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Edited Transcript of BWY.L earnings conference call or presentation 15-Oct-19 8:30am GMT

Full Year 2019 Bellway PLC Earnings Presentation

Newcastle Upon Tyne Oct 18, 2019 (Thomson StreetEvents) -- Edited Transcript of Bellway PLC earnings conference call or presentation Tuesday, October 15, 2019 at 8:30:00am GMT

TEXT version of Transcript

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Corporate Participants

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* Jason Honeyman

Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director

* Keith D. Adey

Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director

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Conference Call Participants

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* Ami Galla

Citigroup Inc, Research Division - Senior Associate

* Aynsley Lammin

Canaccord Genuity Corp., Research Division - Analyst

* Christopher James Millington

Numis Securities Limited, Research Division - Analyst

* David A. O'Brien

Goodbody Stockbrokers, Research Division - Investment Analyst

* Gavin Jago

Peel Hunt LLP, Research Division - Analyst

* Glynis Mary Johnson

Jefferies LLC, Research Division - Equity Analyst

* Gregor Kuglitsch

UBS Investment Bank, Research Division - Executive Director, Head of European Building & Construction Research and Equity Research Analyst

* John Fraser-Andrews

HSBC, Research Division - Global Equity Head of Building Materials & European Building Materials Analyst

* Jonathan Matthew Bell

Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division - Research Analyst

* William Jones

Redburn (Europe) Limited, Research Division - Partner of Construction & Building Materials Research

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Presentation

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [1]

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Good morning. Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our full year results. I plan to take you through a short introduction. Keith will then present some detail and some numbers, and then I will close with an update on operational matters.

Firstly, to pick out a few highlights. Record volume's at 10,892 units, an increase of almost 6%. Operating profit up by 3% to GBP 675 million. And margin also remains strong at 21%. Our dividend increased by 5% to 150.4p, and we also had a strong net cash position of $200 million at year-end. And I'm also pleased to report that we maintained our 5-star rating as a housebuilder for the third consecutive year.

Turning now to market conditions. Demand remains robust at our price point. And by that, I mean at the affordable end of the market. Our most popular homes tend to be 2-, 3- and smaller 4-bedroom properties, with the London market most active in the Greater London boroughs such as Bromley, Bexley and Havering. And notably, our reservations are up year-on-year, and that's a product of having more outlets driven from our land-buying program.

Now I can't talk about the market without talking about Brexit. The whole Brexit debate hasn't had a material impact upon volumes. Yes, the uncertainty has made us work harder for sales. And yes, it has led to higher incentives as savvy customers demand better deals. But what Brexit is doing is just dampening our growth prospects a little. The rate per sale per outlet is just a little slower on some sites, and that has an impact on how much we can deliver or grow each year.

That said, there are a couple of things to note. Firstly, the residential market remains heavily focused on the new build sector, principally driven by competitive mortgage finance, particularly the Help to Buy offer, but also stamp duty benefits at the lower end of the price scale. However, stamp duty can be a real issue in London and the South East, where transactions can often attract charges of over 10%. And whilst we're not exposed to that end of the market, it does create a jam or a barrier to people moving home. And what we need is a stamp duty system that's less complicated, that's less expensive and one that encourages a healthy housing market.

And secondly, Help to Buy changes planned for April '21 are influencing the way we operate, the way we approach developments and the way we invest. There are different schemes in Scotland, England and Wales, and we're very mindful of the rules. And whilst the schemes are used more modestly in Scotland and Wales, probably around 15% or so, it's still a very strong selling tool in England.

So to comply with the new regional price caps in England, we scrutinize each land acquisition for product mix and selling values to best ensure that each of our divisions has a good percentage of homes that falls within the caps and are suitable or attractive to first-time buyers. As a consequence, our land-buying criteria has changed a little over the past 6 months to accommodate this profile, something I will talk a little later on this morning.

Now just to touch on our strategic priorities. One of the key challenges facing the industry today is the absence of house price inflation, which has historically helped to increase returns. And this, coupled with continuing cost inflation, puts inevitable pressure upon margins. These issues, together with the underlying demand for new homes, influences our strategic priorities. And the key themes to our strategy are simple: deliver growth; drive down costs; appoint the right people; and strengthen the brand. So our long-term strategy, coupled with a focus on margin and dividend growth, is still the best way that we can add value for our shareholders.

But I'll hand over to Keith, who is better placed than me to discuss these issues. Keith?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [2]

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Okay. Thanks, Jason. Good morning, everybody. So I plan to take you through the results, balance sheet and cash flows in the usual manner. So I'll start off with the results, and you'll see that the 5.7% increase in volume, together with a 2.5% increase in the average selling price, which rose to just under GBP 292,000, resulted in housing revenue rising by over 8% to GBP 3.2 billion. And since the low in 2009, housing revenue has risen by a factor of 4.7x.

Other revenue rose to GBP 33 million, with the increase simply due to the tyrant of the usual commercial sales and other minor items. In addition, in H1, we disposed of a portfolio of freehold reversionary interests on apartment schemes for consideration of GBP 14 million. Going forward, the sale of ground rent portfolios will not be a recurring source of other income. Overall, gross profit rose by GBP 33 million to GBP 790 million, with the prior year figure restated to exclude losses arising on part-exchange properties as required by IFRS 15.

