Chapter 5: Scaling up

Meanwhile, in London: Making use of London’s empty spaces

Chapter 5: Scaling up

Meanwhile use happens where interests align – when a landowner or housebuilder is willing to use their space efficiently, where there is political will, and a project promoter able to demonstrate impact and support risk. This section suggests ways for the public, private and third sector to make the use of empty space routine rather than exception.

Making the case and raising awareness

Meanwhile use is an adolescent practice in London: most of the developers and local authorities that open up their land to meanwhile activity do not have much experience of doing so, and many landowners do not see it as an attractive opportunity. We think the Mayor and the GLA should lead the way in showing how meanwhile use can deliver benefits to Londoners and guide local authorities in doing the same.

An annual meanwhile competition to improve London

Part of the matching issue relates to the lack of awareness of meanwhile uses’ value – or high sensitivity to risk – amongst landowners and some London local authorities. The Mayor could do more to raise awareness of the value of meanwhile use and support local authorities that seek to promote meanwhile use.

The Mayor, in partnership with London boroughs should invite bids for ‘’stuck sites’’ across London that are in public ownership, and should award the space for peppercorn rent to projects that further Good Growth aims.

The Mayor should invite London boroughs and public land owners to put sites forward for the meanwhile use competition, with the aim of covering every borough in a five year cycle.

The Greater London Authority should lead the way by opening up their empty sites or those that will be developed with partners, to meanwhile uses that further Good Growth aims.

Case study 3: Reinventer Paris

The City of Paris has pioneered a competition to revive disused sites and unloved public spaces. For its second edition in 2017, the City auctioned leases on 34 sites owned by public bodies in the capital – from power and metro stations, to a 17th century mansion – in exchange for architectural, economic, cultural and social value. The City of Paris hopes to unleash creative energy by giving access to vacant sites rather than keep hold of them on security grounds, in a city that is short of space. However, most of the leases offered were long- term, reflecting the scale of investment needed to open up the sites – and perhaps one of the reasons why the competition attracted France’s largest real estate companies, which were very well-represented amongst the 91 laureates. 47

metro station, temporary exhibition

Guidance and support for local authorities

The GLA has a panel of design advocates and a specialist assistance team guiding and supporting local authorities in the development process. 48 A similar team for meanwhile use would support London boroughs and London public landowners with less experience of meanwhile activity to maximise benefits from meanwhile space.

The Mayor should set up a “Meanwhile Advocates Unit” that can offer in-kind support to boroughs’ regeneration teams, perhaps through Public Practice. The support team could provide specific advice on the benefits that local authorities can seek, and on measuring and evaluating social value.

Enabling meanwhile activity

London boroughs and the Mayor can make meanwhile activity easier to undertake for both private and public landowners. In particular, they can help improve the experience of meanwhile use stakeholders at four points of the meanwhile occupation process: site matching, investment, planning permission, and exit.

Open data on empty sites and potential occupiers

We have highlighted issues of site matching – there are plenty of empty sites and potential users prospecting for space, yet the number of matches remains relatively small. The city needs an accurate list of vacant commercial vacancies and potential occupiers – yet only one London borough releases regular data on commercial vacancies.

London boroughs should harmonise their business rates records and release regular data on empty commercial units, which should be compiled by the Mayor on the London datastore.
London boroughs should also keep a register of interest for meanwhile space.

Planning and licensing changes

Many meanwhile use projects are inherently flexible and mutable in nature, and do not sit easily with the planning system, though temporary permitted developments are possible in some cases. Many local authorities take a supportive approach to meanwhile
use, however, recognising the need for flexibility and speed, this could be more widely adopted.

The government should explore allowing more flexibility in temporary changes between use classes to enable more mixed and innovative meanwhile uses through permitted development.
The Mayor and the government should explore a flexible and fast-track approach to assessing and ensuring mitigation of any local noise, transport or other impacts from meanwhile use. Similar steps could be taken for licensing policy.


