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Crossrail: Britain’s biggest archaeological dig will transform London

November 28th, 2013 Comments off

Crossrail is not just about engineering: artists, designers and archaeologists are all involved in the £15bn new railway. The amazing tunnel-boring machines now approaches halfway.

Sometimes, when flying over a landscape, you see a seam of unexpected fecundity – lush trees, richer green – that indicates the presence of water or a change to a more fertile soil. Something similar is happening across London. If property values could be made visible (and often they are, by increases in new construction), you would already see a long strip of intensification, in a city that already is hardly a desert, running from east to west. Over the next few years, it will become more and more apparent.

Crossrail workers celebrate completion of the eastbound cavern 40 metres beneath Stepney GreenThis is the effect of the underground Nile called Crossrail and it will show what happens when £14.8bn of public money is streamed underground in order to irrigate a city and its development opportunities above. Its current signs include diversions, closed roads, trucks of dirt scaring cyclists, references in estate agents’ particulars, fluorescent-suited workers, hoardings that give no clue to the chasms behind them, informative graphics and the saturated light that shines in computer-generated images of future buildings. Also such things as a once-ramshackle city farm in Stepney, east London, now spruce and confident, various redecorated community centres and support for a literary festival in Islington. This is due to a programme which obliges Crossrail’s contractors to make donations to the communities in which they are working.

Whether Crossrail is value for money is disputed or, according to one expert, unknowable. What it is is a line or, rather, a stretched, horizontal letter Y that runs from the gin-and-golf territories of Maidenhead in the west, through Heathrow airport, and then the dense mass of underground tunnels that already serve the West End and the City of London. It continues east, nourishing property development as it goes, and bifurcates beneath that city farm. The northerly arm goes on past 2012-land, stopping at Stratford, the place where in the name of regeneration almost every new London railway in the last two decades has been obliged to call, before heading off to the Essex suburb of Shenfield. The southern arm burrows under the Lehman-haunted blocks and towers of Canary Wharf, crosses the Thames and finds a place, Woolwich, that benevolent transport initiatives have until now mostly forgotten.

This branch ends at Abbey Wood, in a part of south-east London whose hills and woods, if it were not also the most forgotten corner of the capital, could almost be as famous as Hampstead’s. Abbey Wood is also close to Thamesmead, the 1960s utopian-dystopian new town (they filmed Clockwork Orange there) that, along with Canary Wharf, the Olympic Park and Heathrow airport, makes the Crossrail route into a tour of government-encouraged megaprojects.

It is a heavy railway running through the middle of a city whose 200m-long trains will carry up to 1,500 passengers, which is nearly twice as many as existing tube trains, 24-30 times per hour. This means that, if you stand on a platform in, say, Bond Street at a busy time, the contents of a Premier League football stadium could go past you in 60 minutes. Crossrail is 118km long, partly with the help of reusing existing track, but also with 42km of new tunnels. It promises to increase London’s public transport capacity by 10%, and dramatically reduce journey times: 26 minutes from Bond Street to Heathrow, seven minutes from the City of London to Canary Wharf, 40-50 minutes from its extremities in Essex and Berkshire to the West End.

The vast cavern beneath Stepney Green where the line divides into two spurs, to Abbey Wood and to ShIt comes with obligatory superlatives. It is the largest infrastructure project in Europe, costing more, for example, than the London Olympics. Less expectedly, it claims to be the largest archaeological site in Britain, an inadvertent probe through a plague pit, a Roman road, a madhouse cemetery, a Mesolithic “tool-making factory”. It is, apparently, the largest art commission in Britain: Crossrail is an urban and a cultural event, as well as engineering.

“Because we believe,” goes the official explanation, “in the value of art and architecture, place-making and cultural identity, we have established the Crossrail Art Programme, bringing together world-class architects and designers, business-world sponsors, artistic creativity and local identity.” Partnerships have been formed with some of London’s most famous galleries: the Lisson, White Cube, Victoria Miro, Sadie Coles and Gagosian. One of the resulting works has so far been revealed: Cloud Index by the American artist Spencer Finch. Here, images of clouds, “in the tradition of Turner and Constable will be embedded into the 120m-long glass canopy of Paddington’s new Crossrail station, with 25 different types identified”.

Above ground, Crossrail is a cross-section through steep gradients of wealth and property, suburb and city, world-famous cityscape and obscure brownfield. Below, such distinctions disappear. It is a uniform republic of artificial light, grey-brown mud dotted with orange workers and puddled here and there with water. There is precision and roughness, both engineered machinery and expedient temporary structures of nailed-together planks. After grinding through virgin muck for several miles, the tunnels arrive within 5mm of their intended position. At Tottenham Court Road, Crossrail’s construction had to pass within 80cm of the Northern Line’s tunnel, a feat that in engineering terms involved both the accuracy and potential for disaster of William Tell’s thing with the arrow and the apple.