Operating profit rose by 3.4% to GBP 675 million, and the operating margin was 21%. PBT rose by the same percentage to GBP 663 million, with earnings per share also rising by 3.4% to 437.8p. As indicated in March, the growth in volume was driven in part by additional social housing completions, following a modest reduction in FY '18. We also completed the sale of an additional 179 private homes, which is a solid performance and follows the growth of 9.2% achieved in the previous year. In addition to completions on fully owned sites, our share of output from joint ventures was 41 units, and I expect that this will increase further in the summer of 2020.

The overall average selling price rose by almost 3% to GBP 292,000, and the average selling price for private homes rose by a similar percentage to GBP 334,000. The modest improvement was due to the location of sites rather than being due to any underlying house price inflation. The rise in the social average selling price, which increased to GBP 149,000, was more pronounced at 15%, and this follows growth in social completions, which was driven by certain divisions, such as Essex and North London, whose operations are in higher value areas.

Help to Buy continues to be important, and it was used in 36% of completions. And the bar chart shows pricing bands and demonstrates that our exposure to the slower upper end of the market is limited, with only 4% of homes above the current Help to Buy threshold of GBP 600,000. I expect this to moderate downwards in the year ahead, but notwithstanding that, I still expect the overall average selling price in FY '20 to be in excess of GBP 285,000.

London still performs well for Bellway, representing 9% of completions. And if you take out apartments from our scheme at Nine Elms, the average selling price in London was GBP 413,000, and we continue to find that demand is robust at this affordable price point.

If we look in more detail at Nine Elms, we completed the sale of 214 apartments at an average selling price of GBP 820,000, which means that this one site alone represented almost 6% of housing revenue, a meaningful and nonrecurring contribution to the business.

Going forward, our strong investment in outlets elsewhere in the group means that even though this site is now largely traded out, we still expect to be able to grow housing revenue in the current financial year, albeit the margin and selling price benefit of Nine Elms will not be repeated.

Our Ashberry brand continues to be used successfully, accounting for 564 homes or just over 5% of completions. And this provides a valuable resource in order to increase sales rates and enhance return on capital on some of our larger sites. There remains a balanced split between homes sold in the north and the south of the country, and we don't have too much exposure in any one particular region, with a widespread geographical presence providing a solid platform from which to deliver future growth.

After making further investment in the overhead to deliver this growth, we were able to report a strong operating margin of 21% and an operating profit of GBP 675 million, representing a year-on-year increase of 3.4%. In terms of the increased profit, volume remains the main driver adding a total of GBP 43 million in the year, with this driven by higher output in our 8 active newer divisions, which we've opened since August 2013.

The ongoing margin normalization had a moderating effect on the reported profit, and this was mainly due to a continuing upward trend in terms of build costs, albeit the rate of increase is broadly consistent with the prior year and reducing house price inflation, which is close to flat for most sites.

Looking forward, there will be further normalization in the margin in the year ahead. Nine Elms added around 80 basis points compared to the prior year. And as I've already said, this will not be repeated. But instead, London is expected to generate returns, which are comparable to elsewhere in the group.

In addition, the land bank margin is being compressed slightly as a result of industry-wide build cost increases, which are no longer being offset by house price inflation. Also, there will be further, more modest dilution as ground rent sales come to an end and the overhead base nudges up slightly.

Overall, the moderating effect will be more pronounced than that experienced during FY '19, and it's too early to give firm guidance, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, a range of outcomes are clearly possible. However, as we sit today, I expect that we'll end the year with a margin percentage somewhere in or around the mid-'19s. We're working exceptionally hard to mitigate cost increases, and Jason will touch on this soon.

I've included the balance sheet for reference, and the investment in joint ventures includes our sites at Fradley and Ponton Road. But moving on to more material items and the total amount invested in land is GBP 2 billion, with some GBP 1.6 billion of this relating to the 26,000 plots, which have the benefit of an implementable detailed planning permission.

The additions to the top tier of the land bank have a plot cost of just under GBP 60,000 and an average selling price of around GBP 280,000. The overall average plot cost of this section of the land bank is just under GBP 62,000, and the average selling price is approaching GBP 290,000. Our exposure to particularly high-value units is low and is reducing. Only 3% of plots with DPP had an average selling price at both the current Help to Buy threshold of GBP 600,000.

Our pipeline of owned and controlled land, where DPP is expected within the next 3 years, has risen to 16,300 plots. And taken together with the DPP land, this provides a land bank length of 3.9 years, with good balance between providing a visible throughput of land without compromising return on capital employed.

In addition, our strategic landholdings have risen to 8,800 plots and I stress, this includes only those that are allocated in local plans or are the subject of current planning applications. But to provide some additional detail this year, I'd estimate that we have the potential to deliver a further 16,800 plots on our longer-term strategic land interest, i.e., those with a higher planning risk. This gives a total interest in strategic land of around 26,000 plots.

