The worst recession in 300 years was little more than a bump in the road for online property portal Rightmove. Total revenues fell 29 per cent to £206m last year, results on Friday revealed. The declines did little to dent the group’s formidable profitability; operating margins of 66 per cent fell just 8 percentage points from 2019. That strength reflects near-monopoly status.
Rightmove has become an established part of the UK housing market. Also well-entrenched is British politicians’ habit of throwing handouts at the sector during tough economic times. A stamp duty holiday unveiled by the chancellor last year and widely expected to be extended at next week’s Budget is no different. A relatively benign market is a relief to shareholders but a nagging erosion of its estate agent membership numbers remains worthy of concern.
Agents numbered 15,922 at the end of last year, 425 fewer than in 2019. That was an improvement on the decline of 580 recorded at the half-year mark in June from when the market picked up. Fewer agents and renewed lockdowns in 2021 have hit listings on the site. At 363,000 (excluding homes under offer) in January, these are the lowest since 2015, according to UBS.
Without a sustained recovery in transaction volumes and listings this year, a full valuation for the shares looks exposed. The share price recovered well last year. Rishi Sunak’s tax breaks stimulated the market to drive house price growth to double the average rate experienced in the past decade. But the shares, trading at 30 times two-year forward earnings, are at the top of their historical range.
First-time buyers have been hit particularly hard by the downturn and especially by a lack of availability of high loan-to-value mortgages. With the government’s Help to Buy scheme set to expire in 2023, Mr Sunak has scope to unveil a new building project. If that emerges from the Budget next week, it would provide a temporary distraction from concerns about falling agent numbers.
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‘Tidying feels like a delicious massage for the mind’
I’m in the middle of a big spring clean and I need help with storage solutions (baskets and boxes), plus nice household tools — brushes and the like. What can you suggest?
Contrary to what some people may believe when they look at images of my home, or when they pay me a visit, I am an organised, tidy person. I have
a lot of stuff, yes, but there is a place for everything. Trinkets are arranged fastidiously, and everyday items are housed in an assortment of jars, boxes and baskets.
I have the odd cupboard or two that is (much) less organised, but who doesn’t? (Open one of these at your peril: you’ll be hit by a volley of miscellaneous objects: an iron, maybe, a discarded lampshade, a box of jam jars for all that marmalade I definitely did not make.)
I have several drawers that I stuff with receipts, masks, loose change and boring-looking letters I don’t want to open, but we’ll gloss over this . . . It is spring, and we all feel like getting things gorgeously in order in spring, don’t we?
In fact, I find it rather thrilling, shopping for storage solutions. It must be the prospect of things being filed away that makes my head feel lighter, even before I get involved with the act of physical sorting (aka the boring part). Here are my top picks.
Arket is a good source for practical odds and ends for the home: I like its lightweight rattan magazine holder very much. I’m big on magazine holders and I think all sitting rooms benefit from one.
I love nothing more than a lazy Saturday morning, pot of coffee on the go, dog asleep on legs and ensconced in a fortress built from newspaper supplements (it does, after all, go with the job), but I get antsy come Tuesday when I find them all over the house, us having taken them to read in the bath, in bed, over breakfast. Best to keep them in one tidy place.
Pentreath & Hall in Bloomsbury, London, is where I go for all paper-related storage solutions. It does an exceptional line in box and magazine files, covered in papers featuring geometric patterns and marvellous faux wood and stone finishes designed by Bridie Hall. If incorporating one of these into the VAT return won’t spice things up, I’m not sure what will.
Choosing Keeping makes some lovely things too: I’ve been eyeing up its red faux-lacquer storage boxes for storing old notes and postcards. A Fornasetti waste-paper basket is also on my wish list — one to save up for. (Excruciatingly expensive but so beautiful; truly the Rolls-Royce of little bins.)
Now, I love a basket. Leave me alone with an assortment of objects and before long I’ll have conjured a charming little woven number and squirrelled those objects right away.
Most days Duncan will ask me where his secateurs are and my answer is always the same: “But have you checked the gardening tools basket?”, those three words drawn out and said through ever so slightly gritted teeth.
I like the bright green Ivumbu and natural Rahisi baskets made by The Basket Room.
London’s Labour and Wait makes an assortment of useful objects for the home, from bright red cylindrical leather tool bags (apparently also useful for transporting a Thermos flask) to galvanised buckets and towel driers.
