The investment market is functioning again. Some sellers have resumed talks with the buyers they lined up before lockdown began. And new, post-lockdown deals will bolster the pipeline as more properties open and investor tours get underway.
Given that foreign investment has been around half of total volumes in recent years, the next question is not of market functionality but capacity: could travel restrictions - enforced by governments or businesses - curtail investment volumes?
This question has become more pertinent since the Government began to enforce a two-week quarantine for anyone arriving to the UK on or after 8 June. However, many foreign investors have offices and staff based in the UK: London, especially.
It is hard to determine how many deals could complete without participants travelling to the UK, but we can use past deals to give our answer some scale. Investors bought over £189bn of real estate over the last 3 years and £89bn was foreign investment. Within the foreign investor share, over £46bn of investment was by foreign investors with a UK office.
So, just over a fifth of all investment might have needed international travel. We might have overstated this share - we might have missed that some smaller investors have local staff, or share an office with affiliates, and some investors might have invested through a separate account with a local manager. Even so, this basic exercise helps show that barriers to international travel shouldn’t limit investment.
While many offices in the UK have reopened, companies might still need most of their employees to work from home while social distancing rules are in place. Enough time has passed to see how this arrangement has affected productivity, corporate culture and employee wellbeing. Our new report ‘The Future of Workplace’ outlines the new trends.
The report shows that people have been as productive as they were before the crisis and have increased their teamwork thanks to calls, virtual meetings and collaborating on documents in real time.
However, the lack of face-to-face contact is taking its toll on people’s ability to learn and train, and their connection with their company and its culture has weakened. More than half of respondents reported a challenge to working from home. For most, sub-par connectivity was the main issue. Younger people were more likely to have problems with inadequate workspace and families often struggled with childcare.
Despite these issues, 73% of respondents believed their company should embrace some level of working from home. Companies will inevitably review their workplaces - office and home, physical and virtual - because of their ongoing work-from-home experiments.
These changes will give offices a new purpose as a destination for innovation and learning, and they will empower employees to make their own choices - focus at home or collaborate in the office.
Despite confusion around phases, steps, measures and alert levels, there are two clear points in the Government’s plans. First, the Government has started to relax restrictions on households and businesses but will reverse those decisions if the virus threatens to spread. Second, these decisions will dictate our normality until the Government can distribute reliable treatments or vaccines - that could take months, a year or more.
Property types fall into a new hierarchy of transmission risk while this phase continues. Many lower-risk workplaces, including offices and industrial properties, and essential retail businesses are already open and other retail businesses could open in phases from 1 June. The higher transmission risks associated with hospitality and leisure use mean restrictions on these properties are tougher and could change more often.
Regardless of changing business restrictions, social distancing will remain throughout this phase. And so, we need new and innovative approaches to how we can use space safely. Every property will have to adapt to earn the right to open and remain open if the risk of a second wave of cases increases.
For now, this situation creates more questions than answers. Could one adapt a property in a high-risk category enough for the Government to consider it low risk? Will investors price in the risk that restrictions pose to a property’s operation, and will that risk premium be temporary?
Few people would expect a record high from the first quarter’s investment stats, but we got one: the average transaction value for property in the UK was £46m. The number of deals, however, was at an eight-year low. Taken together, investors have shied away from smaller deals but stayed committed to their biggest opportunities.
Why did the big deals survive? Big deals are often key to an investor’s long-term strategy - a move into healthcare or logistics, for example - and investors still strive for those goals.
Buyers need the same prudence when buying a £5m property as a £500m portfolio and many lacked the bandwidth to consider smaller deals while in crisis-mode - even the perfect £5m property isn’t going to move the needle.
How investors raised capital reflects how they are spending it. Preqin confirmed that global fund raising for real estate in 2019 exceeded $150bn for the first time, but only 295 funds closed - the lowest number in a decade. Buyers are getting bigger and they need bigger deals.
The total transaction value was £11bn, not bad for a first quarter. This total excludes Blackstone’s £4.7bn purchase of student housing group IQ, which would become the largest UK transaction ever recorded once it gains regulatory approval.
Volumes will fall in the second quarter, but the popularity of prime assets and high-quality portfolios should keep the average transaction value high. The needle still needs to move.
With all data collected, our review of leasing activity in the first quarter of 2020 can begin.
Occupiers looking for new space were highly active in the first months of the year, but by March it had become difficult for lease deals to progress. For example, leasing volumes were 20% below average for office space in London at the end of the first quarter, but the amount of space under offer was 28% above average.
We saw a similar picture across the UK: occupiers had cancelled or put on hold only 10% of potential office take-up, while ongoing talks spilled over into the second quarter keeping live demand steady at 16 million square feet. The main concern is that new enquiries for office space have become increasingly rare since lockdown began.
Occupiers of any type of space, including retail and industrial, have struggled to secure the space they need within usual timeframes. Take-up of industrial space was 32% below average in the first quarter, despite many occupiers needing to fulfil more online orders and store more goods, especially near ports. At least for now, these needs have triggered new enquiries for logistics space on short-term leases.