In total, the owned and controlled land bank, together with our investment in strategic land, provides Bellway with access to some 70,000 plots, a solid platform from which to continue our growth strategy.

The investment in construction-based WIP has been a major driver for growth and has risen to almost GBP 1.3 billion. And whilst customer demand is still strong, the absence of house price inflation means that many customers feel less urgency to reserve a new home. Consequently, WIP turn is just a little slower and in addition, sales tools such as further investment in show homes are important to showcase our product and, therefore, give customers the confidence that they need to buy.

The amount invested in part-exchange properties is closely monitored and remains similar to last year at just under GBP 50 million.

The group is financed by retained earnings, bank debt and land creditors. We're significantly cash generative, producing GBP 662 million from operations before paying down land creditors and making further investment in the land and construction-based WIP. After paying down land creditors by GBP 68 million and investing in site-based construction to achieve growth, the cash generated from operations was GBP 419 million.

Overall, after paying the dividend, tax, interest and other minor items, we ended the year with net cash of GBP 201 million. And inclusive of land creditors, which have reduced to just GBP 298 million, adjusted gearing was only 3%. Average net bank debt during the year was around GBP 165 million.

In the year ahead, I expect we'll average a modest net debt position throughout the year. Our plans for further land investment, together with a 50% rise in the cash tax bill due to a change in government legislation, mean that we expect the cash balance in July 2020 to be a little lower, perhaps GBP 30 million or so or less. And just for clarity, that increase in tax payments does not change the effective rate of tax in the income statement. And again, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, the forecast year-end cash balance does, of course, move easily. So we'll give you a further guidance in respect of that as the year progresses.

The final dividend, if approved, will rise by 5.3% to 100p per share, and this will bring the total dividend to 150.4p, an overall rise of 5.2%, which represents a dividend cover of 2.9x earnings. The compounding effect of reinvesting earnings to achieve growth means that the dividend per share is now actually higher than the earnings per share, which we achieved in the July 2007 prerecession peak.

Going forward, our operational capacity and the ongoing demand for new homes still provides further potential for future growth. And this, combined with the short-term uncertainty of Brexit and the longer-term objective to retain a flexible capital structure in order to maximize value for shareholders, means that it's not right to commit to a long-term dividend promise.

That said, notwithstanding the ongoing margin normalization and the effect that this will have on earnings in FY '20, our lowly geared, derisked balance sheet and our confidence in the medium-term growth prospects of the group mean that I still expect there'll be a further increase in the ordinary dividend in the year ahead.

Our approach to growth requires an ongoing focus on return on capital employed, and this has remained high at 24.7%, but slightly lower than last year, principally because of the margin dilution and slightly slower WIP turn. Posttax return on equity was also high at 19.8%, with this achieved from a low-risk balance sheet.

Beyond FY '20, we retain the ability to deliver further earnings growth. We've got a strong culture of cost control, which is supported by a number of medium-term initiatives. We can also invest in land and have a proven track record of successfully opening new divisions and outlets, with this resulting in an outperformance of sales rates in FY '19.

So whilst margin normalization and Brexit uncertainty may dampen FY '20 prospects somewhat, I see no reason why the group cannot continue its trajectory of earnings growth in FY '21 and beyond. In addition, we're highly cash generative, and that provides for further scope to continue increasing the ordinary dividend.

Jason?

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [3]

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Thank you, Keith. Starting with growth, the majority of our increased volume comes from our newer divisions. Scotland East delivered 273 completions in the year, in FY '19, with our newest divisions, Eastern Counties and London Partnerships, both able to contribute in the year ahead. And our partnerships division has made a promising start. We have over 1,000 plots already contracted and a further 600 plots agreed with heads of terms. And should market conditions permit, we also have plans to open a new office in the northwest of England, probably towards the end of the next calendar year. And this generates a capacity of just over 13,000 homes, and we have a longer-term ability to expand beyond this.

That said, it's all very well having the infrastructure in place, but we need the right land in which to feed the divisions. In the year, we contracted on 13,100 plots. And while sufficient for today's volumes, to continue with our growth, we need to just gently increase that number as we progress in the years ahead. And our strategy of driving the number of selling outlets through our land-buying program is clearly paying dividends as both outlets and sales volumes increased year-on-year. But as mentioned in my introduction, we are applying a strict focus to both product mix and selling values to ensure our divisions are best positioned to accommodate the Help to Buy rules planned for April '21.

So to complement this approach, we're also investing in some larger sites. For example, we recently acquired a site in Churchdown near Gloucester for 465 units, and we also have a further 3 sites agreed, which combined, total a further 1,500 units. And the group is big enough to buy a handful of these sites each year to provide that certainty of supply without probably necessarily changing the risk profile of the business. And our strategic land department also continues to make good progress. In the year, we contracted on 29 options and converted 1,700 plots to our owned and controlled land bank.

Turning now to cost initiatives. As Keith has mentioned, the primary focus of the business today is control of costs. In FY '19, we experienced cost inflation of around 3%. And to mitigate the impact of these costs, we have a number of initiatives that our new Group Commercial Director is driving through the business. First and foremost is our Artisan standard house type range, which has made considerable progress since we launched it over a year ago.

