When Boris Johnson first started talking about ‘Independence Day’ – the final junction in his roadmap out of lockdown when the final Covid-19 restrictions were due to be lifted – the big, bold imagery he was trying to conjure was clear: the good guys triumph over evil in a neat Hollywood ending that draws a line under the action-packed 154 minutes/15 months that preceded it. While the phrasing has since moved on to ‘Freedom Day’, which itself has slipped from 24 June to 19 July, the sentiment remains the same: the bad times are over, the good times are here.
Except, it is not really that straightforward. For those looking forward to restriction-free shopping, a visit to the theatre, or a return to clubbing, then Freedom Day will indeed feel liberating. However, the ongoing struggle between landlords and tenants and the continued kicking of this particular can of worms down the road by the government, means that those involved in the commercial property side of retail and hospitality are far from emancipated.
By 25 March 2022, when the moratorium on commercial rents in the UK is currently set to expire, it will be approximately two years since commercial property owners had the ability to evict tenants who did not pay their rent. While this action was taken to protect scores of businesses and jobs that were unable to operate normally during the pandemic, it has had a dramatic impact on landlords who have not received a similar level of support from the government.
Beyond the fact that the investors in commercial property are often pension funds and charities, so a loss of income can absolutely hurt the average person on the street, the moratorium has created a tremendous amount of ill will between the different parties involved. As one property entrepreneur was quoted saying in The Times: “The government has decided who is a preferential creditor. Why don’t they say tenants who don’t pay rent must put a cap on bonuses and dividends? Landlords are being treated as a lower form of life.”
There is no denying that there has been pain on both sides of barrier here, and likely much more to come. However, waiting until March of next year risks both the long-term health of property companies and the fabric of our communities. Commercial property has a huge role to play in our economic recovery and in the levelling up agenda and it is essential that a more holistic and collaborative approach take precedence in how this situation is resolved. As we enjoy Freedom Day, we need to remember the significant work that remains to be done if we are to retain the normal to which we are so desperate to return. If we do not, then come March 2022 we risk another nineties film playing out in the headlines: Armageddon.