CURTINAs he takes on the role of President of the new Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, ANN-MARIE HARDIMAN spoke to John Curtin about his hopes for the Society and the industry.

The merger of the IAVI and SCS was a momentous development for the construction, land and property sectors, and no one is more aware of this than the new Society’s first sole President, John Curtin.

He is very keen that the Society should consolidate its position during the coming year, and this is a major goal for his presidency.

“I think that what I need to do as President is ensure that we ‘bed in’ as a new Society. I don’t think it’s a year for setting new, externally driven goals, but rather for ensuring that everybody understands what the Society is about, providing support to members, and using our resources to offer the appropriate advice to Government, and other stakeholders.”

Involving members
Key to achieving this goal is member involvement, and John is very keen that all members see themselves as part of the new Society, rather than as coming from one ‘side’ or another.

“I’m particularly keen on volunteerism. We have a structure in the Society that is driven by corporate governance, and says how many people sit on a committee or Council and have a vote, and it’s rigid, because corporate governance demands that it be rigid, but I’d like to see more people involved in committee meetings, even those who may not have a vote. That’s one of the ways I hope to achieve the goals: to have lots of people involved. The more volunteers the better.”

He is very happy with the way the merger has progressed and feels that all outstanding issues have now been dealt with, and that the Society’s structures are more than equal to dealing with any unforeseen issues that might arise.

“I never cease to be bowled over by the enthusiasm and the energy that I find in Merrion Square. But I am conscious of the need to keep that momentum going.”

He cites as an example the planning for this year’s conference:

“Whereas the IAVI and the SCS would have organised their conferences in differing particular ways, I believe what we have now is the best of both”.

Governing construction
In what are clearly extremely challenging times for the industry, John acknowledges that the new Government has a crucial role to play, but feels that it’s too soon to pass judgement on their performance. In terms of the actions the Government needs to take, John places the emphasis firmly on job creation.

“The construction industry is a labour-intensive industry. An unemployed construction worker costs the State money; if they are employed, they generate income.”

New legislation is also critical, such as the Property Services (Regulation) Bill, which the Society feels must be progressed as soon as possible.

“We think the country needs it, particularly because it also encapsulates the property statistics that we believe are very important.”

The Construction Contracts Bill falls into this category too, and while it is a step in the right direction, the Society would like to see some changes.

“There is widespread support for the principles contained in the document – certainty of payment, certainty of time of payment, and an adjudication process that can resolve disputes quickly. These are all laudable. However, it’s designed to help sub-contractors primarily so that they don’t get bullied and receive their money on time. But it currently provides only for contracts that are over €200,000, which means that a huge amount of small businesses will never have the protection of the Act. That really needs to change.”

He is also somewhat sceptical of the Government’s new jobs initiative, as it applies to construction and infrastructure, feeling that the school building package in particular is simply a repackaging of existing funds. The Society also awaits with interest the decisions on the various transport initiatives, but more will need to be done.

“What we’d like to see is investment, ideally from external sources because we don’t have huge resources within the State. The Society was involved in the Construction Industry Council report, where we hoped to obtain investment from pension funds. That hasn’t been successful so far, and perhaps merits a second look, but certainly investment in jobs is critical for us.”

The other big player in the property business at the moment is, of course, NAMA, and John is of the view that: “Their work is being done in a very methodical, considered way. However, I wonder if things could be done a little quicker?”

He emphasises that he is not critical of NAMA, but points out that there is a lot at stake:

“We’ve got to get this NAMA project right. I think when they do move it will ultimately be good for the property profession and the industry. It will help to set a floor on the market to the extent that it involves selling off properties, and this is vital to get things moving”.

Advising the Government
One of the new Society’s main aims is to provide information and assistance to Government on issues relevant to construction, land and property, and John feels that the Society’s unique position will mean that its views will be taken seriously.

“Our Memorandum and Articles of Association as a charity state that we will act in the public interest. Unlike other organisations that represent the economic interests of certain professions, we come to the table with the public interest at the core of what we’re doing.

“While it’s all very well to have such aspirations in one’s Memorandum and Articles, I genuinely believe the transparent way the Society engages with Government has supported these principles and, indeed, I do believe our bona fides are accepted by Government.

“We’re now able to do more and better targeted research, so hopefully we’ll be seen as more important and more relevant. Of course, the Government will have competing interests and may not always accept our advice. But we are heartened that we do get a good hearing and they do consult with us on a variety of topics.”

It’s the economy!

As a nation we all take a keen interest in economic matters these days, and listen to the pronouncements of the various ‘celebrity’ economists with varying levels of interest and trepidation. At the time of this interview, Morgan Kelly’s stark prescription is very much in the news, but John is not enirely convinced.

“There’s something very attractive about taking all your medicine in one year, provided that your body is able to take it. However, I would be concerned as to our ability to withstand such a large dose of medicine. If we take so much money out of the economy, what will that do? How many people will emigrate? How vulnerable are the greater public? I fear for what might happen in such circumstances and I wonder if the economists really know all the implications?”

John feels that the industry is “trundling along the bottom of a cycle” at the moment, and that recovery may be some time away. However, he is hopeful that things will improve, and is anxious to send a positive message to members.

“We can’t just sit back and wait for economic recovery – we need to get out in the market. I think we sometimes don’t recognise that we have a tremendous service to offer. The Society has a number of initiatives through volunteers in the professional groups to try and help, particularly smaller firms, to market their services. Chartered Surveyors are in a position to offer a one-stop-shop to anybody coming to the industry. By contacting your Chartered Surveyor, you’re able to start on day one, from valuation, to design, planning permission, project management, construction and agency. We need to get that message to the public.

“Our members are not always proactive about selling our services. I sometimes think we hide our skills under a bushel, but we have a tremendous ability to provide a huge amount of services.”

Ann-Marie HardimanAnn-Marie Hardiman
Ann-Marie is a journalist and sub-editor with Think