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.