Property Week and Freeths brought together a range of experts to hear their overview of the opportunities and challenges for the property market in 2024.

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Panel of experts

  • Richard Bains, managing director, Chancerygate
  • Honor Barratt, chief executive, Birchgrove
  • Sian Barton, journalist, Property Week
  • Adam Challis, head of UK research and strategy, JLL
  • Lucian Cook, head of residential research, Savills
  • Stephanie Denton, head of content, Property Week (chair)
  • Melanie Leech, chief executive, British Property Federation
  • Steve Norris, chairman, Soho Estates
  • Clive Pearce, partner, Freeths
  • Nick Searl, managing partner, Related Argent
  • Jennet Siebrits, head of UK research, CBRE
  • Sybil Taunton, head of equity, diversity and inclusion, RICS

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Richard Bains

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Honor Barratt

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Adam Challis

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Lucian Cook

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Melanie Leech

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Steve Norris

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Clive Pearce

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Nick Searl

Jennet Siebrits CBRE PROPERTY_WEEK_040

Jennet Siebrits

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Sybil Taunton

Last year was dynamic and affected by a range of factors, from government decisions – and on occasion indecision – to worldwide problems such as Covid-19, climate change and political unrest. It was a challenging but exciting time to be in property and more of the same is expected this year.

The wide-ranging discussion considered how the sector is responding to continued political uncertainty in the UK and the impact of the likely general election before the end of the year. In recent years, the UK has ridden an interest rates/inflation rollercoaster, and the impact of the financial markets on property and the potential for rates to go up or down were also put under the microscope by the panel.

Additionally, the vagaries of the UK planning and regulatory system were also called into question, with experts considering how it might be bettered and wondering whether changes are likely in an election year. Infrastructure requirements, particularly for housebuilders, also formed a key part of the session.

The specialists explored how continuing and escalating geopolitical issues are affecting supply chains into the UK. The war in Ukraine along with the more recent Israeli assault on Gaza and the tension it has sparked globally have combined to put supply chains under even greater pressure than they were in 2023 and there is no doubt materials will be affected.

Despite these challenges, the experts suggested that there is a lot to be positive about and opportunities remain wide open for property.

Upcoming general election

Domestic politics was front of mind for most panellists, with a change of government expected before 2025.

Steve Norris, former Conservative MP and transport minister and current chairman of Soho Estates, admitted that he believed the idea of the Tories winning the next vote was “fantasy”. He added the consensus is that prime minister Rishi Sunak will be forced to call an election between May and the end of the year.

Lucian Cook, head of residential research at Savills, pointed out that in recent years there has been a “revolving door” of housing ministers, which has meant the industry has struggled to find the consistency of policy required to move forward, particularly in terms of housebuilding.

He commented: “My suspicion would be that Labour’s hands are much less tied around some key issues like the green belt, and we would all expect to see greater emphasis put on affordable housing policy. Labour has probably recognised that it has an opportunity, even against that context, to adopt the mantle of being the party of home ownership and housebuilding, which is not a space you would necessarily associate it with.”

Nick Searl, managing partner at Related Argent, said he was heartened by discussions he’d had with prospective Labour candidates standing in Conservative seats. “They both talked in an incredibly pragmatic, proactive, ‘get out of the way of development’ type of language,” he recalled.

Unfortunately, although the nation is primed for change, there is unlikely to be movement in terms of policy while Labour and the Conservatives are fighting it out for leadership, or even in the initial stages of any fresh government. Experts spoke of a “void” and suggested that it would take time for any new government to identify capable ministers, coalesce its ideas and begin to make changes.

Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, recalled her time as a civil servant in 1997: “Everyone was very excited about an incoming Labour government, but it does take time to find your feet.”

This, however, could be a benefit, according to Freeths partner Clive Pearce. “We need a bit of time to digest things, make our assessments and come up with common approaches,” he explained.

The planning system

There was optimism that any new government would overhaul the planning system, particularly to help with housing markets, which remain under pressure as demand outstrips supply.

Speed of change and approval is something holding back later-living build-to-rent provider Birchgrove. Honor Barratt, the company’s chief executive, revealed that councils mainly push back when she wants to build new units. She added that, for her, funding is never the issue: “We’ve got the money; you’ve just got to let us go faster.”

