Sunday, 27 May 2012

Vocal minority run the show

There may have been only one woman amongst the 11 property sector panellists at the Annual Conference of the British Property Federation (BPF) the other week, but three other influential women taking part more than compensated for the imbalance. 

Sarah Montague encourages audience participation
The event was hosted by BPF's dynamic Chief Executive Liz Peace and facilitated by Sarah Montague, of BBC's Today programme, who was a tour de force in keeping speakers on track, managing questions from the floor and interjecting typically probing remarks of her own to ensure that the debate never became bland.  As Liz Peace remarked, Sarah Montague may claim not to understand the property industry, but it is patently obvious that she has a far better grasp than many. 

Stephanie Flanders: bumping along the bottom
Another well-known BBC figure, Economics Editor Stephanie Flanders, took the floor to focus minds on the conference theme The Road to 2020.   Introduced by Sarah Montague as the only woman amongst nine senior editors at the BBC – and the sanest - she certainly delivered a clear, down to earth analysis of the current economic situation. To give a taste, she considers the current thinking that the UK is in a double dip to be very misleading. “Double dip implies a roller coaster, with highs and lows. But we have been just bumping along the bottom since 2008.”

The influence of a fourth well-known woman, Mary Portas, became apparent in the first session. After a gloomy keynote speech on what’s happening in retail from Majestic Wine non-executive chairman Phil Wrigley -  unsurprising in the light of the failure of Clinton Cards that very morning -  the Queen of Shops’ business partner Peter Cross of Yellowdoor took a more robust and upbeat view.

Mary Portas: set to revitalise the high street?
“Clone town Britain never delivered exceptional service,” he declared. Welcoming the healthy debate generated by the Portas Review of the future of the high street, and the fact that the government has committed to carrying out her list of 28 recommendations, Peter Cross urged, “Give high streets a fighting chance – after all, landlords don’t want vacant units.” 

As well as  the parlous state of the retail property market, other recurring themes were the economic resilience of London compared with the rest of the country, the resistance of banks to lend money for development even to well founded businesses, the stranglehold of compliance and, particularly controversial, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  The government's objective in setting up the NPFF is to support well-planned, sustainable growth within a streamlined, plan-led system.

“The first draft was dreadful, “ said Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust and sole woman panel speaker, “but at least it now has sustainability running through it.”
Dame Fiona Reynolds: calling for better planning

Liz Peace of the BPF agrees that the revised NPFF is now a more sensible and moderate document but believes that it is critical to move on to how it will work in practice. Given that around half of local authorities have not produced a Local Plan within the past eight years, together with lack of underpinning guidance to support the document, it is difficult to see how to move forward effectively. 

As Liz Peace says, “ Urgent questions remain over how local authorities should determine how many homes and jobs they need, and what the guidance that underpins the NPPF should be."

This apathy amongst local authorities is apparently mirrored by that of the public towards neighbourhood planning - the pillar of the Government's localism agenda - according to the findings of research commissioned by BPF and revealed at the annual conference. Delivered in the session with the million dollar title How do you make development popular?  the research showed that only 12% of respondents would be willing to help prepare such a plan and barely over a quarter (27%) would be prepared to vote in a referendum on whether or not to approve such a plan.

Another key finding is that most of the English public over-estimate how much of England’s land has been developed. A significant majority, 63%, think that more than a quarter is developed and 9% think that three quarters or more is developed.  The actual figure is 10%. 

Engagement and consultation are clearly critical in the development process and there was much emphasis at the conference on communicating effectively. As panellist Dan Labbad, Chief Executive of Lend Lease said, “The new planning law provides a pathway for everyone to confer."   So who were the engaging speakers, apart from the BBC professionals? 

Ben Page: firing on all cylinders
Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos Mori, was the undoubted conference winner. Reporting on the BPF commissioned survey, he delivered a stream of statistics, analysis and wisecracks with great clarity at breakneck speed. His presentation was a master class in how to ask the right questions in the right way to the right group of people in order to acquire intelligence, rather than simple information, and then communicate the intelligence effectively.

For example, the feedback from the 1,699 adults interviewed showed that 49% felt that there was enough development in their area. However, when asked if they would support development if it created more affordable homes for local people 66% said they would, and 61% said they would support more development if it created more jobs. 

Flanders and Peace: comparing notes

In summary, the BPF Annual Conference sent few positive signals. Stephanie Flanders believes that the economic climate is unprecedented, worse than Japan’s lost decade, because there is not only weaker growth but also inflation. “We are all close to the cliff,” was her parting shot in setting the scene.

But Ian McCafferty, Chief Economic Adviser to the CBI, rounded off the conference in a relatively positive way. “We are off the critical list,” he declared, “but in the nursing home.” So let us hope that there are informed and caring staff - and an efficient matron - to assist in the convalescence.

Photographs courtesy of British Property Federation.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The great Arizona road trip - 4

Red Rock Country
Wine, women and (bird)song
After discovering this morning that breakfast does not come with the bed at Kohl’s Ranch Lodge at Christopher Creek in the Rim Country, we check the information about our next accommodation, the Canyon Villa B&B in Sedona. We find that a fine breakfast is definitely included and what is more,  a selection of appetisers is laid out every evening for guests to enjoy with drinks. However, as the owners do not hold a liquor licence, they invite guests to bring their own.