To give you an idea of the success and speed at which it has been adopted, we now have some 12,000 plots in various stages of the planning system across the group. We expect to complete 500 Artisan homes in FY '20 and close to 3,000 in FY '21. And we're already starting to see the benefits: faster planning applications; reduced design fees; and lower marketing costs.

And going forward, we expect to see reduced build periods, reduced maintenance costs. And with the adoption of our optimized roof pitches, our drainage systems and our heating designs, inevitably, there will be further procurement savings in the years ahead. And notably, all of these benefits can be delivered without compromise to our build quality.

And similarly, with procurement savings, the economies of scale are obvious to our buying power. And whilst the majority of our supply costs are fixed for the current financial year, we are seeing signs of better deals. Blocks have only increased by 3% in the current year, whereas that was 6% in FY '18, and many timber products are now starting to hold prices firm for longer periods, and the same applies to the labor market.

Bellway 2020, something Keith mentioned, is another cost -- internal cost-saving initiative, and this is very much a culture or a message to our staff to be more frugal and more efficient individually within their workplace. And Keith has set every division across the group a cost-saving target. It could be something as simple as energy saving in the office or something more significant like reviewing engineering levels of preplanning stage on a development.

And finally, our COiNS valuation system, this has now been adopted or installed in 50% of our divisions, and this will give us better visibility and the opportunity to better benchmark costs across the group.

Now for a few bits on HR, appointing the right people. We have always had a strong culture of developing people through our business, particularly with senior managers and directors, and that's what gives us that strength in depth to our management teams. But our HR team have done an excellent job in developing our new Bellway's career website, providing opportunities for young people in housebuilding. Our new Bellway academy offers a more structured approach for apprentices, graduates, young people, but also provides specific training for site managers.

In 2020, we plan to appoint 40 new graduates, 50 new apprentices, and we're also planning to recruit over 50 young women into our construction departments across the U.K., and it's proving to be very popular. For our graduate program alone, we've had over 1,000 applications for just 40 positions. So if your sons or daughters don't want to become overpaid analysts, and they want more -- I don't know why I'm looking at you, Chris, but they want more excitement in their life, tell them to log onto our new careers website, and they can come and work for Bellway.

Now just to finish off on ops, strengthening the brand. The key thing for me on brand is delivering a higher customer service level. Whilst I'm really pleased with our new website, our new social media hub, it's customer service that has got my attention. And I'm very conscious of that negative housebuilder image in the wider market, and I want Bellway to stand above that.

We are a 5-star rated housebuilder, and we seem to do the hard work well, with 92.2% of our customers saying that they would recommend us. But if you ask those same customers, what do you think some 9 months later, that figure drops to 79%. So my focus is post move-in. How do I better look after our customers following legal completion? We need to go further. We need to communicate better. We need to complete snags more quickly. So in 2020, we plan to start a more structured and focused approach to customer service, which, in essence, means we want to be a 5-star housebuilder at the point of legal completion and a 5-star housebuilder in the early years of homeownership.

Now for trading. As Keith has mentioned, HPI is flat in the main, but there are some pockets of good news. Despite this, reservations were up by 5% during the year and notably, our private res were also up by the same amount. Average outlets also increased by around 8%.

So overall, the market is strong. I'd say our best-performing areas are Scotland, Manchester and Northern Home Counties based in Milton Keynes. London and the South seems to be a bit more sensitive to the whole Brexit narrative than elsewhere in the U.K., and you can often find that the rate of sale per outlet is a little slower, but that shouldn't be unexpected given the current political environment. And I have to stress, it's the investment in those new divisions, it's the investment in those new outlets that's driving our sales volumes.

Now for current trading. Sales in the first 9 weeks since the 1st of August have been good, and I'm pleased to report that sales volumes are up by 4% to 183 homes per week. And whilst that order book is slightly down year-on-year, that's simply a product of having more completions in the first 9 weeks than the comparator period in FY '18.

And finally, to close on outlook. Our new divisions are delivering our long-term growth ambitions. That said, I think our growth this year will be less pronounced, probably a best guess, an extra 300 homes, as opposed to the usual 600. And my reasoning is I simply don't feel confident enough about the economy to push the business any harder at the moment. And whilst I don't think Brexit has had a material impact upon volumes, general elections often do.

So my focus this year will change a little, and it's very much a long-term approach to running the business. I want to concentrate on building the order book. I want to lay the foundations for a new division. I want to focus on that new customer service level, drive through those cost-saving initiatives, and I'm also keen to further increase the dividend in FY '20.

Thank you. Now we're happy to take questions. Glynis?

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Questions and Answers

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Glynis Mary Johnson, Jefferies LLC, Research Division - Equity Analyst [1]

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I have a number of questions. I'm just going to keep until you tell me to stop, I think. The first one is in terms of your WIP. Your WIP versus forward sales actually look substantially higher than the majority of your peers. I wonder if you can just give us a little bit of color about that. Is that just a point of time at the end of the year? Or is that something in terms of substantially more investment than, for example, your peers and show homes and so on?

