is more than two centuries old and has withstood raids by pirates, the weather, machine-gun fire and flying-bombs. It became fully automatic in the summer of 1964 and the last keepers were withdrawn in the autumn of 1965.

Outside, Matthew looks at one of the solid but now-redundant buildings, raises an eyebrow, and jokes “Surfing shop?”

In light (no pun intended) of his focus on asset management, we must make it clear that Trinity House is not about to open a teashop on the shingle.

The status of the Ness - the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe, home to internationally important flora and fauna, and with its history of wartime and cold war military testing - all mitigate against development that would bring the crowds flocking.

“Orford is very much at the bottom of the pile, as it were, in terms of looking at what we do with it - if anything,” confirms Matthew. “With lighthouses, we simply take a view: we look at it and say 'OK, it's got X and Y facilities, but it's going to be too costly, too complicated - whatever.' What's important is that we've looked at those properties and ensured we're getting best value out of them.”

Some stations have no redundant space, others quite a bit.

“Opportunities could be restricted by SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest), which is fairly common, because most of our lighthouses are either in or on SSSI, or you have to go over one to get there. Or there are other environmental designations.”

As a chartered surveyor, he'll look at the constraints, internally or externally, and think about what works with the community. “We don't want to go down and put in something that completely knocks out all the local business. So we need to work with them in terms of that.”

Back to Harwich - and an historic moment. It's been the React's last trip. She's heading west to be used by the Commissioners of Irish Lights (effectively the Irish version of Trinity House).

If React represents the past, the vessel dwarfing her at Harwich Quay represents the modern present.

Alert is a brand-spanking-new, built-in-Gdansk, 38m rapid intervention vessel that arrived in Harwich at Easter. She'll soon be acting as a workhorse for Trinity House. It might mean maintaining navigational buoys one day, marking the site of a wreck the next, or surveying the seabed.

She's even got a camera that detects heat - useful for checking what's in front of you when it's dark or foggy. And don't go imagining the wheel is one of those great big Onedin Line jobs; Alert is steered by a tiny wheel that can be covered up by your hand.

The future is very much in mind when you turn 180 degrees from the water and look back towards the town.

Trinity House is one of the partners aiming to help regenerate Old Harwich. Work was already under way before Matthew joined, but his involvement has intensified in the last three to four months.

Trinity House staff recently moved to a bright new quayside building. Partly funded by the East of England Development Agency, and opened last July by the Duke of Edinburgh, it stands as a symbol of faith in the town's future.

The move has left Mermaid and Miranda on the quayside - “two empty buildings dating from the 1950s. They are old office design, with all the inherent qualities and disadvantages of old office design. Also, Church Street and West Street. So there are four pieces of property here”.

It would, Matthew recognises, be easy simply to say 'Sell it.'” But the corporation wants to influence the future.

“Sure, the financial returns are important, but also it's important to us that what is developed here is in keeping with the local community and the local architecture.”

He's speaking to developers and planners about what might be possible. Issues that come up are the percentage of social housing, the type of units (one or three bedrooms?), and whether retail use should be part of the mix.

The overall Harwich regeneration plan is due to be adopted this year. Trinity and developers will then be able to come forward with schemes in keeping with the blueprint. Neighbouring sites belonging to other owners - Bathside Bay and Navyard - are also part of the picture.

“We're not the type of organisation to just say 'Right, stick up a load of shiny one-bed flats, because that gives us the most amount of money.' We're very conscious of our presence here and, yes, I guess we want the penny and the bun; yes, we want to generate as many funds as we can, but we also want to have something there that is a lasting legacy - the type of building that people don't go past and say 'Oh my god! Who put that up?' But the type of building that makes someone say 'Yeah, that's sympathetic. It fits in with the environment.'”

WHEN the sea is in your blood, it's got you for life.

Matthew Hill's early career was mainly on the land. When the chance came up about 15 months ago to join Trinity House, he leapt at it.

He was born at Melton, near Woodbridge. His father served on the Queen Mary for 10 years, in the Merchant Navy. The family later moved to Dorset.

Matthew admits he came to chartered surveying via a circuitous route. “I initially did agriculture.”

He later got a job as a trainee land agent in Bedfordshire, and endured “long and arduous training” via a correspondence course run by the College of Estate Management. At the time he qualified in 1992, he had moved on to Nuclear Electric.

“I bought - on behalf of the company! - 550 acres of land next-door to Sizewell when Sizewell B was being constructed. I suppose, really, from thereon in, I started to work with unusual bits of property or unusual companies.”

Matthew then managed a Welsh estate, had a short spell with the Environment Agency, and worked for the Ministry of Defence.

In 2001 he began a four-year stint with the National Trust, becoming senior surveyor covering Hampshire/Isle of Wight, and then head of the region for Thames and Solent.

The work as a general practice surveyor involved things like leases, licences and lettings; sales and disposals - finding a way through the legal and technical maze.

“For quite a lot of my time with the trust I was dealing with contentious property matters, or breaches of covenant. You've got to have a good understanding of land law and how the selling and acquisition process works.

“I suppose I have become a classic 'master of none!' You have to have an understanding of the planning system and how that fits in with the overall objective of what you want to do.”

He saw the Trinity House job vacancy by chance - and, to his delight, got it.

Matthew's been a sailor since the age of six - fast dinghies and catamarans have featured heavily. “So, for me, a job that combines a connection with the maritime industry and a property element was ideal.”

Not just any old portfolio of buildings to work with, either.

“A company like Boots will have property that's reasonably interesting, but essentially it's all chemists' shops in the middle of towns, whereas with this job it's quite exciting that, for instance, you've got the Casquets in the Channel Islands - an entire island with property we don't use, a helicopter pad, a boat landing station. You've got to look at it and say 'What are the opportunities? What would fit in there?'”

The unique locations and the responsibility for shipping safety makes the job of revitalising “dead” space a challenging one.

“Sometimes the easy answer is to sell. Sometimes the easy solution is to bulldoze it. For the majority of the time, for Trinity, that's not an option.

“When we talk about a lighthouse, it's not just the light on the top: it's the presence of the building, the fact it's significant it's painted white - the aid to navigation. So therefore it's not an option to knock it over! But that makes the job very interesting.”

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