2018 – A Space Odyssey

No, the ghost of Kubrick isn’t back with a follow-up. It’s a reference to actual, physical space. In London. That no-one’s using. In 2018. When all you read is about the lack of space.

As we reported earlier this year, London is getting taller. We’re led to believe that in order to compete with the world’s new financial superpowers across the Far East, we’ve got to go higher and higher and call our buildings by more ridiculous names. Architectural masterpieces and the best the marketing guys could come up with was The Scalpel and The Cheesegrater?

Are these the buildings that London needs? Well, the answer is yes. London – especially as the May-driven bandwagon steers blind through the unprecedented complexity of Brexit – needs to shout from the rooftops, but for all the billion-dollar bling reaching into the clouds there’s space around us that’s familiar, it’s been there for ages and it’s not being used.

In a practical example we can all understand, last week on MasterChef 6’10” ex-England rugby lock forward Martin Bayfield made a malt foam.

Sometimes you just want steak and chips.

Where Is All This Space?

According to a new report by capital-centric think-tank Centre for London, they’ve found it.

Called Meanwhile in London: Making Use of London’s Empty Spaces, the report has identified over 24,000 empty commercial properties – which they call ‘structural unused space’ – including offices, retail properties, warehouses, factories, police stations, banks, law courts, restaurants, even a disused go-kart track.

Perhaps most tellingly, of the 24,400 empty properties, at least 22,500 have been empty for at least six months.

Their comparison was ’15 Westfield London’s’ but on the basis that ‘a Westfield’ isn’t a unit of measurement many of us would be familiar with, we ought to let you know what that equates to.

After the March 2018 extension, Westfield London has a total retail floor area of 2.6m square feet so, 15 x 2.6m = 39m square feet, or:

  • 47 Buckingham Palaces
  • 609 football pitches
  • 541,666 full-sized snooker tables
  • 38,500,000 large pizzas from Domino’s

In addition to this vacant space, there is almost 6,700 acres of land – equivalent to around seven times the area of the City of London – that has planning permission to be developed on but no work has commenced.

Anyway, you get the point.

Talking of Points, What’s The Point of the Report?

First off, it aims to identify the structural unused space that could potentially be given over to what’s known as ‘meanwhile uses’ such as temporary housing, workspaces, pop-up retail and food outlets and green spaces.

This type of use can, according to James Wallace writing for Costar, ‘bring huge benefits and social value. They offer flexibility for spaces to evolve and offer opportunities for public engagement in the development process. They can also provide affordable space for London’s next generation of entrepreneurs, artists and activists.’

Research Manager at Centre for London Nicolas Bosetti backs this up. ‘London is full of spaces, small and large, that could be given over to meanwhile uses, but are not. Meanwhile spaces offer opportunity to try out new activities and to make things happen in parts of the city needing greater economic vitality.’

He continues; ‘While London has seen a flurry of meanwhile projects in the last decade – from allotments, art galleries, football pitches – it has not yet reached its peak. The Government and the Mayor can play a role in pushing up supply.’

The report also suggests that the vacant office space alone could provide accommodation for between 160,000 and 200,000 workers in London.

Previous reports have put the figures even higher. Figures compiled by leading think tank Policy Exchange and reported by Rhiannon Curry in the Telegraph in 2016 reported that if the government committed £3.1bn a year, 21,000 homes could be built per annum until 2036, a total of 420,000. They would benefit the shared ownership and rented sector and she tells us that ‘rental income from the homes and the sale of equity stakes could allow the government to recoup its money within 20 years.’

Arthur Duke, founder of Live-In Solutions, a business, according to their website, ‘established to provide a reliable and commercial solution to the problems created by empty properties’ has his own views on the matter. ‘This is a reflection of extortionate property prices coupled with ferociously high business rates that push companies further away from the centre of town to the suburbs. More should be done to make use of these empty spaces, which are, in fact viable temporary homes with a little imagination and effort – that benefit all parties.’

Dear Mr Mayor…

Three key barriers to entry were identified as to why these projects were harder than they should be to get off the ground:

  • Landowners overplay the inherent risks and underplay the undoubted benefits of giving over a site to a meanwhile use project
  • Current planning and licensing legislation make meanwhile use projects harder to get off the ground
  • There are very few larger ‘meanwhile use operators’ so even if projects do happen, there is limited capacity for the management of their activities. Most small projects are run by enthusiastic supporters or volunteers

So what can be done to encourage more owners of vacant property to play their part in pushing up supply?

The report calls on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the Greater London Authority to lead the charge. Recommendations include the Mayor setting up a Meanwhile Use competition; making open, available data on empty commercial vacancies available and the creation of a best practice ‘code of exit’ which will go a way to strengthen trust between landlords and occupiers.

It also looks at ways in which the government can incentivise landowners, businesses and society in general to bring vacant space back into use more quickly, including a reform of the 1954 Landlord & Tenant Act which will potentially make it easier to sublet spare space.

Notwithstanding anything else, leaving buildings empty for extended periods of time is expensive in terms of property taxes and the security needed to look after them.

Simon Hesketh, Director of Regeneration at specialist urban regeneration and property development company U+I said; ‘This report reaffirms our longstanding belief that spaces throughout our cities are not being used to their full potential or adding value to the local community. It’s what we endeavour to address through all of our regeneration work by baking in ‘meanwhile’ as an important and value-enhancing part of the development process, not just a nice thing to do.’

The space is definitely there and it seems like the will is there. The question is, will anyone pick up this particular hot potato?

Watch this space…

As always, if you have a property enquiry we can help you with, contact us today on 020 7629 1088 or info@bdgsp.co.uk.