Retail property law: the retailer is dead… long live the retailer

The retailer is dead… or is it?

We still need to buy things – food, drink, clothes, furniture… And we still want to buy things – coffee, cake, books, technology. What has changed, of course, is our ability to now buy things from the comfort of our homes, without needing to head out into the cold. As legal advisers covering retail property law,we believe we are well placed to understand the challenges retailers are currently facing.

So what do retailers need to do to get us out of the house and into their shops? This is one of the questions Mary Portas was tasked with when David Cameron asked her to undertake her review into the high street, back in 2011.

Portas’ recommendations in her report, The Portas Review focused upon retailers (as expected) and her suggestions revolved around helping independent retailers by cutting red tape, introducing flexibility around rates, disincentivising landlords from holding onto empty properties, creating strong leadership at council level, and free parking.

And the so-called ‘Portas Pilots’, twelve towns given a share of £1.2m, government support and access to Mary Portas have not quite delivered what was hoped, with almost 1,000 shops closing between 2012 and 2017, a drop of 17%. Even Portas herself has criticised the project as a ‘weighted PR campaign’ and complained it had failed to kickstart growth.

And what many commentators now accept as received wisdom is that instead of pure retail, the high street needs to transform into a leisure and entertainment destination – somewhere we can spend money not on essentials, but on experiences. And looking beyond the high streets, to some of the UK’s most successful town and out-of-town centres, this is exactly what is happening. The majority of shopping centres now blend retail units with food and drink outlets, either providing complementary offerings away from the more traditional ‘food hall’ experience, or losing the food hall entirely.

The bigger shopping centres have, of course, always blended entertainments with shopping – for example placing cinemas, bowling alleys or even, in the case of the Metro Centre in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a fun fair, at the heart of the action. And now others operating on the high street are starting to see similar moves. The Altrincham food market is a great example of independent retailers coming together to create an experience, a ‘sticky’ concept that keeps people on that particular high street for as long as possible; encouraging them to spend upon the enjoyable experience of good food and drink, and ideally also persuading them to purchase food and goods to take back home.

In addition to experiences, or perhaps complementary to, there is still a need for shops that people want to visit, to buy products they perhaps can’t buy online, or that they want to see in real life. Commodity goods are so easily purchased online, but hand-crafted, individual, bespoke or rare items can translate into ringing cash tills on the ground, as long as there are other complementary shops and entertainments in the locality to attract customers in the first place.

So, recognising the changes afoot, what can be done to help out high streets? Here at Ratio Law we obviously don’t have the same budget and insight as Mary Portas, but we do have many years’ experience in retail property law, helping retailers with their property requirements. Our recommendations are:

1. Increase flexibility.

The typical high street’s requirement for retail units has declined. Within minimal bureaucracy allow buildings to be repurposed for offices and residential developments; people living close to nice shops will be inclined to use them.

2. Review rates changes.

In 2017 the government revalued property for the first time in 7 years. And whilst this reduced rates for many retailers outside of the major retail centres, those with larger retail units in the busiest areas faced large hikes as a result. Ironically one of the major beneficiaries of the move was online retailers, who tend to locate their warehousing units away from the major centres. If the government truly wants to support the high street, it may now need to review its treatment of the online giants vs traditional high street retailers.

3. Devolve powers.

Local councils need to be given the power to self-determine and be creative in their partnerships with business leaders, landlords and business people. Give them the ability to develop retail and entertainment destinations and match ability with funding.

4. Encourage local entrepreneurs.

Anybody taking a risk and setting up a business that could benefit the local high street should be supported, and their exposure to risk minimised. Support could include seed funding, mentorship or reduced rents or rates.

5. Accept this is a period of re-adjustment.

One thing that strikes us is that things are always changing, and that the experiences we are going through with regards to the high street are simply indicative of the moving requirements of the public. The high street will never truly ‘die’, it will simply change, as it has changed many times in the past. There will be winners and losers, but ultimately the next few years will lay the groundwork for a new, hopefully improved high street experience for retailers and the public alike.

