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.

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