Monday, 27 February 2012

EMU and the Netherlands

Professor Klaas Knot, President of De Nederlandsche Bank gave us a calm view of the future of the EMU and the Netherlands' place in Europe in his talk in the OMFIF Golden Series on World Money, 17th February 2012.

Having the meeting in the auspicious environs of the Armourers and Braziers Hall in London, which had survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz in the 20th century, Professor Knot quipped, was surely an auspicious sign for this talk. Perhaps the small cannon facing his back merely reflected the frisson of uncertainty that the Euro-zone is currently experiencing.

The free trade with the rest of Europe is vital to the economy of the Netherlands as over 60% of its exports are to this area. Furthermore, its cautious economic policies have allowed the economy to broadly mirror that of the EUs powerhouse, Germany. The overall interest is therefore in the success of the EMU.

We were reminded that EMU stands for Economic and Monetary Union – a vital point as it is often confused with Europe in a more political sense. Historically, it initially worked very well as countries aiming to join the EMU put in place stricter economic domestic measures that meant a good convergence. The spanner in the works was the financial crisis, after which there was a dramatic divergence between different EU countries in how they responded. National Debt as a proportion of GDP also varied from 80%, the EU average, to over 140% as with Greece.

I was also fascinated to see how economic efficiency in terms of labour costs was an area where Germany had, in the long run, benefiter from the union of the former FRG and East Germany.

The current crisis has prompted governments into taking major actions to counter the situation. However, a more common and consistent approach is essential across the Eurozone, which naturally means greater EU integration. As Professor Knot pointed out, this could only happen with popular acceptance and a greater democratisation of EU institutions. It was also important that the financial measures or future firewalls were also matched by a consistent narrative that was able to tell the positive aspects of the EURO story, because, despite all the current perceived problems, the EURO is still a resounding success story.

We came away with the feeling that, in the Netherlands at least, there is a very strong interest in the stability and maintenance of the Euro-zone. There was also an inclusive approach to trying to keep Greece in the Euro-zone. For the moment, with the last weeks 3 month solution for Greece, it appears that the situation may match Professor Knots inclusive approach.

In a market with speculation rippling through any conversation by groups of two or more, Professor Knot's presentation was a good attempt of pouring oil on the troubled waters.

Previous OMFIF talk attended at Armourers Hall

The International Monetary System is to local crises like the climate is to weather

Practical examples of retrofitting in Verden, Germany

A talk on a practical German example on the benefits and practical ways of retrofitting communal housing stock, as successfully applied in Verden.

This was a talk given at a wider Anglo-German meeting of a group with a common goal of ethical and energy efficiency in construction . Our hosts and organisers were Sandra and Leif Tollé. The talk was followed by a team building exercise at Bredbeck House, an hours drive from the city. My visit took place during the extremely cold period in February 2012, with outside temperatures reaching minus 15 degrees Centigrade.

Verden (Aller) is a small Cathedral city famous for being the site of a major battle (massacre) by Charlemagne, for its long links with mounted regiments and with the British Hannoverian Crown.

The slideshow features Verden and the participants in general,

The Anglo German delegation attended a talk by Olaf Heitkamp of Verden's communal housing company, Kreisbaugesellschaft des Kreises Verden mbH ( It was held in a cosy venue within the Holzmarkt, a historic military stables, renovated and converted into a cultural and shopping centre for the city.

The company has been in existence since 1922, providing housing stock for rent and of which some includes social housing. Currently, they are responsible for 1050 flats in houses. In Germany, properties are sized by the number of rooms, in contrast to the UK where we just count the bedrooms. The flats are described as being mostly three to four rooms in size, with an average of 2 residents per property.

They began retrofitting for energy efficiency in 1989, initially using wall insulation. However, this created problems with mould and so a full package including windows and roofs was included from 2011. Note that the lofts of these houses were 3m high and usable, the houses, like other German properties also have usable cellars.

From 2006 to 2010, the energy savings were already 37%.

Further specific examples were given. Base (or plinth) insulation and external insulation of nine houses with 6 flats each showed dramatic savings in heating oil use, from 104250 L in 2000 to 44000 L in 2010. Another project of six homes with five flats each that were heated using a gas fuelled generator for hot water and electricity reduced the 2010 gas use from 422000 cubic meters to 202800 cubic meters in 2011.