The second one, Page 20, the margin bridge that you give us, just to be very clear, where is Nine Elms in that? Is it in the other gross margin negative, i.e., the underlying negative is more because Nine Elms is positive?

Number three, you talk about HPI. I'm wondering, are you talking HPI, including that step of incentives that you're referencing? And I wonder, is there any sort of regional difference within there?

And lastly, that Artisan range, if it gets to 3,000 completions by the full year '21, that's still only just over 1/3 of your product. Is it limited by where the sites you can roll it out onto? It is about planning? Why aren't we seeing it being rolled out in a faster way in order to drive those cost savings?

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [2]

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Do you want to do the first 3 and I'll…

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [3]

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Yes, okay. So look, WIP is about 106% of the order book. It is something we look at as a large portion of the order book is contracted. We just feel that it's right to get the balance between investing, so people can see the product and therefore, encourage further reservations. You see the reservations are strong. We kind of set ourselves an internal limit. If you get the sale, 120%, that's perhaps -- we don't particularly want to go above that, but we feel comfortable where it is based on the reservations we've got and the WIP turn that we've got, Glynis.

In terms of the margin on Page 20, well, that's the FY '19 result, obviously. So any margin movement is encapsulated within that -- the gross margin movement, including anything on Nine Elms and any other sites goes within there as well.

And when we talk about house price inflation being flat, that's a net result. So that takes into account any movements on the incentive line. So it's not -- you don't add on incentives on top of that.

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [4]

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Just on the Artisan range, Glynis, I mean, I'm probably a little bit more positive than you on the summary. We've spent decades without a standard house site range to -- so to have one so quickly adopted across the group, we see it as quite successful. It takes a year to plot it and put it on the -- to get planning for it, and then you need another year to build it. So there's always that 1- or 2-year lead-in period before it comes through on Keith's legal completion line.

But when you say 1/3 of it, we expect it to be adopted on the majority of our housing sites in the fullness of time. It's an exception rather than the rule that we find it's not -- it doesn't fit on a particular development. And the reason for that is quite flexible and efficient so we can address different local vernaculars in different regions of the country because you can have weatherboarding, you can have brick, you can have render. So it's very flexible and Ian's with us today, Ian Gorst, our Regional Chairman and he's the author of the Artisan standard house type range. So in many respects, he's getting the divisions used to standardization, but I'd expect that pickup to accelerate even further in the years ahead.

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Jonathan Matthew Bell, Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division - Research Analyst [5]

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Jon Bell from Deutsche Bank. I've got 2 actually. We see the same HPI trends as you do. You've talked a little about cost initiatives. But if those HPI trends worsen, what levers do you have to pull to protect your margins from further erosion?

And then secondly, on dividend policy. You've contracted cover already a touch and you've indicated that you're happy to do the same again this year. I wonder, where are your red lines on dividend cover? How far can that go?

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [6]

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Do you want to do both of those?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [7]

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Yes. Yes. Okay. So on house price inflation, I think it's the initiatives Jason was talking about in his speech really are our best mitigants. It's having a greater focus on costs throughout the organization, just reinvigorating some of those disciplines which have always been there, but it's just right to bring them to the fore again. So for example, our Bellway 2020 campaign is a cultural thing going throughout the group, where Jason gave an example in the presentation. But we've even introduced things like a spoil register across the group so we can look to move spoil between sites to save costs and those sort of things, to printing on double sided on pay it by year. It's a wholehearted review of cost throughout the organization. Artisan will, in due course, help us protect the margin. And also as COiNS gets up to speed and improves our benchmarking, that will lead to improved procurement.

But frankly, if you have a period of flat house prices and continued industry-wide cost increases for a continued period of time, then that is a threat to anybody where it tends to be the case that whatever happens in the house price index, costs lag maybe 12 months or so. So that's where we feel we probably are.

On the dividend, I suppose I said in the speech, we don't want to commit to a dividend promise. I'm not going to commit to a dividend cover level. I think -- look, first and foremost, we still see potential for growth, and I made the point about the compounding effect. That is still what our strategy is to reinvest earnings, to deliver further growth in the years ahead.

You're right, we'll see -- you're likely to see a further contraction in the order -- in the cover this year in terms of the ordinary dividend. And thereafter, let's put cash back into the business to continue growing. But I'll come back to what I always say, if you sustainably don't see those growth opportunities over a longer-term period of time, then we will look to reduce the cover. But we don't want to get to a position where you feel that's not sustainable in almost -- in all but the most severe scenarios. So it kind of avoids the answer, but it's the sentiment which is within the business.

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John Fraser-Andrews, HSBC, Research Division - Global Equity Head of Building Materials & European Building Materials Analyst [8]

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It's John Fraser-Andrews, HSBC. Two questions for me, please. The first is the sales outlets, what growth do you envisage this year? And what was the increase, assuming there was an increase, in the current trading in sales outlets? That's the first one.

The second is build cost inflation, the 3% last year. Jason, you referred to some factors that are diminishing cost inflation. Perhaps you can flesh those out and perhaps make a prediction for the current year on build cost inflation.

