Overseas companies taking offices in the UK – a legal guide


10th January 2022

We have acted for a number of overseas companies in taking office space in the UK. One of the common themes we see is that the UK leasing structure and procedure is so much different to that in that company's "home territory". We have therefore produced this guide in order to give a broad outline of the various legal documents which are required when taking office space in the UK, and why those documents are needed.

Background

For an overseas company taking office space in the UK, the legal process can seem very complicated. It will invariably be different to the process and procedure they are used to and there will be many different documents – Heads of Terms, Agreement for Lease/Lease/Licence to Alter/Rent Deposit Deed etc. What do all these documents do and why are they needed? This note will:

  • provide a broad outline of the various legal documents needed; and
  • list some of the other advisers who will be needed to ensure that the project proceeds smoothly.

The main purpose of the legal documents is to commit both parties to the transaction and to set out the basis on which the tenant occupies the property, and the obligations which each party owes to the other.

The precise form of the documents will vary, depending upon the type and location of the building in which the offices are situated. This guide assumes that the documents we are dealing with relate to office space in a multi-storey purpose built office building.

The main documents are:

  • 1. Heads of Terms
  • 2. Agreement for Lease
  • 3. Lease
  • 4. Licence to Alter
  • 5. Rent Deposit Deed
  • 6. Legal Opinion Letter

Heads of Terms (HOT)

This does exactly what it says. It is a document agreed between the landlord and the tenant which summarises the main commercial “Heads of Agreement” in the deal – eg the parties, term, extent of premises, rent, permitted user, assignment provisions, basis of rent review etc, conditions to be satisfied (possession/planning etc). The HOT will generally be negotiated by the parties’ appointed property agents.

One of the first issues the landlord will wish to clarify is the legal identity and status of the tenant. This is very important to the landlord because this is the entity which will pay the rent and the landlord will wish to ensure that the entity (together with any guarantor) can pay the lease rent. As a general rule, a landlord will normally wish to see at least 3 years audited accounts showing profits sufficient to pay the lease rent. The main options are for the tenant to trade as:

  • a) a newly formed UK company. This company will generally have no assets and no profit history. In this case the landlord will normally require the tenant to provide additional security – for example (i) a 6/12 month rent deposit or (ii) a third party guarantee; or
  • b) an established UK company. This will only really be an option if the company already has a UK presence and can provide adequate accounts. If it can, the landlord will probably not want any further rent deposit or guarantee; or
  • c) a foreign company. The landlord will still wish to check its accounts etc. In addition, an “Opinion Letter” will be required – see Paragraph 6 below.

Unlike the other documents referred to below, the HOT is not a legally binding document and either party can withdraw at any time until the Agreement for Lease is signed. Once the HOT are agreed between the parties the landlord’s lawyers will then draft the transactional documents and send these to the tenant’s lawyers. The transactional documents will be:

Agreement for lease

This document is needed in order to commit both parties to enter into the Lease. Why is it needed? Why can’t the lease be granted immediately? There may be various conditions that need to be satisfied before the Lease can actually be granted – or the landlord may have to carry out works to the premises. These will be covered in the Agreement. For example:

  • it may be that the premises are not ready for the tenant to occupy immediately – the premises may be currently occupied by another tenant and the landlord needs to secure possession; or
  • there may be works to be carried out by the landlord before the premises is ready to hand over to the tenant.

If there are conditions to be satisfied the Agreement will set out those conditions in detail. If there are landlord’s works to be carried out, a specification to describe the works will be attached to the Agreement and the Agreement will set out the landlord’s obligations to carry out the works and within a timescale. A typical specification will be a “Cat A” Specification, which will generally comprise the installation of floor coverings/suspended ceiling (with air con plant above) ready to receive the tenant’s fit out (installation of partitioning/rooms etc).

For new buildings (i.e. less than 12 years old) the Agreement may also specify any construction warranties which the tenant is to benefit from (i.e. from the contractor and professional team).

Once any conditions are satisfied, any landlord’s works have been completed and the tenant’s fit out plans have been approved the lease will be completed and the tenant will be permitted to take occupation in order to fit out the premises.

If the premises are ready to handover to the tenant immediately – i.e. the landlord has secured possession and there are no landlord’s works to carry out or conditions to be satisfied, then there will generally be no need for an Agreement for Lease and the parties can immediately enter into the Lease.

3. The lease

The main document in any leasing transaction will be the lease itself – a lease is a contract and, like any other contract, it sets out the terms which have been agreed between the parties.  The subject matter of the contract is the premises being leased and virtually every lease will contain the same basic provisions – some leases will of course be longer than others. Every office lease will contain the following main provisions:

a) Premises

The lease will contain a detailed description of the premises. Why is this important? It is because the lease will contain an obligation on the tenant to repair the premises and it is therefore vital that the full extent of the premises is adequately described in the lease.

