Space: the final frontier

Niall Martin, COO of Mission Therapeutics, is stumped. This comes as little surprise given his company’s business is “developing small molecule drugs to target deubiquitinating enzymes involved in the DNA damage response, with the aim of inducing synthetic lethality”. But that’s not the problem. It’s space. “We’ve got 35 people and we could expand. We’re looking to get finance, we’re looking at grants and deals with other companies, and all of those are bringing in headcount. We could go to 45 within the next few months but we just don’t have the space to do that.”
This is the challenge facing many SME firms in the UK life sciences industry, the subject of this special report for Estates Gazette. The government wants the UK to become the global hub for life sciences, a sprawling £868bn mega-sector spanning pharmaceuticals, medical technology and biotechnology and encompassing everything from hospital equipment and prosthetic limbs to drug development and gene therapy. But SMEs are the lifeblood of the industry, and if they can’t find suitable lab space, they can’t grow. The fundamental problem seems to be reconciling biotech’s dynamism with property investors’ craving for certainty. Laboratories are expensive to build and highly specialised for different fields, but corporate life cycles are short and unpredictable. Firms may swell exponentially when their eureka moment arrives, or disband overnight if it turns into a dead end. So what’s the answer? I spoke to people across the property and life sciences sectors trying to make a breakthrough.

Estates Gazette Life Sciences report

Cars, jewellery, Black Sabbath… prosthetic limbs

The Midlands is renowned for its metal exports in many forms. What is less well known is that it’s the UK’s medical technology heartland, which means it produces quite a lot of hospital equipment and orthopaedic devices too. Medtech is an £18bn subsector of the UK’s life sciences industry, and together, the West and East Midlands are home to 30% of companies. In this piece for Estates Gazette, I interviewed Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham city council, about his mission to raise the region’s medtech profile and the £800m property portfolio he’s identified to do it.

Inside Housing – CIH Manchester 2015 supplement

Inside Housing is the most widely read magazine for the UK social housing sector. I edited a 36-page supplement to tie in with the biggest event in the housing calendar, the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference in Manchester. As social landlords waited anxiously to find out their fate under the new Conservative government, the supplement took an in-depth look at the apparently unstoppable shift of power from Westminster to the regions, and whether councils could ever reprise their role as major housebuilders.

The magazine also included four “sponsored chapters” – bespoke editorial produced in association with a sponsor on a particular topic. The overarching theme inevitably became “doing more with less”, as ever-deeper spending cuts force those providing public services to make some difficult choices.

Inside Housing_CIH special_June 2015

 

“There’s no way you can incentivise the national house builders to have a social conscience”

Last time Britain faced a housing crisis on this scale, it was local authorities that built our way out of it. The days when council building departments threw up gargantuan estates may be long gone, but there has been a quiet renaissance over the last three years as they deliver a small but growing proportion of new homes. Whether this is a scalable part of a long-term solution or just a blip in the continuing decline of council stock will depend on the policies of the new government – and it’s already clear that it’s not going to be easy. I interviewed a man who’s really hoping it’s the former: Eamon McGoldrick, managing director of the National Federation of ALMOs – the arm’s length management organisations that are responsible for most of this housebuilding. The article appeared in Inside Housing magazine, in a supplement which I also edited.

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.

Cover of Concrete Quarterly Summer 2015

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 April 2015

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.