Delivering affordable workspace within areas of regeneration

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Image: RCA_Print Making Workshops_Philip Vile

How can London deliver more jobs and affordable workspace within its many areas of regeneration to ensure more balanced communities? A Think Tank organised by NLA as part of its Insight study looking into work in the capital sought to find out.

The debate – with invited architects, developers, clients and agents – was kicked off by Festus Moffat, director of hosts John Robertson Architects, who reflected on the changing nature of London and its constant regeneration. It was instructive to remember that well-to-do areas like Notting Hill had race riots in 1958, he said, but its profile has transformed considerably since, while Covent Garden is another example of major change. The locale of JRA’s offices is yet another case in point, where Tate Modern, the Jubilee Line and the Millennium Bridge have helped to transform Southwark Street and the area around it, now spreading down to Elephant and Castle. Further out, areas like Peckham have been regenerated via new transport links, ushering in its new ‘cultural vibe’ with practices like Squire and Partners making the move to Brixton. ‘The catalyst of the cultural spaces and transport for regeneration are very good’, said Moffat. But what is lost in that regeneration? Those increases in values will drive out a lot of the organisations and businesses that have found a foothold in those cheap spaces, once people see the rent that can be generated in their spaces. ‘That is the thing that is very difficult to balance, and maybe, due to the entrepreneurial nature of development in London, we shouldn’t try to balance, because actually it doesn’t need us. It will move on to the next place without us.’

Camden Town is experiencing this kind of pressure, said Camden Town Unlimited’s Simon Pitkeathley, with landlords increasing rents; the ‘small stuff is being squeezed out’, he said. Although the new owners of the market are trying to reinvent retail, the pressure is there, and is the reason why Pitkeathley offers businesses free space. ‘What we are trying to do is to hold onto that stuff which could otherwise be priced out’, he said. The market rate workspace is too expensive and is being occupied by bigger businesses such as MTV, which has just taken a large chunk of one of the co-working spaces. The resource put in to the viability argument from the developers side also pales against the infinitely smaller resource available to the planning authority, said Pitkeathley. Perhaps the GLA could resource the weaker side of the debate in order to ensure the public sector was getting its due.

Urban Space Management managing director Eric Reynolds said that reverse travel was a key issue in this debate. ‘Once upon a time, people were travelling into the middle’, he said. ‘Now a lot of people live not quite in the middle but not too far from the middle and are now having to commute out to cheaper places’, he said. One answer is to control land costs and if a residential tower is required in an area like Paddington, build a tower for work too. ‘With modern lifts, it is entirely possible’, said Reynolds.

For Chris Brown of Igloo it was all about value. Being on ‘the edge’ is the place where workspace and residential values were traditionally the same. So as the tide of value in each use moved back and forth, the buildings would be adapted too. But now, almost everywhere in London, residential is worth more. ‘So for me at the moment I just see a one-way direction of travel, which is if you let the market rip, pretty much all the workspace will disappear.’ Bermondsey Street’s ‘viibrant’ success is down to a Southwark planning policy which stipulated that developers had to replace historic workspace, one for one, with new workspace if redeveloping for residential, Brown added.

For TfL commercial development director Graeme Craig, one of the obvious things to do would be to build efficient spaces used by people who live and work in and around the transport network. ‘I like the notion that TFL should be using its space to give homes to people who otherwise may struggle to afford to live in London’, he said. ‘And to give space to people who may otherwise struggle to have a business in London.’ What made Craig ‘weep’, however, was the practice of public land being sold off to hedge funds. ‘That, to me, is the criminal part of things’. Far better to ‘do the right thing’ – and make more money in so doing – than chase short-term receipts. A London-wide view is important, added Craig, rather than to expect TfL to solve all problems on all of its sites.

Alison Dickens of the London Stansted Cambridge Consortium said her organisation is looking at the question of the future of industrial land in the light of its ‘vast loss’ in central London. ‘It is not just about the high values in Central London but also the impact outside London and how London can continue to service itself if those spaces are take’, she said.

But research at the GLA, said its senior strategic planner in the London Plan team Gerard Burgess, shows that there is ‘huge growth in new business start-ups, way in excess of business failures.’ Over time those businesses are moving from inner to outer London and indeed from outer London to the rest of the South East’, he said. And yet, there is a huge decrease of industrial land in London; a ‘hollowing-out of industrial land, particularly in central London’. So the question for policy is to what extent we should be trying to still retain industrial land, perhaps developing a series of hubs to service the economy, whilst retaining workspace in the centre at the same time. ‘There is going to be in this new plan period a quiet tension between the objectives to deliver housing and the objective to ensure that we are providing enough space for London’s business’. In industrial areas, actually half the businesses are not engaged in industrial type activities, Burgess added. It is the types of jobs being shifted out that is a concern for some boroughs, said London Councils’ Jane Harrison. Politically, affordable housing is the ‘ticket’ ahead of workspace, although it is ‘quite likely that a household costs the local authority a lot more than a business does’, she said.

