New flats in the former Olympic Village in Stratford, east London. (Photo: Getty)
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This is no recovery, it is a spending boom powered by unsustainable house price rises

Having failed to usher in the export-led recovery he promised early in the coalition, the Chancellor instead latched onto house price inflation as one of the mainlevers of a consumer spending boom.

London’s property-owning classes are looking increasingly smug again as barely a week seems to pass without fresh data that their homes are spiralling exponentially in value. The latest update from the Nationwide shows house prices in the capital up by an astonishing 18 per cent in the past year. It’s not just London, now, either: with price rises rippling out across the rest of the country, the feelgood factor is spreading. But should it be?

There are important objections to be made about the growing divide between London and the rest of the UK, as well as the plight of first-time-buyers having to borrow ever greater multiples of their salary (if they can afford to buy at all). Then there is the knock-on effect to prices in the private rental market, rising homelessness, the list goes on. Even homeowners who may think they are benefiting from the rises are in fact getting poorer if they ever hope to move to a bigger property.

But there is a deeper reason why we should all – including propertied Londoners – be concerned about recent house price growth rather than taking heart at its renewed vigour, which is that the strength of the market in recent years has sowed the seeds of its own volatility. Of course there are fears of a bubble and whether the growing price-to-income ratio is sustainable. The truth may be that it already isn’t sustainable, but for one factor: hot money.

London property has in recent years become the investment vehicle of choice for international capital seeking a safe haven, as we at Civitas detailed in a recent report. In the wake of the worldwide economic downturn, turmoil in the Middle East and super-loose monetary policy, our capital’s housing stock has soaked up billions of pounds in global capital flows. This has only been encouraged by George Osborne.

Having failed to usher in the export-led recovery he promised early in the coalition, the Chancellor instead latched onto house price inflation as one of the mainlevers of a consumer spending boom that, he hopes, will get the Tories through the next general election. He didn’t just bet the house on this strategy – he bet everyone’s house on it. It is an easy gamble to embark on because so many homeowners are too easily convinced that large price rises are in their own best interests.

But central to encouraging house price growth in an already expensive market is encouraging buy-to-let (and even “buy-to-leave”) investors, many of which are non-resident. There are arguments to be made both for and against overseas buyers,but one potentially catastrophic problem is already looming into view, the only thing worse than so much foreign capital driving up prices: that now this money suddenly vanishes.

As central banks begin to raise interest rates around the world, as sterling strengthens with the economic recovery, much of this hot money will disappear. The threat of this taking place within the next year or so is raised in a new report from Deutsche Bank but there have been warnings for some time. The consequences of this for the rest of the market, and for the wider economy, could be deeply unpleasant.

But investors using the housing market to make money, and the volatility that follows, are not the root cause of the problem. What lies behind all of this is a collective weakness among voters for seeing their properties grow in value. Hopefully this will recede as the number of people priced out of the market continues to rise. But until it does, politicians will never build enough homes to level out prices, and the economy will remain beholden to a rollercoaster housing market.

David Bentley is co-author of the Civitas report ‘Finding Shelter: Overseas investment in the UK housing market’.

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com