Travelling light

Fancy expanding beyond your home market? No problem. Just ask your research department to prepare a comprehensive report on the market and possible acquisition targets, get finance, legal and compliance to investigate local regulations and the money side, and send someone from business development out on a three-month scouting mission to build contacts in the region – your admin support can organise visas and make travel arrangements. But hang on – what if your company doesn’t have a research department, a business development function or large teams of support services, or indeed the cash to make foreign acquisitions? What might be a major undertaking for a large firm can sound impossibly daunting to a smaller one. But there are compelling reasons to take the plunge anyway: UK Trade & Investment says that 90% of the firms it works with fall into the SME category and that, on average, they go on to win £100,000 of new sales within 18 months. In this article for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I spoke to small surveying practices that have managed to successfully expand abroad and found out how they did it.

WSP Genivar Solutions magazine – high-rise special

My company Wordmule produced this 24-page magazine for global engineering consultancy WSP Genivar, exploring the trend for super-tall, super-slender buildings around the world. I planned and wrote all the content, interviewing experts from WSP Genivar and its clients and partners, and my colleague Nick Jones sub-edited the pages. Click here to read about why cities are building towers, the secrets of designing “iconic” buildings, the sustainability of high-rise versus low-rise, and whether there’s any limit to how tall we can go.

Solutions_high-rise special_cover

When God closes a Methodist hall, He opens a megachurch

Picture a church. If you’re thinking of steeples and stained glass, you’re behind the times. Today places of worship are just as likely to look like cinemas, bingo halls, state-of-the-art conference centres or even industrial sheds. In this special report for Estates Gazette, I investigated how changing patterns of worship are altering the property landscape, as Britain’s older religions shed buildings that are increasingly surplus to requirements while newer ones struggle to find venues large enough to house their booming congregations. As well as a fascinating area for social historians and psychogeographers, religious property is increasingly big business. I spoke to property professionals involved in a vast range of deals, from convents and cathedrals to Methodist halls, mosques and megachurches, as well as the man responsible for London’s 36 (but probably falling) Quaker meeting houses and the head of the London Kabbalah centre, where a major extension is on the cards.

And for a different take on religious property, I also interviewed the Church of England’s Church Commissioners about how they manage an investment fund that is on very much the opposite trajectory to its congregation numbers, growing almost 16% during 2013.

Special report on religious buildings for Estates Gazette

The circular economy

It looks like the construction industry is finally out of recession – and facing a whole set of not-so-new issues. I interviewed Tony Giddings of developer Argent for Building about his £1bn pipeline at King’s Cross and elsewhere, and whether he’s concerned about rising costs and finding firms to build it all in a suddenly booming market.

Is it worth having greater freedom to spend fewer resources? Discuss.

Whatever the result of the referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September, the balance of power between north and south Britain is undoubtedly moving in only one direction. From April 2015, Scotland will be able to set its own taxes and borrow up to £2.2bn to fund capital projects, as the Scotland Act 2012 transfers considerable fiscal power from Westminster to Holyrood. Even if Scots vote no to full independence, there’s almost certain to be further devolution, with the main UK political parties all publicly committed to greater Scottish autonomy. But how much more control over its own destiny will an independent, or more independent, Scotland actually have? I spoke to Scots on both sides of the debate to write this piece for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, about the potential impact on property and the balance of power across the UK. They pointed out that formal power and real economic power are very different things, that the Scottish government has never exercised its existing power to raise or lower income tax, and that while Scots like the idea of Scandinavian-style public services, they would be much less keen to pay the taxes to fund it.

BRICs and mortars

How worried should investors be about the apparent resurgence of the Cold War between Russia and the west? Was the dramatic slowdown in Brazil’s economy really just a blip? Is China about to suffer its own subprime crash, and how might a make-or-break general election in India affect its real estate market?

It’s now 13 years since the “BRIC” countries were grouped together by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill. Since his 2001 report, these emerging economies have indeed taken their place among the world’s powerhouses. Their combined GDP has grown more than five-fold and their share of the world’s wealth has increased from 8% to nearly 20%. Even a tiny blip in any one of them sends shockwaves through global markets. With 40% of the world’s population living on more than a quarter of the world’s land area, the BRICs’ growing prosperity made for an apparently unstoppable real-estate boom, barely checked by the global financial crisis. Their demographic momentum and structural undersupply still present undeniable opportunities, but are the rewards high enough to make the risks worthwhile? In this report for Estates Gazette, I examined the prospects for investors in Russia, India and China. (The Brazil section is by EG features editor Emily Wright.)

Spring in the countryside (part II)

Gold bullion, prime London real estate, muddy fields. If it sounds like there’s an odd one out in that list, there is – in recent years, the muddy fields have proved to be a much more lucrative investment than the other two, as a perfect storm of voracious demand and scarce supply has driven land values to an all-time high, with continued annual growth predicted at 6%. As an asset, land has a unique set of characteristics. It is reassuringly tangible and durable, it is finite – they aren’t making any more of it, as the cliche goes – and it can be used in many different ways by different types of investors. Land is also extremely illiquid, and it exerts a powerful psychological hold over its owners, which can foil economists’ best efforts to predict how it will perform. So how long can values really continue to rise? And what does this rush of investor interest mean for the farming industry itself? That’s what I set out to discover in this feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

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…

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.