UK Property Forums consultant, Hugh Blaza, offers an overview of Oxfordshire in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis – including the thoughts of some of the key players in what was to have been a major event on April 2. 

By the week commencing March 30, 2020, the final countdown to the third annual OxPropFest should have been well under way.

Routes of the walking tours finalised, speakers and panellists for the talks all primed for their sessions, owl fully trained to fly to the gloved hand of our host and inspiration, Matthew Battle (well perhaps not that particular piece of theatre, this time at least).

Now all has been brought to a juddering halt by a microscopic psychopath with which the entire planet is at war.

In spite of the political uncertainties lying ahead, the property community had been buoyed by a massive uptick in activity and the year was looking positive from every angle.

The OxPropFest team and its participants were relishing the prospect of a real celebration of the work of its players and the excitement of developments to come.

Entering the second or in some cases, third, week of confinement, we are growing used to the images of our colleagues and their ceilings on our screens. And while technology is serving us well, given the circumstances, things ain’t what they used to be – and may never be again.

Through our work with OxPropFest, Thames Tap and our Oxford Socials, we see ourselves as an integral part of the community and so, if only to provide topics of conversation for the virtual coffee breaks and drinks-after-work parties, we want to keep up the good work.

So last week we spoke to a number of our sponsors to get their views from the front line.

First off, working from home works! We’ve heard nothing but praise for Zoom (a tool many of us had never heard of until a couple of weeks ago) and very few complaints about the inadequacy of the country’s internet infrastructure – although we’d like to know if you’ve been having difficulties over and above those you usually experience.

Deals are being completed, court hearings are being conducted and planning applications are being submitted. One of our surveyor sponsor firms reported that they were concluding heads of terms for a 75,000 sq ft letting. Will that transfer into a completed deal – fingers crossed it will!

According to Richard Byard of our OxPropFest partner, OxLEP, demand for laboratory space remains high – hardly surprising in the circumstances but a sign that we mustn’t lose sight of the recovery once we’ve come through the dark days we are experiencing.

Fiona Smart of our awards partner, Harwell Campus, echoes this.

She told us: “Harwell only has a skeleton workforce in place now, with many now working from home but the work that continues is important and will contribute to towards our understanding of the virus.

“Oxfordshire has been named by the Government as one of the key places that is finding answers to this indiscriminate killer. We can feel proud of that.”

And what of the construction projects already under way? Buildings can’t be erected via Zoom! Francis Ho, from the construction law team of another of our awards partners, Penningtons Manches Cooper, neatly summarises the dilemma.

He said: “Any sizeable project will have a web of commercial contracts to unravel, with critical target dates, liquidated damages clauses and termination rights to wrestle with. 

“The Government could shut down all sites as part of the lockdown – that might make sense for private housing estates where residential sales activity is inevitably down but does it make sense where people are building infrastructure or, say, logistics hubs for supermarkets?”

Philip Waddy of the architecture, town planning and urban design practice, West Waddy, the OxPropFest music partner, strikes a cautionary note.

He said: “Some builders are pledging to continue but we’ve already heard of basic materials shortages, so construction will soon stop. It will take some time for the industry to get back to full order books as projects are reviewed and perhaps even cancelled.”

The economic and human toll which the pandemic is visiting upon us will be significant.

Many people are talking about how life will never be the same again, how we must pause, recalibrate, realise that the ways in which we have lived and worked must change to secure a more sustainable and balanced future.

In the meantime, how do we get through it? Maintaining a sense of humour is one way; one of our correspondents even managed to find aspects of her mother’s socially distanced funeral funny!

Keeping in touch and remembering we’re all connected is another.  As Philip Campbell of our event partner, Milton Park, puts it: “It’s times like this that you realise how great human people are and how much they really care.”

So we look forward to the rescheduled date for OxPropFest of September 9. Let’s hope that we’re able to gather then!

Meanwhile, we’ll be staying in touch with more ‘news from the front line’, we will continue to publish the Thames Tap and we have a number of podcasts in the pipeline.

Keep safe and stay positive!

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