Talent is the key for London, LREF hears

Thursday 15 June 2017

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

© Bar Productions

Talent was the thread running through a number of talks at LREF today as the show got into gear – how London can attract, grow and retain it to keep its competitive edge on the world stage.

For the GLA’s Fiona Fletcher-Smith, London’s ability – post-whatever form of Brexit the UK arrives at – to retain its best talent in the construction sector is a huge issue, especially when City Hall’s very conservative estimate puts the ratio of skilled EU workers on the city’s building sites from Europe at 25%. They had been told they were exaggerating, said Fletcher Smith, even though many at LREF might argue it was closer to 70%, she suggested. ‘The issue for London is massive and we must do something about it.’

Fletcher-Smith was speaking after FT economic editor Chris Giles had outlined in his keynote address the ‘good, bad, and ugly’ sides of the current political situation, where it was hard to find clarity, and only ‘charlatans’ were saying they knew precisely what will happen next. While the growth of the economy had been better than expected, uncertainty was hitting property decisions and there had been a cooling reaction to property prices in Thames-side areas and in prime central London. In any case, the economy was only doing well for ‘not brilliant reasons.’ These include the fact that British households have not saved less, at any point in the last 50 years. ‘This is not sustainable, so something has to change’, he said, and ranks alongside other key challenges such as the £50billion bill for Brexit, citizens’ rights, Ireland, financial services and the free trade agreement. The Bank of England forecast, meanwhile, ranges from +5% growth to -2%, so was not a great forecast at all, and simply shows that they too don’t know, said Giles. ‘It’s highly, highly uncertain what is going to happen to the UK economy’, said Giles, although London’s scale and diversity was still likely to keep it ahead of the rest of the UK.

Angus Knowles-Cutler, vice chairman of Deloitte, said that, happily, London had ‘very strong fundamentals’, which are still there. But the impact of technology and automation will have a key impact on employment, and a question remained about what happens to the non-British workers powering much of the economy, with a ‘major skills shortage’ a distinct possibility.

At least, said Fletcher-Smith, there was a glimmer of hope in the fact that the DUP is ‘desperately interested’ in cross-border trade, while London remains ‘open’, and Fletcher-Smith is seeing more ‘serious’ investors and less timewasters’, much of that in the build to rent residential sector. Thalso e logistics and industrial sector is holding up well, she said.

Croydon CEO Jo Negrini said the issue for her authority is what will now happen to government finance, but her cause for optimism was the fact that ‘people are talking to us about proper mixed use again, which is a good thing.’

So, how was London comparing to other world cities? In the first of three International Dialogue sessions, Dr Phillip Bouteiller of TXL Berlin said that ‘the war for talent is on’. There has been a steep rise in numbers of those seeking German nationality, and 60,000 new residents last year were attracted by its status as a ‘liveable city’, with Berlin ‘completely reinventing itself’. ‘It is the European capital of transformation’, he said, with projects such as that to redevelop the city’s 500 ha Tegel airport with a science centre, commercial and production space and 5000 homes. JLL’s Katie Kopec said London had the largest ecosystem for start-ups, which contribute £44bn to the UK economy and there is a ‘honeypot effect’ in tech companies wanting to be around Amazon, Google and Facebook. But the biggest thing London faces is the retention of talent, and where that talent is going to live in an ‘ever more unaffordable place.’ As for Brexit, Bouteiller was unequivocal. ‘I just hope it’s not going to happen’, he said. ‘It’s so horrendously stupid.’

Hong Kong, meanwhile, is concentrating on connectivity through high speed rail links to grow its links to the wider city region, China, and beyond, said Nicholas Brooke, Chairman of the Hong Kong Harbourfront Commission and member of the Commission on Strategic Development. It, too, is redeveloping its former airport, at Kai Tak, as an experimental district for sustainable development. But the ‘connectivity is remarkable’, said Brooke, with the development of 300km/h trains between major cities. ‘Being competitive is a given’, said Brooke. ‘It’s how you remain relevant’.

Crossrail 2’s Michele Dix said the proposed UK line will have 800 stations connecting to one interchange but the difference from Hong Kong is that ‘we don’t own the land’. The key question was how to capture the uplift along the line, given pressures on budgets. The government must act on transport infrastructure, and get behind HS2, Crossrail 2 and the third runway, with perhaps another hub at Manchester, said C&W’s Fergus Keane, in order to stay competitive on the world stage.

New York enjoys more similarities than differences to London, said Carl Weisbrod, immediate past chairman of New York City Planning Commission. So now was perhaps a time to learn more from each other, especially when London does transport infrastructure better than New York, but New York could teach London about its recent major plans for affordable housing. Or it could teach London about the way it is developing by decking over live railway tracks, said Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation CEO Victoria Hills, who has led fact-finding missions to New York to prove that similar schemes are possible on ‘difficult’ brownfield sites such as depots, closer to home. ‘We should be catching that ambition and bringing it back to London’, said Hills.

Finally, Oliver Fursdon, director – London Commercial Development at Savills said the next phases of both New York and London development inevitably focus on transport infrastructure. With the former, the areas around Grand Central Station perhaps have their counterpart around Euston in the latter, or Argent Related at Brent Cross South, and are trying to accommodate the changing demands of occupiers. ‘And a lot of that’, said Fursdon, ‘is about access to talent.’

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 
@davidntaylor

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