So as we set off westwards from Christopher Creek, we stop at the supermarket in Payson to stock up with fresh fruit,  salad for lunch and wine for the happy hours to come. We find that Safeway this week is celebrating Women in wine, with a discount if we spend more than $18.05. This is an irresistible combination - the enjoyment of trying new wine, at a discount, together with the satisfaction of supporting female enterprise.

It is a little disappointing that all the featured winemakers are from California, particularly as winemaking in Arizona is a fast growing emerging industry with a woman president, Peggy Fiandaca, of its winemakers association.  However, on the basis that we would have other opportunities to imbibe Arizona wine, we choose our bottles and head for the checkout.

The nice young woman on the till identifies our British origins within two item swipes and proceeds to tell us all about her English mother-in-law who hails from Lincolnshire and her plans to go visit.  When it comes to paying, she is concerned that we do not have a loyalty card and will not benefit fully from our purchasing.  Having already learned that we have an American daughter-in-law, she asks for her Zip code to see if she can track down a card number. Despite our assurances that we really are not concerned about Safeway points, she then offers to telephone said daughter-in-law to see if she has a card. On learning that she is currently living in Pakistan, our helpful checkout lady concedes defeat and we emerge at last, clutching our  brown paper sacks.

Setting off northwest through the Tonto National Forest, we pass through the pretty mountain town of Pine and on to Camp Verde, a large and fertile area that has been inhabited for thousands of years.  Fort Verde was established here in 1865 in response to the escalating hostility between the Tonto-Apache and Yavapai Indian population and the increasing number of settlers arriving to farm the region and work the mines. Following the end of raids and the establishment of Indian reservations,  the fort was abandoned in 1882. Nearly one hundred years later local residents formed an association to restore the site as an example of Indian War military architecture,  running a museum, historical re-enactments and educational programmes. 

Keep your eyes on the road!
The landscape changes, with a sudden squall of rain, and signs welcome us to Red Rock Country. As we approach Sedona we realise why friends told us we simply had to visit this region. The scenery is spectacular, and it is a little challenging to focus on the traffic and one-way systems in a town with a backdrop of such extraordinary rock formations. We negotiate through the centre, which is full of tourists and rush-hour traffic, and pick up the road to Oak Creek and our destination just south of the town. 

View from the terrace at Canyon Villa Inn
The Canyon Villa Inn is a comfortable, elegant and deceptively large house with spacious lounge and dining area divided by a double fireplace and windows stretching the length of the wall overlooking the gardens and pool.  Our bedroom is prettily decorated in blue and white, furnished with traditional furniture, the bed piled with more individually designed, intricately decorated cushions than we possess at home and most important of all, has a balcony with a full frontal view of Bell Rock, one of the iconic rock formations of the area.

With a plateful of southwestern canapes, we sample our first wine, a Chardonnay by Meridian Estates winemaker Lee Miyamura. She was bitten by the wine bug on a holiday job in the Napa Valley whilst studying for a degree in microbiology and chemistry.   We meet fellow guests and watch a rainbow arching over the far peaks and the setting sun illuminating the nearby butte  before setting off to a local restaurant for dinner.

Artist at work
The next morning brings clear skies, warm sun and a wonderful dawn chorus which turns into an all day chorus. The  garden is alive with birds, including the brilliant scarlet Northern Cardinal, roadrunners and quail. Large birds of prey circle above, and we see a heron too. This area attracts nearly a third of the 900 species of birds in the United States and Canada - from the miniature hummingbird to broad-winged raptors

Builders at work
Rod sets up his easel on the balcony and begins an oil painting. A few minutes later, we realise that the next door plot is a building site. Spirits droop a little, as we anticipate the birdsong being drowned out by drills, hammering and earthy builders' banter. But to our surprise and relief, this turns out to be one of the most peaceful construction sites we have ever experienced, the two men quietly pouring foundations with occasional murmuring (and no swearing) as they confer over measurements and positioning of reinforcement bars. 

The two days pass enjoyably, with a combination of painting, writing, trail walking, reading some of the books in the well-stocked library in front of the log fire and chatting to fellow guests. We open a second Women in Wine bottle, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Beringer Vineyards. Wine maker is Laurie Hook, whose interest was sparked when she discovered that her family had owned a chateau in France before the revolution. She believes in the importance of science but feels that too much can make a  clean but not very interesting wine.  “Of course you need to understand the process by which wines are made, but now we've learned to trust our intuition as well."

On our last morning in Sedona we stop at a gallery specialising in the work of  local artists, Rod looking for technique tips from some of the remarkable paintings on display. Next door is Garlands Navajo Rugs gallery - we cannot resist taking a look. The craftmanship of the baskets, weavings, jewellery and other work is exceptional, with every piece carrying the name of the artist, reassuring us that they all benefit from the sales. The staff are welcoming and informative. We learn that jewellery is traditionally made by Native American Indian men and the basket making and weaving by the women. I buy a beautiful pendant and earrings, crafted by Curtis Pete from silver set with boulder turquoise, a veined brown grey stone shot with brilliant blue.

Daisy Nockideneh's Tree of Life (courtesy of Garlands).
But I linger longest over the wonderful weavings, particularly the bird pictorials woven by three  Navajo women,  Stella, Alice and Daisy Nockideneh. They are based on the traditional Tree of Life design, showing the rich birdlife of the region clustering around a cornstalk growing from a ceremonial basket. What better record of this extraordinary country, its dawn chorus and the skill of the Native American women?

All photographs by Sandi Rhys Jones