John Lewis moves into property market in pursuit of social purpose

UK's largest employee-owned business says it wants to serve communities through a new market as high street sales take a beating in the pandemic.

The John Lewis Partnership, the UK’s largest employee-owned business, plans to help combat the national housing shortage and serve the country’s communities by building 10,000 rental homes in the coming years.

The business's 80,000 employees are all known as ‘partners’ and it comprises department store John Lewis & Partners and supermarket Waitrose & Partners. It describes itself as 'to all intents and purposes a social enterprise' as its profits are reinvested into the business for its customers and its partners.

Nina Bhatia, executive director of strategy and commercial development, told the BBC: “As a business driven by social purpose, we have big ambitions for moving into property rental.”

The plans were revealed in The Sunday Times which stated that the homes would range in size from studio flats to four-bedroom houses. The homes could be built in existing properties that the retailer owns, including department store car parks, above Waitrose supermarkets or next to distribution centres, as well as on new sites.

Nina Bhatia John LewisAs a business driven by social purpose, we have big ambitions for moving into property rental – Nina Bhatia

A spokesman confirmed the news to Pioneers Post. He said: “Private rental aligns to our purpose by doing good in society by helping to address the national housing shortage through building attainable homes as well as affordable housing.”

The private rental market was growing, and getting involved in it was another way for John Lewis to have a positive impact. He said: “In the same way we do with our shops, we want to continue to make a positive contribution to and meet the needs of the communities we serve and operate in, but through a new market.”

Playing to strengths of John Lewis brand

The news comes after a tough year as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the decline of UK high streets. Around a third of stores have been closed since February 2020. Chair Sharon White wrote in the John Lewis Partnership financial results that 2020-21 had been “one of the most challenging” years in the partnership’s history. The year ended with a loss before tax of more than £500m compared with profits of more than £140m the year before.

John Lewis’s strong brand would serve it well in the private rental market, allowing it to “play to the strengths of being a reputable and trusted brand with high standards in service, quality and value”, added the spokesman.

The retailer intends to submit at least two planning applications in 2022.


Header photo: John Lewis Partnership staff, known as partners, at the flagship Oxford Street store in London. Photo courtesy John Lewis Partnership.