Getting the right legal support for your commercial property development


Back in December, Mike Ashley called on the Government to impose a 20% tax on internet retailers, warning that online shopping was killing the High Street.

Before we go on, let’s state the obvious – which is that Mike Ashley is not a universally popular man. It often feels like the founder of the Sports Direct chain and saviour of House of Fraser is a natural magnet for controversy.

But he’s a shrewd businessman – his current net worth is estimated at around $2.4 billion – and he’s resilient. Just ask a Newcastle United fan. So when he says the internet is killing the UK retail sector, it’s probably worth sitting up and taking notice.

Data from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which monitors such things, would appear to back Mr Ashley’s view. Its figures for commercial property in the first quarter of 2019 show huge demand for industrial space, but an overall decline in the sector driven by retail demand falling off a cliff.

The result is a great deal of opportunity for commercial property developers with the appetite and scale to take on schemes that meet the growing demand in the industrial sector.

The biggest window of opportunity is for developers who specialise in the smaller projects that fit with the incremental commercial development strategies that local planners tend to adopt.

But building commercial property isn’t for the faint of heart. As projects come, industrial schemes are bigger than most and come with myriad things that have the potential to go wrong.

And no matter how much attention to detail you have or expertise you can boast in your development team, it’s impossible to be in complete control of every last detail.

Tempting though it is to start a project with the more practical issues of logistics, timescales and delivery, beginning a commercial property scheme without the right legal support is a bit like setting off on a long drive in a car that doesn’t have brakes. Or steering. Or airbags.

There’s quite a lot of law around commercial property development that you really need to think about before your architect picks up her pencil or you invite the local chief planning officer in to shoot the breeze over a good mocha latte.

In fact, appointing your legal team is pretty much the first thing you need to do, because it’s the legal housekeeping that happens at development concept that means you’ll know you can deliver the project on time and on budget by the time the diggers roll up to turn the first sod of turf.

Getting your commercial property lawyers in place at this embryonic stage does more than give assurances over project delivery – it can also make sure you don’t end up losing an awful lot of money on a project that turns out to be a white elephant.

As any developer will know, developing a commercial property scheme – whether it’s commercial only or a mixed-use scheme – is often extremely challenging and the developers that are most skilled at unlocking the potential of a site are the ones that also have exceptional legal advice behind them.

Lawyers are famous for being slaves to detail – any lawyer who isn’t is probably not going to be a lawyer for very long – but one of the things that makes what we do so interesting is finding a way to allow creativity and innovation to bloom within the parameters of what the law allows.

And it’s on this arc that great development teams are created, because, ultimately, we know that successful commercial development projects survive and thrive on innovation and creation that is often at seemingly at odds with the letter of the law – and so our focus is on finding solutions that allow developers to bring their best work into reality.

There are many areas that can be the banana skin on which a commercial property project can slip. Site acquisition, planning law and local policy, conservation issues, neighbour disputes, procurement issues, supplier contracts, site sales – the list is, if not endless, extensive.

So, how do you sort the wheat from the chaff – and what makes the perfect commercial property legal team?

My own view is that the process of final selection starts with finding a law firm that takes an interest in your long-term objectives for the development project, because this is where we can really understand where the likely risk and exposure exists and add exponential value.

Good commercial property lawyers will automatically consider themselves members of your team rather than simply a remote resource you bring in on an ad hoc basis.

Unless your plan is to hire in individual specialists to look after each stage of the development – an approach that will be far more costly – you’ll need to make sure the company you choose has the experience and expertise to look after every legal aspect of your project.

If you’re considering a new development, or you’ve embarked on a project and you’re not satisfied with the quality of the advice and support you’re getting from your existing legal team, why not come and talk to us and see how we can work with you to deliver a successful scheme?

Dayana Nikolova