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2015 proved to be a strong year for commercial real estate in London, a performance that was driven to a large extent by foreign investment, particularly from North American and Chinese investors, as well as the Gulf states and Singapore. Some £54bn of new real estate debt was issued in 2015, a marked increase on previous years; notably, one quarter of the new financing came from alternative (non-bank) lenders, as bank lending continued to be restricted by regulation, including capital requirements. However, Lloyds Banking Group issued its largest commercial property development loan since the global financial crisis with the £185m financing of a designer outlet village at London’s O2 Arena.

City and West End prime rents were at an all-time high and robust take-up encouraged strong rental growth. Besides office property, a number of other asset classes proved popular: in particular, student accommodation and warehouse space for retailers kept many law firms active and, in one standout deal, Brandeaux Student Accommodation Fund and the Wellcome Trust entered into a £2bn joint venture with Goldman Sachs and Greystar to form a new student accommodation company.

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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The second half of 2015 evidenced a noticeable increase in appetite for major new development projects, with investors and developers using corporate structures such as joint ventures and forward funding arrangements to facilitate risk sharing. Alongside a cluster of mixed-use projects, the home-building market was extremely busy, as the capital wrestles with a chronic housing shortage.

The Conservative government’s focus on new housing manifested itself in the Housing and Planning Bill (envisaged to become statute in 2016). The new Act allows for an accelerated planning system so as to deliver more housing quickly. It also proposes a further squeeze on social housing providers, following hard on the heels of the summer budget, which stipulated a cut in social housing rents. The moves have increased legal work in the area and housing providers have sought to secure their future by way of merger, portfolio transfer, and diversification into other areas of funding, such as the bond market.

For construction lawyers, infrastructure projects such as HS2 (high-speed rail link), the Thames Tideway Tunnel and a substantial mandate for Highways England helped to offset the ongoing decline of private finance initiatives (PFI). Other valuable sources of non-contentious work were provided by energy projects, in particular wind and solar, and the active development market in London. On the contentious side, a number of law firms were engaged in domestic disputes arising from PFI contracts that had ground to a halt, although the rise of adjudication has led many litigation practices to seek more profitable work overseas.

While conventional sources of environmental work such as contaminated land and water pollution provided some environmental practices with business, the remit of the discipline has broadened; aside from transactional due diligence, many practices were engaged with increased instructions from the consumer products and telecoms sectors, particularly with regard to environmental aspects of product compliance and the concept under various EU environment laws of ‘placing on the market’ of new products.

Although contentious property work is rarely at the mercy of the economy, last year’s property boom is expected to be followed by an increase in property litigation. Currently rights of light, enfranchisement and mixed-use developments are major themes causing disputes among parties. Accompanying the increase in litigation, the first part of 2016 has also yielded a slowdown in the market, as investors awaited the outcome of the UK referendum on continued participation in the European Union.

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