The vacancy conundrum: shining a light on our cities’ disused office spaces
The COVID-19 pandemic might be behind us, but its impacts on the public realm are still being felt when it comes to how we live and work.
One of the most significant has been the upturning of the traditional five-day commuting week, sending shockwaves through the built environment.
With the BBC reporting nearly three quarters of us plan to be in the office two or fewer days a week, JLL have found the vacancy rate on central London offices is at 9.4% – more than double the pre-pandemic rate.
Even since pandemic restrictions were lifted, this number has continued to climb, so it feels safe to say that this trend is here for the long haul.
So, what exactly do we do with all those vacant offices?
Creating solutions to the housing crisis
Converting them into homes seems to be the most popular solution, and it is easy to see why. For starters, you are solving two problems in one move, using up the vacant space whilst addressing the housing crisis.
It also provides a means of keeping people – and crucially their spending – in town centres. With our collective high streets seemingly in a slow and interminable decline, that should at least help to breathe some new life into it.
The situation is not easily fixed
That said, we need to be careful of how much weight we put on this as a solution. After all, conversion won’t be suitable for all (or perhaps the majority) of offices.
There would also no doubt be plenty of other cases where conversion is technically feasible but makes little financial sense to any developer.
It’s also likely to only appeal to a select demographic – this is not a catch-all fix for meeting housing need. Office-to-residential conversions will be a drop in the ocean as far as that is concerned.
And therein lies the truth of the situation – as much as politicians may be pushing for urban densification and office conversions as the solutions to the housing crisis, this is really just another way of avoiding the thornier and more substantive topics of Green Belt release and planning reform.
Whilst our ways of working may have changed, our politicians’ desire to avoid upsetting NIMBYs has remained as steadfast as ever.
The ultimate irony is of course that these office blocks will be converted into homes for students and young professionals – the very people who are most likely to be working from home in the first place!