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Wenn Townsend

It’s time B4 tackled a few issues, don’t you agree? We need to get under the skin of some of the big problems facing Oxfordshire, most of which impact on businesses operating here and will do so in future issues through interviews and canvassing the opinions of our B4 Ambassadors (see page 106). Where better to start than with someone who always has an opinion, Wenn Townsend partner and long term B4 supporter, Tony Haines.

Written by: Richard Rosser Photography by: Rob Scotcher

From the outside looking in, Oxfordshire is blessed in many ways, but try driving into the centre of Oxford at peak times or living here! Two massive barriers that businesses face when recruiting staff. Other issues we will tackle include social and welfare, business and personal finance, your conduct and how you handle yourselves at and out of work and much more. If you’ve got an opinion on something we should be focusing on, please do get in touch. But we get the ball rolling with Tony, who doesn’t pull any punches on a range of topics.

Richard Thank you for joining us at B4, one of our longest standing supporters of the magazine Tony you’ve been with us since day one haven’t you?

Tony Yes I have and I’ve always been a big supporter of B4. I’m delighted that you will be tackling a few of the issues I’ve been nagging you about for years!

Richard One area where B4 has fallen short over the years is not tackling the issues facing businesses in Oxfordshire, so we’re going to be canvassing the opinion of the wider B4 network as to how certain issues they have to deal affect their businesses. These issues might include housing and the cost of living for staff in Oxfordshire. We just touched on, off camera, the IT and stresses and strains on the work force, the transport issues faced by all of us coming in and out of the city centre. Established in 1876, Wenn Townsend has seen it all. I know you haven’t been here for the duration Tony (!), but you will have a good handle on a lot of these issues and also the uncertainty generated from Brexit. So, where would you like to start? How about housing? Have you experienced problems recruiting with the high cost of living in Oxfordshire?

Tony on the high cost of living in Oxfordshire

Tony It’s very, very difficult. A lot of students from Oxford University and Brookes University fall in love with Oxford while they are here and want to stay here after they have qualified. They will then see that they can earn a lot more in London but, with new rail links connecting us to London in 45 minutes, they will live here and get the best of both worlds. This has a twofold negative impact: firstly, houses are occupied by non Oxford workers and secondly, it contributes to the net outflow of staff from Oxford to London.

Richard Is there a significant difference in salary?

Tony Yes, definitely. The problem Oxford’s always had is that it’s got London house prices and Oxford salaries. It’s a known fact that the salary multiple for an average house is 17, a couple of years ago it was 11! It’s clearly unaffordable and yes you can point the finger at the council or the building developers and say they’re not doing enough and they’re not producing enough and not providing enough affordable housing for people on the one hand, but if you take a map of Oxford 60 years ago and overlay it on a map of Oxford, just Oxford within the ring road today, you will see there has been hardly any development because there is nowhere to build anything!

The only real development that has happened is that properties have been divided into smaller units. Again this has a twofold negative effect…..more people in the centre of Oxford living in the same number of properties and an increase in stress levels with people living in smaller houses than they were previously used to.

Richard So where’s the breaking point, what happens next ?

Tony Bicester, Abingdon and Witney are dormitory towns for Oxford but also for London. . Developments such as Barton Park will test Oxford to the limit with no road widening, just traffic lights put in to help residents get in and out of the estate. I can’t see anything other than headaches and more pressure on the already over-burdened infrastructure.

Richard With more residential development and commercial development in the centre of Oxford, for example with Westgate coming on stream later this year, can Oxford take the strain?
Tony No! Westgate will have fewer parking spaces and more magnets for shoppers like John Lewis. What do you think will happen in terms of traffic down the Botley Road and Abingdon Road and, most probably, Woodstock Road as well? It will come to a standstill and all of those people who visit over the first and second weekends won’t come back enthusiastically if they’ve had to sit, for a considerable amount of time, in traffic. They’ll go to High Wycombe or Reading instead.

Richard Yes, it’s a valid point.

Tony Because I know what I would do if I was one of those people. ‘It took forever to get there and I’m not going back!’ If you’re going to have developments in Oxford you need to put the infrastructure in place for people to be able to get to and from those places without a great deal of wasted time and that’s simply not happening. There’s all sorts of reasons why it probably won’t happen anyway so why are we allowing these large developments?