Everyone has been drilled in safety procedures and wears the helmets, glasses, jackets, gloves and boots now obligatory on building sites, while also carrying metal tags, as miners do, which means they can be identified if incinerated. For additional insurance, the entrances to excavations are watched over by statues of St Barbara, patron saint of tunnelling. Workers won’t go in unless tunnels have been blessed.

The stars, underground, are four pairs of 1,000-tonne tunnel boring machines, or TBMs, which work almost nonstop. They are like long subterranean ships, steel structures with gangways, machinery and control rooms, together with canteens and lavatories, compactly arranged into just-enough space. They also resemble worms: they chew earth, excreting it along their 140 metre length into conveyors that carry it to the surface. Three-quarters of it is then transported by truck, rail and river to form a new nature reserve at Wallasea island in Essex.

Just behind the chewing part, three-tonne segments of concrete are vacuum-lifted into place to form the circular tunnel lining. A man deftly finishes the job, flicking and turning a huge bolt with more ease than one might turn an Allen key on an Ikea table. Unlike an Ikea table, the results of his work will last for centuries – the minimum design life is officially 120 years. The German-made TBMs cost £10m each and are part of a global economy of digging machinery. They get taken apart, shipped and reassembled in other countries, used again and again over years in countries all over the world. The Crossrail ones are new. They also, like ships, have been given women’s names, including Elizabeth and Victoria after the queens, and Jessica and Ellie after the beloved Olympians. They move at speeds of up to 260 metres per week, and 100 metres per week on average, subject to the state of the ground.

Their route has been investigated in advance for obstacles such as sewers and electrical cables, between which the huge machines have to thread their way, but they are also preceded by sensors in case of surprises. At Canary Wharf, they unexpectedly met some concrete test piles inserted in the early days of the development’s construction and then forgotten.

Their crews work briskly, in eight-hour shifts, incentivised for speed. Many are in their 50s, men from coalmining communities with Welsh and Yorkshire accents who, since the closing of the pits, have moved on to the Channel tunnel and the Jubilee line extension. They are well paid, I am told, for their skill and for the deprivation of spending so much of their lives cut off from the sky. Miners, I am also told, make the best gardeners, as they want to spend as much of their leisure time as possible in the fresh air.

The grandest part of this underworld is at Stepney Green. Above ground, through half-closed eyes, you could imagine yourself in Somerset, with the medieval church of St Dunstan, ringed by mature trees, and foregrounded with the farm’s sheep and chickens. If you turn around, Crossrail’s gantry crane, which among other things lowers and raises bits of the TBMs, punctures the illusion, but even this does not prepare you for the huge shaft dropping into a huger pair of brown caverns below ground. It is one of the the largest such spaces in Europe, apparently. This is where the eastern arms of the Y join, which means that for a while the space has to be the width of two tunnels plus a bit extra, and, since its cross-section is circular, its height increases with its width.

Tunnelling machine ?Elizabeth? breaks into the specially built chamber at Stepney Green earlier thisIn its underground-ness and abundant volume, there might be some resemblance to a Bond villain’s lair or an Indiana Jones treasure chamber, but it’s superficial. The atmosphere is calm and methodical, of routinely performing tasks that have been done thousands of times before, and with the fundamentally simple aim of getting from A to B. If engineering is sometimes called an adventure, down here every effort seems to be made to neutralise it. For very good reason, I imagine: over-excitement is not conducive to safety or getting the job done. Even above ground, when talking to the chief executive of Crossrail, Andrew Wolstenholme, in his Canary Wharf office, I find he speaks in risk-managed sentences, their content differing not much from the organisation’s press releases and website.

Tunnelling machine ?Elizabeth? breaks into the specially built chamber at Stepney Green earlier thisTunnelling machine ?Elizabeth? breaks into the specially built chamber at Stepney Green earlier thisTunnelling machine ?Elizabeth? breaks into the specially built chamber at Stepney Green earlier thisTunnelling machine ?Elizabeth? breaks into the specially built chamber at Stepney Green earlier thisTunnelling machine ?Elizabeth? breaks into the specially built chamber at Stepney Green earlier thisHe tells me that construction work is half complete and that the project is “absolutely within its funding envelope” and on target for its phased openings in 2018-19. “Every train will arrive all the time on the time.” The project will generate “£42bn of economic value”. Ninety-five per cent of a “Crossrail pound” is spent with British-based companies, 60% of them small or medium-sized, and 57% of them in the regions. (In Sheffield, an entire station has been prefabricated for erection in London.) It will be a “world-class railway” with a “legacy of skills and training”, which will also “leave a healthier and safer industry”. Its procurement of contracts has been a “fantastic achievement”, with “not a single legal challenge”.

