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.

Renting for eternity

Imagine a world where a manufacturer is happy to exchange a product after 10 years, and not because there’s anything wrong with it, simply because a better version has come on to the market. It may sound far-fetched but this is a serious idea proposed by some of construction’s soberest minds. It’s part of a concept known as the “circular economy”, which severs the link between economic prosperity and resource consumption and transforms the traditional linear process of “take-make-dispose” into a closed loop where no resource is wasted and everything is reused or recycled. As one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries, construction is an obvious place to start. Buildings would be designed to be more adaptable and durable, and eventually to be disassembled into components and used again. Rather than selling products, manufacturers might undertake to provide a guaranteed level of service, upgrading components as more efficient ones become available and taking back the old materials.

It’s a million miles away from today’s consumer society, but something about the circular economy seems to have captured the popular imagination and there are signs that it is making the leap from deep-green niche to the mainstream. But can construction products – and buildings – really be recycled as easily as cans of coke or cars? In this piece for Construction Manager, I found that it demands a radical shift in not only the way buildings are designed and constructed, but also how they are financed, insured and even owned. As Jane Thornback at the Construction Products Association pointed out, “If somebody’s designing something with a brick, who owns it? The people who made the brick, the people who made the brick into something else, or the people who demolish the bricks 300 years later?” How could a manufacturer guarantee they’d be around in 10 years to honour that service contract? And what happens if they go bust – would the receivers want to demolish your house to recover the assets…?

The door-to-door slave trade

In the UK, we tend to think of worker exploitation as something that happens somewhere else. A string of reports have revealed appalling conditions on construction sites across the Gulf states, most recently on the World Cup 2022 venues in Qatar, but there is ample evidence of thousands of forced workers much closer to home, often right under our noses.

Construction has been repeatedly highlighted as an industry where demand for casual workers and opaque supply chains are a gift to unscrupulous gangmasters. It’s not only among door-to-door hawkers like the Connors family, who picked up vulnerable men from the streets and forced them to work long, back-breaking days while they lived in luxury. Forced labourers have been found on some of London’s most prestigious sites, run by major national firms, according to the head of the Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit.

As the government prepared to launch the Modern-day Slavery Bill, I investigated the scale of the problem for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I asked what property professionals can do to uncover and prevent abuse, how they can make sure that their own “value engineering” doesn’t result in mistreatment further down the chain – and how the government’s declarations of intent on modern-day slavery square with cutting red tape and funding for the body established to prevent it.

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.

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.

What if… The world at US$200 a barrel

During 2012, the UK consumed 1,468,000 barrels of oil every single day, according to BP. So what would happen if the price of those barrels, currently just above the US$100 mark, were to suddenly double, or even triple? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility – oil prices peaked at US$145 in July 2008, and though fracking may appear to have averted an imminent peak in the oil supply, the majority of proven reserves and many supply lines remain located in some of the world’s most volatile regions. Oil plays a role in practically every aspect of modern life, which means that a major price rise would surely have profound consequences. Exactly what those consequences might be is the subject of this October cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the RICS.

Croydon, your time has come

Empty offices + housing shortage = office to resi conversions. It must have sounded like a simple enough sum to government ministers when they announced a temporarily relaxation in planning rules to allow commercial buildings to be changed into homes. As usual, the devil is in the detail. The strength of opposition to the policy certainly took them by surprise, and the version finally brought in from May 2013 is heavily watered down. But despite dystopian warnings from local authorities, it’s not only unlikely to transform the hearts of Britain’s towns and cities – conversions will only take place at all in a very specific set of financial, technical and political circumstances. I investigated the opportunities for the RICS magazine, Modus.