There is a political imperative to make housing affordable in Haringey too, said its head of economic development and growth, Vicky Clark. But viability remains another problem. ‘If any of our clients talk to a commercial agent they will say it’s just not viable to put up new commercial office space’, she said. ‘A housing development of equivalent size is going to pay for itself 10 times faster or better’. But it was concerning that the three types of workspace debated tend to be architects studios, metal bashers and tech firms. What about ordinary commercial space, in which ordinary people work in ordinary offices, she asked. Not providing for them would result in that rather hollowed-out city. Haringey is well placed for this kind of workplace in zone 3 when viability is shifting. But the kind of entrepreneurs Simon Pitkeathley works with at Camden Unlimited will probably not move to Haringey or Enfield, he said. They will move to Bristol, ‘because that is where the new aggregated centre is’.

Battersea Power Station’s masterplan is around 50:50 commercial to residential, with the large amount of uses on such a large scheme lending a certain resilience to it, said its head of planning, Gordon Adams. The interest in office space is ‘phenomenal’, he said, but the mix of different workspaces includes a community hub and training facility, along with incubator units to support businesses waiting to start-ups. This kind of approach is fine with a 42 acre site, but single sites are more difficult – perhaps this is where a more broader policy and support through the authorities could help.Hawkins/Brown partner Roger Hawkins said reusing existing buildings, as with Derwent’s work at the Tea Building and, shortly, Delancey’s reworking of the Olympic Media and Broadcast Centre (Here East), is a key area, with the latter scheme providing a wide variety of space. But in China the practice is designing 10-15 storey buildings in which you can live or work. So a relaxation of the use class orders could ‘allow for space to be thought about and the quality of space can create nice places to be’, he said. ‘It does not have to be dictated to by someone saying: “that has to be office, and that has to be residential”’, he said. Similarly, reviewing ‘the unfair tax’ of VAT on existing buildings could aid affordability, and a more general ‘loose fit’ approach to buildings would be beneficial. Mixing it all up more would be positive for the city, said Clark, but the risk of relaxing use classes is sometimes turning light industrial into wholly residential - eroding workspace rather than creating more.

How might Old Oak Common and Park Royal attend to its low-density sheds?

Lori Hoinkes, Business Manager, OPDC Park Royal said part of her role is to ‘protect, strengthen and intensify’ Park Royal, but that one of the struggles there is that the ownership is so diverse. There are great opportunities with some of the single storey ‘sheds’ in the area, however, where landowners have been lazy with their assets. Additional storeys would ‘provide endless opportunities for different types of workspace’, although the challenge is that the ODPC does not own the land in Park Royal. Options in the future may be using CPOs for workspace uses.

Millennium Mills at Silvertown is another large scheme which could be ‘filled tomorrow’ with SMEs, said First Base’s head of design Daniel May, such is the popularity of this kind of building. But providing workspace more generally comes down to how greedy developers want to be, and how much they have a responsibility to retain a long-term management of the whole estate, said May. ‘It is a piece of city we are creating, and you need to have a full mix of people’, he said.

How about a geographic zone where certain rules are suspended for a period of time, suggested Chris Brown, drawing inspiration from the German model of experimentation operating in Berlin? ‘We use our buildings on average less than a third of the time, so our wasted resource is buildings like this. We could experiment by trying to find uses for buildings two-thirds of the time’.

Certainly something has to be done to try and prevent all commercial being sold off, building by building, said Eric Reynolds, Managing Director, Urban Space Management. ‘This idea of it ever being an orchestrated place or a curated is just never going to happen’, he said. ‘We have not understood that we have to either disconnect land value from use, somehow, or you do have to make sure that people keep the good and the bad.’

Ultimately, when it comes to the typology of buildings we need in the future, those we already have provide perhaps the best answer, said Moffat, because those are the ones which can be refurbished creatively and provide flexible spaces for many different industries. They play off against the ‘bland BCO boxes’ often created by architects in the city too, he added. But in fact the flexibility of tenure is just as important as the flexibility of buildings – five-year leases tend to tie companies in, when they may not still be in business in that time period. A look abroad reveals a growing trend for shorter, more flexible leases – in Manhattan, 30% of the workspace is co-working space where in the City of London it’s 3%. ‘What we are working on as well is to actually harness that electronic network’, said Moffat, ‘so the people in Ealing and people in Haringey can actually be in touch with each other, the creators, through that network. It is a very powerful tool.’

-       David Taylor, Editor, NLQ



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