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [9]

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Well, in terms of the outlets, in this new current financial year, we expect to open around 110. And if trading goes in line with what we plan, we expect to close around 98, which will result, very broadly then, average numbers increasing sort of 3%, 4%, that sort of order throughout the year. In the first 9 weeks, if you just take a simple point average, outlets will maybe up 6% or so in that first 9 weeks.

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [10]

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Just on the build costs, John. Without making a prediction, well, I guess, history tends to repeat itself a little. So in terms of sentiment, when I talk to our MDs around the country, you just tend to get the belief that they're working within a budget now as opposed to exceeding budget costs because they're getting more competitive prices back on their tenders. It seems to us, John, that a number of contractors now want to lock into Bellway and get some longer-term workload on their books due to the uncertainty. So we're getting prices in that regard. And certainly, from our suppliers, bricks excluded, we're getting better deals. There are better deals on the table than there have been some 12 months ago.

And as Keith has mentioned, when revenues go up, costs go up a year later. And the reverse happens when revenues come back down to a flat line, costs will follow it. So it's inevitable that, that cost line will soften this year, whether it's 1% or 1.5%. It's a guess, but certainly, all the indicators and all the feeling I get on the ground is that we're starting to work within budget now.

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Gavin Jago, Peel Hunt LLP, Research Division - Analyst [11]

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It's Gavin Jago at Peel Hunt. Just a couple of quick ones, please. The first one is just if you could give us a feeling for what the cost, if any, there will be of getting to that 5 stars in the 9 months post-completion, just sort of what extra boots on the ground you need for that?

And just back on to the ground rents, Keith, the GBP 14 million I think you said, was that effectively a full drop-through to profits in the year? Well -- I think you said high margin, but how high was it?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [12]

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Well, we took GBP 10 million profit on the ground rents in the year, so it's about 20 bps on the overall margin. And the…

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [13]

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Do you want me to do the -- Gavin, when Keith asked me that question, I say, "No, it won't cost any extra." But it's very much changing the culture, saying yes more than you say no. And I think inevitably, there will be costs on that line, but it's very much being more responsive.

Sometimes, I think the housebuilding as a sector is a little bit more primitive to maybe the car industry or the retail sector in terms of customer service. I'm just conscious of that negative image in the press sometimes, and I just want to improve that customer service level. And sometimes, it's as simple as responding quicker to an e-mail. But sometimes, it's picking up the phone more quickly than a week later. But sometimes, it will cost a little bit more because we've said, you're just outside your warranty period, we're going to say yes anyway. It's that sort of approach.

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Aynsley Lammin, Canaccord Genuity Corp., Research Division - Analyst [14]

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Aynsley Lammin from Canaccord. Just 2, please. Wondered if you'd give a bit more color on the -- kind of sets the autumn selling season. A few of the peers a couple of weeks ago said they were surprised how resilient it's been. Have you seen a deterioration the last few weeks? And in that context, kind of what do incentives look like, what you're having to use?

And then secondly, just on the land market. Are you seeing any of the caution that -- you talked about general election, a bit more caution going into this year feeding through to the land market. Have you increased your hurdle rates? Are land prices easing off a bit?

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [15]

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Okay, I'll do both of those, Keith. In terms of the selling period, the autumn selling period, Aynsley, I've been as surprised or pleasantly surprised as most, I guess. And the market has been quite resilient even in the last couple of weeks. So I haven't seen any downturn, and I would almost describe some parts of the U.K., certainly, Scotland and Manchester that are completely immune to the whole Brexit debate, it's strong in those areas. So no, I haven't seen any downturn, and that's what's given us the ability to grow volumes year-on-year.

In terms of the land market, the only noticeable change, I could say, and I think it's short term, is that where you've got this period of Help to Buy changes planned for April '21, you can see a lot of competition in that space where people are encouraged to go and buy those sites of smaller mix, the 2s and 3s and 4s. So there is competition in that area because people want to land in the spring of '21 with the right product mix. So I'd say more pressure, Aynsley, on margin, probably down at 23% on those type of sites as opposed to 24% where I've reported previously. But where we're invested in larger sites, there's less competition and the margin's a little bit stronger. That's how I'd describe it. But I guess, when I come back to see you in March, it might change a little because we've gone through that period.

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Ami Galla, Citigroup Inc, Research Division - Senior Associate [16]

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Ami Galla from Citi. Just a couple of questions from me. You've touched upon the scope for adding more divisions over the next 2 to 3 years. I was wondering if you could outline what is the longer-term scope of where you see potential growth in this country.

And the second tied to that is the sort of land investments that you need to make on -- over the next 2 or 3 years. What is the overall run rate that we should be assuming, considering the medium-term growth that you're projecting?

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [17]

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If you want to do the long term.

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [18]

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Yes. Well, yes. So in terms of divisions, 22 at the moment, Jason's alluded to one in the northwest, which would take us to 23. As we sit today, we can at least think of a couple of other areas where we think there's scope for investment without having to go into secondary locations. So that's going to take you to a capacity of 14,000 plus, you might argue, which is sort of 30-odd percent higher than where we currently are, so potential for growth remains there as we sit today.