On 27 April, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK is close to completing the first phase of its fight against COVID-19. The virus has not overwhelmed the National Health Service (NHS) and hospital patient numbers are falling consistently.
But the UK is now at the point of ‘maximum risk’ according to the Prime Minister. The Government will ‘refine economic and social restrictions’ to reopen parts of the economy, while managing the risk of a second spike.
Businesses must prepare for the next phase of the Government’s action plan. We think business recovery plans should cover six key points:
- Prepare the building: Clean, inspect and complete HVAC and mechanical checks
- Prepare the workforce: New return-to-work policies. Decide who returns to work and when
- Control access: New health and safety protocols for visitors, communal areas and deliveries
- Social distancing plan: Decrease density, new office traffic patterns and worker schedules
- Reduce touch points, increase cleaning: Touchless entry and exit, a stricter clean desk policy, new food plan and frequent cleaning
- Communicate: Be transparent and survey staff regularly
With millions of people already back to work in other countries, the lessons for UK businesses are to plan early and communicate that plan to staff clearly. If this is the point of maximum risk, now is the time to get your plans in place. Find out how with our Recovery Readiness Guide.
Thanks to new mobility reports from Google, we can see how our behaviour changed as the COVID-19 crisis took hold.
Our use of transport hubs lessened from 9 March – that was when Italy’s lockdown began, and the UK Foreign Office issued travel restrictions. The Prime Minister urged us to stay at home in his press conference on 16 March and we then made fewer trips to work, shops and leisure facilities.
When journalists reported the Government’s ‘shielding plan for London’ on 18 March, we saw a spike in Google searches for ‘lockdown’ and grocery and pharmacy trips rose, as people stockpiled essential goods.
Our behaviour started to change before lockdown. More importantly, the data shows we are still happy to go out if social distancing is possible and in our control. Park use has been close to normal on sunny weekends.
Thankfully, the stockpiling crowds haven’t returned. But grocery and pharmacy trips are now down about one third on the pre- COVID-19 baseline. So even though we can go to the supermarket, we don’t go as often – this is a good guide for other retail once lockdown is over.
Workplace trips are down 57% on the pre-COVID-19 baseline. All workplaces will have to adapt to ensure people can keep their distance. Our Six Feet Office concept for workplaces are a solution to the challenge of getting people back to work safely.
Construction companies are re-opening sites to avoid further delays and disruption.
Many companies stopped work on their sites when the Government announced its three-week lockdown on 23 March 2020. But the Government is likely to extend the lockdown period prompting construction companies to change their procedures to safely re-open sites in current conditions.
Over 9 million square feet of office space should complete this year in central London and around two-thirds is pre-let or under offer. Delays to restarted projects are still likely, as finding materials and labour is difficult. And for some sites, supply chain constraints might prevent re-opening altogether.
Occupiers due to move into a new property have a nervous wait to see if they need to find temporary space or extend their current lease, if possible, until their new space is available. The race is on to complete construction and avoid this large-scale leasing problem.
While there is very little retail space due to complete, over 4 million square feet of industrial space was under construction before the COVID-19 crisis began. Some large schemes planned for 2020, such as Goodman Bedford, Magna Park South and Wakefield 515, might not complete until 2021 even if their construction recently started.
For most tenants, rent was due on 25 March. But it has taken the last 2 weeks to get a clear picture of how much rent tenants paid.
Many UK REITs issued COVID-19-related press releases to confirm their rent collection rates. For some, rates were as low as 30-40% after 1 or 2 working days after quarter-end.
Retail was the most affected sector. However, most REITs reported that their collection rates were 60-70% after 7 working days. REITs with more prime offices and logistics in their portfolios had higher rates.
Our view on the ground has been:
- Rent collection rates were down by around 20-25% on normal Working Day Seven expectations
- Service charge collection rates were down by around 15-20% on normal Working Day Seven expectations
In addition, some landlords and tenants have agreed to switch to monthly payments or defer payments.
Overall, the COVID-19 crisis has affected the cashflow of most properties, regardless of sector. But collection rates have slowly risen, and will continue to rise, confirming that landlords and tenants have successfully found a new balance between short-term obligations and long-term stability.
The new measures announced by the Government and the Bank of England give the UK real estate market a vital safety net.
The Bank of England will buy £200 billion of assets, mainly Government bonds, to stimulate spending in the economy. The Treasury has pledged over £30 billion of measures to protect businesses and households and will defer £30 billion of taxes. Further, these institutions will coordinate to deliver lending schemes with £330 billion of funds.
It is too early to see what impact the crisis has had on real estate investment, but there have been some changes in the occupier markets. Active requirements for larger office space are stable, and 25% of all active requirements in London are above 50,000 square feet. But requirements for smaller amounts of office space have already fallen.
Conversely, requirements for small amounts of logistics space have risen, as the surge in online retail has increased tenants’ needs for flexibility. Although supermarkets are among the few stores the Government allows to open, the grocery sector has experienced unprecedented demand for home delivery.
The industrial market’s gain is retail’s loss. Retail landlords and tenants need to find the right balance between ensuring tenants’ solvency and honouring rent payments as quarter and month-end rent payments are due.