• benstephenson

//Rethinking meanwhile uses

As our cities become less affordable for artists and social enterprises, we need meanwhile spaces more than ever. But why are developers becoming increasingly reticent to offer them?


In 2010, ahead of the development of seven flats and a Tesco on the Lewes Road in Brighton, a group of locals secured use of the site, first with a spot of guerrilla gardening and later with more formal support from both the developer, Alburn Minos and Brighton & Hove Council.


The project was also an unofficial exemplar for a Labour initiative which saw the development of 'meanwhile leases' for community food growers; a scheme that withered on the vine under the subsequent coalition government, and for which there has been no effective replacement.


This particular story played out with an inevitability that we have come to know in towns and cities up and down the UK: land left undeveloped for a period of time, at the behest of a developer, is taken over by a community group, who then become so attached to it that when the time comes for the developers to break ground, they face a campaign from the community to retain their use of it in the longer term.


Temporary building uses are similarly problematic for the developer/community relationship. Previously derelict office block Hamilton House is in Stokes Croft, a Bristol neighbourhood which has become emblematic of our struggle with accelerated urban development. Bought by developers Connolly and Callaghan (C&C) in 2004, Coexist, a local social enterprise was invited to improve and manage the building for a range of community and low-cost uses. In the intervening years it has become an extraordinary, energetic place, the beating heart of a creative neighbourhood.


Hamilton House, Bristol


C&C is seeking planning permission to develop the space and has issued notice on Coexist to vacate. Though negotiations are ongoing, the relationship does not appear to be an easy one. The 'Save Hamilton House' movement spearheaded by Coexist has provided effective opposition. It evokes the language of gentrification, promoting protest and encouraging the council to compulsorily purchase the building. It's a febrile and politically charged atmosphere.


Developers will tell you that they are becoming more hesitant to suggest such uses as part of any pre-planning social value package that they put in front of the local authority. At the same time, affordable space for food growers, artists, designer-makers and community groups is becoming increasingly difficult to secure as local authority budget cuts chip away at social infrastructure.

There are questions arising from the position of both players in these stories: is it fair for the tenants to protest when a temporary arrangement comes to an end, when at the behest of the developer, they have enjoyed low rents for years? Should the developer compensate tenants when they sell at higher property prices, if those prices have been driven up by the financial and social value created by tenant activity?


There are no easy solutions. Both sides are talking different languages, motivated by parallel systems of community cohesion and profit, at the heart of which are fundamental disagreements about the nature and purpose of landownership.


Some developers could be smarter about how they approach the issue however. In creating the conditions for all this cultural capital to thrive, they're providing a service to the neighbourhood. This is unequivocally a good thing, something from which everyone, developers included, demonstrably benefit.


The key factor in what happens to the relationship with the community is what the developer does when the time comes to build. Finding ways to incorporate cultural capital created from meanwhile use into the ultimate scheme can increase both of the value of the development and the cohesion of the community surrounding it.


The cultural and community strategy should be an integral part of any large development programme where developers wish to be seen as placemakers rather than profiteers. Argent's King's Cross remains a key exemplar, but gradually smaller sites are incorporating cultural strategies into their thinking.


Planning authorities might ask that culture and community are explicitly considered in applications, so that developers can show how the development and its occupants will make a positive contribution to the neighbourhood. This should incorporate both meanwhile use and social value in the ultimate development where possible.


Such an approach may lead to the stock of temporary spaces rising - it's not so catastrophic when the time comes for a community group to hand a building back to a developer if there are stocks of ready alternative spaces available.


There are wider questions to be asked about the value we place on community uses and social infrastructure that they are so often put up in temporary, sometimes barely habitable spaces. If this is the current reality though we need to get better at managing the dialogue between developers and communities, or we'll see a gradual decline in meanwhile use.

If you are a community group or a developer involved in placemaking and considering these issues, get in touch.


BAS

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London and Bristol, UK

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