Margareta Pagano: UK bosses sip champagne with hope in their hearts – but concern in their minds
Industrialists turn out in force for The Spectator's annual bash, but beneath the fun there lurks a more sombre mood
Sunday 04 July 2010
It was all sweetness and light, and delicious Pol Roger champagne, at the Spectator party on Thursday evening as Britain's top industrialists came out in force for what is still one of the most sought-after soirée tickets of the summer season.
Sir Stuart Rose, the chairman of M&S, used the occasion to show off his new chief executive, the charming Marc Bolland, to his fellow party-goers, who included Archie Norman of ITV and Sir John Rose of Rolls-Royce. From the political side, there was a good showing too, with David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg popping by together, like the three musketeers for a quick tour de force, while Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and Communities and Science ministers Eric Pickles and David Willetts were clearly there for the duration.
As you might expect, there was a lot of quiet back-slapping, the business leaders congratulating the politicians for delivering the toughest Budget for generations and showing their support for the coalition. But under the canopy of the trees at the back of the garden, the mood was more sombre. All the businessmen I chatted to were, privately, far more pessimistic about the outlook than they want to confess publicly; not because they are dishonest, but because they don't want to undermine the fragile public confidence.
"We've hope in our hearts but concern in our minds," is how one of them put it to me. To a man, they back Osborne's cuts as the only way to get Britain's economy moving again, but fear it will be years before we see the benefits coming through. However, they are nervous of the impact which the inevitable job losses will have on society: no one wants a rerun of the bloody 1980s, or the prospect of Bob Crow leading the unions out in mass general strikes, as he has threatened, against what he so wrongly describes as "fiscal fascism". Mr Crow, take note, fascists don't shrink the state.
One of the UK's most successful bosses – who doesn't wish to be named here – was also the gloomiest; not a good sign as he's also among our biggest employers, working in sectors which could be providing strong growth. "If private companies couldn't create more jobs in the boom of the last decade, how are we going to do it in these conditions?" he asked. It's the right question; and, frankly, it's not one that anyone dares answer yet. Osborne is betting the house on creating the best conditions possible – low interest rates, lower taxes and less regulation – so that companies will grow again to make up for the loss of the 700,000 jobs set to go from the public sector. Economist Dr John Philpott reckons 3 million will be without jobs by 2012, so private companies need to start motoring pretty smartly.
What would help? Most of the business leaders I spoke to are quite rightly obsessed by improving our vocational training. They want our schools, colleges and universities giving better advice to our youngsters on the A-levels they could be taking, encouraging them to take more science subjects – possibly by rigging the market by giving credits – and persuading them of the merits of vocational training rather than dud university degrees which are leaving so many of our graduates unemployable, beneath piles of debt.
Sir John at Rolls-Royce, who employs hundreds of apprentices each year, made the most interesting point that about half of all Rolls-Royce's apprentices go on to take degrees or to further education, proving how vocational training can be seen as the start of an education and not as a dead-end for the less able. They also want better ways for universities to work more closely with business; they should look at the Massachussets Institute of Technology where alumni companies generate world sales of $2trn (£1.3trn), making them equal to the world's 11th-biggest economy. Another businessman keen to improve the UK's skill base is Dick Olver of BAE Systems, our biggest employer of engineers, and who will be announcing next week the results of work with Cambridge University for a new 2020 skills scheme aimed at improving manufacturing.
There's no doubt this recovery is going to be slow and painful but, who knows, we might even start making more things again.
Knightsbridge moves to Hampstead as property developers make a mint
In north London, property developer Paul Eden has sold two top-of-the-market mansions for £12m each to rich foreign tycoons, for cash. Eden tells me he has several more luxury homes coming on to the market, which have already sparked interest from overseas buyers, mainly Russian and other Europeans. As he puts it; Knightsbridge has come to Hampstead. Minerva also made a killing last week, selling another 11 luxury flats at its Lancaster Gate development in west London, which means half of the 77 flats have now gone, for around £230m. Minerva's boss, Salmaan Hasan, is as sanguine as Eden, claiming he has masses of demand for the rest as there's an acute shortage of high-end homes in the capital.
London really is another country – estate agents Knight Frank say luxury homes in the city are increasing in value twice as fast as in the rest of the UK. Although below the 2008 peak, prices have risen by 20 per cent from a year ago. Foreigners are buying 60 per cent of all houses sold in the poshest areas with Russians being the single biggest group, followed by Americans and Italians.
It's not just London suffering from short supply. Only last week, Taylor Wimpey warned that shortages of land with planning consent, and proposed changes to the planning laws by the coalition – giving powers back to councils – are threatening all house-builders. So it will be interesting to see what Bovis and Persimmon have to say about the new planning laws when they give trading updates this week. It's one of the issues I was chatting to Eric Pickles about at the Speccie party; he assured me that fears over land shortages are being overdone because councils will be offered enough incentives to make them release land. Time to get back into house-builders? Taylor's directors certainly think so – they were busy buying shares at 25p on Friday.
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