Mia Forster-Caskey, Trainee Strategic Land Manager

Mia has been with Searls Land since 2022 yet her career started out very differently - working as airline cabin crew before the Covid pandemic hit the travel industry.

Taking redundancy when the pandemic struck, she then worked in an estate agency for six months but wasn’t enjoying it and started to look for a fresh challenge. After seeing her LinkedIn profile, Searls approached her and asked her in for an interview.

Mia said: “I did the interview and never left! What did I know about what a land agent does? Absolutely nothing.

“However, a lot of the basics behind what we do share some broad similarities with estate agents and in fact a lot of people like to call us estate agents, just dealing with land rather than houses.

“Now I know more about the industry, I’m able to see they are completely different entities. Ultimately the two industries are about selling, so much of the interview was about communicating with clients.”

Mia’s very first task as a Searls employee was to sit down and read the National Planning Policy Framework, a 78-page document – nicknamed The Land Bible – which sets out the Government’s planning policies for England and how these should be applied.

She also spent time researching maps, Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and their Local Plans, documents produced by LPAs which identify areas where development should take place – and therefore good areas to be buying land parcels in – as well as where it should be restricted.

Mia spent her first eight months working on both sides of the Searls operation - the immediate side, which deals with land where planning permission has already been agreed or where there is clear potential for planning in the short term, and the strategic side, which manages complex, longer-term land sale or acquisition opportunities.

She said: “It was a really good grounding to see what both sides of the business did and I realised I was leaning into the strategic side because there’s a lot more to consider when searching for land with long term potential, set against the landscape of local plan processes and that’s an area that really interests me.”

Mia’s tasks in the strategic land department initially involved getting to know clients, promoters and developers who the team regularly work with.

Mia said: “A lot of that first year was networking with key contacts. We work with them every day and you want to be able to pick up a phone and have an easy conversation with them. I work much better with people on that friendship level.

“So much of what we do is based on that. It obviously helps if you get on with the person you’re speaking to on the phone every day, but those people skills are crucial when you’re approaching landowners as well. If landowners like you, they’re more likely to ask you to sell their land.”

Mia admits getting to grips with the sheer volume of clients and companies Searls works with was daunting at first, but she quickly got into her stride and felt comfortable.

She’s now responsible for all the cold approaches to landowners made by the strategic team, as well as identifying parcels of land that are potentially ripe for development.

A typical working day for Mia involves keeping up to date with possible opportunities - no mean feat with so many local authorities to cover.

She uses a specific platform to conduct detailed land searches and sends speculative letters to landowners introducing them to Searls Land and the services on offer, should they wish to sell their land. Mia’s workload can also depend on the stage a site has reached – interviewing landowners and marketing the site by calling promoters to bring it to their attention are just some of her daily tasks.

Mia said: “Every day can be so different. I will typically make 50 approaches to landowners in a week which means identifying 10 sites with potential each day. I also send follow-up letters six months after my initial approach, just in case a dog ate the original, or something similar.

“Only a small percentage of the UK is developed so there is plenty of opportunity. The art of the job is selecting the sites with the greatest potential.”

With countless land agents having access to the same information, Mia must stay on her toes to keep Searls Land one step ahead of the competition and get in front of landowners before anyone else does.

She does this by being well organised and exhaustively checking Local Plans to keep her finger on the pulse of the market. Then it comes down to the quality of her approach.

Mia said: “We keep our letters short and sweet, no more than one side of A4. Any more than that and there’s a risk people won’t want to read to the end. It’s accompanied by a Searls Land brochure.

“We also don’t drown landowners in industry terminology and language. Our industry is full of words and terms I’d never heard before I started so it would be wrong to assume too much on the part of the landowner.”

After the initial approach, it then becomes a waiting game for Mia and the other members of her department – Senior Strategic Land Managers Sam Dutton and Edward Searl.

From the team’s perspective, any response from a landowner – even a ‘no thanks’ – is good because it confirms the landowner has read our letter and – who knows? – they might change their mind in years to come and Searls Land may be the name they remember.

