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In real estate terms 2016 was undoubtedly the year of the residential developer, as the government’s requirement for new housing in London and the UK triggered a multitude of substantial housing projects, including garden cities and villages in places such as Aylesbury, Didcot and Taunton. Social housing providers continued to be highly active, while the private sector focused on numerous build to rent schemes – these schemes have become a desirable asset type in investor portfolios. Traditional investors weren’t the only ones to profit. Increasingly local authorities, hamstrung by government cuts, have being getting in on the act, and using public money for investment purposes.

The year was far patchier for those dealing in property for commercial use, as both the run-up to the EU referendum, and the ensuing period of shock after the Brexit result kept investors extremely cautious. A reported £650m of commercial property deals were thought to have collapsed in the City of London in the weeks following the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Despite the uncertainty, property remains a fundamentally safe asset class, and the characteristics that have distinguished the market of late – inbound international capital and the rise of alternative asset classes such as student accommodation and senior living, where the asset can be sweated - appear to be still present. Indeed, the sterling devaluation that occurred after the Brexit decision has made UK property even more attractive for international investors pegged to the US Dollar or Euro, with activity in central London dominated by Asian, American and Pan-European investors. March 2017 saw the sale of the City of London’s tallest tower, the Cheesegrater, to Chinese investors for £1.15bn. However, UK institutional investment has, save for a fire-sale in the retail sector in the Autumn of 2016, been much quieter.

FIRMS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Ronald Fletcher Baker

The promise of being professional, responsive and competitive is at the core of everything we do. In a sector where time is of the essence, having an experienced firm of solicitors can make a real difference. The firm has over 50 years experience in complex real estate litigation and transactions. Our experience in transactions which involve an international element, particularly those for corporate investors from the BVI, Bahamas, Mauritius, Turkey and Isle of Man, Russia and CIS and Asia sets us apart from other firms. Our skilled property litigation team adds value to the strategic approach it takes in commercial redevelopment and enfranchisement work. As a result the firm’s clients include foreign governments, substantial freehold property investment companies and well known names in the hotel and leisure sector.

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Finance continues to be readily available for deals, with the UK clearing banks gradually returning to the real estate finance space, to take back some of the ground that has been ceded to foreign banks and alternative lenders such as DRC Capital, Aviva and LaSalle Investment Management. Many lenders are following transactions into regional cities, particularly Birmingham and Manchester, in search of a return.

Property litigation has inevitably accompanied the surge in development; in particular the opportunities for right of light claims - that exist notwithstanding the grant of planning - have arisen in response to the increasing urban density. Enfranchisement is also a growth area.

Construction lawyers were able to benefit from the active development market, and the UK contracting market is still quite hot. Contractors are nonetheless starting to push risks back onto owners which in recent history owners have been able to offload, and owners are starting to think about moving away from the recent period of adherence to design and build contracting in favour of other forms of procurement such as construction management. The market is awaiting a better understanding of the effect Brexit will have on UK labour supply, materials prices and procurement structures. 2016 was a much leaner time for new infrastructure projects, although the more successful construction legal practices have started to take advantage of the opportunities for gas providers (or new interconnectors) to plug an energy capacity gap in the UK market. On the contentious side, the search for high value construction work continues to encourage practitioners to move into the international arbitration arena, although there are pieces of UK litigation – notably around PFI projects and waste energy plants – that are capable of sustaining top tier practices.

For planners, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 proved to be yet another piece of planning legislation that made little difference to the intricacies of the planning regime. There is talk of the Government abolishing the unnecessarily complicated Community Infrastructure Levy, however that is a watch this space for the moment. Headline grabbing planning matters have continued to be dominated by the airport sector, with Norton Rose Fulbright’s planning team picking up a number of legal prizes for overturning the London Mayor’s refusal of London City Airport’s expansion plans; all eyes are now on the highly contentious question of Heathrow’s third runway.

In the environment space, the Brexit decision (triggering a departure from the EU legislation that is so all governing in relation to environmental practice) is creating a degree of uncertainty. Some law firms have rushed through Irish qualifications to maintain the link with Europe, while others have deemed this an unnecessary precaution. It is anticipated that the UK will initially put through legislation that bundles up most EU directives into one statute. In terms of work for environmental lawyers, the main change has related to a move by corporates to be more transparent with their stakeholders: driven, amongst other things, by the introduction of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015. As a result, there has been an increase in the number of corporate reporting and transparency advice mandates.

For law firms, it was a time to be a well-hedged practice, and perhaps this was a background feature of two very differing stories in the London legal market. In January 2017, the European arm of King & Wood Mallesons (that incorporated the legacy S J Berwin practice - once the envy of the real estate sector) filed for administration. By contrast, in May 2017 the three-way merger of CMS, Olswang LLP and Nabarro LLP went live, and in doing so created the largest real estate team in the UK.

New to the Real estate chapter this year is Residential property. Ranked firms have demonstrated a track record handling high-value (£8m-plus) real estate transactions for high-net-worth/ultra-high-net-worth clients.

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