In the era of working-from-home, many councils in London own unused property. While selling them off nets a financial return, property can be more valuable when used creatively to help the whole area. Jon Tabbush shares examples of how to make it happen.
Land and property in London are a scarce resource. Lots of councils own significant amounts of it – office buildings, libraries, shops, and community centres, not including council homes.
How much varies significantly between boroughs and is not easy to discover – analysing 2015 data shows that London councils own around a fifth of all land in the city.
The financial pressures of austerity caused many of them to sell off, lease, or redevelop their land and property. This was sped up by many employees working from home during the pandemic.
However, a growing number of councils are experimenting with innovative ways to use their land and property to create long-term social value to the area, not just cashing in on financial value.
Turning a council office into a cultural hub
Barking and Dagenham Council owned Roycraft House, a six-storey office block that was no longer in use.
Rather than sell off the building, the Council used their development company Be First and partnered with MakeItLondon to transform the building into a local cultural hub.
The borough knew there was a need for affordable workspace for people who might otherwise commute into inner London. MakeItLondon create spaces to encourage creative industries.
For at least the next 10 years, Roycraft House will be used as a coworking space for local artists and entrepreneurs, with space for recording studios, workshops, film studios, and food and drink sales.
To make sure the development benefited the whole community, the process of developing the site included a working group of local residents (who were compensated for their time) and listening to potential tenants.
Creating social value from empty property across London
Many London boroughs are putting these approaches into practice.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is creating ‘social investment leases’ for some of its empty properties. These allow tenants to pay reduced rent in return for defined, socially valuable outputs, like employing vulnerable local people.
For example, the borough’s Building Lives Academy is based in a council-owned building on a social investment lease and trains local young people in construction skills.
These examples – from two very different parts of London – show the potential of releasing untapped social value from property.
Selling off property may deliver much-needed, immediate financial returns – however, social value approaches can deliver wider, long-term benefits for local people.
This blog is part of a series on making the most of local authorities’ assets. Read more about how procurement spending can benefit communities.