CBRE Law in London report 2013

CBRE’s central London research team asked me to write an article on workplace trends among the top 100 legal firms in London – in particular, the gradual but inexorable shift from cellular offices to open-plan. This continues to be a viscerally divisive issue for law firms. For some, it is a chance to break the link between status and square footage and demonstrate that the legal profession has moved with the times. For others, the merest suggestion of the “call centre” prompts dark predictions of the profession’s demise. I spoke to firms on both sides of the divide, as well as leading workplace experts, to write an eight-page feature, which featured in CBRE’s Law in London report for 2013.

CBRE Law in London 2013_cover

 

So that’s what goes on in the East Midlands

Does the word “eaches” mean anything to you? Do you know your omnichannel from your multichannel, your NDCs from your LATs, your dark stores from your cross-docks? In short, do you speak retail logistics? It’s a language that is fast evolving as a growing proportion of sales are made online, and retailers’ distribution networks are re-engineered to serve a much more dynamic market. In this special report for Estates Gazette, I investigated what this means for the traditionally unglamorous world of sheds – and found that what goes on behind the scenes is a lot more interesting than you might expect… Also in this issue: I interviewed Dino Rocos, operations director at John Lewis, on being a market-leader in omnichannel distribution and how it’s planning to stay ahead of the competition, and the customer.

Croydon, your time has come

Empty offices + housing shortage = office to resi conversions. It must have sounded like a simple enough sum to government ministers when they announced a temporarily relaxation in planning rules to allow commercial buildings to be changed into homes. As usual, the devil is in the detail. The strength of opposition to the policy certainly took them by surprise, and the version finally brought in from May 2013 is heavily watered down. But despite dystopian warnings from local authorities, it’s not only unlikely to transform the hearts of Britain’s towns and cities – conversions will only take place at all in a very specific set of financial, technical and political circumstances. I investigated the opportunities for the RICS magazine, Modus.

Ghost town

For years, London’s dominance as the world’s leading financial centre was matched by the dominance of financial services in the capital’s property market. But while the financial crisis doesn’t seem to have challenged the City’s position as the favourite destination for global capital, lettings to the sector dropped like a stone – and still haven’t recovered. Where financial services companies once took one in three lettings in the City, they are now lagging behind both TMT and professional services. In this nine-page special report for Estates Gazette, I spoke to property experts and financial services firms themselves to find out whether the change is permanent, and interviewed RBS’ head of property strategy about his plans to streamline its vast office portfolio in readiness for re-privatisation.

“The world isn’t going to get a lot easier for a long time”

The surveying profession has already weathered 145 years, even if few members of the general public could tell you exactly what they do. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (est.1868) has not, however, made it this far by being complacent. It commissioned a report looking at how the world around it might change over the next 30 years, which points out that 25 years ago, the Berlin wall was still standing, the internet was a distant dream and hardly anyone was talking about globalisation. Conversely, we have no idea which of our current preoccupations – from climate change and the collapse of global economic structures, to Building Information Modelling and higher university tuition fees – will have the greatest impact in the decades to come. For the danger-themed April issue of the RICS’ magazine, Modus, I interviewed six senior surveyors about the threats facing the profession, confronting prolonged recession, technological obsolescence and even extinction.

China, South Korea… Azerbaijan

“Remember during the Olympics, you’d walk down Regent Street and there was a flag for every country? It’s almost like that now in terms of the owners of London property.” That’s how one consultant described the market to me when I was researching trends in overseas investment in the capital for this article for Estates Gazette.

London’s property market has always been international, but now private wealth and pension savings alike are coming from an unprecedented number of source countries, seeking a safe home. During 2012, investment reached its highest level since 2007, accounting for almost three-quarters of deals in both the commercial and residential sectors. Money continues to flow in from established sources such as the US, Canada, Germany and the Middle East, but also from new players across the Far East, Eastern Europe, South America and Africa – not just dipping a toe in the water but buying up some of London’s most expensive stock. For this feature, I picked ten countries that have made the biggest splash in recent times and assessed what’s in store during 2013 and beyond.

“If I had a quarter of a million pounds, I wouldn’t live in Headingley”

Over the last ten years, student accommodation has become a global asset class much sought after by everyone from Far Eastern sovereign wealth funds to Dutch healthcare workers’ pension schemes, fuelling development in the UK at a furious pace. But with some markets approaching saturation, development funding and sites increasingly hard to come by, and the – as yet unknown – impact of higher tuition fees, can it sustain this level of growth? And how is this influx of foreign capital affecting local housing markets in the UK’s key student cities? Optimists predict a flood of family-sized homes coming back on to the market,  but in this piece for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I found that the reality in key student cities like Leeds is rather different. Local experts apply the “trampoline test”: if there’s a garden big enough for a kid’s trampoline, a family might move in. If not, forget it. So far, the prospects for Leeds’ student heartlands don’t look good.

Not so grand designs

Stand by for a new housing buzzword: “custom build” is the government’s latest solution for restarting the UK’s failed housing market, and fulfilling its pledge to turn Britain into “a nation of homebuilders”. It’s like self-build but without the difficult bits – homeowners are more likely to be choosing from a set of pre-approved designs than creating their dream home, and they can leave the whole thing to an “enabling developer” if they’d prefer not to get their hands dirty. I investigated its chances of becoming the new mainstream in this piece for Construction Manager. Even though councils must now assess demand for custom build and set aside sites to cater for it, and there’s no shortage of contractors gearing up to serve a potentially enormous untapped market, the stumbling block remains the cost of the land – no amount of choice will deliver much-needed family homes while the only people who can afford to do it are equity-rich empty-nesters.

Micro economics

How much should we spend to save a tonne of carbon emissions? That’s one question raised in this article for Building magazine, prompted by a report commissioned by the British Council for Offices (BCO), which attempts to attach some cold, hard numbers to the disparate costs and benefits of small-scale installations of technologies such as photovoltaic panels and biomass boilers. Their startling conclusion is that commercial developers are paying an average of £380 per tonne of emissions reduced and, in the most extreme cases, as much as £2,800. The authors argue that the economics of renewables is strikingly similar to any other method of power generation – and that you wouldn’t ask a developer to pay for a mini nuclear power station on the roof of an office block. But does such a narrow focus on costs give the full picture? Others argue that no other property investment is ever subjected to such close analysis, and that if green technologies don’t stack up, perhaps the problem is not the technologies themselves but the way the calculations are done. They pose a different question: given the urgency of cutting our carbon emissions and the cost of replacing our ageing power stations, can we afford not to seize every opportunity to reduce the bill?