July 2008 Archives
It's a good world, the world of the well-meaning. Got a problem? Just speak nicely to whoever's causing the trouble and all will be well.
That's the theory. Whether or not, in a naughty world, it works is another matter.
The police are trying it in Redruth in Cornwall where anti-social teenagers have been making life hell for the peaceable and law-abiding. There's now a curfew in place aimed at getting troublemakers off the streets by 9pm. Except it is voluntary. Which presumable means that those who believe their right to misbehave trumps the right of others to peace and quiet will simply ignore it.
In another world entirely, much the same thing is being tried to get private equity companies to do what doesn't come naturally to such beasts and sign up to a code designed to show the world that they're not the jobs-destroying, asset-stripping, tax-avoiding, debt junkie bandits of the bottom line they're popularly believed to be.
Have the banks - still reeling from the sub-prime fiasco - got another money-losing trick up their sleeves?
Quite possibly, according to Roger Bootle, the MD of Capital Economics and the man who acts as adviser to Deloittes.
He was writing in The Daily Telegraph on the theory that commodities, including oil, have come to resemble yet another speculative bubble that is now about to burst.
The golden rule for those at the top of the quangocracy that rules so much of our lives is that the more you are paid the less you are expected to spend your own money - on anything.
We learned last week that the chairman of the governors of the BBC, Sir Michael Lyons, is putting his subscription to Sky on his taxpayer-funded expenses. It cost us ÃÂ£459, including installation fees, to enable the former chief executive of Birmingham City Council to put his feet up at home and find what the opposition is doing. He doesn't have to fork out for a television set or a DVD recorder. According to the BBC's accounts, they're "lent" to him.
I was told we were having "a fat day" when we hit the tourist trail in Birmingham city centre at the weekend.
Not being a follower of any of the Australian soaps this was not a phrase I was familiar with - but the meaning of the ICC delegate who had travelled many thousands of miles to be here was absolutely clear: both he and our family were having a great day out.
As Birmingham continues to compete on the world stage for both tourism and business visitors, it's very useful (and sometimes rewarding) for us local PR people to see the 'product' through the eyes of others.
Our guests from Wales - including an ex-Brummie who had left around thirty years ago - were thoroughly impressed and even casting envious eyes on the canalside apartments. The city has so much to offer compared to their rural abode. Though personally I still prefer the beach near their Welsh home to the one in Chamberlain Square.
Our children loved the boat trip and had a great time at the Myths and Monsters exhibition. They were also fascinated by the motorbike displays in the ICC mall - which is where we met the friendly Australian business visitor.
Imagine that in July of last year you were deciding on what career to pursue. You may have thought that building new houses sounded like a sure-fire winner. The government had just announced that 3 million new homes needed to be built by 2020 (with 2 million of those to be built by 2016). What's more, they were going to be zero carbon and sustainable, suitable for the environmental problems faced in the twenty-first century and helping to save 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050. In other words, an exciting and dynamic industry producing not only a much-needed product but doing so in an exciting and innovative way. Sounds like an ideal industry for someone looking for an exciting and varied career.
What a difference 12 months makes. Now is not a good time to be a housebuilder. Significant job losses and redundancies have been announced (at least 5,000 in the last few weeks), share prices are in free fall and, to quote one managing director, "It's sh#t out there and getting sh#ttier by the day and there's no sign of when the sh#t is going to lift."
This raises the very simple question (to which there doesn't seem to be an obvious answer): why on earth has this happened? Although the credit crunch has made finance less available and more expensive, that does not seem of itself to be a sufficient explanation as to why such an industry whose product is in so much demand should be in such difficulties. There is lots of talk of bubbles bursting (which strikes me as a bit too trite to be really convincing) and of the speed of collapse taking everyone by surprise, but I can't be the only one who thinks the whole situation is both desperately tragic and somewhat bizarre.
We live in a country with lots of people, too little space and an inadequate housing stock. We need more (and better houses) and yet our (previously very successful) housebuilding industry is staring over the abyss of what is being decribed as the biggest fall in house prices since the Great Depression.
Caroilne Flint, the Housing Minister, recently announced plans to rejuvenate the sector including 'rent now, buy later' schemes for first-time buyers with a household income of less than ÃÂ£60,000 as well as committing to buying unsold housing from the private sector for affordable homes but concerns remain as to whether this will be enough.