It is, he says, an example of a relatively new-found ability for large British construction projects to run smoothly. Not that long ago, it was taken for granted that the budgets for projects such as Crossrail would be vaporised by overruns and that completion dates were works of fiction. Heathrow’s Terminal 5, bar some soon-forgotten glitches with baggage handling, helped to change that perception, as did the Olympics, even if the latter’s claim to be on budget was helped by the early more-than tripling of the fancifully low figure set when London was bidding. In the case of Crossrail, the project seems to be proceeding with a remarkable lack of disturbance. “Do not underestimate UK plc’s ability to deliver such projects,” pronounces Wolstenholme; Britain “has developed a skill set and a reputation second to none”.

Projects this big make their own universe, including nine new stations, and new developments that exploit the increased land values that go with Crossrail’s arrival. Also the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, or Tuca, a large hangar-like building in Ilford, Essex, the majority of whose cost has been paid for by Crossrail. Here, in a facility that “doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world”, full-size mock-ups of tunnel building sites are created, where noise and hazards are simulated. They have a large robotic machine for spraying concrete, which Boris Johnson, never shy of either toys or photo-opportunities, has test-driven. Tuca’s purpose is to train new engineers, to expand the workforce and replace, when they retire, the fiftysomethings who currently make up much of it.

It is built in the belief that there will be more tunnels to be dug in the indefinite future. Those involved believe the skills will be needed on HS2, the high-speed rail route from London to the north, and on Crossrail 2, which would run north-south across the capital. The need to sustain this successful industry becomes part of the case for further huge rail projects, which begins to suggest a backwards logic: big things must be built to keep busy the people who build them.

The stations, according to the ubiquitous lingo of projects such as this, are “world class” and Wolstenholme says that “we hold design very high up in our value set”. Crossrail is acutely conscious of the precedent of the Jubilee line extensions that, under the leadership of Roland Paoletti, who died recently, were much admired for their architecture and won several awards. They were also over budget, for reasons that were disputed.

The Crossrail stations have been designed more than once during the long gestation of the project. The versions that will be built will be a touch more cautious than those built under Paoletti’s reign – there won’t be quite as much of the plunging drama of the Jubilee line stations at Westminster or Canary Wharf, or the heroic cast-iron and concrete details of those works, although the long glass canopy at Paddington will not be exactly modest. The most expressive architecture will be found at Whitechapel, seemingly to honour the area’s exciting vibrant diversity, which is probably a mistake: the station’s multiple levels would have enough drama without the swooping, curving roofs and straining metal struts, which the architects have felt obliged to add to the design.

With the stations goes 3m square feet (or about six Gherkins) of commercial development, spread across the capital and managed in partnership with property developers, which are mostly in the gridded style of rectangular windows and straight pillars and lintels currently favoured by the more respectable end of the business. Specifications of the cladding materials vary depending whether you are in Woolwich or Bond Street, while in Soho the developer Derwent London will make its building swing a bit, with shiny black, gold and ripples of multicoloured strips. The architecture lets its hair down a bit more with a crystalline, gold-clad mountain of flats in Holborn and the Goslett Yard theatre, a cantilevered glass ziggurat near Tottenham Court Road. At Canary Wharf, a shiny cylinder designed by Foster and Partners, which is supposed to look like a ship in the dock, will surmount several layers of subaqueous retail.

Beyond the commercial development on Crossrail’s own territories, there will be yet more in areas surrounding the stations, initiated by others. An effect of Crossrail, combined with the earlier Thameslink project, will be to make Farringdon the only station with direct connections to four of the city’s airports. Farringdon was formerly a lull in central London’s rush, the dreamy volumes of whose Victorian station served one of the least useful stops. Now it is intensifying, with Amazon and Goldman Sachs moving into the area.

At Whitechapel, the borough of Tower Hamlets has sponsored a masterplan whereby the station’s former backlands will be made into a mini-Dubai, with a mini-skyscraper, which seems positively to welcome the sort of trashy architecture that generally needs no encouragement. In unsung places such as Hayes and Abbey Wood, the effect will be profound.

Then, finally, there is the 1m square feet of public realm that comes with Crossrail: squares, plazas and pedestrianised streets designed mostly by the large engineering consultancies to whom our cities’ open spaces are now entrusted. At Paddington, Tottenham Court Road, Liverpool Street and elsewhere, they convert places previously full of traffic into zones distinguished by what can now be recognised as Crossrail’s default style: responsible, uncontroversial, a bit arid. An expanse of paving next to Centre Point looks particularly desolate, but it will be an improvement on the big roads that were there before.