Jennet Siebrits, head of UK research at CBRE, questioned how planning policy might be improved and asked whether the UK needed to return to the system in place 20 years ago to stimulate activity. Cook argued for drastic change and said the scale of the housing crisis is so huge that the UK needs to look back further to the “post-war housing delivery boom” if it is to address the problem.

My suspicion would be that Labour’s hands are much less tied around some key issues like the green belt, and we would all expect to see greater emphasis put on affordable housing policy

Lucian Cook, Savills

According to Searl, small cities often approach Related Argent to lead housing development projects. He said that in addition to planning, project funding is also a problem, particularly when it comes to infrastructure for roads and community amenities. “Given the fragile economics of these cities, it’s even more important that there is funding to put transport and utilities in place, because otherwise it just hasn’t got a hope of getting off the ground.”

Future of funding

The panellists predicted that funding would be a mixed bag depending on the sector. CBRE research has shown that commercial property is also under pressure and Siebrits added that the company has identified a funding gap of £8bn across the commercial assets space.

However, Richard Bains, managing director at Chancerygate, pointed out the commercial nuances within sectors such as industrial and logistics and even residential, where debt is fairly liquid. However, he conceded that areas such as secondary offices or retail may have a very different outlook.

Interest rates and inflation are also likely to remain a pressing issue throughout the year. Siebrits was concerned that rates could overshoot predictions as bankers react in a knee-jerk manner. The impact on homeowners might also be a problem, with mortgage rates suddenly rising again, as they did last June, which was flagged as a concern on the risk radar of residential experts.

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However, some felt that there are potential upsides to interest rate developments. Adam Challis, head of UK research and strategy at JLL, said: “It’s actually a really exciting potential catalyst for the economy as we move into five and beyond. As you start to see a bit more private sector comfort with rates moving in the right direction with debt markets stabilising, that is actually a really exciting narrative for real estate.”

Despite the concerns, there remains plenty of capital interested in investing in the UK market. Bains added: “There is a lot of capital out there that wants to step up and invest in GB, and that will come through this year.”

Generative AI’s potential

Last year, there was no escaping the influence of generative artificial intelligence (AI), including ChatGPT, and the trend is set to continue. Challis predicted an increase in commercialisation of the ChatGPT function in property and suggested that AI modelling would start to drive real estate behaviours in a different way.

Data is another area set to improve in leaps and bounds, supported by AI capability. Leech argued: “We will only start to get serious about tackling challenges if we get much smarter with our data and get much, much better at sharing data with others and encouraging our customers to share their data with us, too.”

Technology is also likely to have a significant impact on sustainability, which the panel anticipated would be further enabled through the use of AI.

Business leaders must start focusing on EDI and prioritising being a part of that conversation, and not just looking at it from a recruitment and retention point of view. It’s how we are socially responsible as an employer and as a community builder – it’s all of those things, not just a recruitment piece 

Sybill Taunton, RICS

Elements of the environmental, social and governance agenda are also expected to drive behavioural change across the industry, not only in terms of internal operations but also in relation to how projects are pitched and success is measured. An increased focus on social impact following the pandemic is also set to be a continuing trend in 2024.

Sybil Taunton, head of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the RICS, said the industry has become more aware of how interconnected EDI issues are.

She added that it is essential for leaders to build this awareness into their actions across the board.

“EDI threads every single one of the topics we’re discussing and business leaders must start focusing on that and really prioritising being a part of that conversation, and not just looking at it from a recruitment and retention point of view,” she said. “It’s how we are socially responsible as an employer and as a community builder – it’s all of those things, not just a recruitment piece.”

Looking to the future

Although there are incoming challenges and a potential for stagnation as the industry awaits an election, the panellists agreed there was still much to be positive about for property. Siebrits was confident that it will be a year of opportunity.

Property is also likely to continue to remain resilient as once-in-a-generation ‘black swan’ events become a more regular occurrence. “Resilience is in there because the market proved far more resilient in 2023 than we anticipated, and is likely to do so again,” said Cook.

Meanwhile, Leech said she believed the industry would continue “building for growth” as different types of opportunity arise throughout the year, despite the numerous challenges the sector faces.

As Barratt concluded, if 2024 is anything like 2023 then there is only one thing to do when life gives you lemons: “make lemonade”.

CS Freeths logo January 2024

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