Spring in the countryside (part I)

Scarlett O’Hara’s dad knew what he was about. When he told his sceptical daughter that land was the only thing worth having because it’s the only thing that lasts, it took her more than three hours, a civil war and several husbands to come round to his way of thinking. But were he investing in the UK today, O’Hara senior would have no doubt felt vindicated. Land has weathered the recession better than anything else, not only holding its value but increasing it almost three-fold over the last ten years, as investors of every kind have piled into the market. In this special report for Estates Gazette, I investigated the extraordinary success of rural land, and what could check its progress, from the abolition of inheritance tax relief to Scottish independence.

Also included: an interview with James Townshend, CEO of Velcourt, one of Britain’s biggest farming businesses, who said that advances in biotechnology should increase productivity by 25% within the next ten years.

Meet your future landlords

When international investors go in search of real estate, the question is not if but when they’ll come to London. The UK capital’s stability, transparency and liquidity have made it a magnet for money – private, institutional or sovereign – from every continent. In 2013, foreign buyers were responsible for more than two thirds of commercial property investment, with established sources of capital competing with newer ones, predominantly from the Far and Middle East.

So where will the next wave come from? Ultra-high-net-worth individuals may hail from anywhere, but the greatest concentrations of wealth tend to be where there’s either a lot of resources, as with the oil riches of the Middle East and Central Asia, or a lot of people – the pension savings of the growing middle classes in China, Malaysia and Korea. In this feature for Estates Gazette’s MIPIM issue, I identified five countries set to be the most significant new entrants over the coming decade – a world tour that took in Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Brazil and, still some way off, Iran…

Time in loo

How many times do school children go to the loo each day? A lot less than everyone thinks they do, it turns out. It may sound like a trivial preoccupation, but it’s crucial when it comes to working out how much water schools can save by installing efficiency measures in toilets, and whether it’s worth their while to do it. The standard assumption is three trips a day, but one survey found that it’s closer to once, if at all – which means that the possible savings are massively overestimated, by a factor of up to six. This is just one of eight “sustainability myths” I discovered in this feature for Construction Manager – accepted practices in green building that don’t necessarily do what they promise. Also revealed: why low-carbon houses can cost more to heat than gas-guzzling ones, why domestic rainwater harvesting systems aren’t worth the hassle, and what to look out for if you’re buying a super-insulated modern flat…

Citizens versus consumers

The Occupy movement may have yet to topple global capitalism, but its four-month encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral did raise awareness of something else: the growing power of private corporations over apparently public space. The protesters originally intended to pitch their tents outside the London Stock Exchange at Paternoster Square but were moved on when the owner secured a court injunction. It turned out that this space was private property, and that the public use it only as a “privilege”, which may be revoked at any time. Private ownership of public spaces is not a new phenomenon – the UK has always been a tapestry of leaseholds and freeholds held by landed estates, financial institutions, private and public sector organisations. What is new is the large-scale management of the public realm by private companies, and the ambiguity over whose rules apply in any given space. Supporters argue that it doesn’t matter who is responsible for a space, as long as it is maintained properly and managed with the community in mind – landowners and businesses have a greater interest and deeper pockets than local authorities. Critics fear that creeping privatisation suppresses democratic freedoms and promotes a narrow consumerist agenda, and point to petty restrictions on cycling or taking photographs and an overbearing security presence.

In this cover feature for the March issue of Modus (the magazine of the RICS) I asked property and policy experts why public bodies are so keen to cede control of public spaces, and what the long-term consequences might be.