Monday 13 July 2015

The Skoda Files Part II

Take a high-efficiency turbocharged petrol engine, a'trick' automatic gearbox that's more economical than a manual, mix it with matt black and almost painfully discreet styling and what have you got? Anything from a Seat to an Audi, really.
In this case what we're talking about is a Skoda Octavia, which is what I shelled out on when this blog came back to life a few months ago. Its arrival marked the end of a long association with that middle class cliche the Volvo V70 and the start of life with a badge which - along with Lada, Wartburg and Trabant - used to be the butt of all joke about east European technology.
Not anymore. As the standard kit-list suggests, Skoda today is a confection picked from the Volkswagen Group parts bin, which it became part of a few years back. So while it's still built in the Czech Republic, its design and engineering are very much based on VW's bid for world domination (for which read 'attempt to dominate the market for mainstream cars').
So if you can get over the badge what you are basically buying is the extendable chassis system also found underneath VW's Golf and Passat, Audi's A3 and TT and the Seat Leon. Ditto the 1.4 TSi turbo petrol engine and the seven-speed DSG twin-clutch auto gearbox. It's the same story inside, with upmarket plastics, familiar displays and switchgear and and information/entertainment system which clearly shares its interface with VWs and Audis.
Having squinted at the Passat and goggled at its price, I got over the Skoda badge and went for an Octavia, a car which offers nearly all the refinement you get from its upmarket sibling but at a daft price. It's a sizeable car and while it falls short of a V70's seats-down boot space, it has noticeably more interior space.
More to the point, it's far more economical to run. My 2.5 turbo petrol Volvo struggled to get much more than 25mpg, and got a ritual thumping when time came to pay the car tax, which was edging up to £300 a year when I cried enough. The Octavia? Its light weight, muscular engine and remarkable gearbox mean it just about matches the Volvo's pace but thrashes it for economy: 3,000 miles in, I'm averaging 46mpg.
And I'm not paying any car tax, either, the Octavia qualifying for zero in its first year, £30 a year after than. Or it did until George Osborne realised new car buyers weren't giving him anything and announced that more "realistic" levels of car tax are on the way.
Anyway, it is a remarkable car. For what's meant to be VW's value brand, it is quiet, refined, well-equipped (climate control, multi-mode gearbox, decent in-car entertainment - they're all there) and screwed together in the way you'd expect for a VW-in-drag. The DSG gearbox is the stand-out performer, and for anyone who's not lived with this twin-clutch marvel the speed and smoothness with which it shifts gears has to be experienced to be believed.
I'm not blind to the stunt VW has pulled here. At eye level, its interior finishes are beautifully restrained and almost upmarket. Below that, where the eye doesn't wander too often, they are hard plastic. Its styling is, of necessity, less striking than a Passat. And I chose a model with the tallest possible tyre profile because the torsion-beam back axle was a cost-saving design choice which means it doesn't soak up bumps the way an Audi does.
I suspect a more sophisticated suspension system would have left even more people wondering why they'd pay a VW price. The key question is how well a value brand stands up to three years of family use. So watch out for the next instalment...

Petrol. Turbo. Automatic. And a bloke who drives like a snail.

Tuesday 30 June 2015

How Whitehall's Death Eaters did for the Midland Mainline

As politics go, the decision to “pause” the electrification of the Midland Mainline is miserably, yet predictably, shabby.
It’s pretty obvious the government knew the problems with Network Rail’s budget were going to come to a head before the election. The final announcement last week was also anticipated by a series of leaks which appeared in national newspapers.
Whitehall's grubby paws were all over them. They were softening us up.
All this when millions has already been spent on preparatory work for electrification, and when the government remains committed to pouring billions into London’s transport system and even more fantastical sums into the shimmering vision that is HS2.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Post-war British history is littered with the wreckage of large-scale, government-funded projects which became victims of the cock-eyed ‘system’ by which we contrive to manage the UK’s creaking infrastructure - its inadequate airports, its slow, overcrowded railways, its stretched power stations and its crappy roads.
While we’re pretty good at producing reports which forecast demand and warn of problems, getting something done about them appears to produce an institutional psychosis which means we never quite manage to get it over the finish line without a financial hiccup. Or we just never manage to get it over the finish line at all.
Actually when I say ‘psychosis’, I mean ‘Treasury’, the government department which looms over anyone in Whitehall who dares suggest money might be spent.
We shouldn’t joke. While infrastructure has its wreckage, politics has its corpses, many of them rendered lifeless by what is the Whitehall equivalent of Harry Potter's Death Eaters.
Yet the decision to kick the Midland Mainline’s electrification into the long grass is surely a glaring example of a dysfunctional system of administration that has had its day.
What should be a rational assessment of the future needs of the economy has been turned into an advert for how not to stimulate regional growth, and how central government spends far too much time listening either to itself or to voices in London.
Those voices don't speak for us.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Nottingham’s twin city, Karlsruhe, riding on a tram which runs straight on to local rail lines and carries on its journey. It has been operating successfully for years and it’s the result of a political system which lets regions keep their money and make their own decisions.
Were it not for the depressing myopia of Whitehall’s economic prison warders, we could do the same in Nottingham.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