And in terms of the rate of land investment, look, all other things being equal, I expect there'll be an increase this year. So whereas last year, we spent cash out the door just over 740, our budgets today suggest that might be 850-plus in the current financial year. Now obviously, it depends whether you get deferred terms and all other sorts, but that gives you sort of a sense of the size of the increase in FY '20.

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David A. O'Brien, Goodbody Stockbrokers, Research Division - Investment Analyst [19]

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David O'Brien from Goodbody. Just one for me, please. On Page 22, just your bridge of margin normalization, can you give us a sense of or quantify what cost mitigation you've put in place yourself to get to the 19.5%?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [20]

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It's not so much about trying to factor in and break it out into even more detail. I mean I must be honest, I thought as we looked into -- for that, I felt it was particularly precise anyway without getting even more granular. We've revalued all of our sites based on current costs and current prices. The majority of our orders are less for the next 12 months, whether that's material or subcontract costs. So the risk is if there's further cost increases. It's FY '21, where they're likely to have a more pronounced effect. But that said, we feel with the mitigants that we've got in place and the fact that the rate of cost increases we likely get in to slow and it tends to follow HPI, as we said, that, that margin of in or around mid-'19s feels like a sustainable level in FY '21 and beyond.

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William Jones, Redburn (Europe) Limited, Research Division - Partner of Construction & Building Materials Research [21]

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Will Jones from Redburn. Just 3 if I could, please. Just tying up on the Nine Elms site, and possibly going back to the bridge and the 90 basis points. So I think the maths of that site being 6% of revenue last year imply that it did about a 15 to 20 percentage point better margin than the group growth. Is that right for Nine Elms?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [22]

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Yes, it's high 30s was the margin we delivered at Nine Elms.

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William Jones, Redburn (Europe) Limited, Research Division - Partner of Construction & Building Materials Research [23]

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Got you. Second one was just around land creditors, which obviously came down in the year. And I think are about 15% of land value at the moment, which is quite a low ratio compared to others in the sector. Is that something you see as an opportunity to help on the cash flow front going forward?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [24]

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Well, I don't think we need to bolster the cash flow. I always -- I suppose it's what I always say, Will, it's -- we genuinely view it as a source of financing. So if you don't have conditionality, if it's a mandatory payment, which you can't wriggle out of, then it becomes how do you get the best financing deal? Do you borrow from the banks? Or do you borrow from a land creditor? And it depends what their current position is. So we always try to defer where it makes sense to. But equally, if we can get a decent discount for paying upfront and it's more than our cost to finance, and you're not concerned by capital elsewhere, we'll go down that route. It's very much on a contract-by-contract basis.

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William Jones, Redburn (Europe) Limited, Research Division - Partner of Construction & Building Materials Research [25]

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And then, I guess, the last one was just touching on the comment around larger sites that you mentioned a couple of minutes ago, Jason. Historically, you've been bit more averse to the bigger sites as a business compared to, say, the pack. Is that something you're kind of reconsidering?

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [26]

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Did you say Keith's always been a bit more cautious, Will, than me? No, I think -- on a serious point, I think we've -- the size of the business today, we've got to make those investments because some of our divisions need that certainty of supply going forward. And what often we do, Will, is that we'll dual outlet those type of sites, so we'll have either 2 Bellway outlets, if it's different product mix, or we'll have a Bellway in the next -- Ashberry. But we'll only do them in locations that we feel are a good long-term bet. We'd only do them in locations where -- or we'd only do them with product mix that we think is sellable. So we're not taking big risks as we see it.

So all the locations that we've identified are what I'd call strong, affordable, smaller mixes and in divisions that are large that can accommodate that sort of size of site, really.

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [27]

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And just -- it's partly a function of size. The bigger you are, the more you can accommodate. We've got net assets of almost GBP 3 billion. A handful of extra-large sites doesn't dilute the risk profile -- or increase the risk profile rather, so you can accommodate a few more without changing the risk of the book.

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [28]

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You get to that point, Will, where you're buying 13,000 plots a year. And because we've had this big focus, Will, on outlets, which has delivered for us, we're really pleased with it. But when you're buying 100 sites at 130 units each, you're buying 2 sites every day of every week. And that's quite a load to put through the business because we do it all at head office. So if I want to gently increase that 13,000 up to 15,000, I need to complement it with some bigger kit to just give us that boost in volume because all of those plots you buy, sometimes you get a bit of bad news, and whether it's legal or planning, some will drop out the system. So there's always a bit of comfort that you need in the figure.

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Christopher James Millington, Numis Securities Limited, Research Division - Analyst [29]

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Christopher Millington at Numis. I just wondered if I could push you a bit more on incentives and just find out kind of what level they are maybe versus this time last year.

Quick comment on PX policy. Is there a point you wouldn't want it to go beyond?

And also, can you just remind us quickly on the benefits of the Artisan range? I vaguely remember you did outline that in a previous presentation, I just can't recall exactly what the figure was.

