Is ‘meanwhile use’ in London a lifeline for creatives or trojan horse for gentrification?

© Camden Collective

‘Meanwhile use’ of empty buildings is a burgeoning trend in London that is keeping the capital’s creative scene alive, in spite of concerns that it could become a trojan horse for gentrification. Freelance journalist Helen Lock investigates.

Croydon, a suburban borough of south London might not have the arty image other parts of the capital benefit from, but helping to change that is a new gallery, research and studio space for artists right in its centre. The Croydon Arts Store takes up a three-storey space in an emptying local shopping mall – helping to turn a symbol of decline into a fresh creative space.

Warren Andrews, research and outreach manager at the space, says the Croydon Arts Store has been active since September 2017 and involves several local arts organisations and funding partners, including the council and Kingston University.

Each partner runs a distinct programme of events, all with an eye towards accessibility… they include affordable arts studios, workshops and drop-in sessions for artists as well as public exhibitions. The top floor of the space, The LOFT, is kept for 18 to 25-year-olds to book out for free to host their own events and exhibitions.

The art store’s temporary home is the Whitgift Centre – a shopping centre that was once a futuristic emblem of its era when it opened in 1970. It’s now no longer in good economic shape and is slated for demolition and redevelopment later this year by Westfield, the company behind glitzier shopping malls in Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush.

‘The end date for the Croydon Arts Store is constantly moving due to the impending redevelopment of the shopping centre and high street,’ says Andrews. ‘Officially it’s until the end of March although its set to be extended until August.’

So far it has had a positive response from the public, he says, and part of the research being done is focused on how it can maintain its artistic legacy when it does eventually go.

‘Meanwhile use’ of buildings in this way is inherently temporary. It’s a more formal version of squatting and is simply the term given by developers who cheaply lease the empty space they own before they get around to developing it themselves. The short-term nature can present its own challenges, but also makes for an agile and low-cost form of development for an area if it’s done well, explains Nicolas Bosetti, a research manager at the Centre for London think tank. He and his colleagues have recently published a report documenting the rise of meanwhile use in the city.

‘Most of the landowners we’ve talked to are recognising that you can’t just leave valuable land empty in London when you could do something with it,’ says Bosetti. ‘It can also be a way for developers to improve their reputation by doing something for the community.’

However, many property developers still see the leasing out of their empty land as a risk. If something too attractive is created in the space, there could be a lot of heat when it’s time for them to leave, Bosetti says. ‘But the renting out of meanwhile use space has become more professional. Organisations are increasingly setting clear deadlines for their time there, and keeping an eye on where they could go when they need to leave.’

Centre for London found at least 51 active meanwhile use sites in the capital but also a lot of untapped potential, as there are about 20,000 empty commercial spaces that haven’t been used for six months or more. They counted public spaces such as the Croydon Arts Store as meanwhile use but also property guardianships – spaces rented out to individuals for housing at a lower cost for market rent. Up to an estimated 7000 people are housed in property guardianships in London in buildings as wide-ranging as old banks and care homes on a temporary basis.

Both property guardianships and other forms meanwhile use have come under scrutiny in recent years. Property guardianships have been criticised for not abiding by normal tenant protection legislation, for example. There’s also concern about gentrification, for example in Lambeth there was some suspicion when temporary shops were given space that it could push up local prices.

Bosetti says Centre for London is most interested in the potential for these spaces to help preserve what he refers to as the less profitable ‘fringes of the city’ – those that are at risk due to eye-watering rents. So, for example, cheap space for shops and start-ups, for creative spaces or for worthwhile community spaces, like public gardens or charities.

‘There’s an argument that meanwhile space is a Trojan horse for gentrification, that it drives up the cost of housing and you end up with high-value housing and none of the fun stuff,’ he says. ‘But we see that there is so much empty space, so much churn of commercial space, that there is enough there to be really strategic about it, and use it to keep things in the city that do not have a stable income and provide long-term benefits.’

One veteran meanwhile use organisation, the Camden Collective, is a good example of how a non-profit can keep itself going by moving around its borough’s disused space. Founded in 2009 it’s a pioneer of meanwhile use, getting stints in office blocks and even an old hospital. It provides free or very cheap co-working space to new businesses and charities.

‘Finding space is the hardest thing for us, it took 18 months to finalise a lease agreement for our current workspace,’ says Lauren Gillet, the Camden Collective’s head of projects. However, they use their contacts and the reputation they’ve established in the private and public sector to get word on new places they can move into before they need to exit a location.

Using a combination of simple rules for the people who use the space to adhere to, including ‘don’t be an ass’ and ‘contribute two hours a month to the running of the space’, along with regular socials, they’ve managed to maintain a sense of community despite the changing location.

Sometimes though, the short-term nature can provide a useful driving force for those developing their organisations in the workspace. All hoping to get the point where they are profitable and can pay their own way somewhere else, it’s a model synonymous with the fast pace of the city, Gillet explains. ‘People sometimes move with us which helps keep the collective vibe, but sometimes it’s a provides a really natural way to people to move on.’

Helen Lock
Freelance journalist


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