The social media election that wasn't

So, this was the first social media election, the one where the likes of Twitter and Facebook would play a decisive part in deciding the outcome.
Was it heck.
If we learned one thing about social media during the General Election of 2015, it is that its status as a reflection of the world we live in needs a sizeable health warning.
All the major parties conducted formal and informal social media campaigns, ranging from targeted messages to reoccurring hashtags to Youtube videos.
Judging by the response on Twitter, some people took this very seriously indeed, acting as if their tweets were delivering decisive blows in an election ground-war.
The key phrase there was 'judging by the response'. Towards the end of the campaign, a bar chart appeared from the British Election Study (run by the universities of Nottingham, Manchester and Oxford) which suggested that those who believed Twitter was going to play a big part in the outcome might have got it wrong.
The BES chart showed the levels of social media activity of people who are actually committed to a particular political party - exactly the kind of people, you would have thought, who would be out there posting and tweeting until their fingers went numb. Yet the highest percentage of party supporters who were posting content on Twitter was 14% (for the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru). For Labour, it was was just 5%, for the Tories a paltry 2%.
In other words, a seeming torrent of political activity on Twitter may well have been coming from a comparatively small number of people. It follows that anyone who thought it represented either widespread endorsement or a surge of support was likely to be mistaken.

There were other strange decisions, too. Ed Miliband's appearance in a Youtube video with the comedian and polemicist Russell Brand looked quite smart: he took on someone popular, held his own, and reached a potential audience of 1.4 million followers.
Yet on closer analysis this doesn't seem so clever. Brand is a divisive figure, who people love or loathe, and one with a chequered history. It's quite possible, too, that those who love him are more sympathetic to the left of the political spectrum anyway. And I'd wager that a fair chunk of the people who watch him on Youtube may well be below voting age.
In other words, Ed's Youtube play may not have achieved anything.
This was a difficult election for Labour, one which raises all sorts of questions about its relationship with the electorate. It appeared very active on social media, both officially through MPs and party officials, and unofficially through supporters in the media, the arts and third sector organisations. Did it assume that all this activity represented a level of support and endorsement which we now know wasn't there? In other words, was it talking to itself on social media?
The traditional media complained on more than one occasion that they were being sidelined. At my paper, the Nottingham Post, we endured a pointless encounter with David Cameron while he visited the marginal constituency of Sherwood. His communications team said we could ask him three questions as long as we told them in advance what they were. You just have to play the game in these situations, and make the most of an opportunity to get in front of top politicians. But our time was wasted: we were given enough time with Mr Cameron to ask only one question and his answer contained nothing new. Other regional newspapers up and down the country had similar experiences, and there were those wondering what on earth a party which was ignoring newspapers and doing little on social media was up to.
We have some sense of the answer now. It was fighting a very targeted campaign in particular marginal constituencies and contacting voters directly by phone.
It won. Social media didn't.
My Editor is very fond of telling reporters time and again that "Twitter is not the real world". It isn't irrelevant and can be a very effective way for specific sectors to put across specific messages in a quick and effective way. Business should not ignore it because it's a great amplifier.
But is it an accurate, distortion-free mirror of the lives led by ordinary people? Or a goldfish bowl where a particularly active group of people talk largely to each other?
This may well have been an election in which social media played a part. But one part is all it was, and it may not have been the part some people thought.