Retail property law experts: Ratio Law

Here at Ratio Law we have extensive retail property law expertise, with many years’ experience providing strategic legal service to retailers looking to relocate, enter new premises, expand or re-negotiate – we manage complicated legal transactions relating to retail property including conveyances and leases. We are experts in retail property law, having worked with retailers Bench, The RealBuzz and many more over the course of the past 20 years.

If you are a retailer requiring commercial property advice, get in touch with Ratio Law partner Joanna Norris for an initial chat on joanna.norris@ratiolaw.co.uk or 0161 464 9543.

International Women’s Day: The Ratio Law View

International Women’s Day takes place on Thursday 8th March; with this year’s theme #PressforProgress – a call for economic gender parity to be realised more quickly than the current 217 year prediction published by the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report.

Here at Ratio Law, we have been thinking about International Women’s Day and what it means for us as a business. Our two founding partners, Gisella and Joanna are both female, and both practising commercial property law – an area still frequently associated with male practitioners. Gisella’s expertise in property finance is particularly unusual for a woman.

Whilst we are extremely proud of the work we do here, and our achievements (we’ve grown pretty steadily in the 7 years we’ve been in operation), we agree that there’s more to be done to enable women in the law (and across other professions) to earn the same as their male counterparts.

A key consideration needs to be flexibility and openness – particularly around the matter of children and childcare. Women need to be able to talk freely about what they want from their role (both professionally and at home), and have the freedom to try to make those preferences happen – whilst at the same time balancing the needs of a business, and its ability to remain profitable and competitive. We also need to recognise the needs of women who don’t have children, ensuring their differing needs and ambitions are recognised and rewarded appropriately.

In addition to flexibility and openness, we need to acknowledge the role that sexism can play in business, and try to recognise when we are being subjected to it. Easy to say of course, but perhaps more difficult to tackle in practice. Although the coverage of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have been an eye opener – has anything really changed as a result?

We recognise that on a day-to-day level more needs to be done to continue to #PressforProgress across society as a whole, but in ways which do not negatively effect business or become excessively onerous. Whilst we are fully supportive of the fight for gender parity, it must not become a ‘tick box’ exercise – that doesn’t benefit anybody.

We believe that creating our own business has enabled us to level the playing field somewhat, and we are hopefully passing that entrepreneurial spirit onto the next generation of lawyers, through Emma our legal apprentice!

So we will raise a glass (or, more likely cup of tea!) in a toast on Thursday to International Women’s Day, as we believe it’s a great initiative. However, we also welcome practical solutions to enable change and bring about gender parity to more women, more quickly.

Commercial Property: Top Tips for a Stress-Free Conveyance

Buying or selling property can be nerve-wracking – and commercial property conveyances are no different to residential. How do you know that the firm or individual you select are good at what they do? Will the conveyance be long-winded, complicated or hard work? Our brief tips will point you in the right direction when it comes to managing a stress-free commercial property conveyance.

Whether you’re an experienced property investor or fledgling developer, and regardless of whether you’re dealing with a multi-titled commercial property, or a corner shop unit, you’ll need a good commercial property conveyancer on hand. Lots of law firms offer a range of different services, and if you decide to engage one with a wide range of specialisms – ensure they can help you with your particular transaction. Ask for examples of their past work if you are unsure.

2. Be upfront with any complicating matters or potential issues
Unfortunately property transactions can be complicated. If you know of any potential blockers such as flood risk or issues with the title (the property sits on unregistered land or there’s a boundary dispute for example), be upfront at the outset – this will allow your chosen solicitor to give a realistic quote, as well as advice on whether the issues could slow down the transaction or derail the deal.

3. Have your house in order
Literally! Before you instruct a commercial property solicitor to start work on your sale or purchase, try to collate as much of the relevant documentation as you can, and give it to them at the outset. If you are reliant on mortgage finance, bridging finance or any other external funding, and are organising this yourself – have the paperwork ready to hand over. The same goes for any pre-existing insurances, options and any other information relevant to the transaction.

