This week’s American presidential inauguration with 22 year old Amanda Gorman reciting her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’, calling for ‘unity’ and ‘togetherness’ and Lady Gaga singing the national anthem has marked an exciting, emotional and welcome new chapter for the US.

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

The unlikely star of the show who has now gone viral is Bernie Saunders, the 79 year old senator from Vermont, pictured seated and bundled up against the cold in his eye catching mittens. And what makes it all the more surprising is that the press are generally totally uninterested in men’s fashion choices at these occasions, focusing solely on the women’s outfits.

In one of his first actions, the new president rejoined the Paris Climate change agreement, which bodes well for the international effort to combat climate change. However, as Fifth Wall VC Fund point out, the new administration is likely to be less forgiving to the world’s largest climate offenders than the previous administration. They have shared some of their research around the need for the real estate industry to take urgent steps to decarbonise.

They believe the sector is on the verge of a climate tech investment boom as regulators, capital markets, and tenants increasingly put pressure on the real estate sector to decarbonise. They calculate that In New York City alone, landlords could be liable for a massive $10 billion in fines and regulatory obligations if they fail to decarbonise over the next decade. Could similar obligations be coming our way in the UK?

Lady Gaga

Source: Shutterstock/ mccv

I have been concerned about air quality in offices and other buildings since my podcast interview early on in the pandemic with ‘guiding light’ on healthy buildings, Raefer Wallis. He was unequivocal that Covid-19 was airborne and that the real estate sector had been ‘asleep at the wheel’ in terms of measuring air quality. It has now been reported that new government proposals could require offices and other commercial properties to install better ventilation systems to help to reduce the spread of airborne diseases such as Covid-19.

Further news on the detail of the proposals is awaited as clearly they could increase real estate development costs. Meanwhile in the US, the government health body, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently issued building ventilation recommendations, which recognise the import role of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in reducing the spread of viruses.

Turning to London, whilst Debenhams in Oxford Street is closing its doors for good, and its neighbouring store John Lewis plans to convert almost 50% of its retail floor space to offices, Selfridges has announced that it has weathered the “most difficult year” in its 113-year history after growing sales in 2019 and investing in online shopping and digital working. But then Selfridges has been ahead of the game for some time in continuously reinventing itself to surprise and delight its customers, which after all was the role of the pioneer department stores.

According to managing director, Anne Pitcher the success of the business in 2019 ‘allowed us to be so resilient in 2020’, with digital sales partly offsetting lockdown store closures. However, she expects footfall to their stores to be depressed for the rest of the year as they rely on people returning to work and the overseas tourist market. According to New West End Company CEO Jace Tyrrell, overseas visitors to the west end would, in normal times, account for around a third of footfall and almost half of spending. Hopefully, the Chancellor will rethink the eradication of tax-free shopping which appears to be an own goal which will deter the return of overseas visitors.

And at the more niche end of the retail market, Wolf & Badger, the London clothes and gifts retailer, reported record sales last year as shoppers switched to online during lockdown. The London based company, whose products include jewellery and homeware from independent designers, was forced to shutter its flagship store at Coal Drops Yard Kings Cross during lockdowns.

As Co-founder and CEO George Graham commented, ‘I’m happy to have left 2020 behind, but with dedication from the awesome Wolf & Badger team we still achieved 92% growth online’. The Wolf & Badger website attracted over 100,000 new visitors last year, seeing an uptick in sales of items such as lingerie, blankets and face masks. I for one look forward to the reopening of their Kings Cross store.

As a Midtown BID board member and chair of its property group, I take a particular interest in the midtown London area. I am therefore delighted to see Westminster City Council have approved plans for the transformation of the Strand/Aldwych gyratory with £18million of improvement works planned. Traffic will revert to two-way on the Aldwych and there will be a new car free public space to showcase al fresco festivals, art installations and inspiring activities. Under an accelerated timescale, the Strand will become traffic free in front of Somerset House and King’s College as soon as this August. Interestingly, rather than a permanent scheme (as planned for the Champs-Élysée in Paris) temporary measures, will be put in place so the final scheme design can be tested before being made permanent.

Following the theme in previous blogs about the need to maintain London’s position on the world stage, a new report commissioned by the City of London Corporation, and reported on in the FT by Property Week alumnus Daniel Thomas, says ‘the UK government needs to return to being perceived as more predictable, stable and strategic’ to convince the world that the UK is worth investing in.

The report concludes that London holds the top spot for financial and professional services compared with New York, Singapore, Hong Kong and Frankfurt. Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, commented: ‘These findings clearly demonstrate that for all the challenges it faces, the UK continues to lead the world when it comes to financial and professional services. But now is not the time to rest on our laurels.’

On the contrary, now is most definitely the time for us all to pull together to promote brand London.

I was delighted to be the first to interview global workplace expert Ronen Journo since he took up his new role as European Head of Operations at Hines. Formerly at WeWork and before that Cisco, Journo has a formidable insight into international workplace trends.

Based on his conversations with many of the CEOs of global corporates over the last year, he really does have the inside track. He is positive about the future of the office and believes ‘we will go back to the office under different terms than before. It will be based on choice and trust and repurposing of offices to really make the experience richer.’

If you are interested in how the office reset is likely to evolve, have a listen to the podcast here or on Apple podcasts or Spotify and most other podcast platforms.

Finally, thank you to Proptech Capital for including me in their recently published Top 20 proptech influencers January 2021 list alongside some of the leading lights in the world of proptech. With the pandemic being widely regarded as a tipping point for proptech innovation, I reckon it’s a good place to be.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya