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London’s unused spaces are going to waste

London is full of unused spaces that could be given over to temporary housing, workspaces, parks, gardens and retail, but are not, a new report from Centre for London has found.

The report, Meanwhile, in London: making use of London’s empty spaces, found that:

  • 24,400 commercial properties in the capital are currently empty, and 22,500 have been empty for at least 6 months. These account for 27 times the floorspace of Westfield London, Europe’s largest shopping centre (a total of 6.5m sqm).
  • 2,700 hectares of land – the equivalent of the London Borough of Lambeth – has planning permission to develop, but construction has yet to start.

The report found that leaving buildings and land empty is costly in terms of security and property taxes. It goes on to explore how unused spaces which are waiting to be re-developed could be transformed through ‘meanwhile uses’ – from popup retail parks to small community gardens and work spaces.

Reviewing existing schemes across the city, Centre for London found that meanwhile uses can 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.

The report estimates that current vacant office space alone could provide an opportunity to accommodate between 160,000 and 200,000 workers. However, it found that London’s empty spaces aren’t currently being used to their full potential.

Three key hurdles were identified:

  1. Landowners often overestimate the risks and undervalue the benefits of giving over a site to meanwhile use.
  2. The planning and licensing systems can make meanwhile projects difficult to undertake.
  3. The lack of larger meanwhile use operators limits capacity to take over sites and manage meanwhile activity.

The report calls on the Mayor and the GLA to lead the way in showing how meanwhile use can deliver benefits to Londoners. It recommends that the Mayor should set up a meanwhile use competition for empty sites across London, open data on empty commercial vacancies, and develop a  “Good practice code of exit” to strengthen trust between landlord and occupier.

It also identifies ways that government can incentivise landowners, businesses and civil society to bring empty spaces back into use, for instance, reforming the 1954 landlord and tenant act so businesses that are struggling can sublet their spare space more easily.

Nicolas Bosetti, Research Manager at Centre for London, said:

“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. They can also provide affordable space for the next generation of entrepreneurs, activists and artists.

“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.”

Simon Hesketh, Director of Regeneration, 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.

“For years we have been taking derelict and unused spaces and breathing life back into the communities. We do this by incubating the growth of local businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs, and by creating spaces for artists to flourish, children to learn and for charities to tell their stories. All the while listening to the local communities to understand their desires, wants and needs, so we can create spaces that work for the long-term benefit of the community, not just the short-lived. And all at no expense to the local community by using spaces that would otherwise be left inactive and unproductive. To us it’s not just meanwhile, it’s what we call worthwhile use, because we passionately believe that this is a valuable and essential part of any successful regeneration process.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

About Centre for London

Centre for London is the capital’s dedicated think tank. The Centre is politically independent and a charity, with a mission to make London a fair and prosperous global capital. We publish research. We hold events. We collaborate and influence.

About U+I

U+I is a specialist regeneration developer and investor.

With a £7bn portfolio of complex, mixed-use, community-focused regeneration projects including a £140m investment portfolio, we are unlocking urban sites bristling with potential in the London, Manchester and Dublin city regions. We exist to create long-term socioeconomic benefit for the communities in which we work, delivering sustainable returns to our shareholders.

To find out more, visit uandiplc.com or follow us @uandiplc.

Data included:

  • Commercial properties data uses new local government data, Pikhaya.com (2018). Data licensed under Creative Commons; custom query.
  • Vacant office space based on standard employment density estimates – an opportunity to accommodate between 160,000 and 200,000 workers