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [30]

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Yes. So incentives, I always take the incentive figure with a little bit of a pinch of salt because it's recorded as a percentage of our release price, which might be different in every dividend and every site. But on average, it's probably just over 3% for FY '19; and in FY '18, it was close to 2.5%. So you're talking about a sort of 60, 70 basis points movement, which, as I said earlier, is included in that house price commentary we gave.

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Christopher James Millington, Numis Securities Limited, Research Division - Analyst [31]

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And that feels like it's sticking today through the start of this year?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [32]

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We're not seeing it nudge up, no. No. I mean every site's different, obviously, within there. But we're not seeing a move in trend on that.

And on PX policy, it's almost a divisional policy. So every division has a limit. And those divisions, which perform well, i.e., they have a good turn of PX, they're not trading at a loss, we'll give them a little bit more. And those divisions which don't perform well, because they're not buying it in correctly, we'll give a little bit less, and we'll try and get it under control. Not that it's out of control, but we'll try and rein them back in.

Broadly speaking, that works out. It's been around about 3.5 million per division, which probably gives you scope to get up around about 80 million or so. But we're turning it quite well, PX, Chris. It's about 8% of completions. The holding time's similar to what it was last year at around 15 weeks or so. The loss you see through the income statement, a lot of that relates to the servicing cost of PX. You've got to pay the lawyer. You've got to pay an estate agent. It's kind of an incentive but on a different part of the P&L. So it works well for us.

Do you want to do Artisan?

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [33]

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Just on Artisan, Chris, I think as Glynis alluded to it, we believe we've got embedded savings in the Artisan range going forward, and we're always reluctant to promise you something we can't deliver. And because it's only in its infancy, we think those savings will come out in the fullness of time, which will enable us to maintain our sort of 19.5% margin going forward.

The obvious cost benefits that we're experiencing at the moment is savings on professional fees because we're designing it once; savings on marketing costs because the brochure's done once. So we haven't got 22 divisions doing a new brochure. We think build periods will become shorter, which will save on-site overheads because there will be familiarity in terms of building the same units. We believe there will be reduced maintenance costs in the future. And also, the specification, which is now standard from Newcastle to Bournemouth to Cardiff, that improves our buying power. It gives us consistency. We could show a customer in Milton Keynes the same home as in Guildford in Surrey. It just gives us that flexibility. So the opportunity's significant, but it wasn't inefficient to start with. So I'm always reluctant to say, "Look, Chris, I'm going to save 50 bps on the margin," because the divisions weren't inefficient. Some were, but the majority weren't. So it's just it's the right direction of travel, as Keith would say. It's a good message, and it will improve the numbers going forward.

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Gregor Kuglitsch, UBS Investment Bank, Research Division - Executive Director, Head of European Building & Construction Research and Equity Research Analyst [34]

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Gregor Kuglitsch from UBS. Maybe just a final question, I think you've been quite explicit on the sort of margin trajectory also in the midterm. I guess from our side and, I guess, the market's perspective is how do you factor in the kind of changes to Help to Buy? Because obviously, in the short term, you still have the support, but then in '21, it steps down a bit, obviously, '23 and beyond is quite in the distant future, but how do you budget for that? When you think about -- do you -- are you kind of saying that the Artisan range maybe ramps to whatever, 70%, 80%? You're going to give some of that back through pricing, through incentives, perhaps when the Help to Buy expires? Is that kind of the big-picture thinking? Or...

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [35]

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Can I start and then you do the guesswork with Help to Buy?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [36]

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Yes. Yes, yes.

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [37]

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I always get excited about margin because I get -- we get more conversations about margin than anything else. But where Bellway are in the system in terms of London, and you can see in our presentation that as Nine Elms comes out of the system, our margin comes down. There are other housebuilders that are coming out of London, new and old, where their margins are going up because they've got impaired land in London, because they were too exposed to a particular market. I'd take our position all day long that we've had the good profits at 22%. We're coming down, which is understandable, and we can maintain that margin going forward. Can you just do the bit on Help to Buy on what's going to happen in the future?

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Keith D. Adey, Bellway p.l.c. - Group Finance Director & Director [38]

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I was hoping you would do the Help to Buy bit and I can do the -- look, the reality is when we're buying land now, as Jason alluded to in his presentation, it's more important to get the right product mix, a sellable product mix in there. And to be frank about it, I think we'd rather have a site, which we think sells and it has got robust assumptions on it, at a tad lower margin than pretending that it's 25% and having a load of houses which don't sell. So that's more important for the health of the business. It's getting the interchange between sales rate, which you need as a volume housebuilder and trying to squeeze out the last pitch of a margin on a site, which wouldn't sell. So we're trying to factor that in to our land buying.

You can see what we're trying to do on the cost initiatives going forward. We talk about replacement products to Help to Buy. We're working with our PAs to come up with what the top-up might be, certainly, in 2023 and whether we can do anything in 2021. So there are other things that we can do there as well. What will the margin be in 3 years' time? Look, I don't know is the honest answer, but we're doing what we can to maintain it at that sort of level.

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Jason Honeyman, Bellway p.l.c. - CEO & Director [39]

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All done. Thank you very much. We're here for a while if anyone wants to chat. Thank you very much, indeed.