Among the Developers
The property industry met at Kensington Olympia last week. MIPIM (Le marché international des professionnels de l'immobilier), held in Cannes for the last 25 years, came to London for the first time, gathering together ‘all professionals looking to close deals in the UK property market’. Tickets cost £500. (I had a press pass.) Day one kicked off with the announcement of a deal 'to deliver the £400 million Kirkstall Forge development in Leeds'. The large sums of money and vague management speak remained a key feature for the three days of the conference.
The Radical Housing Network organised a protest outside the conference on the first day, accusing the men inside – and they were almost all men – of being responsible for ‘the disappearance of public space and public services, and the displacement and destruction of communities’. They turned up in their hundreds to block Boris Johnson, who was giving the opening speech, from getting in. The mayor got in through a back entrance but the protesters heckled delegates who were queuing to hear him. If you can’t afford to live in London, one of the delegates said, ‘move to the provinces.’ Another punched a protester in the head. The police later confirmed that the man was arrested for common assault.
I went to a talk called ‘What next for housing tax and who is going to pay it?’ It was mostly about the mansion tax. ‘I don’t see why we need yet another tax,’ Marion Cane of the law firm Ernst and Young said. ‘The danger is putting off foreign investors.’ A member of the audience asked: ‘What’s necessary politically to make sure a mansion tax does not happen?... How do you fight it?’ According to Lucian Cook of the estate agent Savills, ‘the great sadness is that the whole taxation of property debate has become hijacked by issues of mansion tax, which is very clearly a politically driven proposal. The majority of the electorate like it because they are not footing the bill.’ Jonathan Rust of Residential Land, one of London's largest private landlords, said that ‘fairness is often a phrase that’s used by people who don’t pay any tax; it needs to be fair for people who do pay tax.’
On the second day I attended a seminar on ‘Exploring healthcare: opportunities for the property industry’, part of a series of talks on ‘alternative property assets’. One of the speakers was Simon Corben from Capita, ‘the UK’s leading provider of business process management’. NHS executives, he said, ‘are under this scrutiny of savings and unaffordable tariffs and they need to change the model of care that they are delivering within their organisation’. There’s a ‘realisation amongst the health service that they simply cannot do this alone’. The private sector would soon be filling the gap left by central government. ‘There is a great opportunity,’ he told the room. ‘We are right on the crest of a wave... I think things are going to change very quickly for the benefit of people in this audience.’ He suggested they ‘educate the NHS’ about the need to sell off its real estate and rent space back from the developers.
Tim Meggitt of Octopus Healthcare talked about the opportunities provided by the UK’s ageing population: ‘There are about 20,000 care homes across the UK; 45 per cent of them are over 40 years old.’ Overall, he said, ‘it’s a great sector, huge opportunities. You have to learn to speak the NHS language. You will get incredibly frustrated, there’s no doubt. But stick at it and there are things to be done.’
What about the politics of all of this, the convenor, Peter Woodward, asked towards the end of the talk. ‘You know yesterday we had the protesters outside: there’s a conversation going on around, which is a feeling of privatising the social space, the social services, it feels if you analyse it, the only way to go in the future but a lot of people aren’t there and that makes life more complicated.’ The architect David Lewis said that 'under PFI things are delivered on time and on budget, so bringing the private sector in is actually a better thing.' Corben said that privatisation should be judged on its results, with the implication that those results were always positive. ‘There’s a bit of lemmings in this and I think now one has landed’ – he was referring to a Capita redevelopment of a hospital in Bristol – ‘I think we’ll see a lot more go through.’
The last event I went to was the MIPIM awards. Michael Heseltine, a key figure in the sale of millions of council houses, was awarded a ‘lifetime achievement award’. ‘My whole career has been about property,’ he said. ‘I love property.’ He got a standing ovation.
The regeneration of Earl’s Court was given the ‘best future project’ award. This 77 acre redevelopment will mean the demolition of two council estates – 760 homes with more than 2000 residents – and the exhibition centre. The new development will have more than 7000 flats and over 80 per cent of these will be sold at market value, a one-bed flat in some of the new schemes costing £600,000; only 11 per cent will be designated ‘affordable’. The Commonwealth Games were given the ‘regeneration project of the year’ award. The project saw entire blocks of flats, streets of houses and rows of shops demolished to make way for stadiums and the athletes’ village, leading to protests and the forcible eviction of residents by police and bailiffs.