I am not going to lie. In the weeks immediately after the EU referendum, I was looking ahead to this week’s RESI in Wales with a degree of trepidation.
The Brexit vote would, I feared, slam the brakes on the sector’s pre-eminent annual conference. This would be the one year we would build it and they wouldn’t come.
But they did. And they weren’t - as I had also expected - downbeat about the post-referendum landscape. Far from it: there was a real buzz at Celtic Manor this year, as befitted an event celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The fact the Property Week team had pulled out all the stops to put together one of our most relevant yet varied agendas and speaker line-ups to date clearly helped (you know you’re on to a winner when you hear delegates say they are going to bed early - read before 2am - to make sure they don’t miss former chancellor of the exchequer Lord Lawson in conversation with Steve Norris the following morning). What really buoyed the mood, though, was that we cut through some of the uncertainty that has dogged the market since the vote. We promised people answers and that’s what they got.
Setting the economic scene were economist Dame Frances Cairncross and Savills’ Lucian Cook, who amid the usual silly quips delivered a deadly serious assessment of the deteriorating affordability situation, especially in the capital.
There were scoops aplenty. In a one-to-one with Property Week, London’s new deputy mayor for housing James Murray said there was an argument for build-to-rent to be exempted from the 3% stamp duty surcharge.
The big news, however, came from new housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell, who in his first major public speech since taking office backpedalled on the former government’s commitment to starter homes and home ownership, warning that “this can’t be at the exclusion of all else”, namely rental. His message was clear: current housing policy is not set in stone and the new government is very much open to new ideas.
As tipped by Property Week, Barwell also confirmed that the government would directly commission offsite projects through its new £3bn Home Building Fund. Unsurprisingly, modular was one of the hottest topics at the conference, with Tony Pidgley announcing that 20% of Berkeley’s construction would move to modular and Tom Bloxham revealing Urban Splash was targeting 70% to 80%. Such statements of intent suggest it could be a game changer - if it can shed its association with the ‘p’ word, as in prefab.
As for the ‘B’ word, Brexit was neither the dominant talking point nor the elephant in the room, regarded as just one of a number of challenges - and potentially opportunities - for the industry, not the overriding issue.
That is not to say that it wasn’t hotly debated once former political heavyweights, namely Norris and Lawson, took to the stage. Their conversation was one of the undoubted highlights of the conference, with fervent Brexiteer Lawson dismissing “die-hard remainiacs”, dubbing stamp duty “absolutely crazy” and declaring that there was no reason the Brexit process should even last two years. It was exactly what much of the audience wanted to hear.
Time will tell if such Brexit bravado is justified or not.