The middle ground

So, which firm is top dog for property in the Midlands? Wragge & Co is obviously a good bet; with 19 partners it is now boasting one of the largest property groups in the UK and it has shown a departmental profit increase of 51 per cent this year.
The group, which counts MEPC and Castlemore Securities among its clients, is particularly rated for property litigation. It also continues to handle a lot of residential development and local authority work. It successfully bid for the 'Heart of Slough' regeneration project in May this year, led by property partner Andrew Galla. Wragges also bagged its first major instruction from BT in the same month. The five-year deal, worth between £500m-£600m to the client, involves the management of 8,500 properties.
The firm's principal rival for property work in Birmingham is Eversheds. Last month, Eversheds announced it was shaking up its 74-partner property practice, in the latest of a long line of internal restructurings. The firm has often been criticised for struggling to coordinate itself across its national network. A new sector-focused approach will be implemented, which it hopes will streamline work and provide more strength nationally. Head of property Cornelius Medvei says: “There's always been a problem with geographical distance and this system was specifically designed to overcome that.”
The changes are a pat on the back for the Midland offices, with three of the five new practice groups being coordinated by partners in the region. Birmingham senior executive Gerald Relph will be responsible for leading house-builders, Nottingham's head of property Nigel Sharpe will cover end-users, and partner Judith Gershon will head property finance from Birmingham.
But in the middle of all this change there have also been losses. Commercial property partner Karen Brooks has moved to join Hammond Suddards Edge in Manchester, while fellow property partner Nigel Watkins has left for Reed Smith Warner Cranston.
Pinsent Curtis Biddle and Hammonds claim to be reaping the benefits of merger. Pinsents, while not a property powerhouse, does count Wilson Bowden among its clients, while Hammonds continues to advise on the £113m Millennium Point project in Birmingham. But Hammonds also suffered a loss with property partner and head of the firm's retail team Simon Boss moving to Eversheds in January.
Lee Crowder property partner Joel Kordan believes that the market is steady. “I think there is a perceived change, not a marked one, but it is certainly quieter. Whether this is cyclical because it's the summer, or because we've enjoyed a good period, we'll just have to wait and see,” he says.
Freethcartwright is another strong local firm, providing offices across the region, in Leicester, Birmingham and Nottingham. Its property team works for a number of residential developers, while also being one of just two firms in England to act for the Millennium Commission.
And one to look out for is the freshly-merged office of Reed Smith Warner Cranston. As well as scooping Watkins from Eversheds, it has brought former Shoosmiths partner Mary Anderson on board.

Deals round-up

The new BullRing is a 40-acre, 2 million sq ft regeneration project in the centre of Birmingham valued at £163;430m. Eversheds (property partners Parmjit Singh and Gary O'Brien) is advising a consortium of firms named the Birmingham Alliance. The partnership involves Hammerson, Henderson Global Investors and Land Securities. The range of work has also extended to strategic advice and lettings.

Whitbread Holdings and Punch Retail sold First Quench's retail business to Japanese investment bank Nomura. The £163;250m transaction was completed in September 2000. It was the largest sale of off-licences in the UK, with around 2,800 branches, including household names such as Victoria Wine and Wine Rack. Pinsent Curtis Biddle acted for Whitbread and Punch (property partners Gareth Edwards and Stephen Brown). Nomura was advised by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (corporate partner David Crook).

Castlemore Securities agreed the forward sale of a £163;110m London retail centre to Pillar Property in September 2000. The 55-acre site represents one of the largest regeneration projects in the UK. Castlemore was advised by Wragge & Co (property partner Robert Caddick, with support from head of property development Dan Hemming on environmental matters).

MEPC sold three prestigious office buildings to US fund the Greenwich Group, in one of the largest property transactions outside London, in April this year. The £163;96m deal included two landmark buildings in Birmingham. MEPC was advised by Wragge & Co (property partners Huw Roberts and John Burns, with corporate advice from partner Stephen Braithwaite). The Greenwich Group was advised by Eversheds' London office.

In September 2000, Landcrest Developments signed a £163;60m deal to construct new Birmingham headquarters for Kalamazoo. The remainder of the site was converted into a business park. Hammond Suddards Edge advised Landcrest (property partner Ray Simpson).

In February, IM Properties acquired Nicholson's Shopping Centre in Maidenhead from Lothbury Property Trust and Pearl Assurance for £40.6m. The 70-unit shopping centre is a significant investment in the area. Martineau Johnson advised IM Properties (property partner Nick East). Travers Smith Braithwaite advised Lothbury (property partner Robert Harman).


Dealsfocus: The Mailbox

One project that's indicative of the Midlands renaissance is the redevelopment of a 1.5 million sq ft Royal Mail sorting office. The Mailbox is a 1960's building in the heart of Birmingham. The task was to convert it into a modern residential, leisure and retail centre – a job that turned out to be far bigger than expected.

Eversheds' property team acted for two well-heeled property businessmen responsible for the project. Both Alan Chatham and Mark Billingham had worked with Eversheds in the past. Senior partner Adrian Bland describes the deal as "the only scheme of its kind".
He says: "We approached it thinking that something on its scale must have been done somewhere else beforehand, but after searching the corners of the earth we realised it hadn't."

From an architectural perspective it proved a complex and challenging development. From a legal perspective it encompassed a myriad of aspects, including funding, property, construction, planning, environment and corporate. Eversheds' involvement stretches back to 1997, with activity peaking last year, when the firm was juggling a number of entwined issues at once.

"Not only was it the largest scheme of its kind in real estate terms, but beyond that we found ourselves dealing with British Waterways on regenerating a canal, as well as looking at the telecoms issue of setting up an internal phone system," says Bland.

Praise has been heaped on the firm from businesses and firms alike for its handling of the complex scheme. This culminated in it being a nominee for Real Estate Team of the Year in The Lawyer Awards 2001.

Property partner Parmjit Singh says: "This was groundbreaking work and we hope that Eversheds has created some new models for others to use in the future."

Also involved in the scheme were Shoosmiths, acting for Crosby Homes; Ashurst Morris Crisp (property partner Joanne Senior) advising Harvey Nichols; and Pinsent Curtis Biddle (property development partner Kevin Hostford) representing Malmaison Hotel.

The Eversheds team included lawyers from a range of disciplines. These included senior partner Adrian Bland; property partners Parmjit Singh and Barry Fisher with associates Gurjit Atwal, David Jones and Suzy Vercoe; property litigation partner Gary O'Brien with associate Hilary Harrison; property finance partner Judith Gershon; planning and environment partners Rod Bull, Dave Gordon and Emma White; and corporate partner Milton Psyllides with associate Martin Letza.

But Mailbox director Alan Chatham says that they were prepared for the enormity of the deal. "From day one, we had a large expert team on our side that could handle all the issues and complexities of such an unprecedented development," he says.