If only part of the building is included in the lease (for example, the company is taking a lease of one or more floors in a building (rather than the whole building)) then the lease will invariably be a “non-structural demise”. This means that the area being demised will be described by reference to a plan (e.g. showing the extent of the office space) but also the lease will describe what else is included as part of the premises. Generally this will be everything from the top surface of the structural slab below to the underside of the slab above – so will include all plant and equipment in the void above the suspended ceiling.

This detail is important because the tenant will be under an obligation to repair the premises and therefore the premises needs to be adequately described so that the tenant knows what it needs to do to comply with the lease terms. If the whole of the building is included in the lease then the premises description will be much simpler and shorter – it will refer to the whole building and the tenant will then be liable to repair, maintain and insure the whole building.

If the tenant is not taking “new” space, then it is important that the tenant arranges a survey of the space to identify any defects. These can then be dealt with – either by an obligation on the landlord in the Agreement to repair these defects, or by excluding these defects from the tenant’s repair liability in the lease.

b) Term

The term of the lease is simply the period of time that the tenant is committed to the lease.  The term can vary – e.g. 5/10/15 years. Historically much longer terms were granted (e.g. 25 years) but the modern trend is for shorter terms.

The lease can either be “inside” or “outside” the provisions of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. If the lease is “inside” the 1954 Act, this means that the tenant will have an automatic right to a new lease at the end of the term. The landlord can oppose this right, but only on certain specific and quite narrow grounds – for example if the tenant has been in default under the lease or if the landlord wants the premises back in order to re-develop.

If the lease is “outside” the 1954 Act then the tenant has no right to a new lease at the end of the lease term and must vacate the premises if the landlord does not agree to a new lease.

Sometimes the lease will contain a break option, which will allow either the landlord or the tenant the right to break the lease at certain points during the term (e.g. on a 10 year Lease, a break option after year 5). The tenant will wish to ensure when negotiating the break option that apart from the tenant paying the main rent up to date, there are no other conditions attached to the exercise of the break option.

c) Rent and review provisions

The rent payable will be agreed at the outset and there will be provision in the lease for that rent to be increased or “reviewed” during the term.

In an open market rent lease, the rent agreed at the start of the lease will be the open market rent and that rent will then be reviewed on specified dates during the term – generally at the end of every 5 year period – to arrive at an “open market rent” on that review date. As the objective is to ascertain a rent payable at some stage in the future, the lease will contain what are called “assumptions” and “disregards” to ensure, as far as possible that the rent determined is as close as possible to a rent which would be payable in the open market at the time.

Alternatively, the rent may be reviewed on each review date to reflect increases in the RPI (i.e. inflation) in that 5 year period.

d) Tenant covenants

Why are these needed?

Answer: to ensure that the landlord can:

  • recover the “main” rent [i.e. the principal rent payable for the premises]
  • recover all sums which it pays out in insuring, repairing and maintaining the building [recovered via a “service charge”]
  • control what the tenant does in the premises;
  • control to whom the tenant may assign the lease.

The following are the main tenant covenants:

(i) Payment of rent:

Rent is invariably payable quarterly in advance on the standard “quarter days”, which are 25 December, 25 March, 24 June and 29 September in each year.

In addition, if the lease is only of part of the building, the tenant will be required to pay a contribution towards the cost incurred by the landlord in insuring and repairing the building (see below).

(ii) Repair:

The tenant will generally be obliged to keep the premises in good repair and condition. It is of vital importance that the tenant arranges a full survey of the premises, so that any existing defects can be identified and excluded from the repair liability. For “new” buildings, are warranties available?

(iii) Re-instatement:

For a tenant the potential reinstatement liability at the end of the lease term could be very expensive. The key question here is the condition in which the premises were handed over at the start of the term:

If the premises are handed over by the Landlord in a new Cat A condition then it is only fair that an office tenant is obliged to remove all partitioning etc at the end of the term and return the premises to the landlord in a new Cat A condition.

However, if the premises handed over to the tenant are “tired” then unless the tenant is getting some incentive, it would be unfair to expect the tenant to have to spend money to improve the condition of the premises and give the premises back in new Cat A condition. In these cases, a common solution is to prepare a “Schedule of Condition” and specify that the tenant does not need to give the premises back in any better state of repair than is evidenced by the Schedule of Condition.

(iv) Assignment:

The tenant will normally be allowed to assign, but only with the consent of the landlord. Sometimes, the tenant will be permitted to sub-let the whole or part.

The main test which the incoming tenant must satisfy is that it must be of sufficient financial strength to be able to pay the lease rents.

The lease may contain offer back provisions, under which the tenant must offer the premises back to the landlord at the same premium as that which the incoming tenant has agreed to pay.

(v) User:

The user will be generally be as offices. No change of use will be permitted.