Crossrail, then, is a mighty work of engineering more dramatic in its making than its completion. It doesn’t have the romance of a Channel tunnel or a high-speed train, its model being the not-especially-sexy Parisian RER regional transport system. It is most significant as an urban engine, a device to serve the continuing expansion of London’s population and the city’s continuing success as a vast re-circulator of money. It has got to this point with a relative lack of controversy. There have been objections to the fact that not all its stations will be wheelchair-accessible and the Financial Times has argued the government missed an opportunity to harvest the increases in property values around stations, with the result that private landowners get windfalls and the public purse gets less return than it might for its investment. There were disputes about the locations of some of its holes and spoil heaps, which sometimes resulted in victories for the objectors.

More serious is the fact that someone has to pay, sometimes those who do not obviously benefit. Business rates are going up for large and small companies, whether or not they gain from the minutes saved travelling to Heathrow or Canary Wharf. Almost any improvement to British cities means gentrification, which means unequal effects for those communities in whose name such projects tend to be promoted. National government has so far lacked the will or wit to make places better without also making them less affordable.

It has also been asked whether Crossrail is the best way of spending nearly £15bn on the country’s infrastructure. It doesn’t connect with other recent transport investments such as the Eurostar station at St Pancras and, somewhat bizarrely, Terminal 5 at Heathrow. It doesn’t necessarily serve the areas of greatest expansion around London.

These oddities reflect the fact that it has been extraordinarily long in the planning. Versions of it were proposed in the 19th century and in the 1940s and the 1970s, before being put forward again in 1989. Parliament deemed it too expensive in 1994 and it was nearly frozen again in 2008, when the looming financial crisis made such huge expenditure look like a bad idea. It is rumoured that it only got through because the then transport minister, Andrew Adonis, also an enthusiast for HS2, slipped it under Gordon Brown’s nose when the prime minister was distracted by thoughts of holding a snap election. According to Tony Travers, an expert in London planning at the London School of Economics, “putting the funding together took years and required valiant efforts by London First and the City of London Corporation.  The government had to be lobbied for nearly two decades.”

Travers adds: “Crossrail is an example of the odd way we plan projects. In brief, either you get this one big project or the money disappears. There is never an alternative use for the public resources. It is very hard to be sure about value for money. Having said that, major railways in London or the south-east are almost always going to give better cost-benefit figures than the same project anywhere else in the UK.” In other words, Crossrail is being built not because it is definitely the best way of spending the money, but because it was so large and so persistently put forward that the government grew tired of saying no.

Jessica and Ellie don’t know all this, as they bore inexorably on, and their crews probably don’t care much. There is a marked contrast between the certainty and clarity of purpose underground and the confusion that swirls on the surface. But, when it is completed, almost no one will care greatly whether it is value for money, unless something goes badly wrong. As with the Olympics, the sheer impressive fact of its existence will cause sceptics to forget their doubts.

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Help to Buy is a start – but we can never build enough homes unless the State lets go of its land

November 27th, 2013 Comments off

Help to Buy is a start – but we can never build enough homes unless the State lets go of its land: Barratt boss calls on Ministers to help ease property crisis

Mark Clare may be the boss of Britain’s biggest housebuilder, but he has to admit that he has never bought a Barratt home. As perhaps is more fitting for the chief executive of a company whose profits rose 74 per cent last year, he lives in a five-bedroom Edwardian house in the leafy commuter town of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. Then there is the 60ft motor cruiser moored in the Solent.

The boom in profits at Barratt is of course thanks to the resurgence of the British housing market.

Official mortgage lending figures last week showed a 37 per cent rise on the year and much of it is thanks to the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, in which the Treasury underwrites part of the mortgage. 

Clare is a big fan. ‘The ability to buy homes with a 5 per cent deposit is creating confidence in the housing market after years of uncertainty going back to the financial crisis of 2008,’ he says when we meet at a block of luxury flats Barratt is building in the Westminster area of Central London. 

Blueprint: Mark Clare wants the MoD and councils to release sites

‘We are seeing queues outside our showhomes – with demand spreading beyond the South-East from Aberdeen to Exeter.’

Clare clocks up 20,000 miles a year driving to sites and says he is to be found visiting at least one every week. 

Barratt reports that Help to Buy  has so far helped more than 2,800 customers reserve new homes. ‘Many are first-time buyers, but there are others trading up to accommodate growing families,’ says Clare, 56.  

