London does not have the problems of long-term dereliction that many other cities are facing – the city has the lowest reported commercial vacancy rate in the country. 29 Nonetheless, while land supply may be getting tighter, the capital still has many unused and underused spaces:
- London has a huge number of commercial properties that have been empty for at least six months due to market friction, but also a large stock of “stuck” commercial properties, which have remained empty for over two years.
- London also has an extensive stock of current and future (re)development sites. Around one per cent of London’s land will be developed in the next 10 years, 30 and there will be windows of opportunity for meanwhile use before or during redevelopment.
- There is considerable “slack space” – underused space within or between buildings, particularly in outer London – although this is not currently measured.
Empty commercial properties
Using new local government data on empty commercial units, 31 we estimate that 24,400 commercial units in the capital are currently empty, of which 22,500 have been empty for at least six months. The total vacant floorspace is the equivalent of 27 times that of Westfield London, while the vacant office space alone could provide – based on standard employment density estimates – an opportunity to accommodate between 160,000 and 200,000 workers. 32 Some of this reflects market friction, but also that London is full of “stuck sites”: 11,100 units have been vacant for over two years – a total of 2.8 million sqm that represents 11 times the floorspace of Westfield London, Europe’s largest shopping centre. 33
Stuck sites are not necessarily stuck because they are isolated. We found that a third of empty commercial properties are in town centres – and not necessarily the less successful ones: the West End, Brick Lane, Hammersmith and Canary Wharf all have over 200 vacancies each.
Development sites in London are vacated months, if not years, before construction begins. And on larger sites, some parts remain empty until the last phase of development.
The London Development Database (LDD) tracks sites that have been given planning permission across the capital. 34 For 72 per cent of the sites that have been granted planning permission, development has not yet started – representing 2,700ha or the equivalent of the London Borough of Lambeth.
Not all these sites will be suitable for an attractive meanwhile offer – some will have issues of safety or connectivity. If half of the sites with planning permission, but where development has not started gave over between 10 and 60 per cent of their area to meanwhile activity (larger sites opening up a smaller proportion), we estimate that around 400ha of potential site area could be given over to meanwhile uses. 35 Most of this opportunity is on small and medium sites (between 0.25 and 5ha), matching the site sizes of current meanwhile uses. And narrowing this potential down to sites near town centres, the potential stands at an aggregate size of 66ha – nearly three and a half times the size of Green Park. 36
However, the LDD does not specify when development will come forward on a site that has planning permission; some may be very long-term. Nor does it identify sites that are likely to undergo redevelopment in coming years but have yet to receive planning permission. Another way of estimating the potential for meanwhile activity on development land uses the Mayor’s Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA). The SHLAA estimates that 3,700ha of land in London are likely to be redeveloped for housing by 2041 – a quarter of which will be developed between 2019 and 2024. There is an overlap with the LDD – 54 per cent of sites that are expected to be developed between 2019 and 2024 already have planning permission, thus are also recorded in the LDD. Using the same assumption that half of these sites gave over between 10 and 60 per cent of their area to meanwhile activity (larger sites opening up a smaller proportion), we estimate that 152ha of space could be given to meanwhile uses over the next five years. 35 When only looking at sites near town centres, this was 44ha, over two and a half times the area of Green Park, or space for 120 Boxpark Croydons.
The majority of meanwhile uses last between one and three years, so the structures and incentives need to be in place now to enable meanwhile activity on these sites. This is particularly pressing for the 54 per cent of Phase 2 sites (and 68 per cent of aggregate site area) that already have planning permission. These numbers could be even higher if meanwhile use becomes more mainstream and is more routinely offered within completed developments.
So London’s meanwhile use opportunity is huge. London has 6.5 million sqm of commercial floorspace that has been empty for over two years. On top of this, 2,700 hectares of land – the equivalent of the London Borough of Lambeth – has planning permission to develop, but construction has yet to start. And the GLA estimates that 900 hectares will be redeveloped for housing over the next five years. Not all of these sites will be suitable for meanwhile activity – but for those that are, most will be empty for months, if not years, before construction starts. And that is before taking into account small sites and ‘slack space’ – underused buildings or spaces between buildings – which is not recorded. We also expect the opportunity for meanwhile use to increase steeply in the next decade, as changes in consumer behaviour reconfigure high street retail.
Meanwhile use could be a particularly powerful force for change in outer London. Whilst both inner and outer London town centres have large numbers of empty commercial units, most meanwhile schemes so far have taken place in inner London. And the city’s largest development opportunities are in outer boroughs, leaving time and space for several iterations of meanwhile projects to take place.
London has considerable latent demand for affordable space, 38 as well as plenty of empty and underused space currently, and will likely have more in the future. To understand how this opportunity can be realised, the next section looks at what is holding the meanwhile sector back.