Chris Richardson: commercial property has had a better time than anyone expected (pic: Terry Murden)
Head of Commercial Real Estate for England and Wales, Aberdein Considine
With so many shops closing and offices being left empty, urban regeneration is a big topic across the entire country just now. It’s putting extra pressure on planners, architects and others working in the property sector to come up with schemes that will revitalise rundown streets and, in some cases, whole neighbourhoods.
Commercial real estate lawyer Chris Richardson has spent his career working on a range of property deals, including town centre redevelopment and he admits to seeing a few questionable decisions over the years.
“In some cases towns are dying because of a lack of investment,” he says. “Some demolish monstrous shopping malls or public buildings built 40 or 50 years ago, but replace them with new monstrosities.
“I also see places where there is too much reliance on sites being developed one at a time. Piecemeal development is not a good idea if you want to regenerate an entire area and community. You have to get a local council to buy into a wider plan.”
His own experience has been heavily focused on the £700 million redevelopment of Woking town centre, one of the biggest projects in England that began nearly 15 years ago.
He got involved soon after joining Anderson Strathern in Edinburgh, looking after the firm’s real estate clients in England and Wales. Now he’s made the switch to Aberdein Considine which has its own plans to expand south of the border, and he retains an interest in the Woking project.
As head of commercial real estate for England and Wales he will remain based in Edinburgh but will eventually oversee a team of about half a dozen, with staff in its offices in Leeds and Newcastle.
The remit extends to advising on shopping centres, industrial parks and logistics businesses acquisitions, sales and lettings.
In recent years there has been a move to re-purpose big retail outlets and offices, a trend that Richardson sees continuing as working and shopping patterns change.
Properties are being converted to, or replaced by residential units, and that’s having a positive effect, he says, as it is bringing people to live in commercial centres and building a customer base for the shops, gyms and cafes that will help revive town and city centres.
“Build to rent is a big growth market, along with student accommodation,” he says, and is playing a big part in solving the regeneration issue as well as providing an alternative to buying.
Taken together with trends such as working from home, online shopping and the increase in empty shops, the property environment is creating enormous shifts in the physical environment.
‘It was assumed by many people that offices are dead, but businesses are now looking for the right space and struggling to find it’
“Everyone thought that after the pandemic the sector was facing a disaster. But the commercial property sector has had a better time than anyone expected,” says Richardson.
“For the first time, every tenant and landlord wants to talk to us because of rental issues.”
Rents have indeed become a focal point with a report from Knight Frank revealing a high level of “regears”, or renegotiating of leases, as many occupiers decide to remain in their existing property rather than move because of the uncertain economic outlook.
Richardson says landlords have accepted that they can’t keep squeezing tenants and in many cases have agreed lower rents in exchange for a percentage of turnover. He believes it is a trend that will continue for some time.
He notes changes also taking place in the office environment, though again he believes some of the forecasting has been awry.
“It was assumed by many people that offices are dead, but businesses are now looking for the right space and struggling to find it,” he says.
It is more a case of “right sizing” to suit a workforce that may have adopted a measure of home working. In many cases they are looking for premises that meet ESG standards, with facilities that suit a more demanding workforce – leisure space, bicycle parks, open terraces, and so on.
Richardson says top grade property remains in short supply, partly because higher interest rates are deterring developers building speculatively.
Even so, he says cities like London and Edinburgh have a commercial climate that operates at a different pace to other parts of the country and demand will need to be satisfied by an increasing supply of premises.
“I don’t see it going back to where it was,” he says, “but it won’t far off, and this will see rental growth return.”
Birthplace: Bromsgrove; raised in Himbleton, Worcestershire
Education: University of Wales, Aberystwyth (law), Chester Law School
Career highlights: Trainee lawyer in Birmingham; returned to Chester to join law firm; moved to Edinburgh for personal reasons and joined Anderson Strathern specialising in commercial property law and became an equity partner; moved to Aberdein Considine in November 2022
What regeneration schemes do you particularly admire?
Battersea Power Station is a standout recently completed redevelopment. The one showing most ambition and really looking to change a place entirely is Wirral and Mersey Waters redevelopment of the Wirral Peninsula.
What do you do in your spare time?
Mountain biking. Father and brother were professional cyclists. I also play cricket for Murrayfield DAFS (opening batsman and spin bowler).
What gets you frustrated?
England losing at cricket
Do you carry cash?
Now and again
Who would be your fantasy guests at a fictional dinner party or meeting?
Shane Warne (late cricketer), Lance Armstrong (cyclist), Ann Daniels and Caroline Hamilton (British adventurers and inspirational leaders who have taken various trips to the north and South Pole)