He reckons the housing market was picking up even before Help to Buy, with signs of ‘general economic recovery’ boosting demand and helping Barratt record a 73.7 per cent rise in underlying pre-tax profits to £192.3?million in the year to the end of June. 

The average price for a Barratt home jumped from £180,500 to £194,800 over the period with a dividend paid to investors for the first time since 2008.

‘We are now seeing a housing market being sustained and pushed forward by better lending conditions and improving consumer confidence,’ he says. 

‘Good news on employment is releasing a pent-up demand for new homes as people feel able to take out a mortgage. We are responding by increasing numbers of homes built and buying more land.’ 

Help to Buy has not been without its critics on both sides of the political divide. Some economists warn that the policy risks fuelling a rise in prices and perhaps even a bubble, but without directly addressing the shortage of affordable homes. 

That is where Clare believes Barratt and its peers come in. The rising market boosts demand that is driving Barratt to build more and more properties. ‘We hope to build about 45,000 homes across the UK in the next three years,’ he reveals.

But Clare believes the public sector could do more to free up land. ‘The public sector from the Ministry of Defence to local authorities own more than a third of developable land and we have to find a better way of getting this to market. The planning process for new homes is also still much too slow and needs speeding up.’

The strengthening housing market is a far cry from the dark days after the credit crunch some five years ago. Clare joined Barratt as chief executive in 2006 after a stint as managing director at British Gas.

Within months he oversaw a £2.2?billion takeover of rival builder Wilson Bowden. But the subsequent collapse of the housing market caused by lack of mortgage funds left Barratt with mounting debts and a plunging share price. 

‘It was a time for steady nerves and tough decisions,’ he recalls. ‘Jobs had to go and activity reduced along with the need to raise additional funds via a rights issue. But we cut costs, became more efficient and continued planning for better economic times. 

‘Our management team emerged stronger and we are now investing in staff – aiming to double the number of graduates and apprentices taken on over the next three years to 600. We’ve also taken back some who lost jobs during the credit crisis – their skills are needed more than ever.’ 

Clare’s boyhood ambition was to be a racing driver, but he argues his eventual decision to become an accountant has served him well. 

Senior finance roles at electronics groups GEC Marconi and Nortel and then British Gas helped him cope with the cyclical nature of the housing market. 

‘A grasp of the numbers can steady a business when demand collapses – and it also helps plan ways to recover and grow when times improve,’ he says.

But has his personal experience of housebuying helped him run Barratt? ‘I bought my first home in 1979, a three-bedroom house for £20,000,’ he says. ‘As a young accountant, money was tight, so I understand the pressures of house-buying and now try to make the process as smooth as possible for others.’

He explains that he and his wife Alison have never bought a Barratt home because ‘the opportunity has never arisen’. But his 29-year- old son has bought a new flat from Barratt.

‘He’s very happy with his new home,’ says Clare senior. And just for the record, Barratt’s annual report records that the sale to his son was ‘at a fair and reasonable market price based on similar comparable transactions’.

‘I never try to influence my children on buying property. My daughter, who is 27, bought a new-build flat from a rival builder and is equally satisfied with her choice. My other daughter is 17 so house-buying is still to come for her.’

As for that motor cruiser, it is named Madness. ‘It has nothing to do with my taste in music or the expense of keeping a boat afloat: the name is made up of initials of family members,’ he explains with a smile. 

And of course it is certainly not a reference to rising house prices.

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Housebuilders’ rally on shakier ground in 2014

November 25th, 2013 Comments off

Building_site_of_housingHousebuilders’ shares have more than doubled in two years as home prices have recovered, but an uncertain interest rate outlook and rising costs mean gains look more modest – and more precarious – in 2014.

Government schemes, including the “Help to Buy” programme, which guarantees up to 15 percent of applicable mortgages, helped push house prices to an 11-year high by one measure last month, fuelling concerns about a potential bubble that could burst when interest rates eventually rise.

House prices will rise on average 4 percent this year and 5.5 percent next and even more in London, according to a Reuters poll of market watchers.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has played down talk of overheating and asked the Bank of England for annual recommendations on the impact of the Help to Buy programme, starting in September 2014.

Housing is politically sensitive in Britain. Home ownership is widespread, and rising or falling house prices are a major factor in consumer confidence. Critics say the government schemes are designed to prop up prices before a general election due in 2015.

There are signs the rally in housebuilders is losing momentum, with negative bets on the sector doubling in the past four weeks, while monthly net sales of real estate funds domiciled in Europe – including the UK – fell 70 percent in September from a year earlier, according to Lipper data.

