Jan 02, 2021 - 12:00
Here’s hoping you managed to have as good a Christmas and New Year as Covid rules allowed.
Journalism in early January is usually at a loss. Nothing has happened for a few weeks and so the old cliche - ’10 things to watch for this year’ - is wheeled out.
Well, no one can say the holiday season has been quiet this time, yet with so much set to happen in 2021 this really does seem the time to mark our cards for the year ahead.
So please indulge me while I set out how I see the coming 12 months for our industry.
1. Coronavirus: As inevitable as it is unfortunate, this is the prism through which so much activity will be seen in 2021. The roots of so many things (like the stamp duty holiday, the lack of progress for the Renters’ Reform Bill or the absence of government action on the regulation of agents) are all consequences of the virus.
Few would envy the jobs of senior politicians right now - the Health Secretary and Chancellor both seem increasingly heroic - yet the Prime Minister’s record of over-promising and under-delivering on this issue makes even the hope of a successful and timely vaccine roll-out appear in doubt. Sadly, coronavirus is set dominate events everywhere in 2021.
2. Consolidation: Countrywide v Connells, The Property Franchise Group v Hunters, and all those little independent agencies snapped up by bigger companies - the movement amongst agencies is going only one way.
This may be accelerated in the summer when the return of business rates and the gradual slowing of the market post-stamp duty holiday may emphasise the need to trim branch networks and reduce duplication.
3. Sales slowdown (sort of): My guess is that transaction volumes will of course slow after April - but not as much as some suggest. The continuation of the virus will mean those who were prepared to put their life on hold in 2020 will be keen to get on with it in 2021, and the trends of last year (the search for more space in community-focused locations) will fuel a lot of desire to move house.
4. Taxation: Although we believe Britain’s property sector is uniquely harshly taxed (and to some extent it is) we’re behind other countries when it comes to using housing as a way of filling coronavirus fiscal black holes.
Spain is considering (not yet confirming) a hefty eight per cent annual tax on the value of homes owned by foreigners, for example. So come Rishi Sunak’s March Budget, expect property taxes to rise - as has been highly trailed, this might include Capital Gains Tax or more controversially a stamp duty hike.
5. Aggressive anti-landlordism: Several campaign groups, like Generation Rent and Shelter, ignore the root cause of Britain’s housing problem - a lack of supply. Instead, they suggest almost universal blame lies with landlords (and not just some – all).
In recent months it’s become more personal with some individuals engaging in Twitter trolling, storming into agents’ offices and occasional protests outside landlords’ homes. Sadly they all look likely to increase in 2021. Good arguments from some of these campaign groups are lost in the vitriol with which they make their case.
6. Renters’ Reform Bill - or at least Section 21: With a government looking like an animal caught in the coronavirus headlights, there may be no political time or interest in the full Renters’ Reform Bill.
However, before the May local elections, the embattled Housing Secretary may take time off from making controversial planning decisions and instead seek to buy younger votes through abolishing Section 21. This is only part of the RR Bill, but one that would play to the populist agenda and could be done in isolation.
7. Boomin: Before the year is very old, this portal will launch. But that will do nothing to stop the speculation about its future.
Does Foxtons have an investment in it? Is it set to take over OnTheMarket? Will the words ‘stock market flotation’ be heard before the end of 2021? This will be a story that will run throughout the year.
8. Agency regulation (lack thereof): Although there has been more progress on this behind the scenes than may appear the case, political interest by housing ministers is limited - very surprising given that all major parties are in agreement, and whipping estate agents into line has historically been popular with the public.
There will be a new code of conduct produced by a large committee of industry figures led by Baroness Hayter, but the smart money is on regulation still being in the slow lane this year.
9. New homes - when will they come? Lost in the noise of Christmas, the scathing report of the Public Accounts Committee last month sums up just the most recent examples of successive governments failing to deliver homes in the right places and at the right cost.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government did not deliver 200,000 Starter Homes pledged in 2015, while last year’s First Homes initiative is mired in confusion as to how it operates, who is eligible, and when any will be built. If this bankrupt record changes in 2021, it will be a cause of real celebration: if it doesn’t (and don’t hold your breath) the current housing problem will continue.
10. New faces: Tim Balcon has made a strong first impression on those who have met him (stand by for an EAT interview later this month) and he looks likely to make his mark as a much more effective leader of Propertymark than some predecessors.
Meanwhile the consolidation spoken of earlier will lead this spring to a new face leading Countrywide - and that’s very likely to be a well-known senior industry figure. By summer, thanks to fatigue over the virus and failure over housing delivery, there’s likely to be changes to the political leadership at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government…but what year would be complete without a new housing minister?
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