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Despite the Brexit buzzword, London’s real estate market has proved surprisingly resilient. Though the market’s legal and commercial participants are approaching the future with slight trepidation, one property team remarks that ‘many of the major fears associated with Brexit have not materialised’, while several others echo that sentiment, noting a flurry of investment and financing activity. For most teams, particularly those with a flexible international outlook, activity overall has yet not been negatively affected by the UK's 2016 referendum, but what has shifted is the source of international investment, and the types of real estate assets drawing the most interest.

By all accounts, the property market is currently characterised by a limited stock of quality assets and low rates of return. In fact, partly inspired by London’s low rates of return, and partly spooked by the spectre of a hard Brexit, investors - particularly from the US -  have turned their focus to alternative asset classes such as private rented sector (PRS) properties, logistics and data centres, student accommodation and retirement villages, and have also been drawn to invest in places like Manchester and Bristol, where higher returns are available.

FIRMS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Ronald Fletcher Baker

Professional. Responsive. Competitive. That’s our promise to you. Having an experienced firm of solicitors like Ronald Fletcher Baker LLP driving your real estate transaction can make a significant difference, particularly in a sector where time is of the essence. We have over 50 years experience in all levels of real estate transactions from simple to complex, including residential, commercial, and transactions with an international element. We regularly act for corporate investors from the BVI, Bahamas, Mauritius, Turkey, Isle of Man, Russia, CIS and Asia. But what sets us apart from other firms is the way our real estate lawyers understand your business and work with you to make achieving your goals a reality. They also work with our commercial and dispute resolution lawyers to provide you with a full service for all of your investment needs. There’s a reason we’re sought after by foreign governments, substantial freehold property investment companies and well known names in the hotel and leisure sector.

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Though these alternatives have been the major talking-points for London teams, there have been major office property transactions in recent times - most notably the £1.3bn sale of the “Walkie-Talkie” building, and the £1.2bn sale of the “Cheesegrater”, both of which were purchased by Hong Kong entities.

Malaysians and Singaporeans have also not been deterred by speculative macroeconomic threats to the British economy, and while Chinese investment has encountered a substantial hurdle with the PRC’s capital control measures, which in theory restrict the mainland’s ability to invest in most non-infrastructure real estate assets, South Korean investors have recently moved in to pick up some of the slack.

The development space is in many ways dominated by PRS developments and other place-making schemes. Many of the early-stage investments and strategic land transactions that have been carried out by public sector bodies over the past few years are now reaching the point of major regeneration projects, many of which have received extensive media coverage. Given the sheer size and timeframes of these types of development projects, they are unlikely to be affected by any foreseeable tremors in the market.

Office sector developments have been relatively quiet compared with previous years, however there have been a number of small-scale redevelopment and refurbishment projects, as investors focus on improving the assets they hold in an attempt to improve return rates.

A handful of larger development schemes have been solidly anchored by major letting transactions, perhaps the most prominent being Apple’s 500,000 ft2 lease at Battersea Power Station for its new European HQ, which is set to open in 2021.

That transaction and other letting highlights are covered in our new section: corporate occupiers. This ranking considers teams acting for institutional landlords, and also those acting for corporates in relation to head office relocations and other significant letting work.

Looking more broadly, letting activity in the past year perhaps offers another reason to remain optimistic about the future of London real estate post Brexit.

Apple is not the only tech company to have recently taken significant London leases — others include Facebook and Expedia — and despite some of the highly publicised alarms regarding the exodus of certain UK operations at financial institutions such as JPMorgan, London’s financial real estate sector was given at least a slight confidence boost by new leases for HSBC Private Bank, HBOS, ING Bank, and Deutsche Bank. Further, though it’s early days for the phenomenon of flexible working spaces, market entrants such as WeWork may have considerable influence on the way many businesses operate, and, in particular, could spur a sea-change in the way companies approach office space investments.

Another important feature of the market is contained in yet another bit of well-documented mediaspeak: the death of the high-street. Crippled by a bump in business rates, vociferous demands on minimum wage, and stiff competition from online competitors, struggling bricks-and-mortar retailers have provided a steady flow of work to contentious and non-contentious property teams. Firms acting for retailers have been busy helping their clients realise property assets after years of aggressive expansion, and property litigation teams have been increasingly involved in insolvency-related instructions.

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