“As a sector, they (housebuilders) had an extremely good run, but they are likely to take a breather. I am not encouraging people to pile into them,” Charles Stanley analyst Tom Gidley-Kitchin said.

“I am not hugely positive, but also don’t think that the market is going to crash over the next couple of years.”

The Thomson Reuters UK Homebuilding index has surged 50 percent so far this year after a 64 percent jump in 2012, but fell 5 percent this month after hitting a record high in October. It has fallen in four of the past six months.

Markit data shows stock lending in the sector doubled over the past weeks, indicating an increase in short positions – a strategy under which investors sell borrowed stocks in anticipation of a decline in the price, hoping to buy back more cheaply later and pocket the difference.

Among the risks for the sector is the possibility that UK interest rates could rise sooner than expected as the economic outlook improves and the job market recovers.

Higher rates don’t just make mortgages more expensive, they also curb demand and prices for homes and shrink homebuilders’ margins.

Analysts said although UK interest rates were not likely to rise before 2015, continuing speculation about the timing of such a move would keep investors and homebuyers nervous.

The Bank this month cut its inflation forecasts and said unemployment could fall much more quickly than it previously thought to the 7 percent level, at which it would start to think about raising interest rates.

UK homebuilders also face a rise in the costs of land and building materials as increasing demand exceeds supply, putting pressure on their profit margins.

PACE TO SLOW, NOT REVERSE

Analysts said shares in housebuilders were expected to rise further in 2014, albeit more slowly than in the past two years. They predicted at best 10 to 20 percent gains next year.

“I would be cautious in buying homebuilders and feel the market is a bit toppy,” Commerzbank economist Peter Dixon said.

“It might be a good place to be, but not for too long. You have to make sure you pull your money out at the right point.”

The sector, which shrank sharply to survive the property downturn after the financial crisis, faces rising costs on top of long-standing difficulties in getting projects approved under Britain’s strict planning rules.

Barclays started coverage on the sector this month with an “underweight” on Bellway and Bovis Homes and an “equal weight” on Berkeley and Persimmon. It is, however, broadly positive on the sector and is “overweight” on Barratt Development and Redrow.

It is not just the builders who have benefited in the boom.

Analysts said companies such as property website Rightmove, which has surged 70 percent to a new high this year, could also feel the pinch of any housing market weakness.

Some analysts also said it was too early to say if the UK property market was overheating.

“The government’s support for UK housebuilders is very helpful. They have a good few years to go and make decent returns,” said Charlie Campbell, property analyst at Liberum Capital.

“But you are not going to have another year of 60-70 percent growth in their share prices.”

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Ealing Council Approves £155m regeneration plan

November 22nd, 2013 Comments off

Ealing Council has signed off on a plan to build nearly 200 homes as part of a £155 million estate regeneration scheme.

The build will focus on the West of the borough, and will see the creation of 187 new homes at a time when the government has been under pressure to build affordable housing.

In July the government announced a £220 million investment into affordable housing in Britain to push the build of up to 14,000 new homes to cope with a growing population, but work won’t start until 2015.

The scheme by Ealing Council, contracted to A2Dominion and Rydon, will see phase two of the Green Man Lane development, designed by Conran & Partners, put into full swing.

David Price, Regeneration Director at A2Dominion said: “This planning consent signals a new major milestone in the development of the Green Man Lane estate.

“With the first phase nearing completion, the regeneration project is already beginning to transform this run-down 1970’s estate and we look forward to progressing with this exciting next stage to deliver even more high quality homes.”

The Green Man Lane project is set to be completed in 2016, with nearly 200 homes ready for occupants in early 2014 as phase one nears completion.

 

By Arthur Wilson, journalist and blogger for TradefixDirect.

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Fassi to launch new crane

November 21st, 2013 Comments off

Fassi will launch a new 15 tonne/metre loader crane next week at the Solutrans exhibition in Lyon.

F_c291d3eb2cThe F165AZ has been developed with a eye on the French public works market, and features a built in foldable control station and unusual over centre geometry, both intended to take up less space and free up the truck bed from obstructions, especially handy when used for loading/unloading loose material with a clamshell grab.

The three section boom has two telescopic sections which use a single cylinder and extension chain saving space which allows hoses to be routed internally. Maximum reach is eight metres.

The prototype at the show will be in the Basic configuration with direct hydraulic controls. A version is also planned with Danfoss compensated proportional valve bank and radio remote controls with GAS (Grab Automatic Shake) device, which uses software control of the bucket movements while unloading materials.

 

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Sims Crane helps emergency responders at railroad accident

November 20th, 2013 Comments off

Swift action by employees at Sims Crane & Equipment Co. helped emergency responders quickly locate the body of a railroad worker crushed in a train derailment on October 25 in Sanford, FL.

