There was much food for thought from excellent speakers for the 420 members who attended the Society’s recent Annual Conference. ANN-MARIE HARDIMAN reports.
Members were welcomed to the Conference, which took place in Chartered Accountant House in Dublin on October 24, by Society President Micheál O’Connor.
“The theme of this year’s conference – ‘Leading Through Innovation’ – is very close to my heart. Construction and property have a vital role in restoring competitiveness, and surveyors of all disciplines have a role in this,” he said.
He said that the key message from the day was the importance of looking outward. Ireland has helped to build the world, and traditionally this work was done by non-skilled workers, but the situation has changed, with highly trained professionals bringing their expertise to a global stage.
The Government perspective
Minister of State for Housing and Planning Jan O’Sullivan TD was the first speaker of the morning.
Minister O’Sullivan reiterated the Government’s commitment to the construction sector, and complimented the Society on its progressive and forward-thinking approach, saying that the Government values its contribution.
The Minister moved on to discuss the current housing situation, and said it was imperative that our choices are informed by “the errors of the past”.
She strongly disagreed that the apparent housing shortage in Dublin could be solved by zoning more land, or by changing planning regulations, saying: “It’s a good sound bite but not necessarily good policy”. She said that policy should be about building “homes, not just units of accommodation”, and that there had been a failure to accommodate families and build communities.
Economist Colm McCarthy sounded a note of caution in his presentation on ‘Growing the economy without growing the debt’. He offered a brief overview of how volatile the economy has been, and said that there is no evidence of broad-based recovery.
Moving on to discuss housing, he pointed out that the resumption of large-scale emigration, largely among ‘household-forming’ groups in their 20s and 30s, means that population growth has stalled, so there is no general pressure on housing supply.
He disagreed with the Minister’s analysis, saying that restrictive planning is the problem in Dublin. He pointed out that Dublin is one of the lowest density cities in the world, and said that there is no shortage of land – just a shortage of planning permissions. He did agree that mortgage availability would constrain owner-occupier demand.
Barry O’Leary, CEO of IDA Ireland, addressed foreign direct investment (FDI) opportunities for the construction and property industries. The success of IDA policies can be seen in the number of companies that are expanding their Irish operations, e.g., Facebook and Novartis, and significant growth in younger companies, e.g., Etsy.
The construction industry has a vital role to play, with many clients requiring purpose-built facilities. There is also significant uptake of commercial office space in the cities. Many multinationals are consolidating their international operations, and Ireland is competing for this business, but lack of suitable office space – over 100,000 sq ft – is becoming a significant issue.
Tony Ross, Vice President, Cork Operations and Projects Ireland, for Jacobs Engineering, addressed ‘Providing what multinationals need in successful project delivery’. He said that there is still a lot of work in the EU and Ireland, and it is important to emphasise that companies are not looking abroad because Ireland is failing, but rather because of a desire to export Irish construction expertise.
He listed a wide range of customer expectations in the modern business environment, including: wanting more for less; regulatory compliance expertise for the specific jurisdiction; health and safety and environment expertise (Ireland scores very highly here); and, cost control. He had high praise for what he described as “top shelf” Irish professionals, citing the “great talent base”, and reputation in terms of quality and work ethic.
John Mulcahy, Head of Asset Management at NAMA, opened the second session with a wry and insightful presentation on how NAMA is playing its part in Ireland’s recovery. NAMA’s initial activity in terms of asset disposal was outside Ireland. However, with improvements in the Irish market, they have now begun to release Irish properties, and will continue to do so at a rate they feel the market can take. All of NAMA’s residential property portfolio – 10-12,000 properties – is now rented and managed intensively.
The level of occupation is very high, indicating a possible capacity issue in the future. He made some comments on zoning and planning, saying that they must be right for what people want, and include appropriate services. He argued strongly for reliable data to assist in decision making. A 10-year forecast would be desirable, with almost no focus on past events.
The European situation
Thijs Stoffer, CEO of the International Consortium of Real Estate Associations (ICREA), gave a whistle stop tour of the commercial and residential property markets in Europe. He offered a selection of snapshots of the market in different European countries.
These ranged from Germany, where home prices are rising but affordable, commercial markets are stable, and the market is considered attractive to investors, to Spain, where homes are still over-valued, and growing investor confidence is hampered by a major employment crisis. He concluded on a positive note, saying that it seems the crisis is over, and there are opportunities in property in Europe.
He spoke of the need for professionals to have social responsibility, and for credible market data to be made available. Professional organisations, and global standards such as valuer registration, have a vital part to play.
Innovate or die
The final speaker of the morning was Ray O’Connor, President and CEO of Topcon Positioning Systems, who gave a stirring presentation on innovation and growth in the global surveying profession. Ray said that cycles of recession and growth will continue, and companies that fail to innovate will die. Building information modelling (BIM) and technology such as smartphones have massively changed the way we process data, particularly in conjunction with 3D-enabled research and development. These developments are democratising the profession – information is available on all of our devices – bringing down prices and making information accessible (all of Topcon’s software is connected to the cloud). This fundamentally changes the survey workload – office and field are seamlessly connected in real time, so that no one’s working from old information. He said that the quality of data is key; managing data is to manage the future.