(vi) Alterations:

The Tenant will normally be permitted to carry out internal non-structural alterations, subject to obtaining the consent of the Landlord. Structural alterations will normally be prohibited. The tenant may be allowed to erect internal demountable partitioning without consent.

e) Landlord covenants

These will not be as extensive as the tenant covenants. Where the tenant is only taking a lease of part of the building the main obligations which the landlord will undertake are:

  • to insure the building and
  • to repair and maintain the building and any common areas

f) Service charge/Insurance provisions

The lease will normally contain a list of services which the landlord agrees to provide – including repair, maintenance and decoration of the building etc. Where the office premises is part of a purpose built block (as opposed to a smaller “High Street” type location”) the list of services is more detailed, and will include items such as security, provision of heating/air-conditioning, cleaning, landscaping of external areas etc.

In return, the tenant must pay the service charge. Normally this is collected quarterly in advance (with payment being made on the same quarter days as the rent), with a “top up” payment being made by the tenant at the end of the year, once the landlord produces a detailed account of exactly what it has spent. The landlord will also insure the building against specified insured risks. In return, the tenant will pay a contribution towards the insurance premium, normally calculated by reference to the area of the premises. For “new” buildings, are warranties available?

Insurance is very important area for the tenant’s lawyer to focus on – in particular what happens if the building is damage by a terrorist act? Is “terrorism” an insured risk? – i.e. so that rent will cease to be payable if the building is damaged by terrorism so that the premises are not capable of being occupied. If it is, what happens if terrorism ceases to be an insured risk? Depending on the location of the premises, does the tenant require protection against other “uninsured risks”?

g) Energy efficiency, ‘Green Leases’ and “Climate Clauses”

UK Government policies are obligating developers, landlords and occupiers to focus on the environmental performance and sustainability of buildings. The UK Government’s objective to meet “net zero”, “Paris Agreement” and COP 26 [Glasgow] goals means an increased focus on this area. Landlords are now producing ‘green leases’ that incorporate clauses with specific responsibilities on landlord/tenant in respect of energy consumption, waste reduction, emission of greenhouse gases and water efficiency. “Climate Clauses” are being developed and included in a wide range of legal documents in areas such as employment, infrastructure projects, construction and corporate/commercial. We already see these in a basic form in some leases and believe the clauses/obligations will become more sophisticated as the practice matures.

It is important that a tenant is properly advised on sustainability clauses in a lease to ensure there are no hidden costs or restrictions on how the tenant intends to runs its business.

h) The lease negotiation

Whilst the basic provisions in any office lease, as outlined above, may be pretty much the same, leases will vary greatly in relation to the level of detail and how onerous those provisions may be for a tenant.

It is vitally important that a tenant is properly advised on those provisions, and that the lease is fully negotiated, so as to water down or delete any onerous provisions, so that the lease is as fair as possible to the tenant:

  • To ensure that there is nothing in the lease which might result in the tenant having to pay an increased cost
  • To ensure that there is nothing in the lease which might have a practical impact on the way the tenant runs its business
  • To ensure that there is nothing in the lease which might affect the value of the lease if the Tenant wished to assign it

4. The licence to alter

This document constitutes the formal approval of the landlord to the tenant’s fit out plans and the licence will govern the way in which the tenant must carry out those works. Attached to the licence will be a set of the approved fit out plans.

The Licence will include an obligation of the tenant to fit out in accordance with the approved plans, carry out the works in a good and workmanlike manner etc, and to remove the works at the end of the lease term.

5. The rent deposit deed

If the tenant is a new company or does not generate sufficient profits to give the landlord comfort that the tenant can pay the rent, then the landlord will require the tenant to pay a sum upfront – typically 6 or 12 months rent. This will be held by the landlord as security and used by the landlord if the tenant fails to pay any of the rents due under the lease. It will generally be repaid to the tenant at the end of the term or on assignment or when the tenant’s profits hit certain agreed levels (typically 3x rent).

6. Legal opinion letter

If the company taking the lease or giving the guarantee is a foreign company (i.e. not incorporated in England or Wales) then the landlord will require an “Opinion Letter” from a lawyer qualified in that jurisdiction to confirm that the company is properly formed, is not subject to any liquidation or insolvency proceedings and has capacity to enter into the documents etc. The reason this is required is to ensure that if the landlord ever has to enforce the provisions of the lease (e.g. to recover rent) then it knows that the foreign company is bound by the terms of the lease.

Other advisers

As well as lawyers (who will negotiate the legal documents referred to above), there will be a number of different professionals involved in the process. These include:

  • Property agent – to advise on possible property options, and once a site is selected to negotiate the rent/terms and HOT
  • Designer – to prepare fit out plans
  • Fit out contractor – to carry out the fit out
  • Project Manager – to supervise the fit out, and apply to the local authority for buildings regulations consent for the fit out and any planning consent required for any signage.

We hope you find the above a useful and practical summary of the basic retail lease structure. If you require any further information please contact Nigel Griffiths.

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