New Society President Claire Solon talks about education, housing, Brexit and her love of teaching.

Claire Solon

Claire Solon comes to the role of Society President with a comprehensive list of priorities for her term in office. Top of the list is education, a particular area of interest for Claire, who has previously lectured on masters courses in DIT and currently lectures on the Society’s BSc in Property Studies. She would like to see an increase in the range of courses available to members, which, in her view, has clear benefits for individuals and for the industry as a whole.
“It’s about making sure that members have access to the facilities they require, and that graduates have the abilities and knowledge that the market requires. There are gaps in the training options for property professionals at the moment, and while the SCSI has run a number of courses, I would like us to build on that.”
Claire feels the members of the profession are eager to learn and to expand their knowledge, and this clearly benefits the market as well.
“There is huge diversity within the SCSI, and the number of specialisms needed to work within the sector can be quite daunting.

Claire would also like to see the establishment of a mentoring programme in the Society, where new entrants to the profession, or members who need advice on career progression or other issues, can be put in contact with a more senior or experienced colleague for independent, confidential advice.

Also, people who might be branching into new areas need to be familiar with the work done by other professionals that they will be working with, such as accountants, architects or financiers. While the base product is always property, land or construction, the market is constantly evolving, so [education] is a way of making sure that our members are up to date and fully prepared to deliver the best professional service.”
The Society is looking to expand its offering of courses.
“We’re currently investigating a new course for this year. We had the mechanical and electrical course recently, which was a great success by targeting an area of the market where there was a knowledge deficit. Providing education to specific sectors in the market – where there is a demand for that knowledge – benefits the individual undertaking the course, along with the overall property sector.”
Important to this process is feedback from the industry on what skill set they require, for example in growth areas such as asset and portfolio management.
“There is more financial analysis involved than ever within the industry, for example acting on behalf of receivers or multinational purchasers. Members have had to adapt. If you work in property, you need to be aware of the measures people are looking for – spotting cycles, predicting trends, and producing robust market data.”
During the recession, there was a significant fall-off in young people applying to property and construction-related courses at third level, which has led to a skills shortage in the industry. Postgraduate courses that allow people to upskill and retrain will go some way to addressing this, but there is also a need to present the industry as offering attractive careers to school leavers. For Claire, the situation is a result of a misunderstanding of the cyclical nature of the industry.
“During the recession, we tried to get the message out that the market is cyclical. While the downturn was very hard on those working, or trying to work, it was actually a very good time to get into the profession. By the time students were graduating, it was a different market and those coming through the system now are experiencing those benefits: graduates are being inundated with job offers and there is a shortage in the sector.”
She feels that maintaining a presence in schools, in particular within Transition Year programmes, is vital.
“We need to let them know the variety of opportunities available in this type of career, from the technical to the commercial to the social: that there’s something for everyone.”

Membership
Second on Claire’s list of priorities is increasing member involvement in the Society.
“We are a membership body and we have a very good executive in Merrion Square that works very hard behind the scenes but we are very reliant on member input. Local authorities and other Government bodies consult with us on a regular basis about new legislation and policy, and we need more members to offer their expertise and take part in those consultations in order to improve them.
“The outcomes or purpose of these consultations may not always be obvious to all members but the regulation of the profession, the standards, methodologies, proposed legislation, planning acts – all of these impact directly on the day-to-day work of our members. It is vital that we have the input of members into these processes, as systems can change and it is far better that we are involved in those decisions.”

Commercial office space is still experiencing the results of pent-up demand, although a number of developments are now underway. As Head of Property at Friends First, this is Claire’s area of expertise, and she, like many others, is monitoring the commercial market.

