What if the press got hold of it?

Managing conflicts of interest is a fundamental ethical challenge for the surveying profession, and one that arises on a daily basis at firms large and small, as I found out for this business advice piece for Modus magazine. Impartiality has never been more important, or more under scrutiny: the internet and a relentless 24-hour news cycle have made public life increasingly transparent, while a long list of scandals, from the collapse of Enron to MPs’ expenses and LIBOR rigging, have severely dented confidence in traditional institutions. In response, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is undertaking a major review of its guidelines – conflicts of interest account for a very small number of complaints against RICS members but it expects this to increase as awareness grows. I interviewed its head of regulation about how members can protect themselves, why client consent is not enough, and applying the “Daily Mail test” to every decision.

Billion-dollar arguments

In good times or bad, wherever there is a building site, there is almost certain to be an argument about payment. Very low margins, long payment chains and “risk dumping” on subcontractors are common causes, but the complexity inherent in even the simplest building projects can lead to conflict. So perhaps it’s no surprise to hear of the rise of the “mega-dispute” where the sum contested is in excess of US$1bn– the natural consequence of the rise of the global mega-project, with firms from many countries working together to deliver massive infrastructure schemes. Whether conflicts are resolved swiftly or escalate into protracted court battles is down to specialists in dispute resolution, a dynamic and evolving field – and probably the most stable job in construction. In this article for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I investigated why construction remains such a contentious industry and whether alternative approaches to dispute resolution could help.

Concrete in disguise

Concrete is a slippery, shape-shifting thing in the summer issue of Concrete Quarterly magazine, which my company Wordmule produces on behalf of the Concrete Centre. It scales great heights as a super-slender New York skyscraper, takes on the surface texture of wood in a new office interior, assumes a quiet dignity for two World War I memorials, conceals hidden pipes for low-energy heating and cooling, and camouflages itself beneath a wildflower meadow for a green roof in London.

CQ Summer 2015_cover

The new tycoons

I tracked the world’s property wealth to research this infographic for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. By far the greatest concentration is in state hands: the world’s biggest property owners are the growing number of massive sovereign wealth funds and even bigger state pension funds. As of 2015, there were 77 SWFs controlling total assets worth US$7071bn, and by the end of 2013, the world’s 300 largest pension funds held US$14.9trn – two thirds of this in the hands of public institutions. Cross-border investment is an increasingly dominant force across the globe, but especially in London, where three quarters comes from overseas and funds rush from far and wide to cement their wealth in its bricks and mortar. In the capital’s property market, retired American teachers are a surprisingly dominant force, though they face stiff competition from such diverse buyers as Italian insurers, Quebecois developers and future generations of Malaysians…

Modus_Wealth infographic

Crossrail: 40 years young

Last year marked an important milestone for Crossrail: its 40th birthday. London’s new east-west link was first proposed in the 1974 London Rail Study, even if it only broke ground 35 years later, after decades of reports, failed legislation and repeated balking at the high costs of the scheme. This is a tediously familiar tale in the recent history of the UK’s transport infrastructure. There has been a consistent lack of political will to push through major projects, leaving strategically important schemes mired in the planning system or dropped abruptly with a change of government. As a result, the UK lags behind other developed nations – ranked ninth overall in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, but only 27th for the quality of its transport network.

Transport is essential to the UK economy, and there is an urgent need for investment in roads, rail and airport capacity to ease congestion, support growth and accommodate 10m additional citizens by 2035. It is a critical juncture for key projects including HS2, Crossrail 2, much-needed rail improvements in the North and airport expansion in the South-East, and if the UK is not to grind to a halt in 20 years’ time, we have to start now. Political consensus and stability will be essential to delivering these aims – but unfortunately, we are a month away from the least predictable general election in decades. In this article on the next government’s transport policy for Estates Gazette, I assessed the prospects for a very uncertain future.

Why some Nigerians won’t buy their clothes in Nigeria

South Africa has a population of 53m and at least 80 grade-A shopping centres over 30,000m2. Nigeria, on the other hand, has around 170m people and just two completed malls to the same standard, neither of which are larger than 25,000m2. This is the kind of statistic that makes real estate investors’ mouths water when they look at Africa, even if many have yet to bite. Foreign direct investment into the continent still accounts for less than 4% of global capital flows, but it has grown steadily to reach US$57bn in 2013. A resource-rich continent greater in size than the US, Canada and China combined, Africa’s development potential is staggering. But while its significant fossil fuel and mineral deposits may have been the main target for foreign investment to date, its real potential lies in its people. In this article for Modus, magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I spoke to investors and surveyors across the continent about the opportunities – and whether Africa’s growing middle classes really want so many new shopping centres.