Catherine Williams gives an inside view of the Real Estate team at Shoosmiths and the market.
2020 is a hugely exciting year for Shoosmiths: we are proud of how far we have come since William Shoosmith started a small law firm around the corner in Northampton 175 years ago this year. 2020 also marks Shoosmiths’ 20 year anniversary in Milton Keynes just as we move to our new office on the Top Floor of 100 Avebury Boulevard. With 13 locations in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we now employ nearly 2,000 people, over 600 of which are based in MK and Northampton alone. As a firm, we remain hugely committed to MK and Northampton as the place it all started, a hotbed of talent and a fantastic region in which to live and work.
The imminent move to the new office will be a total game changer for us, a mark of how far we have come in the last 20 years and a signal of our intent and commitment to the area. We have ambitious plans and are excited at the opportunity that plainly exists in the area and what the future holds for us. Furthermore, as a real estate lawyer, I was very keen to be involved in the new office move although, it has to be said, not to scrutinise the lease terms and the title, more to pick the fabrics and finishes of the interior!
The result will be a progressive office that heralds an exciting new way of working. Traditionally, lawyers are known for having lots of paper (next to their pots of colouring pencils if you are a property lawyer) but the new office will be fully agile. We will not be sitting in the same desk from day to day; we will not necessarily always have a desk to sit at: we may choose to stand up to work, sink into a soft pink sofa or ponder the intricacies of the Law of Property Act in our yoga room. We certainly will not be hoarding shoes under our stationary
Our intention is that our surroundings will suit the law firm we have become and help us deliver an excellent client service, as well as making our people feel happier and proud of their working environment. We also want to recruit new people, and the new office environment and all it offers should help us to attract the best that is out there.
Who are we then? Our Real Estate team is one of the largest (and noisiest) in the office. We are made up of three partners, Steve Wiltshire (our leader), Lisa Williams (my honorary sister) and me. We have five Senior Associates, three Associates, three Solicitors; two paralegals, one trainee and our long suffering six PAs. We are a team that works extremely hard and collegiately.
The team has a diverse client base acting for a number of major corporates nationally/headquartered in MK and a number of clients across the residential spectrum. We have recently introduced a sector approach across the firm and our MK team do a lot of work in what we call the Living Sector. Living encompasses strategic land for future development; housebuilding; plot sales; build to rent; student accommodation; holiday parks and retirement and later living. We are a truly national firm, so although we sit in Milton Keynes, a lot of our work relates to projects and clients based all over the country. In short, we offer national expertise that is locally-led.
By way of example, Frontier Estates, is a client who we have helped in relation to something like 50 schemes in the last five years. McCarthy & Stone, the largest UK player in the retirement sector, is another one with one whom we work across both our MK and Northampton offices having been appointed to their panel last year (and recently won ‘Best Newcomer Award’ at their Supply Chain Gala Dinner).
So what did we learn in 2019 and what does 2020 have in store?
Although Brexit seemed to dominate the news last year, it did not necessarily affect our “busyness” (everyone just carried on!). The general election created a bit of a vacuum in November and December where only the most imperative deals went through before Thursday 12th December. Whatever your political allegiances, the comprehensive Conservative victory is probably what the real estate industry needed, as many clients were spooked by the Labour land policies. Many clients are now talking about the “Boris Bounce” and deal flow looks good for 2020 and we are quietly confident about what the future holds. We are particularly busy with our corporate occupier clients, who continue to rationalise their portfolios to get rid of underperforming sites or invest and improve in logistics/supply chain by taking larger shed space. The ‘later living’ sector is extremely lively for investors interested in long income, from 35 year leases to operators with stellar covenant strength. As we act for a number of developers who acquire land, achieve planning and develop out through forward funding arrangements, the lifecycle of a transaction can keep us busy for up to 24 months. Many of these care home developments are in Beds, Bucks and Herts, which are seen as affluent areas and a key target for high end operators.
The acquisition and development of mobile home parks and holiday parks is a specialised area of property law for which we have an excellent technical reputation, and considerable experience having acted for Park Holidays (UK) Limited and Tingdene for many years. Both areas have seen a positive growth in recent years: mobile home parks as an attractive alternative form of retirement living and a weak pound and the uncertainty of Brexit leading many people to holiday in the UK.
Traditional housebuilders had a quieter 2019 in the run up to the election, and whilst certain portfolio deals continued apace (where we acted for a number of housebuilders selling to the likes of Heylo Housing and Hearthstone), the bread and butter buying of land for immediate development certainly saw a slowdown. And yet, at the same time, our national plot sales team, who are predominantly based out of Northampton, in the Autumn saw record numbers of reservations and completions of new homes brought onto the market by our 60 plus housebuilder clients for whom we handle in the region of 7,000 to 8,000 plot sales every year. We were also heavily involved in 2019 in helping the takeover by the newly created Vistry Group of the Linden and Galliford Try Partnership brands, providing a great platform for the continuing development of both the Bovis and Linden brands in 2020.
Looking forward, we are positive about the real estate market generally and in MK particularly. Our connectivity to the rest of the UK, particularly London, Birmingham and Manchester, and our position in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc (whether or not the project goes ahead) means that MK seems likely to remain a first choice destination for headquartering national businesses, commercial development and logistics.
For more information visit www.shoosmiths.co.uk