Labour and Wait is a firm favourite of mine because its stock is always highly stylish — it sells an American-made aluminium dustpan, for example, that features such chic lines I’d consider having it on display among my tulips and Grand Tour fragments.
As for other useful bits and bobs to help with spring cleaning: take a look at The Oxford Brush Company’s website for the most astounding range
of — you guessed it — brushes. Brushes for things you never imagined you might need a brush for. This company has a great little shop not far from me in the Cotswolds town of Burford and I can never resist popping in for a browse. It’s only after I’ve spent about 10 minutes ogling a beekeeper’s broom I realise that I own no bees. Beautiful object, mind.
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Keeping things in order keeps our minds in check. We all have our special ways and these help us to feel calm and safe. In our mugs cupboard, for example, everyday mugs are kept on one shelf, preferred mugs on another. My bathroom cupboard is divided into “districts”: hair stuff in one bit, skincare in another and so on. I really can’t handle it when these districts get muddled.
What is it they say? Tidy house, tidy mind. There is certainly something in this expression. I find I’m able to concentrate in a much more focused way when my objects are in their rightful place. I expect I will find tidying one of my packed drawers to feel like a kind of delicious massage for the mind.
So, get the proper gear (brushes, boxes, whatever you need), get those districts in order and reap the soothing benefits.
Gyms: adapting to physical demands
Off-road: Why aren’t young people driving?
There is a reason why there are so few great songs about catching the night bus. Similarly, The Beach Boys classic just doesn’t sound the same with the lyrics: “And she’ll have fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes her Uber away.”
I’m not saying there are no good songs about public transport. The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” is a fine track but the fact that it is about a man getting beaten senseless may explain why it has not featured heavily in Transport for London’s advertising campaigns. There is also, to be fair, Bad Manners’ very danceable “Night Bus to Dalston”, but the absence of lyrics beyond the song’s title may suggest the group were struggling to capture the journey’s innate poetry.
By contrast, rock music is full of songs about cars, and they almost all symbolise some form of freedom, even if it is the freedom to tell Laura you love her. Bruce Springsteen would still be a great artist even without the internal combustion engine, but his canon would be much depleted.
More than moving out, more even than losing your virginity, getting a car was for generations the beginning of life, a definitive step to independence and adulthood. In many cases, getting a car was, in fact, a precondition for losing your virginity, since the girls you wanted to date did not in general look kindly on rounding off the evening waiting for the last train to Colindale.
Perhaps it was a function of where I lived that a car seemed especially necessary but, hell, it was also fun. I still remember the day my best friend arrived with a surprisingly nippy old car and we sped along the North Circular far too fast with the windows down and The Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It” blaring out the speakers. Never before or since has a Vauxhall Viva seemed so cool.
Naturally, therefore, when the spawn turned 17, we braced for the demands for driving lessons and an advance towards some old banger that cost more than our mortgage to insure. And yet it didn’t happen. It is true that the provisional licences were secured but only so they could get served in pubs.
Both are clear they intend to drive at some point but, living either in London or in university accommodation, they simply do not feel a pressing need for a motor. When lockdown hit, it seemed like the extra unfilled hours offered the perfect moment to take them out for a few basic lessons. This was even truer as my beat-up and soon-to-be-replaced VW was there as a prize for whoever passed their test first. But the long days went by and there was always something better to do, even if that something was actually nothing.
Were this just a tale of the eccentricities of my own offspring I would pay it little heed, but it is clear they are not unusual. The young are not rushing to drive in anything like the numbers they once did.
A UK report noted that in the 1990s, 80 per cent of people were driving by age 30 but by 2018 that level was not reached until the age of 45. The number of driving licences held by those aged between 21 and 29 had fallen by 12 per cent. Among the spawn’s friends, there are some early drivers but a significant minority who are in no rush to learn.
Clearly, this is not a universal phenomenon. Those closer to city centres find it far easier to manage without a car than those in areas with poor public transport. In some cases, this may be down to environmentalism. In others, it is the cost or the increased nuisance of taking your car anywhere. Ubers, e-bikes and electric scooters all seem more appealing — even more freeing.
In the end, the exigencies of life will still get all but the most determined autophobes. But this remains one of the most striking of the emerging generational divides. It is too much to say the young have turned against the car. But hard though it is to believe, there is a generation coming which thinks there’s more to life than a blaring stereo and a Vauxhall Viva.
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April frosts are a bitter blow to Europe’s vineyards
Emilie Faucheron repeatedly brushed away the tears but occasionally broke into sobs as she made a hoarse six-minute video last week reporting on the devastating effect of the spring frosts on Domaine de la Grande Canague, her 60ha wine estate west of Béziers in the Languedoc. She and her husband Benjamin, fourth-generation vignerons, were upset to have lost five hectares of production in the notorious French frosts of 2017, but this year she fears that 50ha of their vines may not make any wine to speak of.
In the video, one of a series she posts on YouTube, she treads the vines trying to process the damage — under a clear blue sky. Which, of course, is the problem: a lack of cloud cover at night invites Jack Frost to do his worst. Faucheron clearly finds it hard to believe that on the night of April 7/8, in the far south of France, temperatures fell as low as minus 6C.
Her vineyards outside the village of Montady are on a pancake-flat plain and therefore perfect targets for frost, which fatally freezes young buds. Whereas in hillside vineyards gravity can pull the dense, cold air downhill, here the coldest air settles straight down on to the vines, though this year higher sites have also been frosted.
The French wine-trade news site Vitisphere reported sub-zero temperatures in much of France for three nights in a row from April 6, with temperatures as low as minus 9C in some regions. And in northern and central Italy, vine growers have been pacing their vineyards just like Faucheron. Their green buds and leaves, which had been pushing forth as heralds of the 2021 wine harvest, are now brownish-grey, shrivelled and lifeless.
These unseasonably Arctic nights in Europe were particularly poorly timed because they followed a period of warm weather when the vines started budding two weeks earlier than the traditional norm. (I hesitate to say “usual” when the climate is increasingly unpredictable.) In some devastated regions, such as Burgundy and Champagne, the extremely cold nights are forecast to continue.
This problem of shorter and shorter winters and earlier and earlier budbreak is leaving young vines vulnerable to frost damage. Many growers are now postponing the winter pruning of the vines as long as possible into spring in order to delay the growing season — particularly for varieties such as Chardonnay that can sprout early.
It is too early to be precise about just how much of the 2021 crop is lost. Growers will have to monitor the extent to which the vines are able to shoot forth second-generation growth, but this is rarely as fruitful and will ripen later than what has been frozen. It seems clear, however, that these 2021 frosts will be at least as severe as those of 2017 and 1991 in France and 2003 in parts of Italy.
Many European vignerons were already on their knees, what with drought, hail, the pandemic and the period between October 2019 and March 2021, during which the US imposed additional 25 per cent tariffs on a range of wine imports from the EU. French producers have benefited from some state support but they are already demanding another tranche.
In Bordeaux, the best-known wine producers are just about to launch their 2020s in their annual en primeur campaign. The severe frost is not likely to encourage them to moderate their prices. Entre-deux-Mers resident and Master of Wine James Lawther emailed me on April 8 about the frost: “It hit just about everywhere last night and the night before, with temperatures down to minus 4C, buds in advance and very dry conditions. Reports are that it was particularly bad in parts of Margaux, Listrac and Moulis . . . Barsac and southern Graves and low-lying areas of St-Émilion. Vines near me took a hit and according to the viticultrice [local winegrower] had been bien cramées [really screwed up].”
In northern Italy, the vines of the Veneto were basking in temperatures of 27C just two weeks ago but suddenly saw temperatures of minus 5C on the nights of April 7 and 8. In La Morra in Piemonte, Barolo producer Alberto Cordero reported on the likely long-term damage inflicted on his vines, all too visible in images he shared. “It depends a lot on the weather over the next 20-25 days. But it’s part of our life. We have to accept it and I do,” he wrote. Yet his wines sell for many multiples of Emilie Faucheron’s.
Faucheron and other southern French vignerons were defenceless against the frost because it is — or at least has been — so rare in their part of the world. Jean-Marc Astruc in Fitou says he has lost 70 per cent of the 2021 crop from his 14ha domaine.
In Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, however, spring frosts have become common, prompting growers to light special burners and anti-frost candles — expensive and none too good for the environment. Some growers also set fire to carefully positioned bales of straw in a bid to disperse the freezing air.
Frost has been so common in Burgundy’s northern outpost of Chablis that some growers have installed spray systems to warm the soil and the vines and then protect them with a layer of ice. This would be far too expensive for vignerons such as the Faucherons.
The same is true of the wind machines that prevent cold air settling in the Napa Valley and in Marlborough, New Zealand. Helicopters have occasionally been hired to protect vines by keeping air moving, while another costly ploy is to heat the wires along which most vines are trained. Such measures are not exactly energy-efficient.
