How will PRS schemes meet housing demand?

PRS schemes in the UK

With home ownership remaining stagnant, and more people now living in rented housing, Paul Staley, director of Private Rental Sector (PRS) at SDL Group looks at how institutional investors are responding.

Reports of declining home ownership, particularly among the young, are never far from the headlines. Sky-high house prices, most acutely seen in the south-east, and tougher lending criteria mean that fewer people are able to get on the property ladder, despite government initiatives like Help to Buy. The UK’s imminent departure from the European Union is also putting doubts into the minds of first time buyers due to the increased uncertainty of its impact on inflation, interest rates and economic growth.

Factors like these will invariably push people towards rental accommodation – however the flexibility offered by rental is also proving to be a huge draw. Owning a house remains the aspiration for many, but there is a definite sea change in the market, with higher numbers preferring the lifestyle of renting. For those in their 20s or 30s it certainly makes it easier to relocate for a new job or move in with a partner if they don’t have to commit to a mortgage.

Whilst PRS has traditionally been the preserve of the smaller independent landlord, increasingly the larger institutional investors are looking at the sector, attracted by the stable and predictable yields it can deliver. However, these institutions desire clean and safe housing stock, which has resulted in the newly emerging phenomenon of Build to Rent (B2R).

The coming year will undoubtedly see a growth in B2R developments outside of the London bubble. This is being driven by rising land prices in the south-east and a scarcity of opportunities. As the sector becomes more robust and confidence increases, the focus is starting to move away from the capital.

The initial growth of this B2R activity outside of London has been focused on the second-tier cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, as well as those situated along the M4 corridor including Reading and Bristol. The vast majority of these schemes have been large-scale apartment buildings within, or on the periphery of, the city centres, although there are now a growing number of low-rise, family-orientated schemes in development.

It is worth noting that institutional investors remain relatively cautious when it comes to developing outside of the core areas, as their knowledge and understanding of these UK property markets remains relatively narrow.

Of course, all of this should be considered within the context of the government’s recent housing white paper, which recognises the need for good quality housing stock, setting a clear path for local authorities to create more private rental schemes.

While this is a welcome boost to the sector, there is a real danger that the focus will remain on high-density schemes, particularly large apartment tower blocks in city centres, which only cater for a particular segment of the Private Rental Sector.

This seems to be the direction that institutional investors are already taking – after all, it is easier to invest £50million upwards in a single project rather than the same number of houses spread across 10 different sites. The latter requires different planning applications, architect’s drawings and legal fees so it is more risky and costly. Nevertheless, a focus on large-scale developments can result in a lack of diversity in the housing market, and a bias towards city centre flats rather than suburban family homes. The challenge is to tempt investors away from these schemes towards something more imaginative.

Desire for rental property, along with a renewed government and local authority focus in the industry, will no doubt see more schemes flourish, but steps must be taken to ensure they match the needs of the tenants.

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