As I write my first lockdown blog of 2021, the voice of Julie Andrews, as the Bridgerton narrator, Lady Whistledown, is for some reason echoing in my head. Thank goodness for all the TV drama over the ‘festive’ break to take our minds off our own ongoing drama.

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

Incredibly it’s barely a week into this new year and we have already been plunged into a new countrywide lockdown and witnessed unimaginable and lurid scenes as the storming of the United States Capitol unfolded in an unprecedented challenge to democracy. It does seem that real life is becoming ever more dramatic than the fictitious drama we’ve been watching.

When Peter May wrote his dystopian thriller Lockdown, 15 years ago in which he predicted a global pandemic, it was turned down by his publishers as unbelievable. Unsurprisingly, it has now been published and is amazingly prescient.

Focusing on some of the positive things going on in the USA, I have to mention Francis X Suarez, the Mayor of Miami who has so brilliantly used social media to promote the Miami brand. He has appeared on TV urging New York’s largest financial firms to leave Wall Street and relocate to the sunshine state.

The likes of Blackstone, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan have announced they are opening offices there. He has also used twitter to connect with the tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. These digital nomads came across the Miami opportunity online, on the back of a series of viral twitter posts by Suarez.

In response to a tweet from Delian Asparouhov, a principal at VC firm Founders Fund, saying Silicon Valley should ‘move’ to Miami, Suarez replied, ‘How can I help?’ Suarez’s reply went viral, with more than 500 quotes or retweets, 5,700 likes, and millions of views. I recommend following Suarez on twitter. I do and he has reciprocated with a follow back which shows just how proactive he is.

This is perhaps a useful lesson in how a London mayor could actively promote brand London. Steve Norris in this week’s excellent Property Week column entitled ‘Tories need to fight for London’, calls for a London mayoral contender who is a good communicator, has business experience and will be taken seriously. As he says, ‘Let’s be havin’ you!’

Continuing with the USA theme, YouTube celebrity Mr Beast has been very busy. Whilst the hospitality sector suffers forced lockdown closures, YouTube megastar Mr Beast (AKA Jimmy Donaldson) has over Christmas announced to his followers the launch of 300 Mr Beast Burger restaurants! The virtual restaurant which is accessed via a delivery app has been an instant hit.

Mr Beast, who has an incredible 48million YouTube subscribers, partnered with Virtual Dining Concepts to bring his delivery only burgers to the masses. Shortly after a headline-catching launch which involved giving away bundles of cash, the Mr Beast Burger app was the most downloaded on iTunes and Google Play. Mr Beast Burgers produced through a network of restaurants and dark kitchens is already available in more than 30 major markets in the US with additional locations coming this year. Could this be a model for restaurant concepts going forward?

In slightly terrifying tech news, Microsoft have apparently filed a patent to use an AI likeness of an individual based on their social media posts, texts and emails, and even written letters, into a machine-learning algorithm. The Microsoft chatbot could even be given a ‘voice font’ based on recordings of the person. The concept raises the possibility of allowing someone to live on posthumously as an AI chatbot, using all the data generated by that person over the course of their life.

An interesting New York Times piece by Dror Poleg, ‘The Future of Offices When Workers Have a Choice’ caught my eye. He quotes a 2019 pre-pandemic Leesman report which analysed how the workplace affects employee productivity, pride and enjoyment. Drawing on 719,000 respondents in 4,771 global workplaces Leesman found that almost 40% felt their workplace did not enable them to work productively. There have been many surveys since Covid-19 started but the data doesn’t yet tell us where and how people will choose to work post-Covid.

As Poleg says there are signs that central activity zone buildings may have to compete for different uses. He says some of the largest US multifamily operators, have been adding work and meeting spaces to their buildings for a few years now. Common, the US’s largest co-living operator, is partnering with local governments to develop new types of live/work communities.

The eventual changes in working patterns are yet to emerge but as Poleg says, ‘The office will become more of a consumer product. And just like every consumer product, the office will have to continually fight for its customers and meet their needs.’ I am very much looking forward to interviewing Poleg as part of the ULI’s upcoming ULI Europe Next and Young Leader Forum so we can follow up on our last interview which was in London last February just before Covid-19 hit.

Turning to the UK, the government has announced changes which will enable homeowners to extend their leases up to 990 years at a zero ground rent. The changes, it claims, are part of the biggest reforms to English property law for 40 years, and will lead to a new system altogether. Housing minister, Robert Jenrick said the new laws are being introduced to banish the ‘scandalous pitfalls of leasehold’ and to ‘put fairness back at the heart of the housing system’.

As a part of these changes the government is establishing a commonhold council of leasehold groups, industry and government bodies to help encourage homeowners and the market to take up the tenure of commonhold as an alternative to leasehold. Nearly two decades after the concept was first introduced, incentives may need to be offered to get developers to adopt commonhold, as it certainly failed to grip us when introduced initially.

See, from the archives, my 2003 Property Week column where I commented. ‘ commonhold will be market-driven and will only become the norm if there is demand from buyers and housebuilders embrace it. I cannot yet detect a great degree of excitement, even though evidence from other countries indicates that commonhold may attract a higher price than equivalent leasehold properties.’

It remains to be seen if commonhold can be made to fly.

Finally, here’s to the next weeks bringing a little less in the way of real life drama. As I said in my contribution to this week’s Property Week ‘look ahead with hope’ feature, I really do hope that we are heading for the 21st century equivalent of the Roaring Twenties that followed on the heels of the Spanish Flu epidemic, although this time turbo-charged by huge advances in technology, robotics and AI.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya

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