Tradition has it that it is well into May before vine growers can sleep easy without worrying about the risk of further frost damage.
Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson
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Is ‘cancel culture’ a failure of kindness?
Hooray for the new Hollywood
In one of the more revealing bits of Mark Harris’s new biography of Mike Nichols, Harris recounts the director’s imperious behaviour on The Graduate, and his growing realisation that his condescension was poisoning the experience of those around him on the set. The feeling crystallised when he heard the cinematographer Robert Surtees — one of his heroes — trying to rally everyone when Nichols was in mean humour. Nichols made a decision in the moment that he would never allow himself to behave like that again. “When you know exactly what you want to do, it doesn’t make you particularly nice,” he reflected later of his actions. “How could I have been such a shit?”
Hollywood, home of the big picture, the bigger pay packet and a billion bruising egos, has never been a breeding ground for civility. Being a shit is what it’s all about. In the latest chapter of alleged wrongdoing, the 62-year-old film and theatre producer Scott Rudin was this month described as a “monster” by The Hollywood Reporter, following a magazine investigation in which Rudin is accused of violence, bullying and intimidation towards his staff. Rudin has not at time of writing responded to the allegations, and did not respond to enquiries for this piece.
One of the entertainment world’s best-connected operators, Rudin has always had a reputation for graceless boorishness (in a fit of hubris, he once told a reporter he had got through 119 assistants in the course of just five years), but the new allegations about his splenetic temper have quickly jaundiced the admiration he has typically enjoyed.
Yet, as is so often the case, Rudin’s behaviour has likely been protected by industry omertà (and a good lawyer). It seems that assistants understood that working for Rudin would be unpleasant, but had been so poisoned by the environment around them that they ended up assuming the workplace culture was the norm.
Harvey Weinstein’s imprisonment for rape and sexual misdemeanour was supposed to mark the end of brute machismo in the film world. And yet this later chapter suggests that ill-behaviour and intimidation are still the mainstays of success.
Thankfully, there are signs the culture of film is slowly changing. As evidenced by the Baftas last weekend, there seems to have been a shift in appetites of late, or maybe the pandemic, which has halted the marketing events that inflate so many very average movies, has been instrumental in bringing actual talent to the fore. Chloé Zhao, the 39-year-old director of Nomadland, became the second woman to win best director last Sunday, and only the third Asian director to have received the prize. Zhao was also co-producer, co-writer and editor of the film, which is an adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s book about itinerant workers in America, and stars a mix of actors and non-actors in the roles. The antithesis of a normal award favourite, Nomadland was shot for $5m, has few star names and is now widely expected to win an Oscar for best film. Meanwhile, the best newcomer Bafta for 19-year-old British actress Bukky Bakray (star of another female-led production, Rocks) and the success of Emerald Fennell’s macabre femmo-comedy Promising Young Woman, produced by the actress Margot Robbie, hint that the hegemony of movies made by older white male directors and producers might be coming to an end. Which isn’t to say I don’t love films made by older white men. But after decades of underrepresentation, a dust mote of possibility now bobbles in the air.
The correlation between Rudin’s current reckoning and a bunch of unrelated chick flicks may seem distant, but it’s thanks in part to the advance of this new generation of independent voices that media outlets such as THR have decided to take him on. While Rudin remains hugely influential on Broadway, the emergence of new streaming channels has marked a groundshift, and the absolute grip of a few individuals on the system has begun to slip away. Rudin’s benefaction is no longer considered quite so vital and other production companies and producers are coming to the fore.
The new Hollywood players — such as Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy — came up through television. The demographic they’re chasing is the more socially conscious Gen Z.
The Rudin scandal whispers of regime change. Few expect the producer will cough up a mea culpa, but social media activists are already putting pressure on Rudin’s talents to rethink their involvement in his projects, or piling in with stories of their own.
Less clear is whether this new reckoning will stop the toxic behaviour the entertainment business tends to thrill to. Rudin, one of the most pugnacious personalities in the industry, did not invent the Hollywood stereotype of the tyrant. He is merely the most visible exponent of a culture in which the lingua franca is to be unconscionably rude. With a greater diversity of talents, of opportunities, and different viewpoints, one hopes that culture is evolving. Hollywood has long been the anchor of all our entertainment. Will this next generation also be poisoned? Or will they have the sense, like Nichols, to realise you don’t have to be such a shit?
Email Jo at email@example.com
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