4. Be realistic
Unfortunately property transactions can be long-winded and ultimately frustrating. This can be for a number of reasons – a long chain of buyers and sellers, problems with finance; your own or the sellers’, title problems or even a missing piece of paper. All of these things can cause exchange/completion dates to be missed, or even cause transactions to fail at the last moment. One way to combat stress is to try to avoid ‘needing’ to complete by a particular date – giving a guideline period is sensible, but sometimes unavoidable issues can threaten the most concrete of completion dates.

We hope you’ve found this information helpful. If you are involved in commercial property, and need advice or practical guidance on any type of commercial property transaction, please do not hesitate to contact Gisella for an informal chat on: 0161 464 9542. Alternatively, drop her a line at: gisella.alberici@ratiolaw.co.uk

The RealBuzz Group appoints Ratio Law…

The RealBuzz Group has appointed Ratio Law!

Exciting news here at Ratio Law, where we are excited to announce our appointment by The RealBuzz Group. We will be responsible for managing property transactions for the UK retail arm of the industry leading tech-retail provider in the active endurance sector. The appointment comes as the business seeks to grow its sports and leisure retail offer through bricks and mortar shops across the UK, aiming to capitalise upon the brand’s strong web and social media following.

Our retail property expert, and lead partner for The RealBuzz Joanna Norris commented: “We are very excited to announce our work with RealBuzz, a company that leads the way as a new type of retailer; focussed entirely upon what the customer wants, and providing a seamless on- and off-line service that meets and exceeds expectations.

“We will be supporting the business as it expands its reach throughout the region and further afield, and look forward to continuing to provide outstanding support and assistance in this respect.”

Mark Brownhill, Head of Retail Operation at The RealBuzz Group added: “We needed a law firm that could help us to quickly and efficiently carry out the legals required for us to enter new destinations – we aim to open 45 stores by the end of 2019, and 70 by the end of 2021. With its focus upon providing a partner-led, cost-conscious service, Ratio Law was our natural choice. We look forward to our continued partnership as we grow our retail network across the UK.”

If you would like to know more about our retail property work, please give us a call on: 0161 464 9540 or speak directly to Joanna on: 0161 464 9543 or via email: joanna.norris@ratiolaw.co.uk

How to avoid fraud in commercial property conveyances

Property fraud in commercial property conveyances, sometimes called ‘Friday afternoon fraud’ is on the increase. In this blog, we look at how these frauds are perpetrated and the simple actions that can reduce the risk of falling victim to them.

A recent survey by property search company TM Group revealed that 80% of conveyancing solicitors are “definitely more worried about security and risk of fraud in 2016, compared to 2015. Further, Action Fraud – the UK’s national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre, reported a combined loss as a result of property fraud of £2,665,819 between November 2015 and January 2016 alone. 2017’s figures are likely to be higher again.

What is property fraud?
There are two typical patterns of fraud relating to property. The first is where financial information is recovered from one of the parties to the transaction, and legitimate funds diverted into fraudsters’ accounts. The second is where a ‘seller’ with no right to sell (sometimes a tenant) fraudulently receives profits of sale, leaving an innocent buyer without the property they have ‘purchased’ but also often with the liability to meet mortgage payments.
The good news is that there are simple steps that can be taken to prevent commercial property conveyancing fraud. The following tips are easy to implement and free.

Tips for preventing commercial property fraud
1. Carry out identity checks
Before transferring any monies or providing sensitive or valuable information, check the ID of the person you are dealing with, and be sure that you are completely satisfied they are who they claim to be.

2. Avoid using email to confirm bank details
Try to avoid swapping financial details via email. Emails can be hacked and there have been cases of criminals creating fake message, replacing legitimate bank details and diverting large sums to their own accounts. If you need to provide or receive details this way, always confirm their accuracy before completing a transaction.

2. Transfer a nominal sum first
Before transferring significant sums, send a nominal amount first, say £1 and confirm receipt before sending the balance.

3. Make use of fraud-fighting tools
The Land Registry’s free Property Alert service issues email alerts when certain searches or applications are made against a property. Where these could signal fraudulent activity owners can take immediate preventative steps to protect their assets.

Revenge is not so sweet – new law bans ‘revenge evictions’

By Rachel Haymes, head of conveyancing at Ratio Law

Over the last year or so, there has been growing pressure on the government to protect tenants in rented properties from so-called ‘revenge evictions’. And now, after much discussion and lobbying, a law has been passed by the House of Lords to put a stop to them.

