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May 2020

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Opinion: Stargazing in the development finance market

By Blog, Development Finance, Opinion

As I sit working from home with the news on a constant loop, the picture is forming of a dystopian world where  from a corporate perspective there will be few thrivers, aside for big tech, and the rest will be competing to be survivors.

Undoubtedly, the world is facing a crisis like we have not seen for probably a 100 years, and the impact on people’s lives has and will continue to be unprecedented in the short term. Reports are suggesting there will be a wave of soured UK commercial property loans, owing to the slump in retail property. Indeed, from the development finance perspective, restrictions on movement, the closing of building suppliers, the effective shut down of the residential property market for sales and rental has and will lead to serious delays. With regards to residential property, I believe this is overly bleak and once a vaccine and suitable drugs have been discovered, the UK’s passion for property will return.

However, whilst running a development business from my home office, in between Zoom calls, reviewing drone footage and photos of our sites, I wanted to do a bit of stargazing to see what changes for the better or worse might affect our industry. Clearly, I have no crystal ball but just a deep interest in the development finance industry.

An argument that is raging at the moment is whether Covid-19 will lead to a rise of nationalism over globalism. Given that the UK imports significant amounts of building materials, with one fifth coming from China, should the UK be focusing on ramping up domestic production? Whether it is electrical wiring, softwood timber, clay tiles, there is an argument that the UK should be fully self-sufficient. My guess is that there will be a significant move to on-shoring capabilities where possible, although of course some countries are better endowed with natural resources than others and we will still import where there is little alternative.

We are all starting to use technology more in our day to day roles, whether that is utilising: valuation software, drones for building inspections, or zoom sign up meetings. Therefore, shifting the belief that development finance underwriting can’t be automated and that the borrowers need to be met in person and the sites visited. With regards to the surveying profession, whilst physical valuations will still be necessary for the majority of development schemes,  we will see a degree of change , with more virtual monitoring inspections. However, this is likely owing to the rise of modular housing that will reduce the need for so many physical monitoring inspections, rather than Covid 19.

From a lender’s perspective no matter how much a system can be automated, you still need a human to make decisions and review the due diligence that the computer programmes produce. Face to face sign up meetings with the borrowers are crucial to assessing the risk of a development project. Yes ,you are also looking at the valuation information, the site details, cashflow, business plans etc but ultimately you are backing the individual/individuals. At Magnet Capital, we will be reinstating this, of course adhering to social distancing rules, as soon we can. So, don’t get rid of those meeting rooms just yet.

Which leads me on to the question of working from home. It is one that the industry has struggled with for many years. The mantra of management has always been, that you need to have your employees in the same physical space, to create the optimal working environment. The reality is that with modern technology it is possible to work efficiently and productively, without being in physical proximity.

Whether using slack, zoom, dropbox, xero, alongside a business’s existing databases, the ability to work remotely is, if not seamless then close to it. Avoiding the daily commute, not being crammed into a hot desk environment with little natural light, and having the ability to work flexibly is attractive. Now, I am not suggesting that office space is no longer needed but I think there will be a realisation that big expensive offices might need another look. It is of course about having the right systems in place and yes it is easier with a small team such as Magnet Capital’s who have all worked together for many years rather than a giant multinational.

The modern office will be reshaped, with perhaps meeting rooms and desks for those who need to be in rather than paying for a space for hundreds of people. And just a thought – perhaps from a residential development finance perspective, there might be opportunity for developers to turn the unused office space into flats.

To borrow a well worn but largely derided phrase in the financial markets that “this time is different” but I think in some ways it possibly could be.