Many meanwhile projects need early investment, to bring a space back into use. Small organisations do not have the cash flow to carry that investment themselves. The current Mayors’ regeneration fund, the Good Growth Fund, awards £70 million of match funding over three rounds of call for ideas, in three years. The Mayor has funded many of London’s meanwhile projects to raise their ambition, often through reimbursing investment costs. A few projects have received funding or loans upfront, but this was an exception. The regeneration fund could be improved in order to reach smaller civil society projects.

The Mayor should make Good Growth funding available to meet upfront costs, and should operate funds on a rolling basis, so project promoters can bid at any time.

Smooth exit

Landowners know that meanwhile use won’t slow down development – but they are worried that meanwhile activity may take root and feed opposition to development. Professional meanwhile use operators have built trust through a track record of successful meanwhile occupations, but learning how to live with the ambiguity of working or enjoying a temporary space does require frequent liaison and the management of expectations.

The Mayor should draft and promote a “Good Practice Code of Exit” to strengthen trust between landlord and occupier.

Creating incentives

Both public and private landowners could open up their empty land and underused space to meanwhile activity – if incentivised by property taxes and regulation.

Tax incentives

As discussed in the previous section, business rates provide an incentive against giving vacant buildings over to mixed meanwhile uses. While commercial buildings can get three-month exemptions from business rates, and some buildings get indefinite exemptions or discounts, such as listed buildings, or buildings owned by charities and destined for charitable use, the business rates system should recognise that meanwhile use has social value too.

Not-for-profit meanwhile projects that generate social value should be exempt from business rates in their first two years on a site.

“As a local council, you have to invest in the community. How do you get young/old people to start a business? Do you accept that you will forgo some revenue in the short-term, or do you leave it to the market, and the local authority just becomes a tax collector?”

Local authority regeneration manager

Regulatory incentives

A presumption in favour of meanwhile use would enable local authorities to factor in the expectation that landowners should consider meanwhile activity and would enable authorities to negotiate informally with planning applicants.

London boroughs should make clear in local plans that they expect landowners applying for planning permission to open up space to meanwhile activity.

There are other ways of encouraging landlords not to leave space empty or underused in a valuable land market: by incentivising civil society to look after “stuck space”.

The government should look at how other countries treat temporary occupation on long-term vacant commercial land – and review whether the legal framework around occupation of vacant commercial property could be reformed in order to allow non-damaging uses of longer-term empty commercial properties.

The 1954 Landlord and Tenant Act makes it difficult for businesses to share or sublet space at below market value without the consent of the landlord, which makes the use of commercial space inflexible.

The government should reform the 1954 Landlord and Tenant Act to encourage landlords to allow shared use of commercial space.

New players

The property industry and Business Improvements Districts have yet to realise the full potential of meanwhile use – they could become major operators of workspace and public-facing meanwhile use in the capital.

The property industry

While the property guardianship sector has attracted and grown larger guardian companies, public-facing meanwhile activities have been left to smaller players. There is a big opportunity for the property industry to operate meanwhile uses. For medium and large developers, meanwhile use is a low-cost, low-risk investment that can create value by generating activity, shaping social infrastructure in new developments, and boosting corporate patronage. As land value growth is more sluggish and build-to-rent gains momentum, establishing successful meanwhile activity will likely become a decisive competitive advantage in the property industry.

Business Improvement Districts

Business Improvement Districts are well-placed to operate start-up space on a meanwhile basis: their business rates levy provides them with a five-year source of income, and they are well-networked in the local business community.

Business Improvement Districts should invest in empty commercial properties to offer low-cost flexible workspace and retail space.

