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Author Topic: Future of towns and cities  (Read 392 times)
Data Manager
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« on: January 14, 2021, 09:35:29 am »

A report by KPMG was mentioned on the Today programme this morning. The report can be found at:
Have only scanned. Not sure I understand the cultural offering, I presume Oxford gets negative rating for Sports facilities because they are all for the University.
Places headlined in the Today report, Bracknell and Basingstoke do stand out. Obviously will have some implications for public transport in general.
Red Squirrel
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« Reply #1 on: January 14, 2021, 12:46:30 pm »

Fascinating! Thanks for highlighting this.
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« Reply #2 on: January 14, 2021, 09:45:30 pm »

Yes - this is thought provoking, but begs a few questions as to how they arrived at their scoring. I can quite see that Guildford is vulnerable, as by far it's most prominent department store (Debenhams) has already been confirmed for closure (but what a cracking site for a riverside residential development!).

One statistic that looks somewhat unclear is the "percentage of jobs lost" as set out in the first table, differently described in the preceding text as (in Bracknell's case) 27.4  percentage of work carried out at home. So - same number of employees doing 27.4% of their work on average at home, so most working an equivalent of 3-4 days in the office, or a total of 27.4% of employees seldom if ever returning to the daily commute? I guess the former, so not an immediate surplus of space equal to about 27% of currently occupied space.

My own experience as (until March last year) effectively being "in management" in a professional services practice, and now observing as a consultant, is that flexible working has been growing slowly but steadily over the years, helped by improving IT, and particularly driven by the needs of mothers returning to work after starting families. They did though still need desk space, but often had a physical presence for 90% or less of office hours even if they were "full-time" and usually office based. If it's a reduction of 27.4% work time, it might mean that some of that comprises days when they travel to the office for team meetings, client meetings but return home thereafter.

The amount of physical space per employee has been going down as IT, "going paperless" and efficient office space planning for open plan or "hot desking" has spread, so the impact of those investing in office space is something that has already been building up. The report is right to express concern about the impact on property investment companies and life insurers heavily invested in office space - the picture is actually quite similar to the retail property market, it's just that empty shops loom much larger in the public consciousness than an empty office block where a "to let" sign three storeys up has much less impact than seeing the empty unit that for many years was occupied by a well-known chain shop you might have used yourself.

My view is that it is still too early to draw any conclusions other than this is going to accelerate a commercial property investment crisis that has been a long time coming. If there is a collapse (or at least a substantial "re-adjustment") in rental levels it might even reduce pressure on businesses to trim space as it does not cost so much. However, technological change and the opportunities for efficient use of space offered by the lower proportion of the workforce in occupation at anyone time I think inevitably will result in more unused space, but it will be the lowest quality space that is left. The problem that inconveniently everyone may all decide to come in on the same day will probably not arise - one aspect of coping with covid restrictions is that employees have become used to booking in rather than simply turning up!

One sector not specifically mentioned that has been hammered is the casual dining sector which had grown enormously in the last couple of decades. Here again though it simply accelerated the bursting of a bubble. There had been too many new entrants and those in the sector had been subject to a succession of debt-driven takeovers leaving chains (or their owners) saddled with the debt incurred in acquiring them, and failures were widespread before the customers disappeared when covid struck. Provided we are all not put permanently off going out for a meal and to meet friends or for business this trade should come back - hopefully (for their sakes!) it should simply mean highly geared takeovers of chains will become unattractive for investors as they will know that a pandemic risk has to be factored in to the price.

The real "unknown" is what will happen to the space that is vacated. There is a lot of talk about new uses, but there is an enormous variety of buildings comprising our retail and office space that will be difficult or expensive to convert to other uses. Forgive me for saying so, but their text on page 5 about alternative uses looks simply wishful thinking. University outreach centres cost the institutions additional overhead, and the majority of universities are either based, or have plenty of accommodation in or near city centres. A worthy sounding community use that does not generate much income will only be a last resort to fill space while a redevelopment for a use with a better return, not a permanent sustainable future. 

Another factor not mentioned is what will happen to the demand for city centre flats. A lot of new space has been built, and is planned (it's a major part of the proposed Guildford Station redevelopment that is getting underway). If people are going to be spending one or two days a week (or a greater proportion of the working week spread over more days) will they remain an attractive proposition for buyers or tenants? If there is a flight to the suburbs, will they drive, take the bus or train or cycle? If the net result of the other factors is a reduction in the number of peak hours trips on public transport might new more flexible patterns increase off peak traffic?

So - I think there will be an overall adverse effect on town and city centres, with a greater proportion of empty surplus office and retail space and possible some failed residential schemes too. But I think its far too early to start planning new public transport policy (or tearing up current plans as I see some are already advocating) and at most some delay in delivery of new stock as the need for new capacity - although the current record on meeting delivery dates seems to make this unnecessary! The only guess I would make is that a reduction in the number of journeys is almost inevitable, but how much? Come back in three years' time and I might be able to give a more informed guess - but do look at your life company's investment spread and if you are brave enough to rely on actively managed investments for your pension, see how exposed your manager is to commercial property shares. Might be time to move your money (if it's not too late Undecided)
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