The festive season is here and a new year is almost upon us. It goes without saying, 2020 has been a year quite unlike any other that, despite sideshows such as the US election and ongoing Brexit uncertainty, will be summed up in the history books by just one word: Covid, a word we’d hardly ever heard before last March.
The C word aside, it was a fascinating year for the property sector. It came flying out of the traps following Boris’s victory in the December 2019 election (how long ago does that now feel?!), to be stopped dead in its tracks for 3 months with the rest of the world, only to emerge thereafter on steroids.
The government put construction at the centre of the recovery and extended/introduced measures intended to boost the property market; they’ve certainly achieved that, although it’s only a matter of time before the market runs out of steam. Private equity replaced High Street Banks as a source of lending, and alternative sources of capital for developers filled the gap.
But if all that wasn’t enough, there are enormous question marks hanging over the office, retail and industrial sectors, and we’re still to see what happens following the announcement of planning reforms.
That’s plenty of action and plenty to consider, but for me the most interesting development of all is the change in attitude toward living and the role of the home in the new norm. The shift in focus from town to country, from convenience to space, from the workplace to the home office. I think this is a trend that stays. If you’re like me, you’ve learned you don’t need to be strapped to your desk five days a week. Working from home has proven productive and enjoyable. But while work life balance is shifting in that direction, face-to-face collaboration is where the magic really happens, and I suspect the demand for office space will normalise in the near future, with work schedules and flexible work schedules being the course de jour.
Another thing to watch is the rental market. I note with interest that data for the rentals market is now following the same trend as out-of-town sales. Rental rates have increased an average of 5.5% in the countryside year on year, whilst they’ve fallen by about the same in the cities. That’s a very telling disparity.
Of course, our cities will always be in demand – London is the only part of the country where prices aren’t currently surging, but they are not falling either and I suspect as, if or when the market cools and artificially stimulated demand dries up, London will not fare too badly. Everyone likes the buzz of being and working in London. I don’t think that changes.
I think it’s massively ridiculous that an “urban exodus” is taking place, as has been sensationalised in the press of late. Certainly the changing appeal of the country is here to stay and its knock-on effects will be interesting to observe.
Of course, it’s a gradual process – areas seldom change overnight – but it’s beginning. The levels of activity we are seeing at Hilltop from SME residential developers in areas outside of the cities have increased significantly over the last 4 or 5 months. The intention and the investment is there, and with planning regulations and zoning under the microscope the potential for indelible change to how and where we live is considerable.
Keep powder dry into the new year. All I want for Christmas is clarity moving forward, which I believe is just around the corner.