Londoners have told me they’re fed up seeing community shops, offices and other buildings in their area sitting empty. They call them “dead spaces” and I am aiming to help fill them with life again.
To get data on this problem across London, I asked all 33 councils how many of the facilities they own are currently not in use. From the 25 boroughs that got back to me I discovered that, between them, they own 442 sites out of their normal use, which have sat like this for an average of four years.
This is not just about empty retail units on our high streets, which is where so much attention and funding is focused. It is also about the office spaces, community centres, civic halls that councils also told me about.
Not all councils were forthcoming with information, but Camden supplied full data on over 100 council-owned properties that are not being put to their normal use. Among these are 33 shop and commercial units, 21 offices and five Tenants and Residents Association (TRA) halls on estates.
I know from my work on the London Assembly and the council that there are groups across the city who have projects crying out to use these spaces for the community. And the council is taking small steps to help them. Think and Do Sharing Space is a fantastic project already using the Somers Town TRA hall one day per week for residents. They bring people together to get to know each other, play games, share food and skills, swap clothes and more.
But, across London, residents need to know more about dead spaces of all kinds in their communities – not just those owned by councils – so that they can push their owners for the opportunity to make their ideas thrive.
That’s why one of the asks from the report I have published is for the government to bring in a “community right to buy” for underused buildings at a reasonable cost, like communities already have in Scotland. In addition, we need ‘meanwhile use’ as a planning class to take the hassle out of creating temporary uses for sites.
I have also reiterated my call for the mayor of London to run a people’s land commission so that residents across the city can find these dead spaces and be inspired to make plans for their own areas.
I have also called for recovery funding to include specific help for councils and community groups to make more use of empty buildings of all kinds and include capital and revenue contributions. This could come from Government (through initiatives like Power to Change) or the Mayor of London through his recovery missions.
Legislation also needs to be improved to:
- make it easier for local authorities to use compulsory purchase powers,
- introduce a true community right to buy at reasonable cost, as exists in Scotland,
- enable more use of orders to bring privately owned space back into use,
- bring in ‘meanwhile use’ as a planning use class to take the bureaucracy out of temporary changes of use for community benefit.