How can local government and the construction industry work together to offer opportunities to local people? Learn about the transformative work of the Building Lives Academy in North Kensington.

On September 22nd 2022, Michael Blake, Head of Social Investment at Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) moderated a PX Conversation to discuss the creation and running of the Building Lives Academy in North Kensington. Michael was joined by Martine Corbett, Training Programme and Social Value Manager at Willmott Dixon, Molly Pritchard, Social Investment Officer at RBKC, and Maria Roye, Traineeship and Employer Engagement Manager at London Learning Consortium.

Aimed at local residents aged 16-25, the Willmott Dixon Building Lives Academy is an exciting new pre-employment programme in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Over eight weeks, students gain knowledge and experience to start a career in construction and logistics. The fully-funded course provides learners with a range of qualifications, including Level 1 certificates in Basic Construction Skills and Employability Skills. The programme also offers courses in Digital Skills, Maths and English, and work experience with Willmott Dixon at one of the Council’s new home construction sites.

“Expect the unexpected and have a really open mindset. Listen to the people you’re working with as you’re not an expert in everything.”

Martine Corbett, Willmott Dixon
The empty space on 279 Kensal Road before it became the Building Lives Academy. Credit: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Conversation highlights

The panel kicked off with an overview of the project and the various motivations for it being launched.

Molly from RBKC explained that in late 2020, the Council wanted to pilot a social investment lease, giving favourable rental rates in exchange for pre-agreed social outcomes. At the same time, Willmott Dixon came on board to deliver new housing for the borough, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to marry the two projects. A new iteration of the existing ‘Building Lives Academy’ programme was set up in a vacant site on Kensal Road, with training provided by London Learning Consortium.

Martine from Willmott Dixon explained that in the past, the programme had been run out of a site cabin, with people from the community referred by the local job centre. “It worked very well from the cabin, but to actually have a space within the local community that was allocated specifically for training was a fabulous opportunity for us.” Locating the Building Lives Academy on Kensal Road instantly increased its visibility. “I think that because of where it is in the community, people walk past it, and there’s a conversation going: ‘What is it? What’s going on in there?’. The community can understand what it is. They can find out more about it, they can think of people they might know who can actually be referred onto the programme.”

The programme was the first of its kind in offering both construction-specific and general employability training over a longer time period than previous iterations. Martine shared that while she was initially concerned about the breadth of the training, it has ultimately been very successful: “Maria and her team have made it such an inclusive programme. It’s not just the training and qualifications that people are gaining, but also self-esteem.”

Michael asked the panel what the key factors were in getting the programme off the ground, and to share some of the barriers that they faced.

Molly explained that there were both challenges and benefits to it being a pilot project. The fact that this was her team’s first experience of working in property caused some difficulties as they didn’t know about all of the processes and timescales involved, such as how long it would take to get power installed or difficulties in setting up a social value lease with their legal team. Running a pilot programme was also quite liberating however: “Because it was a pilot, we were given a degree of freedom to innovate, to experiment, and also to fail, which sometimes in local government you’re not always given.”

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The Building Lives Academy training hub by Willmott Dixon and London Learning Consortium

Looking to the future, the project team shared their hopes for how the project might develop. All agreed that they would like the site to be more accessible, retaining the informal atmosphere that has been created, but providing more inclusive facilities. The hope overall is for the site to become permanent.

“The location of the space is ideal”, shared Maria, “It’s right opposite Kensal Green Job centre, and we’ve got a lot of people aged 16-25 in the area who are unemployed but looking to get into the construction industry. The learners who have come through this space have come from challenging backgrounds. They have enjoyed being there, and are very well looked after. The only thing I’d add is an extra room!”

The conversation ended with participants sharing some of the key lessons learnt from the project, from the aspirational to the deeply pragmatic.

“Make sure if you’re delivering a programme that you’ve got a good internet connection!”, shared Maria. Molly suggested keeping an open mindset: “Just try it. Open yourself up to things, because you’ll never know the impact you might have without trying.”

“Expect the unexpected and have a really open mindset. Listen to the people you’re working with as you’re not an expert in everything.” Martine Corbett, Willmott Dixon

“Education and patience are the two things that are a necessity. Your organisations may be at different stages, sometimes when you do this kind of work it’s bread and butter to you, but rocket science to someone else. Make sure you have patience in terms of signing off, compliance and governance.”

Michael Blake, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea


  • Maria Roye, London Learning Consortium
  • Molly Pritchard, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea
  • Martine Corbett, Willmott Dixon
  • Michael Blake, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea


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