This week, Property Week hosted two in-person events – one an invitation-only spotlight on ‘How to do the S in ESG’ attended by 75 people and the other the RESI Awards, which as we went to press on Wednesday, was expecting a capacity crowd of 1,300.
After the emergence of the Omicron variant and reintroduction of some Covid restrictions, there were inevitably dropouts, but at the spotlight on Tuesday, people were largely upbeat. ‘We need to keep going and learn how to live with this,’ seemed to be the prevailing view. The question is: will we be allowed to – and what will the impact be if we are not?
Aside from what it means in terms of our social liberties and in-person gatherings, there is also the question of what it means for the property industry. Over the past few months, parts of the industry hit hardest by the pandemic have bounced back with a vengeance. The last thing anyone wants is for Covid casualties to start rising again or more onerous restrictions to be imposed, such as the dreaded lockdown.
For now, masks are not mandatory in hospitality settings, but bosses of pubs, bars and restaurants warn there has been a slew of pre-Christmas cancellations. While many operators came up with ingenious ways to keep trading during lockdown and will no doubt come up with clever workarounds again if forced to, few will relish the prospect of a weaker than expected festive trading period, let alone another full lockdown. For some, it could be the final nail in the coffin.
Retailers will be watching the numbers nervously, too. Requiring customers to wear masks in store is one thing, requiring them to shop only online because they are not permitted in store is quite another.
The outlook is not as unclear for another sector laid low last year by Covid – student accommodation – but student accommodation is a very different sector. While the pandemic has packed enough of a punch to send retail and hospitality operators under, it doesn’t have enough clout to send universities under.
The long-term fundamentals in student accommodation remain strong, as reflected in the level of investment and development activity. Ahead of next week’s Student Accommodation Conference + Awards (8 December), JLL’s Philip Hillman told Property Week that agencies like JLL were currently handling up to £5bn worth of PBSA deals.
Another sector where the recovery appears to be unstoppable is London offices. On Wednesday, Property Week revealed that a Hong Kong buyer was poised to make its UK debut with the purchase of Charles Russell Speechlys’ HQ at 5 Fleet Place for around £190m, a deal that would reflect a 4% yield. The news followed hot on the heels of reports that a Singaporean investor has gone under offer to buy WeWork’s 120 Moorgate for around £148m, reflecting a yield of 4.7%.
The hope is that Omicron doesn’t derail real estate’s recovery – or progress on big issues such as the climate crisis and social impact. At the spotlight event, the feeling was that the industry has reached a tipping point when it comes to social impact, and now sees it as ‘need to have’ rather than ‘nice to have’. Panellists agreed that Covid has raised awareness of the importance of social impact and galvanised the industry into action.
They were preaching to the converted, of course, but if there is one upside to the ongoing Covid uncertainty, it is that it could lead many of the unconverted to change their tune.