Chris Arnold, Sims’ Orlando-based crane application specialist, said that minutes after he heard about the derailment on a radio newscast, he was in touch with his Railworks Corporation client contact at the Sun Rail accident site, and offered to send a crane to lift the derailed cars back on track.

Arnold said he did not know then that a railroad employee had been crushed beneath one of the cars, which were carrying gravel at the Sun Rail expansion construction site.

“We work derailments regularly, but this was the first fatality for me,” said Arnold.

When given the go-ahead by his Railworks contacts to send a crane to the site, Arnold contacted two nearby Sims crane operators – one with a 175-ton rig in Orlando and one with a 110-ton rig returning from a job in South Daytona.

Both headed to the site, and within 90 minutes from when Arnold first heard about the accident, the 110-ton arrived first with Certified Crane Operator Bill Leonard at the controls.

“Within 30 minutes of arriving, he was set up and fully rigged for the lift,” said Arnold. “As a safety concern, we had Florida Power & Light cut the power to the overhead lines before making the lift.”

Leonard gently hoisted the end of the rail car – a lift of about 36,000 pounds –  up and away from the spill site, and a team from the Seminole County Coroner’s Office removed the body. The lift lasted 30 minutes until emergency responders could complete their investigation. In the meantime, the 175-ton rig had arrived to serve as backup if needed.

Total time elapsed from first awareness of the accident to securing from the site was about two hours, Arnold said.

“It was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the family of the deceased railroad employee,” said Dean Sims II, vice president of marketing, Sims Crane & Equipment. “We are gratified we were able to play even a small role in this emergency response situation as a service to our community.”

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£16m link road work to start between Sheffield and Rotherham

November 19th, 2013 Comments off

Construction of a congestion-busting link road between Sheffield and Rotherham is set to start ‘in the coming months’ after government and European Union funding was approved.

 

The £16 million route will run beneath the M1 junction 34, allowing vehicles to bypass congested roundabouts at either end of Tinsley Viaduct.

The investment is part of the £30 million North Bus Rapid Transit scheme, which aims to reduce journey times on public transport.

Planning permission has already been granted – and the approval of £15.9 million from the Government and £8m from the EU has now meant the project can begin.

The rest of the funding is coming from Sheffield and Rotherham councils and South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive.

Construction of the link road and bus priority measures elsewhere in the Lower Don Valley, is set to start in 2014 with the route open in autumn 2015.

Coun Leigh Bramall, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for business, skills and development, said: “The road has been a long time coming so it is a relief to finally be able to get construction of this much-needed route off the ground now we have confirmation of this funding.

“The scheme will be a great catalyst to boost economic links in the area by stimulating economic regeneration in the Lower Don Valley, improving transport and helping to address air quality.”

The investment in infrastructure could create up to 4,000 jobs, the council believes.

Progress on the scheme was also welcomed by Coun Ian Auckland, Sheffield Council’s opposition Liberal Democrat transport spokesman.

He said: “This project will help to build a stronger local economy as well encouraging people to travel in safe and sustainable manner.”

A ‘high quality, limited stop’ bus service running every 10 minutes is to be launched along the bus rapid transit route between Sheffield and Rotherham in September 2015.

David Young, South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive’s deputy interim director general, said: “We are delighted to have received confirmation of funding.

“Together with the planned tram-train pilot between Sheffield and Rotherham, the project will help to link the economies of Rotherham and Sheffield.”

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Car boom sparks Southampton port expansion

November 18th, 2013 Comments off

The Port of Southampton has expressed an interest in buying the local military docks at Marchwood after a boom in car traffic reduced expansion space at its own facilities to a single acre.

A surge in car handling at the 700-acre port has put space at a premium, forcing Southampton to build its fifth multi-deck storage facility – due to be opened next month by Stephen Hammond, the transport minister.

docks_2736852bThe need to build “upwards” is testament to the recovery in demand for new cars in both Britain and overseas, with Southampton seeing strong growth in car exports.

Such traffic at Southampton rose 72pc to 439,000 vehicles between 2009 and last year, when the port handled 31pc of UK car exports. Total car traffic at the port last year was 650,000 vehicles and port director Doug Morrison said: “This year, we’ll probably do 750,000. Most of the growth is coming from exports, to the Far East in particular.”

The port, which is owned by Associated British Ports, handles a range of car marques including Ford, Renault, BMW and Honda.

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Builders won’t be able to sit on lucrative land for years and are ordered to use planning permission quickly… or lose it

November 15th, 2013 Comments off
  • Land-banking’ culture to be scrapped to encourage house-building
  • Firms have been exploiting loophole in order to wait for house price rises
  • New rule comes weeks after Labour’s criticised ‘land seizure’ policy

 

Housebuilders will no longer be allowed to delay big developments after the government introduced stricter rules to prevent so-called ‘land banking’.