Friday 27 March 2015

Marketing Nottingham: JDI

Delicate, complex, tortuous.
Not exactly the three words you'd choose to sell Nottingham as an inward investment location, but entirely appropriate to characterise the process by which a proper place marketing organisation has emerged.
While the news is now out that Experience Nottinghamshire, Invest in Nottingham and Nottingham Means Business will come together under the umbrella of Marketing Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, the process to nail down the final shape of the organisation is far from complete.
The status of the different organisations means there are all sorts of employment and financial issues to resolve, political sensitivities to accommodate (this is a body that has to visibly serve city and county), and a significant degree of independence to establish.
Achieving that is going to require an experienced, respected, yet firm and forensic pair of hands. Nottingham City Council, which has played the driving role, knows who it would like to chair this process. But a key challenge for the person in the hotseat will be demonstrating to the rest of the county that this isn't going to be some metropolitan fix.
There is also a job to do in convincing politicians and businesses that a body with a very broad portfolio of responsibilities - it takes in everything from bidding for multi-million inward investments to promoting shire B&Bs - can still have a clear focus and a consistent message.
The bigger picture is that this is an organisation which needs to hit the ground running. The marketing of the city and county lags beind that of other major conurbations, and Marketing Nottingham will emerge at a time when the devolution agenda means cities in partcular are sounding an ever-louder drumbeat about their appeal as investment locations.
What's more, both city and county have significant unfulfilled regeneration opportunities - and the clock is ticking loudly on the current economic cycle.
Some close to the process - and many in business - have been more than a little frustrated at the glacial  progress. After all, the need for an organisation which marketed both city and county to businesses and tourists was identified years ago.
But the opportunities it can pursue haven't gone away. And constructing a narrative around them which is flexible enough to serve different purposes really isn't difficult.
Tortuous as this process has been, it's neither here nor there in terms of marketing Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. This is all about the message - and making it happen. JDI, as they say.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

MIPIM: Nottingham's Silicon Roundabout is the real deal

The longer you're in business journalism the more sceptical you become about claims that a new development will bring hundreds or thousands of new jobs.
A decade ago, Nottingham was apparently looking at just that when glitzy CGis of a £900m regeneration plan for the city's Eastside area were revealed. What happened? Nothing. The demand just wasn't there and Eastside remains undeveloped to this day.
So what are we to make of claims revealed at MIPIM this week that a £40m Tech Hub in Nottingham could result in hundreds of jobs for people working in and around software development?
I'll declare a vested interest: it was my story and I spoke to the people behind it and others involved in Nottingham's  tech scene several times before publication.
And the difference between the people behind this proposal and the Eastside dream is that they've done this before.
Mark Onyett is the driving force behind it. Armed with a Masters in manufacturing engineering from Cambridge, he went into business consulting before joining Capital One and becoming its director of risk operations. With two former consulting colleagues, he came up with the idea for TDX Group, a business which used data analytics to devise software programs which better manage large-scale debt portfolios.
That was in 2004. In January 2014 he and his fellow shareholders (which by then included Bahrain's Investcorp, no less) sold the Fletcher Gate business to Equifax for a cool £200 million.
Now a partner in London-based tech investment vehicle Blenheim Chalcot (with colleagues Manoj Badale and Charles Mindenhall), he has launched three new tech business in Nottingham which are all operating in the financial services technology space.
The three firms - Oakbrook, Sequensis and Bizfitech - are currently based in York House on Wilford Street and need room to expand. Onyett's idea is that they should form the centre of gravity for a new Tech Hub which will attract other software developers and testers who can feed off each other to develop new ideas and new businesses.
There's nothing new in the economics of clustering - it's what lies behind Silicon Valley on the US West Coast and Silicon Roundabout in London. Onyett's point is that we already have a tech cluster in Nottingham because of the presence of data analytics-based businesses lke Experian, whose growth helped attract Capital One.
Together, those two hefty businesses have supported or given birth to the likes of TDX, Ikano Financial Services, HD Decisions, Insurance Initiatives and others. We have a serious talent pool as a result.
At which point you begin to realise that the announcement Nottingham made at MIPIM this week is not wishful thinking but the real deal.
The one caveat is that the city would do well to market this concept in London, Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester, as the existing fitech businesses must be close to sucking up all the dev talent already in Nottingham.
Mark Onyett's not alone in thinking that Nottingham has got the rght kind of environment to support the tech mindset. Entrepreneur Adam Bird (one of the founders of Esendex, later sold for £11m) points  to a growing number of social gatherings (NottTuesday, Second Wednesday, for example) and the upcoming Hack Twenty Four event as evidence that there is a tech communty with its own eco system - generally seen as vital if techies are to avoid feeling like they've landed in Nowheresville.
There are other aspects of Nottingham which should appeal. Despite those fitech giants, techies often don't like big, branded and corporate, and environments like the Creative Quarter will go down well.
There were no glitzy CGis of the Nottingham Tech Hub to show at MIPIM (and that's probably a good thing). There is instead an experiened team which wants to tap into an existing talent pool grown by a heritage of data analytics activity.
In other words, it's believable.