Case study 4: Camden Town Unlimited, NW1

Camden Town’s Business Improvement District is running Camden Collective, a charity offering free workspace to entrepreneurs by bringing empty buildings back into meanwhile use. Collective’s mission is to retain Camden Town’s ability to nurture innovative businesses. Camden Collective is transitory – they have managed over a dozen properties in the town centre, and have supported more than 500 companies.

camden collective, coworking, flexible working

paris, meanwhile space, neighbourhoods,

Case study 5: Les Grands Voisins, Paris

Les Grands Voisins created a new piece of city in an empty hospital, and shows that meanwhile activity can successfully take over large urban sites, when bigger organisations enter the meanwhile sector. The buildings of a Parisian hospital were turned into temporary homeless accommodation for 600 people, low-cost workspace for 250 entrepreneurs, three restaurants and bars catering for 1,000 visitors a day, an events space, and a welcome centre for refugees. For Aurore, a charity provider of homeless accommodation, and the two collectives who manage the site – Plateau Urbain and Yes We Camp – Les Grands Voisins connect a social duty, a startup space and leisure uses, thus offering temporary accommodation on a lively site, opportunities for volunteering, and neighbourly interactions between groups often set apart.

Aurore received €300 million of funding to operate the temporary accommodation, whilst the remainder of the €1.8 million annual revenue is raised from workspace, restaurants and bars. A big draw to opening up the site was the €1 million annual savings in security costs. 49

The ambitious project took several years to realise – and the exit strategy for a large meanwhile scheme is challenging, but the experience has prompted the French government and a public investment bank to investigate how they can use meanwhile sites for temporary homeless accommodation nationally. 50

Case study 6: Godsbanen, Aarhus

Meanwhile use has been central to the development of Aarhus’s new innovation district, Aarhus K. As part of their vision for the redevelopment of the former goods yard, the city and philanthropist Realdania have invested in a centre for art and cultural production. The grounds also house a collective of startups previously resident on site, Institute for (X), and soon a campus of the Aarhus School of Architecture. The renovated buildings provide a long-term structure for temporary activity: the programme and occupiers of Godsbanen are expected to change as the neighbourhood is gradually built out. At the moment, Godsbanen offers a single roof for an exhibition and performance space, studio and makerspaces, a restaurant, open workshops and guest apartments for residencies. 70 people rent an office on site, the university and training provider use the makerspaces for workshops, and since its opening in 2012, 130 start ups have been registered at Godsbanen. 51

Meanwhile use in London and other cities will grow, even without public intervention. In periods of bust or in declining neighbourhoods, it will be about finding new ways of occupying vacant land and improving or activating places. In periods and places of boom, it provides an affordable space offer, thanks to the city’s trickier, but no less interesting spaces. This means that meanwhile use also has the potential to benefit a wide range of other UK cities.

godsbanen, meanwhile use, temporary space,

Yet, in London, meanwhile use could go from relatively small scale to one of the main pillars of inclusive citymaking. But for this to happen, both the public sector and private sector have a role to play. Local authorities have limited resources, but they
hold land from which they could derive social and cultural value. City and national governments can also make meanwhile use less risky to undertake, and for themselves easier to regulate. They can incentivise landowners to open up their empty land – to an increasing number of trustworthy meanwhile operators on the London market.

Scaling up means that meanwhile uses won’t always have a local link. But more experienced and larger meanwhile players will also mean lower risk, a larger portfolio of spaces to move onto once an occupation is up, and cross-subsidise other schemes. This is happening in the property guardianship sector, and could become the new standard for the other types of meanwhile use too.

Meanwhile use has value in today’s London – as sites pop up and pop down – but also for the future city: meanwhile use can provide the space for London to retain its next generation of entrepreneurs, artists and activists. And there’s little doubt that much of what Londoners and visitors will love about future London – its fringe, its social infrastructure, its landmarks – will be conceived, nurtured or trialled in meanwhile spaces.

  • 47 Reinvented Paris website:
  • 48 Mayor of London’s Specialist Assistance Team website:
  • 49 Les Grands Voisins website:
  • 50
  • 51 Godsbanen website: