London councils put heads together to create more affordable workspace

Wednesday 29 June 2016

What is the role of the public sector in providing and managing shared workspace? And how can affordable workspaces – both shared and industrial – best be protected, especially for small and micro-businesses?

As part of the upcoming NLA study and exhibition WRK / LDN, NLA sought to find out some answers to these questions and more by hearing from those at the ‘coal face’. A session hosted and facilitated by London Councils invited a wide range of local authorities discuss the main issues last week.

The discussion, held under the Chatham House rule, involved representatives from 13 local authorities, with much of the talk revolving around what constitutes ‘affordable’ in this context. Some boroughs follow the principle of affordable workspace constituting 50% of market rate, but for others there was more sense in having a variable rate. Certainly, however, rising prices were a real cause for concern, and in many areas, artists and other creatives are being forced to look further afield to set up their workspaces. Some central creative industries are moving to outer London boroughs because of these escalating rents, said one attendee, so trying to retain a good, balanced economy is important. Old Street rents, for example, have risen to £100/square foot, and, as another contributor commented, ‘50% of a whole lot is still a whole lot’. One remedy discussed was to obtain space for an extended period at a peppercorn rent plus 50% of the rent and rates, or indeed to take payments in lieu from developers and invest elsewhere in the borough, rather than ‘shoehorn’ affordable workspace into major schemes.

Workspace providers can provide local authorities with a lot of ‘intelligence’ on where the need for such workspace exists, and some boroughs are investigating the potential of reusing garages. At Hackney Wick, many of the area’s artists have been retained, partially through the council securing workspace and the council is looking into the option of capping rents in Section 106 agreements. ‘It’s got the biggest concentration of artists and creatives in Europe’, said one attendee. ‘We want to keep that as our brand for the area.’

An issue common to many of the boroughs is having different priorities to property services teams trying to achieve market rent. Some outer London local authorities have also struggled to secure sites, often being outbid by developers. One emerging solution is to turn to libraries, many of which are going digital and therefore freeing up space. They are already community hubs, said one contributor, so why not use them for affordable workspace, as opposed to other council buildings which could be commercially let for other things. Universities and colleges are another answer to providing space.

In order to create more mixed-use environments, participants discussed the opportunities presented by Housing Zones to encourage the use of ground floor commercial or creative space. 

Other local authorities are putting D1 uses on the base of each student accommodation scheme, with one borough seeking to install the voluntary commercial sector organisations it helps to fund in such spaces, freeing up their accommodation elsewhere.

Certainly though, said one attendee, it is quite unhealthy for each authority to have different Section 106 clauses. ‘It would really be a way forward to just have one robust system rather than going from borough to borough’.

The London Councils said it was looking to work with potential partners GLA and FoL to create an online platform that London boroughs could access with information on workspace and shared resources on Section 106 agreements that could prove a model for other authorities.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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Launching the NLA Boroughs stream and the updated Borough Strategies exhibition, this evening event will invite London boroughs to give a quick-fire presentations of their growth strategies. Come along to find out which areas are set to see the most change, how London’s projected growth is being accommodated, and how the boroughs are catering to their communites.