Another key lesson was whether it was better to retrofit or to demolish and rebuild. One project of three houses was costed at EURO 1.3m to retrofit, it was simply more economic to rebuild at the highest current standards, with the residents being offered housing elsewhere.

With the German national government giving subsidies for energy efficiency to the tune of EURO 1bn, the communal housing association is building more properties to an anticipated high standard, “EnEV 2012”.

The talk was extensive, with more examples. The overall tenor was of considerable experience in retrofitting and new-build to the highest energy standards suitable for each site or situation.

For more information and contact with author

For UK examples or Green build and retrofitting, see the following articles:

Historic buildings and future-proofing the skills to restore them: DE and GB experts meet in London

Bankers are not lending to SMEs, because it is not worth it

This was a key insight that I gained from an excellent presentation on Finance for SMEs by David Gill of the St John's Innovation Centre (SJIC). When you think about it, it is blatantly obvious as the extremely low interest rates, the necessity for bans to secure any loans that they have and the current distrust between banks, all conspire against lending money with a negligible return versus the effort and risk. If, as a lending bank, you require 20 good investments in a year to cover every company that is a loss, and your return is only 2.5% - where is the incentive?

There was a host of useful and current information on other sources of funding and also the best routes to take to work towards them. David Gill came across as a well informed speaker, as one might expect from the Managing Director of the SJIC, who won the UKBI award for Outstanding Contribution to Business Incubation 2011. 

Contact the SJIC if you are interested in the next talk on Finance from David Gill. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

Tollé Architects, visiting a great practice in Verden, Germany

Whilst Fritz-Dieter Tollé Architektur reads like a recommendation in German (Tollé looks like the German exclamation for Great!) it does happen to be apt, as I found out on my current visit to meet up with the next generation, Sandra and Leif Tollé on mutual business.

To get to Verden, I left home at five in the morning after the first really disruptive snowfall of 2012. Fortunately, both trains and planes at Stansted were unaffected (Heathrow had cancelled over half its flights the previous day!) and I arrived in a sunny but arctic Hannover (minus 7 to minus 10 degC!), a chill that bit through even the thickest clothing.

The company itself (see is located in the cathedral city of Verden an der Aller (

Sandra  Tollé, CEO for the recently opened Duesseldorf branch of the company,
first introduced me to her father, Fritz-Dieter Tollé, on a tour before we had our meeting. He had built up the family owned and run company from scratch 30 years ago into the thriving practice with over 55 employees to date. The company has a broad experience and impressive portfolio in city planning, industrial projects and restoration of historical buildings.

Their current building was created by sympathetically fusing a tobacco factory with a former large stabling block wih a central atrium and stairwell. The spacious interiors over several floors were tastefully decorated in large modern paintings, the occasional architectural model and a lovely display of old survey instruments.

One striking feature was the polite and friendly greetings by any of the staff who passed us by or who we met on the tour, an atmosphere that was borne out by the low staff turnover, with many being longstanding employees.

A constructive business meeting exploring mutual interests and opportunities with Sandra followed before we finished for the day and I explored the city.

Twinned with another historic city, Warwick, Verden has a picturesque pedestrianized and quaintly cobbled city centre, dominated by the romanic (pre-gothic) cathedral at one end and a Rathaus with a lovely 15 bell hourly chime at the other, which plays a familiar German lullaby (Der Mond ist aufgegangen - The moon has risen).

Walking around the city centre, Leif Tollé, Sandra's husband, revealed a deep knowledge of the city history. This included a famous massacre of 4500 heathen Saxons by Charlemagne. It also used to have a wall built right through the middle of the city to separate the secular hoi polloi from the elevated bishopric, resulting in a lucrative toll on churchgoers on Sundays; a situation only alleviated when the town was unified when taken over by the Swedish crown.

I felt quite at home in a city that was situated in an equally flat countryside to the Fens, doubly so when it turned out that there was a long tradition of links to England through the Hanoverians PLUS  a love of horses, reminiscent of Cambridge's neighbouring towns of Newmarket and Huntingdon.

I'm looking forward to another set of interesting meetings here tomorrow.