Planning minister Nick Boles has scrapped a 2008 measure – introduced in the midst of the financial crisis – which allowed three-year permissions to be easily extended.

Some developers exploit the loophole and hoard plots for years as they wait for house prices to rise before starting to build homes.
Mr Boles said: ‘This measure to extend planning permission was always intended to be temporary and, while it made sense in the aftermath of Labour’s financial crash when there was no money to build, as the economy improves the focus must be on accelerating the number of homes being built to meet demand,’ he said.

‘This ending of the measure will increase the incentive for developers to start on site before permission expires. We are also now seeking to tackle the inappropriate use of planning conditions and speed up the process of gaining non-planning consents.’

The policy change comes in the wake of Labour leader Ed Milliband’s announcement in Septemer that the party would seize developers’ land if the failed to build.

He accuses developers of ‘sitting on’ lucrative land, pointing to research which found there were 400,000 homes that have not been built despite councils giving planning permission.

Mr Boles said those policies amounted to ‘heavy handed…taxes and land grabs’ which would slow the process and result in fewer homes being built.

‘If developers fear new development taxes or state confiscation of land, they will be less willing to undertake complex land assembly projects; they will let their existing planning permissions lapse; or they will simply be more cautious in applying for planning permission in the first place,’ he said.

Mr Boles dismissed the 400,000 figure as a ‘canard’ deployed by local authority chiefs, insisting the latest data showed that of 257,200 unstarted private projects, 184,600 were ‘progressing towards a start’, 13,500 were ‘being sold or information was not available’ and only 59,100 were ‘on hold or shelved’.

Simon Walker, director general of the IoD, questioned the effect of ending the rollover measure – which would require fresh applications should a permission lapse.

‘Obtaining permission, particularly for large projects, is a very expensive and time-consuming process,’ he told the Daily Telegraph.

‘If builders do not have certainty that they will be able to use the land when they are ready to do so, it seems likely that it will deter some from applying in the first place.’

Shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman-Woods said: ‘With even the Government’s own statistics showing that there are hundreds of thousands of units with permission but not being built, they should support Labour’s comprehensive measures to stop land banking of sites where the local community has given permission for homes to be built but developers are not building them.’

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Britain’s recovery hopes dealt a double blow

November 13th, 2013 Comments off

buy-to-letBritain’s recovery hopes have been dealt a double blow as official figures showed the construction sector shrank and the UK’s goods deficit with the EU reached a record high in September.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said construction output decreased 0.9% month-on-month.

It meant a previous estimate for impressive growth of 2.5% over the third quarter in the sector was revised sharply downwards to 1.7%.

Separate ONS data on trade showed the monthly deficit failed to narrow from £3.3 billion while the balance of goods exports to the EU compared with imports from the region reached a record negative of £6 billion.

The setback for construction comes despite signs of improvement in the housing market and Government initiatives such as Help to Buy buoying the sector.

The update means it remains 13.3% off its pre-recession peak.

Its decline in September included falls in new housing work from public corporations and infrastructure while private sector house building fell flat.

The ONS said the quarterly improvement in the sector of 1.7% was still the highest third quarter growth in the sector since 2003 – and the downward revision would not have an effect on the overall estimate for 0.8% GDP growth over the period.

In the three months, private housing and commercial work increased strongly but infrastructure fell.

Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight said housebuilding was still showing particular strength which was particularly welcome given the surging demand for property.

But he added: “Even so, there needs to be sustained, major growth in house building activity if the housing shortage problem is to be properly addressed.”

Separate trade figures showed that the deficit in goods widened in September by £200 million to £9.8 billion month-on-month.

Exports of goods to the EU decreased by £300 million to £12.6 billion, while imports from the region increased by £400 million to £18.6 billion, producing a record deficit of £6 billion.

But for non-EU countries the shortfall narrowed to £3.8 billion, while total services trade saw a surplus, growing to £6.5 billion.

Over the third quarter, total exports decreased by 3.5% to £75.7 billion and imports increased 1% to £104.8 million, resulting in the deficit for the period rising by £3.8 billion to £29.1 billion.

Nida Ali, economic adviser to the EY ITEM Club, said the figures were “a stark reminder of how unbalanced the recovery still is”, providing hard evidence that growth is largely domestically driven.

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, said more attention and resources needed to be allocated to boosting UK exports.

He said: “The UK is not doing enough to plug the export gap and rebalance our economy towards net exports.”

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