But what was the problem in the first place? In November 2014, Citizens Advice revealed one in three private rented properties in England failed to meet the government’s decent home minimum standard. It reported a 14 per cent increase in people asking for help with repairs and maintenance problems between July and September 2014, compared to the same period for the previous year.

There have been a number of cases identified by Citizens Advice where renters who had complained about repairs, damage, damp and other issues found themselves facing eviction for no apparent reason. In fact, the charity’s Advice Trends report revealed a 15 per cent increase in the number of cases where people were harassed or illegally evicted by landlords.

According to the homeless charity Shelter, in 2014 200,000 people faced eviction because they had asked their landlord to fix a problem in their home. The charity campaigned heavily to fight revenge evictions, calling on people to sign a petition to demand better rights for renters.

The worry from some campaigners was that rogue landlords may take advantage of a ‘loop hole’ in the law. Previously, Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 enabled landlords to apply for a court order requiring tenants to vacate, without providing specific reasons. Now, under the new law, which was passed as part of the Deregulation Bill, it will no longer be possible to evict tenants by relying upon the a Section 21 notice procedure following a complaint about the condition of their home. The courts will now strike out any application to evict in such cases.

For the majority of landlords who look after their properties and tenants, this change will be nothing to worry about. To help protect themselves, landlords should clearly outline how they go about repairs and maintenance in their properties in their contracts and make sure this is pointed out to their tenants on signing the paper work. It’s also important to keep a record of any problems reported by tenants, along with how these were resolved.

If you are a landlord and you have any concerns about how the law affects you, contact Ratio Law.

Buy-to-let: An easy money-maker?

By Rachel Haymes, head of conveyancing at Ratio Law

Since 6 April 2015, people aged 55 and over have been able to access as much of their savings from their defined contributions pensions as they want. The new pension freedom reforms mean people can now take a lump sum payment and there are estimates that more than one in ten intends on cashing in their entire pension pot, with 16 per cent planning on reinvesting the cash into property.

Property may seem like a safe investment and an easy way to make money, but there are a number of points to consider. Firstly, it’s been suggested that many people fail to think about the costs associated with renting out properties. A recent study estimates that when you add up all the costs such as maintenance and repairs, marketing, mortgage interest and letting agent fees, you’re looking at an average of £8,359 a year – a figure which will make a serious dent in most buy-to-let landlords’ profits.

And the financial considerations don’t stop there. There are significant tax and financial consequences for people cashing in their pensions to become a buy-to-let landlord and you should also consider taking financial advice if you will need amortgage to fund the purchase. There have been reports of some mortgage lenders offering anyone up to the age of 70 a 35-year-old loan – meaning they wouldn’t pay it off until they were 105-years-old!

Secondly, landlords have a lot of legal responsibilities – and these are changing all the time. Adhering to the Energy Act 2011, ensuring properties meet new safety legislation and making sure you treat tenants fairly and legally [insert link to revenge evictions blog] are just some of the points landlords need to consider.

Despite the potential drawbacks, the life of an ‘amateur’ landlord is appealing to many. In July last year, the National Landlords Association released figures which showed part-time landlords made up more than 70 per cent of the sector – its highest ever level.

Like with any business venture and investment, if you research the market well, understand your legal obligations, appreciate you will have to invest time and money in making it a success and have professional help at hand to provide reliable and trustworthy advice, then it can be a profitable venture. But remember – house prices can fall and interest rates can rise, so investing in buy-to-let is never a completely safe bet.

If you’re considering becoming a buy-to-let landlord and want some advice, contact Ratio Law.

Ratio Law loves Manchester

Ratio Law has been located in Manchester city centre for over five years, with its latest home on Charlotte Street. With Manchester Day on 14 June, two of Ratio’s partners – Joanna Norris and Gisella Alberici – give an insight into what they love about the city.

