I made the mistake of checking my diary for the date of an event I attended in March this year.

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

I couldn’t believe quite how packed my life had been with interesting events and meetings. As much as zoom and social media has been a lifeline in maintaining contact, I will really appreciate being able to resume real life. I do worry though that we will need to relearn social skills when we emerge from confinement. According to a recent Ofsted report, lockdown has caused some young children to forget how to use a knife and fork. Could this affect adults too?

In a parallel universe, I would have been at Celtic Manor in Newport this week judging the Hackathon again for this year’s Property Week RESI Convention. Although not affording quite the same networking opportunities, the two day RESI programme translated pretty well to a digital format.

Continuity was preserved by having the excellent Mark Easton, BBC Home Editor hosting the event once again, although strangely he was speaking to us from a studio in Swindon. I was particularly looking forward to the keynote from Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick and gauging how it compared to previous housing minister RESI outings.

RESI day 1

Mark Easton

For me the impact of his speech was somewhat marred by the fact that he was addressing us digitally and doesn’t seem to have acquired the knack of using an on-screen autocue, so was clearly reading a prepared script.

At last year’s RESI, new housing minister Esther McVey (the 18th since 2000) was emphatic that ‘we must make home ownership key’ and made no mention of build to rent much to the disappointment of event sponsor Moda Living. The first woman housing minister in a decade attempted an opening joke about needing a woman to get on with the ‘house-work’ which fell completely flat.

This year, Jenrick, whilst recognizing the central role of housebuilding and construction in the economy, similarly made no mention of the burgeoning institutional build to rent sector. Even worse, when questioned by Easton, he seemed to think it was some form of affordable housing. As Easton put it succinctly in a later panel session, ‘The government’s commitment to home ownership remains undimmed’.

As I commented from last year’s RESI, there is serious work to do to educate the government and the public on what the build to rent sector can do to provide quality homes at speed and at scale.

I’d also like to mention Kit Malthouse’s memorable 2018 RESI appearance, just six weeks into his short lived tenure as housing minister. He caused quite a stir by exhorting the sector to be more ambitious, to innovate and, using his strap line, to build ‘more, better, faster’ to achieve the government’s 300,000 annual housing target. Speaking at the subsequent Conservative Party Conference, Malthouse mentioned his appearance at RESI and his disappointment at the perceived lack of response from the audience. I believe he has the distinction of being the only housing minister to date with the word ‘house’ in his name which I thought at the time augured well.

I have to say that of the many housing ministers we have had to engage with in recent years, Brandon Lewis remains my firm favourite. He was always keen to engage with the property sector and regularly attended sector events, including our late-lamented annual pre MIPIM party. He was supportive of the build to rent sector and understood what it had to offer. Of course he was in the role for two whole years so it gave us a chance to build a relationship with him.

Jenrick resi

Robert Jenrick

The RESI programme included a session with Jake Chai, chief of staff at US co-living operator Common, whose strap line is ‘ Coliving is city living made better.’ I first became aware of Common through Dror Poleg’s seminal book, ‘Rethinking Real Estate’ in which he charts Common’s disruptive trajectory. As he says, ‘ the most interesting aspect of Common’s evolution is not the growth of its coliving brand – it is its ability to parlay its unique capabilities into other residential products.’

He then focuses on Common’s JV with Tishman Speyer, the US’s first residential brand for families living in or near cities. Poleg regards this as noteworthy as being the first to cross over from coliving into the multi-family (build to rent) sector. Property Week editor, Liz Hamson questioned Chai on the difference between Common and its UK equivalent, The Collective. Chai described The Collective as a vertically integrated developer and operator. He stressed that Common are not a developer which he sees as an advantage as they are able to partner with property developers. It would be interesting to hear The Collective’s view. He also warned against the ‘amenities arms race’ where units get smaller and there are a lot of similar and expensive products. He cautioned against focusing just on luxury housing.

Moving on to the world of workplace, this week I had great fun in the digital studio interviewing Gab McMillan, the inspiring founder and CEO of tenant experience platform Equiem. The Equiem journey started back in 2011 in Melbourne Australia and was clearly well ahead of its time with its focus on hospitality, data and customer service. They now have upwards of 175,000 users across 9,000 companies in Australia, the USA, the UK and Ireland.

When asked about competition McMillan says that ‘apathy’ has been their competition. Hopefully the pandemic has changed this as connection with the workforce both those in the office and those working remotely is now regarded as an essential. In response, Equiem have launched an array of new platforms to help people connect and to get them back into the workplace safely. Equiem’s Global Office Tenant Reports researched during lockdown have produced useful data and insights on the views of workers and their thoughts on remote working and returning to the workplace. Look out for the podcast interview coming shortly as it shows why corporates need to be agile and responsive and also contains some key advice for founders.

Continuing with the workplace theme, I was delighted to contribute to the IPUT Real Estate and Arup report ‘Making Place’ which has just been released. It takes a careful look at how the nature and role of the traditional workplace is changing and how we are recalibrating the roles of work, life and place. As IPUT CEO Niall Gaffney says ‘ We need to embrace technology and new ways of working but this needs to be alongside a renewed relationship with the office. Things will be lost if we choose to work from home fulltime; and we mean over and above our need to be social, collaborative and feel part of our professional tribe’.

The report uses a term, ‘workplacemaking’ which we could be hearing a lot more about. Concluding that there is a need for a new area of design between traditional workplace design and public realm placemaking to focus on the urban realm, between the office and the home, where workers can benefit from random interactions with a range of people. The report concludes that workplacemaking should create places that attract people, promote interaction and knowledge exchange, and also make a social and economic contribution to the neighbourhood. In my contribution, I highlighted that ‘ Social interaction between employees is a core part of learning and career development.’ In the enthusiasm of working from home some things are being missed. For instance the way we teach younger people coming up through the business is by giving them the opportunity to learn from senior staff.’ This is difficult to do working remotely. I also mentioned that ‘in the future, in order to deal with the challenges and expectations of offices, landlords will have to work closer with their tenants to run buildings collaboratively.’

Turning to the logistics sector, it’s good to see another US operator opening in the UK. Chicago based industrial specialist Bridge Development Partners, a privately owned industrial real estate company, has chosen to launch its first international office in the UK. Bridge will be bringing their expertise in last mile logistics, brownfield redevelopment and cold storage assets to the UK. Logistics expert Paul Hanley has joined from Prologis to head up the UK team and will be pursuing land and development opportunities in London, the South East and the West Midlands. I’m delighted to report that Hanley will join the next panel in our Mishcon Academy digital series which will be on the Future of Logistics.

I want to end with a news story which suggests that retail is far from dead. Chinese online retailer JD.com, also known as the Amazon of China, is aiming for a network of 5 million (yes 5 million!) physical stores in China in the next three years. Although not known in the UK, JD.com is China’s largest online retailer and its biggest overall retailer, as well as the country’s biggest internet company by revenue. This is an interesting development in terms of an omnichannel approach to retail. Will we be seeing more online retailers come offline?

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya

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