Getting regional members involved is also part of the plan, given the large number based outside Dublin. Claire mentions the Society’s recent member survey as providing a road map for future engagement.
“There was good member input [to the survey]. We need to deliver on that, and that will be the next phase, setting key targets with measureable outputs to make a change across the Society for the betterment of all involved.”
One of the more significant changes to come about so far as a result of this process is the decision to move the Society’s Annual Conference out of Dublin next year and make it an overnight event, which will be held in spring 2017 instead of on the traditional autumn date. The Conference will take place on a Friday, with seminars during the day, a dinner that night, and a seminar/sporting event on the Saturday. Claire believes that this will be a very positive move, and is a response to calls from members to hold more events outside the capital.
“We have listened to members. We will have very high-quality speakers, but it’s not just about that. Contacts are so important in our industry and we don’t often get the opportunity to meet diverse groups of people from different specialist areas, so the Conference will provide that. It is important that members support it, as it is a direct response to what has been requested. Regional CPD events are also a priority.”

Mentoring
Claire would also like to see the establishment of a mentoring programme in the Society, where new entrants to the profession, or members who need advice on career progression or other issues, can be put in contact with a more senior or experienced colleague for independent, confidential advice. It can also work on a peer-to-peer basis if members are faced with a difficulty and need confidential advice.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have people in my professional career to call on when I needed advice, but I’m conscious that not everyone does. People who want to move sectors within the industry but don’t know where to start, or those experiencing a challenge who don’t feel they have the skills to navigate through the issue would benefit from a mentoring scheme. In speaking to members over the past number of months, I’ve found that there is a genuine appetite to be part of something like this.”
This plan is still in the very early stages, but Claire is aiming for the programme to be up and running during her term as President.

With so much uncertainty, and indeed so much work to do to keep the Irish economy on track, the Society’s role as adviser to Government is increasingly relevant. For Claire that means that member involvement in the Society has never been more important.

New brooms?
At the time of our interview, the new minority Government had just been confirmed and the Programme for Government published. For the first time, we have a Minister with responsibility for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney TD, and a list of priorities and aims to ease the housing crisis. Claire feels that the new Government must take the long view in terms of policy development.
“Forecasting and futureproofing are important. The housing issue that we have now did not need to happen to the extent that it has. You can forecast population demographics with some level of certainty, and where you don’t provide a similar number in terms of housing provision, it’s obvious that there will be a problem. I find it very disheartening because while it might not have been totally avoidable, measures could have been taken a few years ago when construction prices were low and people were leaving the country in droves because there was no construction activity. The appointment of a Minister over housing, planning and local government should enable the necessary decisions to be made with control over the relevant areas for a co-ordinated approach going forward.”
For the future, she says that the Government needs to start looking at the medium to long term, and stop being so reactive to market movements. She acknowledges that the Society and other professional groups have been liaising with the Government, putting across the views of professionals and contributing to consultations on the issues, but moving things to a final decision can be complicated.
Unsurprisingly, Claire feels that the new Minister’s first priority must be to “get the right housing built quickly and in the right places”. She feels the second point is vital here.
“Rash decisions create problems in later years. We have to be careful not to put housing where it should not go, and to make sure that the correct facilities – roads, lighting, services – are in place, ideally before the housing is built, and that we follow an integrated approach to the provision of housing. There is a risk that because they’re under pressure to build quickly, it won’t be an overall holistic model; it will be reactive again, and that’s not good for the longer term.”
The provision of social and affordable housing is also critical and past measures by the Government have not produced the results required. Claire repeats her point that Government agencies need to obtain appropriate advice from the different groups involved and act on it. With conflicting views from different interest groups competing for attention, she feels that the quality of the information made available to Government is vital, and that’s where organisations like the SCSI come in. She hopes that factual and unbiased research on house building costs, such as that undertaken by the Society recently, will contribute to this process.

Commercial issues
While the housing crisis is understandably centre stage for the new administration, there’s plenty more happening in the world of construction and property. Commercial office space is still experiencing the results of pent-up demand, although a number of developments are now underway. As Head of Property at Friends First, this is Claire’s area of expertise, and she, like many others, is monitoring the commercial market.
“We’ve seen a massive increase in office rents over recent years and that is likely to continue throughout this year. The rate of growth has been far above average and cannot continue at the same rate. We need to get to a sustainable level because the historic volatility we have experienced, with peaks and troughs, doesn’t work in the market’s favour.”
The retail sector, particularly in Dublin, has also seen significant improvement, with growing demand from international occupiers. Claire notes that retail parks have also been experiencing improvements in rents and capital values, and provide good income yields as an investment asset class that should benefit from improving demographics in the housing sector. Outside the main cities progress is slower, and Claire feels that while there is growth, retail in rural Ireland is unlikely to return to what it was.
“It’s a different market to what it was before the recession. Online shopping and the rise of out-of-town retail parks have changed the landscape. There were also some poor planning decisions made that have significantly impacted a number of provincial towns. Unfortunately the main streets are still suffering due to retail being developed out of town and this will continue to impact on the trading potential of the town centres.”
Particularly in Dublin, there’s no escaping NAMA in all of this, and Claire agrees that they have a strategic part to play.
“They have an important role both in terms of supporting development and provision of finance, and ultimately to exit with the best possible return for the taxpayer. I think the advent of NAMA as a provider of housing is interesting; it is a different type of responsibility but they are in a unique position in relation to controlling or inputting into decisions regarding a huge land bank. It will be difficult to deliver on all of these aims, so how they manage that will be very important.”

Known unknowns
Claire feels that the overall outlook for the property sector is positive, but counsels restraint. There are a number of external risks that could have an enormous impact on Ireland’s recovery, and perhaps we are not giving them the attention we should.
“We are a small rock in a big pond, and while we’re relatively calm and forecasting good returns for property in general, there are international factors at play over which we have no control and which we will be affected by, for example the Chinese economy, the American presidential election and Brexit to name but a few. Historically we have a very volatile property market and we need to bear that in mind.”
The impact of the US election might be hard to quantify, but Claire is more definite about the prospects of a British exit from the EU, and it’s not good.
“It’s a case of wait and see at the moment, but if they leave I don’t think that we have in any way readied ourselves for that possibility as a country. I hope it won’t happen but I think we need to be better prepared for it if it does.”

“While the base product is always property, land or construction, the market is constantly evolving, so [education] is a way of making sure that our members are up to date and fully prepared to deliver the best professional service.”

With so much uncertainty, and indeed so much work to do to keep the Irish economy on track, the Society’s role as adviser to Government is increasingly relevant. For Claire that means that member involvement in the Society has never been more important.
“I meet people at functions and they say: ‘I really should get more involved’. The feedback we give to Government and other bodies comes from our members, so if they have views, they have to express them, through one of our many working groups for example. If something is not working in your sector, make sure the message is passed on. We’re only as strong as our membership base. If we work together, everybody benefits.”

 

Professional
A graduate in property economics, Claire has always been interested in investment. She worked with Bennett Construction as Development Director before moving to the ESB, where she was Head of Estates Management. Late last year she took up her current role as Head of Property at Friends First. These roles have allowed her to work with architects and other design professionals to achieve the best possible design and commercial return for building projects, as well as ongoing asset management functions: “Buildings are going to be there long after we are gone, and to be a success they have to be good for the occupier as well as for the owner”.

Education
Claire currently lectures on Saturday mornings on the Society’s BSc in Property Studies in DIT, and took on the role initially because she was, in her own words “a really bad public speaker”, and wanted to improve. After some initial “absolutely horrible” experiences, she gradually began to enjoy it, and now loves teaching.
“I get a great buzz from people who are genuinely interested in learning. I’ve had to learn so many things the hard way, so it’s great to be able to pass on that knowledge to someone else. It’s very enjoyable.”

Personal background
The youngest ever President of the Society, Claire is originally from Mullingar, but has been based in Dublin for years. She lives in Drumcondra with her partner Ciaran, who works in human resources, and two young children aged almost two and four. With a full-time job, as well as her role in the Society, life is understandably “pretty manic” but that’s the way Claire likes it.
“I would hate to be bored. I like the variety, the cross-pollination between different functions, how every day there is a new challenge. The lecturing has been useful too as I have to keep up to date with areas that I might not encounter in my day job, but which might be relevant at a later stage.”

 

Ann-Marie Hardiman

Ann-Marie Hardiman
Journalist and Sub-Editor with Think Media Ltd.

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