Blog: ‘Scottish commercial property market suffering from independence uncertainty’



Alan Gordon
Alan Gordon

Alan Gordon is the Principal Commercial Partner for DM Hall Chartered Surveyors.

 

By far the biggest spectre haunting the Scottish commercial property market at the moment is the continuing background chatter about the likelihood of another run at the independence referendum.

Far from the matter having been “settled for a generation”, the ongoing appetite in political circles for debate about IndyRef2 is undiminished and there is no shadow of a doubt that - as a direct consequence - UK investors are favouring the environment south of the border.

The uncertainty, which shows no signs of being resolved any time soon, means that those who do pluck up the chutzpah to invest in Scotland are building in a factor for risk and paying significantly less than they would in a stable political environment.

The prices achievable for the same standard commercial unit - say, for example a local Ladbroke’s investment - in similar territory and with an identical lease would be markedly greater in Bristol, for instance, than in Glasgow.

And the latest initiative from Holyrood is to do to the industrial side of the commercial market what it did to the office sector three years ago, reducing the relief on empty properties from 100 per cent to 10 per cent. The results - widespread havoc - can be expected to be similar.

On a brighter note, there is clearly now genuine competition in the banking sector for commercial loans. While a few years ago the gap between borrowers’ expectations and lenders’ offers was virtually unbridgeable, now they are cosying up like old chums.

The main financial influences on Scottish High Streets are still the big hitters such as RBS and the Lloyds Banking Group, with supporting action from institutions such as the Clydesdale and Allied Irish, and a strong presence from the likes of Santander Barclays and HSBC.

Also now making a play are the challenger banks - Handelsbanken, Aldermore, Shawbrook and Cambridge & Counties among them - who are often prepared to lend on less onerous terms.

Borrowers have also learned that they are obliged to provide much more in terms of diligence, robust business planning and a clear view of how the debt will be serviced over time.

However, they can now also take their proposals to half a dozen or more lenders who will put their pen down and listen to them - meaning the possibility a bidding war for the borrower’s business. A changed scenario indeed. Whether they may be even more willing to listen to a proposal in England is a matter for conjecture, but not beyond reasonable judgement.

So as borrowers’ aspirations and lenders’ offerings have slowly begun to coincide over the past 24 months, the lending environment at the start of 2016 is not as benign as it has been at the beginning of any of the last eight years.

Another remarkable aspect of the current market is growth in the non-prime retail sector, despite the daily diet of headlines in the business sections which insist that bricks and mortar has surrendered the pass to the online juggernaut.

Vacancy rates in the sector are being driven down by a noticeable expansion in service retail - that is, outlets such as nail bars, beauty services, estate agents, bookmakers, hot food takeaways and interior designers - in the secondary streets of many towns and cities.

The main arterial thoroughfares with good secondary pitches are enjoying healthy occupancy at the moment from service retail, so it is not a bad time to own a tenement shop, and that situation is likely to continue.

Looking forward, there has to be some improvement in the office sector, with the likely exception of out-of-town pavilion properties, in cities but also in smaller towns and provincial areas.

We will have to wait to see what effect rates relief changes have in the industrial sector but, without the proposed new regime, we might have expected to see some growth over the year. Only time will tell on that.

The leisure sector will almost certainly continue to languish as the restraints on discretionary spending, though loosened slightly, are still very much in place for many people in Scotland.

The new year is a time for predictions, but while the current mood of business and investment uncertainty prevails in Scotland, it would be foolhardy to err on the side of irrational optimism.