Lost decade for UK commercial real estate

The Castles in the Air report, released by RSA, the UK’s largest commercial insurer, and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), is a unique study of the future of UK commercial real estate (CRE) construction.

It shows that the recession has led to a peak-to-trough decline of 42% in CRE construction output, which closely follows GDP. In fact, between 2007 and 2011 the value of CRE construction activity fell by as much as 32% from £41billion to £28billion. Looking forward, this figure is predicted to drop again in 2012 to £27billion and is not expected to return to positive growth until 2014, when only a modest 0.3% rise is anticipated – far below the rate of growth currently reported on a national level.

The decline seen at a national level is echoed across the UK regions, although a North-South divide is clear. Scotland and the North West have been hardest hit by the downturn, experiencing sharp 51% and 49% drops respectively. At the same time, London and the South East have shown more resilience, with smaller falls of 16% and 24%, respectively.

Paul Greensmith, RSA’s Director of Risk Managed Business, Global Specialty Lines, said: "The commercial real estate sector has been hit hard by the recession, and with CRE construction growth so closely tied to GDP, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen such a sharp decline in output values since 2007. While a return to the pre-recession highs of 2007 may not be wholly realistic, what’s important now is that developers approach new investment opportunities sensibly and with sustainable growth in mind."

The study also reveals that demand for new projects has stalled across the UK. Over the past five years, the value of CRE construction output has declined across most sectors, with warehouses and offices seeing the largest declines at 62% and 51% respectively.

Retail has also seen a significant drop in output at 27%, at a time when demand for retail space remains subdued and vacancy rates are climbing. Of the eight cities examined in this report, only Central London saw an increase in retail rents between 2007 and 2011, where average rents rose by 7%. At the same time, retail vacancy rates have eclipsed pre-crisis levels, rising from almost 8% in the second quarter of 2007 to over 10% in the same quarter of 2012, suggesting a sizeable over-supply of retail property.

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