Tony on the stresses and strains of work

Richard You touched on workplace stress earlier Tony and referenced IT as a key component in modern day stress and the need for staff to take on two or three times the workload of someone twenty years ago. How do you help your staff at Wenn Townsend take this increased load?

Tony We’ve got systems in place to help them cope if they do find they need additional support or help as any other organisation should. We make sure staff aren’t overloaded but, at certain times of the year (for example January with tax returns) there are always more deadlines. The changes coming into line with online assessment will only add to everyone’s stress levels because we’re not expert form fillers on the whole are we? I wouldn’t go and do my own plumbing because it would cost me a fortune in the long run and I’d probably come home to a flooded house. But HMRC have the power to enforce this on us all and raise penalties and interest if we don’t do it. MORE STRESS!!

Richard Tony you’ve been here for thirty years now and in that time you’ve been through various crises, economic downturns etc….. Have you ever sensed that the economic landscape has been as fragile now as it has been before? With the uncertainties of Brexit and issues with local housing and transport, bank finance, stresses on the workforce …. are things all coming to a bit of a climax or is that overplaying the situation?

Tony I wouldn’t say its overplaying the situation because I think we need to get a grip with certain things and the unknown is always something that really affects the economy because it affects people and it has a marked effect on their productivity – they don’t stop functioning but they become more cautious where there are uncertainties, it’s always the case. Welfare cuts are only just beginning to really bite. We haven’t seen anything like this for such a sustained period of time.

Tony on banks

Tony The banks are even more reluctant to lend than ever. The banks want to scrutinise more and throwing around unhelpful phrases like ‘we’ve had to stress test you’ or ‘you haven’t passed the stress test’ ……. these are customers that have been with the bank thirty or forty years, they have a track record and they should sail through any tests.

Bankers aren’t allowed to use their judgment from what I’ve seen. It’s pretty obvious that they have to go beyond that…there are so many boxes to tick and if you don’t tick one box then that’s it.

Richard Computer says ‘no’. So where do you see us in five or ten years time with the proliferation of crowdfunding and other means of finance, new banks coming into the high street offering quicker decisions?

Tony I would say some of the newer banks from the continent have come in to understand the customer and will do what they can to deliver what that customer needs. In my opinion the real problem is the big retail high street banks which have got these boxes to tick and you don’t get to see a bank manager anymore. Everything gets passed up, underwriters get involved and a lot of it gets refused to be quite honest at the moment. I’ve got a client who has more property than he will ever need but wants to borrow to fund a new acquisition. The banks say no…he has more security than they could possibly need but they’re not interested.

Tony on Europe

Richard So, Tony let’s try and inject some positivity into this conversation.

Tony Absolutely, let’s talk about Europe!

Richard What Champions League or Brexit? We’ve touched on uncertainty throughout this conversation, but the big question mark is Europe. What are your thoughts?

Tony Bear with me on this one. Regarding the referendum, I think if the vote goes ahead and we end up staying nothing will change, but if the vote is to come out of Europe, then I suspect the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will have to resign, then there will be a fight for leadership. It wouldn’t surprise me if Theresa May became PM, because she’s kept everything quiet and nothing’s been said in the media about her thoughts …. she will probably give Boris Johnson a job in the cabinet to keep him quiet.

Getting back to now, what we are going into is more uncertainty. The generation before me knew what life was like out of Europe and a lot of them say the world was a better place for us. Being in Europe has aggravated a lot of people, being told what we can and can’t do, who we can and can’t let into our country etc…So a lot of the ‘leave’ voters were protesting…I think if we had a second vote we would have a ‘stay’ result because people are genuinely concerned what is around the corner. We’ve been told we will suffer as an example to other countries thinking about leaving and that’s a scary prospect.

So as I said before when I was being facetious, hindsight is a wonderful thing and we’re entering into a period of massive uncertainty. I firmly believe that we have to get on with it, focus on what you’re good at and take advice when you need to. The government can dilute that uncertainty by being more robust than it is at present. We’ve got people negotiating our exit that don’t have the skills to do so. I 100% respect the Governor of the Bank of England, he knows what he’s doing and I know some of his fellow Canadians have offered their support…we should take it.

Richard Tony thank you for your time and we’ll catch up later in the year.

Tony Thank you.