The changing face of our local communities

It is easy to focus on how the pandemic has influenced how we live and work and assume it is the catalyst for longer-term change for real estate. But in reality, it has accelerated many existing trends. The question is how far will it go and how much it will shape our built environment.

Working and commuting

Before office workers were forced to work from home, technological advances and changing attitudes meant that flexible working wasn’t unusual. 

Many businesses were already leasing less space but using what they did lease more efficiently; the days where space was the equivalent of one desk per employee were numbered.

At the same time, there was an increasing focus on what offices offered to ensure the creativity and innovation that comes from social interaction didn’t suffer. 

"The thinking was how do we encourage people to come to the office, how do we make the workplace really attractive and somewhere employees want to be? Some businesses which offer flexible working were already trying to strike a balance," says Ben Neary, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

What has changed is the degree to which people may work from home in the longer term. Businesses which were reluctant to let staff work flexibly have had the experiment forced upon them.

"Covid has been a real catalyst for a change in thinking. It has forced everyone to accept that you can work from home and it can be more productive depending on what sort of work you take home," says Patrick Morris, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins

The balance of working from home versus the office is the one key thing which will change. Expectations about working flexibly will be higher. So, if you were someone working from home one or two days a week that might increase to two or three.

Of course, not everyone likes working from home or has suitable space, but what it does mean is that office space or rather what it offers to employees becomes even more important. It will have to be an incentive for employees to commute, at least some of the time.

Home and community

During the summer months, the headlines were full of stories of the surge in demand for homes with more space and gardens outside of cities but again this isn’t anything particularly new. Historically this trend has been predicated on the desire for more space for a family. If people can work from home more, then it could mean an expanded commuter belt.

"You might have moved further out before but you won't necessarily have gone so far.  If you've got a two-hour commute, you wouldn't do that five days a week but if you only have to do it two days a week you might take a view and get a bigger house somewhere that's a bit cheaper," says Morris.

It doesn’t necessarily mean a mass exodus out of cities but people are re-evaluating what they want from their home. Space to put a desk, a balcony or communal outdoor space will no doubt becomes more important and developers will need to respond accordingly.

Restrictions on movements and socialising have in some ways brought communities together and highlighted the problem of loneliness. But it has reinforced existing thinking and trends.

Take co-living space and build to rent concepts. Operators realised that tenants were more likely to renew their lease if they knew their neighbours and buildings with a developed community through shared spaces and events were more attractive not just to young people but also older. 

The benefits of shared space have also helped fuel the co-working market, creating an environment where casual social interaction can lead to collaborations and new business. People and their needs and behaviours were being put at the heart of property.

"Everything was moving in that direction, this has been a catalyst to make people aware of the benefits of creating great places and bringing people together," says Rebecca Wardle, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

High street revival

This trend could also be seen in plans for reviving struggling high streets and town centres. Introducing a wider variety of uses with the focus on building a sense of community and giving different reasons to visit and dwell.

To do this some councils have taken back control of chunks of space such as shopping centres so they can curate the mix of uses and use their covenant strength to de-risk investment and attract private sector money. 

"Use of income strips will accelerate because there'll be lots of high streets and retail centres in need of regeneration where it just won't be attractive for the private sector without having some element of public sector involvement," says Morris.

The rise of localism during lockdown may help smaller centres and high streets find footfall again and the renewed sense of community is food for thought.

"People are questioning what they want out of the space where they live. Working at home was dismissed as ‘that's never going to happen’ but maybe we need to think about more community-style living, where people are nearer to where they work, nearer to where their kids go to school," says Wardle.

Changing times mean new opportunities. But, while Covid has accelerated existing trends the overall pace of change will, to a certain degree, be dictated by the structure of the industry, the time taken to redevelop or build and existing lease lengths.

Localism and the future of city centres

London isn’t the same as Exeter but then central London isn’t the same as Clapham or Islington.

During the summer when there was an easing of restrictions, London's boroughs thrived. With so many working from home, people had time to discover what's on their doorsteps. Cafes and restaurants were busy with lunchtime trade and local shops found new customers.

By contrast, central London has struggled without the throngs of office workers and tourists, particularly during the week.  For the longer term, the fundamental attractions of London remain. Its huge public transport system makes it easy to move around and accessible to a large talent pool.  And, it has a retail, leisure and cultural offer that is difficult to beat.

"Graduates don't come to London because they want to live in a pokey flat, they come because they want that interaction with people, they want the buzz, the restaurants and the bars," says Neary.

Nonetheless, this pause is an opportunity to assess the role of the capital and its many ‘villages’ for the longer term. Some local authorities have used this shift in gear to accelerate schemes to make roads safer for cycling and introduce low traffic areas. London will need to keep focused on remaining attractive to people – and being user friendly.

"This is going to be an opportunity for developers to collaborate and think about what they are developing and placemaking," says Rebecca Wardle, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

But cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham have a different ecosystem to smaller cities like Exeter. Smaller cities generally don’t have the same level of public transport infrastructure and are more dependent on cars for people to get around. This creates different priorities and a different dynamic.

"People tend to drive to work and drive home again rather than going out," says Neary. "It’s what I found hard to adjust to after moving out of London," says Neary.

Placemaking again will be key to ensuring smaller cities and towns thrive, creating places people want to visit and spend time in. But more thought will have to be given to what is attractive to people, what they will travel for and how easily that journey is. 

"You've got to get the right mix, it's not just putting an office block up here, a retail park there, it's creating nice places for people to live, work and visit and culture has got to play a huge part – that's part of the reason why London is so successful," says Neary.


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