Mia said: “If a landowner responds with interest, we’ll have an initial exploratory conversation over the phone, and then arrange to visit them and their land to assess its development potential in more detail and to discuss and understand what is motivating them to sell. We will explain the benefits of enlisting our help to sell their land and set out in clear terms, how the process will work.

“Landowners are generally more comfortable having these initial discussions with us as we provide a more holistic view of the market rather than the narrow view provided by a house builder or promoter who are specifically aligning their discussion points around their individual set of parameters.”

Because of the nature of Mia’s work, it can be five, ten or even fifteen years between someone opening one of her letters and the first brick being laid on a site. So where does the job satisfaction come from?

“Of course, there are the financial rewards for doing a good job. However, for me the true satisfaction comes from working alongside some incredible companies and fantastic people, who really value the role we play in supporting their businesses and knowing that what we do will ultimately make a big difference to many people. It’s a long process, it’s a long waiting game, but when it works it’s totally worth the wait.”

QUICKFIRE SECTION

What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to get into your line of work?

“You need to take the bad days with the good days. In this job, you can work on a project for months and months and then something will happen completely out of your control that delays or kills the site coming forward. You must be prepared to graft, it’s a time-consuming job and everything takes a long time to bear fruit but if you stick at it, it’s rewarding.”

Do you get frustrated by the external factors that impact on your job?

“Of course I do. My two years here have seen some huge challenges in the housing market, particularly in relation to planning where some decisions are simply nonsensical. I joined after Covid when the market was buoyant, then it wobbled, then it accelerated again last year, and now it’s slowed due to the possible/probable change of government. There always seems to be something or someone working against the process of easing the housing problem.

“Labour has suggested that if elected, they will release elements of the green belt that don’t deserve to be retained which is positive, but is it just a vote catcher, will they go through with it when the time comes? Let’s wait and see.”

Are there any challenges around being young and female in the industry?

“I’m generally the youngest in the room (Mia is 26) and I’m always the one who isn’t a homeowner. I’m trying to get on the ladder like all the people around my age and so it can be quite difficult listening to other people’s opinions, where their priorities are probably very different to mine. On the other hand, it’s great to be younger than Sam and Ed – I’m going to have all the sites to myself when they’ve retired!

“I’ve got three brothers so I’m not fazed by working in an all-male environment, but you can’t help but notice there aren’t many females in the industry and the ones that are in it are normally much higher up in the chain.

“That said, I’ve never come across any discrimination, in fact I think being a woman has helped me. I get noticed more because I am usually the only woman in room of men and people are either going to like you or they're not, irrespective of your gender.

“Being a woman has never stopped me doing what I need to do so I’d say to any woman looking to get into the industry, just do it.”

Are there ups and downs in the life of a Trainee Strategic Land Manager?

“We’ve had letters where people have gone to the trouble of sending them back to us, people who’ve told us never to bother them again, but most people are polite and courteous. Sometimes there are multiple owners or family members that get involved and it can get a bit tricky but in the main, people are nice. Having a team of three helps, as we get to bounce ideas off each other when matters get difficult.”

What’s it like working at Searls Land?

“Well, I’m still here! In all honesty, I was worried before I came in because there’s lots of connections between the rest of them, there’s family and many of them have been friends for years, but I couldn’t be happier. I have a great set of mentors and really enjoy being part of this team.

“In the strategic team, we’re all office-based, we don’t do any of our work from home and that works fine. We’d be constantly having to call each other if we worked remotely and it would be difficult. That said, we do get out and about so not every day’s an office day, which is nice.”

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

“Telling the boys what to do! No, I just want to be more confident in where I am and what I’m doing. I want to have my own sites. Even though we work closely as a team, I want to be bringing the sites in and not having to have Sam and Ed beside me.”

And finally…what’s Tim Searl like to work for?

“He is probably the best manager you could ask for. He’s just so understanding, and he’s been in all our positions. He never looks at anything just from an owner/boss point of view, he always takes everyone’s opinions on board. He’s really good about that. He is a listener. And I think that shows across the board.

“He’s a lovely man and he’s excellent at what he does, and you can see both of those things in the number of lasting relationships he’s built within this industry. He wouldn’t have been able to do that if he wasn’t the best at what he does and a nice person.”