In all of the confusion, one thing is certain. If the country is to have 3 million new homes by 2020, we need people to design and build them. We need our housebuilders to stay in business.
A debate in the Commons on Members' Allowances this week conjured up the unlikely image of Westminster's finest jostling in the aisles with the bargain hunters of Kings Heath. Sure enough, the MPs could be shopping locally as they seek out tellies and tumble dryers for their London pads without incurring the wrath of the electorate.
It's good to see our Midlands MPs doing their best to support local business, but perhaps Lynne Jones had her tongue slightly in cheek when she implied the infamous John Lewis list might be replaced by one from International Stock.
The owner of the Kings Heath discount warehouse, John Cullen, though was totally unphased by her remarks.
"We have supplied London apartments and we do a delivery service," he said, claiming his customers already included some of the great and good from far and wide. "We've had MPs, councillors, titled people all purchase things from this warehouse."
It's certainly a new line in advertising for Mr Cullen to consider: "As seen in Hansard."
Actually I can hear some of you, particularly those of you that are on the same social networks as me or that I happen upon as result of my work. I can hear you loud and clear and you've got lots to say about this city and how it values or doesn't value the arts and why what you do matters. What I can't hear is the voice of the organisation that's been set up to represent you collectively. Or to put it another way: what's the point of Creative Republic? If they're the voice of the creative sector aiming to make it "stronger, louder and more effective" then why does it all seem a bit quiet out there.
The Birmingham Post and Birmingham Future's Power 50 is hot off the press, and I can't help but wonder if those people who have 'dropped off the list' in 2008 are mulling over the whys and wherefores of power as they sip their coffee this morning.
It's fair to say that the atmosphere at last night's launch was full of the usual anticipation, accompanied by a few raised eyebrows. But the interesting part for me was how quickly circles of influence can change in Birmingham.
One of the (rather unpleasant) clichÃÂ©s of life as a lawyer is that economic hardship can be good for business. During boom times, lawyers who specialise in running disputes supposedly twiddle their thumbs as deal after deal is drafted and negotiated. Everyone is too busy trying to do the next deal to worry about what might have gone wrong in the last one. When the deals dry up, or so the thinking goes, people start re-examining the bottom line and dispute work takes off.
The truth is rather more mundane, but it's against that background that I offer the cautionary tale of Mr and Mrs Western. In 2005, they bought a new house in Essex. It had problems - about ÃÂ£20,000 worth. Because it was a brand new house, the Westerns had the benefit of insurance from the National House Builders Council - the NHBC. This contains a dispute resolution procedure which Mr and Mrs Western followed. They won, which is how we know the cost of putting things right.
However, the Westerns had also employed a building surveyor to help them with their case. His fees came to ÃÂ£7,000 and the Westerns wanted to be compensated for that expense. The builder was more than happy to fix the dodgy work, it just didn't want to pay the ÃÂ£7k as well.
Here's where things started to go wrong for the Westerns. They tried what they thought was the proper next step and appointed an arbitrator to decide things. The builder disagreed - both sides in a dispute need to agree to arbitration and the builder denied ever reaching any agreement. The dispute revolved around the precise wording of the NHBC documents. Ultimately, it went all the way to the High Court for a judge to decide whether or not the arbitration should proceed.
The judge agreed with the builder. In his judgment last month he found against the Westerns and ordered them to pay just over half of the builder's costs of taking the case to court (these came to ÃÂ£4k).
To make matters worse, the judgment explains that the builder had not actually been back to the Westerns' house in the meantime. They had refused him entry until the question of the surveyor's fees was resolved.
So, over a period of about two years, Mrs and Mrs Western have lived in a duff house, been through three different dispute resolution processes and, despite their underlying case being strong (the house has faults which the builder has agreed to put right), are over ÃÂ£11,000 out of pocket (they will have their own solicitor's costs on top of the surveyor's fees and the ÃÂ£4k paid to the builder).
Litigation is a risky business. It's great when it works; and more often than not a nightmare when it doesn't. The Westerns must be wondering what they have let themselves in for.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Or, in business terms, you can only launch once.
If it goes wrong, quite a bit of PR effort can be required to persuade dissatisfied customers to return.
Earlier this year we were advising a venue (not in the Midlands) of the merits of a 'soft' opening. There would be no fanfare, just a few invited guests and critical friends, a chance for the staff to iron out any unforeseen problems. This came back to me at the weekend when I was a customer at a new venue closer to home.