Monday 9 March 2015

MIPIM: The East Midlands Powerhouse

A shot in the arm for Nottingham today as it heads out to MIPIM, the international property development and investment expo in Cannes.
From the UK perspective, the event is likely to be dominated by talk about regional devolution, led of course by the narrative around the so-called Northern Powerhouse - that (theoretical) swathe of economies stretching from Manchester in the West to Leeds in the East.
Manchester and Leeds are big cities and have always had strong economies ever since the days when they became established as great Victorian mercantile centres. They've had powerful politics ever since, and a strong voice in Westminster has ensured that the modern-day Northern Powerhouse  narrative has taken hold.
But here we are on the eve of MIPIM and a new set of statistics confirm - not for the first time - that they're not quite the powerhouse that this narrative implies.
According to business advisors PwC, the fastest growing region outside London and the South East this year will be not the North West or Yorkshire but the East Midlands.
PwC's figures show that our regional economy will grow by 2.5 per cent this year - a percentage point clear of most other regions and two percentage points clear of the North West (which is on 2.3 per cent).
This points to a sustained recovery in our economy, one where the continuing uncertainties around what's happening (or not happening) in the eurozone are being nicely countered by very low inflation and a low oil price.
On that basis, says Paul Norbury, PwC's senior partner in the East Midlands, we should start preparing for a rise in interest rates, probably next year.
Other than a suggestion that house price rises will continue to slow, there's no specific news on property in PwC's outlook.
But it does add a useful element to Nottingham's narrative at MIPIM: Who needs to be a powerhouse when you're the fastest-growing region in the UK?

Tuesday 3 March 2015

MIPIM 2015: Property and powerhouses?

In a few days' time, low cost flights from airports across the UK will be full of optimistists. They'll be heading for Nice then hiring a taxi for the short hop up the Cote D'Azure to Cannes. MIPIM here's again.
When I went last year it was, to borrow a phrase from one of the Nottingham team "as if an industry which fell off a cliff in 2008 has just jumped back on again".
The place was teeming with people and money was out there in a big way looking for places to go. A useful chunk of it found its way into the groaning tills of Cannes' bars, restaurants and hotels. Some even made a kebab shop owner smile, but that's another story.
The point last year was that it was obvious that a new investment cycle was underway and that landowners, developers and economic development teams in towns and cities needed to have attractive, oven-ready opportunities for investors.
Nottingham did ok last time round, with a presence more noticeable than it's had for some time. It bagged a restaurant directly opposite the Palais des Festivals, got some decent coverage with a beach cricket event, and won a few friends with a panel discussion dinner and its drinks reception.
This year will be tougher. Cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, which throw significantly more money at the event than Nottingham, will roll into Cannes on a wave of optimism brought about by regional devolution and the 'Northern Powerhouse' badge.
Now, the statisticians among you might well point out that the economic powerhouse outside London is actually in the Midlands, not the north. But perception is all, the Midlands hasn't (yet) got its message together and London politicians and media will lap up press releses which mention Manchester.
Nottingham will have some highlights to talk about - the enterprise zone centred on the Boots campus is now ready to go; Nottingham City Council is now engaged in a serious push to crack the regeneration of that swathe of the city from Eastside to Waterside; similarly, the city desperately needs new Grade A office space; and the march of its life sciences sector continues apace.
There will be one other significant announcement during MIPIM week. It could have long-term implications for the city. And I'm saying no more than that!