Joanna Norris

“I first came to Manchester as a student in 1993 until 1996 – it was a great place to be during the 90s – and I moved back in 2003 as a solicitor. The weather definitely isn’t the best thing about living in the city (although we do have some sunny days, promise!). Manchester is a really nice size with lots of different areas with their own personalities; I lived in London for a bit and I found it was too big to handle. For anyone visiting Manchester, I would suggest they spend some time simply wandering around the city centre and see where it takes them. My favourite restaurant is Rosso at the top of Kings Street and when it comes to football, I support Bury FC!”

Gisella Alberici

“I’ve lived in Manchester for 15 years. It was the music that first attracted me here – I loved bands like New Order and the whole ‘Madchester’ scene and used to come here to go to gigs and clubs. There is a great atmosphere in Manchester and there’s always so much going on. It’s an attractive city with really nice surrounding areas too. If someone was visiting Manchester for the weekend I’d recommend going to a football match – I personally support Manchester City and Bury FC, but of course there’s Manchester United at Old Trafford too – followed by a meal at one of the many excellent restaurants we now have in the city centre. My favourite restaurant is Sam’s Chop House. The next day they could go for a lovely walk in the Peak District with a pub lunch to finish off.”

The Ratio team would love to hear what your favourite things about Manchester are – tweet us @RatioLaw!

Bury FC – we’re going up!

By Gisella Alberici, partner, Ratio Law

It’s been a weekend of celebrations as Bury FC was promoted to League One! Anyone who knows me will be well aware of how much of a Bury FC fan I am, so it’s unsurprising that I’m absolutely delighted at the news – it’s a brilliant result for the club and fans.

In 2013, I was appointed to the board of directors at Bury FC and Ratio Law has provided legal support for the club over the last few years, including its recent move to Manchester City’s former Carrington training ground earlier this year. Ratio Law has also been a proud sponsor of the club since August 2013.

I’ll never forget the buzz in the stadium on Saturday as the final whistle blew and we realised we were going up – watching thousands of fans pour on to the pitch was quite a sight! Well done again to the team – you’ve done us all proud and we can’t wait to see you next season at Gigg Lane.

Achieving a fairer ratio of women in law

By Joanna Norris, partner at Ratio Law

It was International Women’s Day last month; a day where people all over the world celebrate women’s achievements and call for greater equality. Events took place far and wide and social media buzzing with inspirational quotes and calls for fairer treatment of women.

Women in business remains a hotly debated topic. Just last week, Germany passed legislation requiring large companies to allocate 30 per cent of seats on non-exec boards to women and the UK is also striving to see more women in decision making roles. Figures released in March 2014 showed that in the UK, women account for 20.7 per cent of board positions in the FTSE 100; not too far of Lord Davies’ original target of achieving 25 per cent in 2015.

While issues around the fair treatment of women in the workplace affect most sectors, it’s been interesting to look at how the legal sector performs in this area. Research by the Solicitors Regulations Authority shows that law as a subject attracts more females, with women making up 62.4 per cent of students accepted on a university law degree course in 2012. Yet despite more women studying the subject, female law graduates earn nearly £8,000 less than their male counterparts.

Further figures reveal male lawyers earn on average 28 per cent more than women, but there are signs that this figure is decreasing. Chris Cayley, managing director of Laurence Simons, was quoted in the London Evening Standard as saying: “Our research … shows that the gap is closing, which is important for the UK legal profession to remain at the top of its game globally.”

Pay isn’t the only issue though, as more needs to be done to ensure women are given the same opportunities and recognition as men. This too is improving in the legal sector though. While figures from 2012 suggest only one in ten top lawyers were women, The Lawyer’s Hot 100 2014 list ranked an equal number of men and women.

At Ratio, we seem to buck the trend of what’s going on elsewhere in the legal sector. The two partners – myself and Gisella Alberici – are both women, and out of a team of nine, eight are females. So what’s our secret? Well, I’m not sure if there’s a secret. Ratio was born out of a lot of hard work and determination, as well as a desire to offer our clients first-rate legal advice and business support on a one-to-one basis.

While our team may not reflect the rest of the industry, women in law – and business, in general – is a topic we all care a lot about. There is still some work to be done to ensure women are treated and rewarded fairly, but it’s promising to see statistics in the legal sector moving the right way.