A recurring theme of my weekly Covid-19 chronicles has been the way that fact has become progressively stranger than fiction as the last year has worn on. 

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

The drama currently enveloping the royal family would certainly have challenged credulity had it been a story line for The Crown, the TV drama series charting the Queen’s amazing reign.

Rishi Sunak’s budget this week did not hold many surprises. It was disappointing for those hoping that the Chancellor would use the opportunity to encourage sustainability. There was little to support the ‘green industrial revolution’ promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

This is disappointing at a time when Covid-19 has been seen as a wake-up call for one of our biggest challenges, the climate emergency.

AS UKGBC chief executive Julie Hirigoyen, said ‘Beyond the opportunities for green investment offered by the Infrastructure Bank and new green gilt and retail savings product, this Budget appears to ignore the huge part that greening our buildings can play in delivering our post-Covid economic recovery. Tackling carbon emissions from buildings – particularly the existing housing stock – is not easy, but we cannot afford to duck the challenge any longer’. 

At Mishcon de Reya we recently launched our new climate strategy and are committed to being a net zero carbon business. As part of that commitment, we are pleased to be a lead partner for the second year of the Property Week Climate Crisis Challenge campaign.

We are also hosting a series of Sustainability Circles to promote discussion with our real estate clients around the practical issues of sustainability. The first roundtable looked at sustainability in place-making including policy, regeneration and design. The next session will focus in on the built environment and the benefits of repurposing or retrofitting existing stock over new build.

As drones are a subject close to my heart, I was delighted this week to talk with Duncan Walker, the CEO and co-founder of Skyports for the Propertyshe podcast. Skyports are a leading pioneer in locating, building, owning and operating vertiports and implementing end-to-end drone deliveries.

Skyports have been very much in the news recently for the first Royal Mail drone parcel delivery in the UK and for operating the delivery drones being used for the first time in remote parts of Scotland to transport Covid-19 test samples and other medical materials, reducing some journey times from 36 hours down to just 15 minutes. Walker, who has 20 years of commercial real estate experience, latterly as a board director of Helical plc, started Skyports in 2018, at a time when people were more sceptical about the future of commercial drones than they are now.


Source: Shutterstock/flexey

The interview contains some real surprises in terms of the speed with which drone technology is progressing. Interestingly, despite being in one of the most exciting areas of emerging technology, Walker says he feels as if he is still in real estate, ‘just a different and emerging part of the sector’. Skyports build and operate vertiports, which are miniature airports designed for electric aviation. The locations where they are building include Singapore, Paris and the US but, for the reasons Walker explains, not yet in London. I learned a lot about drones, including the fact that you can already take a passenger drone ride in China. You will hear in the podcast when you could be taking your first drone taxi ride in London.

And it is a lot sooner than you think…

In a recent Forbes article, ‘Real Estate Was A Catastrophe In 2020.’ Peter Lane Taylor talked to US experts for some predictions of what happens next and when. The writer concluded that ‘at this point in the pandemic, even at the highest levels of global real estate, no one really knows for sure what comes next. Some people I contacted for this story weren’t even interested in commenting—mostly because they didn’t want to be wrong.’

Fifth Wall co-founder and CEO Brendan Wallace did comment in relation to retail real estate. He said, ‘The pandemic has shed light on the imperative for retail real estate owners to recreate their properties for a new generation of shoppers’. He added, ‘landlords have realized that legacy brands are no longer reliable enough to occupy large portions of their portfolios.

Meanwhile, up-and-coming digitally native brands that are now opening stores as the big chains close are growing at an incredible clip. But the traditional leasing model doesn’t work for them. Retail landlords who actually start investing in these new brands, however, can unlock a radically more aligned and stronger relationship with the retailers of the future.’

This reflects the discussion with Rebeca Guzman Vidal, Chelsfield’s group head of retail strategy in our recent podcast interview, which will be available shortly on You Tube in addition to the usual podcast apps.

In other retail news, Amazon have selected Ealing Broadway for the opening of Amazon Fresh, their first UK till-free shop. The technology developed by Amazon allows you to shop without having to pay at a till. Their app tracks everything you pick up and what you but back. If the UK customer can cope with this level of surveillance, the technology will reduce the time spent in queues and render superfluous the role of cashiers.

It all sounds a lot more customer friendly than the irritating self-service tills supermarkets have been encouraging us to use. It has taken a while for the concept to reach the UK as Amazon’s first cashier-free shop, Amazon Go opened in Seattle in 2018 and there are already 28 in the US. There is an irony in Amazon moving onto the high street, at a time when many retailers have been displaced by the increase in online shopping.

Congratulations to London based Wolf and Badger, an online retail marketplace for independent brands, for their inclusion in the Financial Times1000: 5th annual list of Europe’s fastest-growing companies. This is a particular achievement, especially in the last year which has been so challenging for retail. I do look forward to, once again, being able to browse in their heritage building at Coal Drops Yard Kings Cross. It is good to see from the FT report that ‘London remains the city with the most high-growth businesses.’

Finally, since the war for talent is a major issue for many corporates, it is interesting to look at the recently published, Boston Consulting Decoding Global Talent Report 2021. A key finding of this survey of 208,807 workers in 190 countries is that Canada has, for the first time, displaced the US as the top place to work. An inconsistent pandemic response, the adoption of more nationalistic policies, and social unrest, has caused the US to fall to second in the rankings, behind Canada and basically in a tie with Australia.

There is more good news for London, as it is the most frequently mentioned city work destination in the world. The fame and reach of London’s brand has apparently enabled it to overcome geopolitical uncertainties, such as Brexit. Other European cities listed are Amsterdam and Berlin, which both have dynamic start-up communities.

Finally, as the proud owner of a hyperactive young puppy, I was intrigued to see a new offering, ‘Petflix’, which claims to take your dog for virtual walks. Your dog can watch walks on a TV screen using a subscription service which offers dozens of videos on a website called Relax My Dog.

If this will deter my puppy from chewing through my laptop charging wire again, I will gladly arrange screening direct to his deluxe crate.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya