There’s understandably been a lot of concern about affordable housing in London – but less about affordable offices! As London has grown businesses and employers are also finding it more difficult to find somewhere to call home, at a price they can afford – and with many of Battersea’s existing office and industrial spaces being replaced by new housing developments, if we’re not careful we’ll see local businesses struggle to carry on, and fewer job opportunities for people who don’t want to commute right across the city.
Wandsworth borough currently has one of the highest office occupancy rates in the UK – an impressive 97%! There’s a major need for local business space – whether smart Grade-A offices, cheap and functional studios, flexible room for startups, or the semi-industrial space that keeps our local services running.
In this article we take a quick look at what is currently available, and what might happen in the next few years.
Big, glamorous offices
When you say ‘office space’, many people think of the glass towers in the city, complete with big glossy receptions and fast lifts. In property developer terms these are ‘Grade A’ offices, i.e. smart / expensive spaces aimed at attracting big London headquarter offices. And several of these are being built in nine Elms – notably for Apple (who will be taking over 50,000 square metres in the power station itself in a year or so – that’s a big office, about the same as the Gerkhin skyscraper in the City) and the US Embassy itself (another 50,000 square metres). Penguin Books are already occupying 8,000 square metres by the embassy, and publisher Dorling Kindersley is taking over 4000 square metres right next to Penguin. There’s more of this to come with a further 20,000 square metre building being built between the US embassy and Vauxhall, and 70,000 or so square metres to be built in later phases of the power station project. However a recent study on Employment Land and Premises identified that even after all these developments are built, Wandsworth will need to add another 30,000 – 65,000 square metres of office space by 2030.
These are important employers, and it’s good that Nine Elms is developing offices and jobs rather than just flats (not least because it’ll prevent it being a ghost town on weekdays) – but they aren’t the sort of spaces a small local business will be renting any time soon.
Outside Nine Elms, Wandsworth currently has 400,000 square metres of office floorspace of various grades of quality and price. Some of this is used by the Council itself (albeit this has reduced quite a bit in recent years), and some by services like Royal Mail on Lavender Hill and the Wandsworth job centre. Some of the larger ‘accessible’ areas are the likes of Battersea Studios (which offers over 5,000 square metres of modern serviced flexible office space just off Queenstown Road).
A scattering of office spaces have been developed in new buildings along the riverside (and have been slower to let – as they’re not easy to get to – which is why policy now is to steer any larger new developments towards the town centres). Down the line, Clapham Junction is may well the biggest new cluster of office space outside Nine Elms – as it’s fabulously well connected, and redevelopment of Asda and / or the station sites could well see office space added.
Readers may be surprised that the Borough also has 1.5 million square metres of ‘industrial’ land. Despite having one of Europe’s busiest concrete production facilities just off Queenstown Road, we’re not going to be seeing steelworks in Wandsworth any time soon – as the days of heavy industry in central London are long gone. About half of this is for actual ‘industrial’ use – including myriad plumbers, glaziers, builders, scaffolders, garages and others who look after our buildings, vehicles, gardens & streets – all of whom need somewhere nearby to call home. The rest accommodates the unglamorous but important services that keep things running – whether handling our waste, sorting the mail, processing deliveries, keeping things moving. Not to mention dozens of companies, from Chesneys (who repair and sell vintage fireplaces) to Caffe Nero (whose main roastery is just north of the Shaftesbury Estate – you can sometimes smell the beans!).We also have a brewery, a distillery, a commercial butcher, a winemaker, and even the company that maintains the gaslamps in central London – all within ten minutes of Lavender Hill. Honourable mention goes to the various local railway arches, and to the gaps between railways not suitable for housing (north of the Shaftesbury Estate), as a location for relatively affordable industrial space.
The draft London Plan now has Wandsworth down as one of the Boroughs that needs to provide new industrial space (whereas the previous aim was just to retain what we have). There’s no new land, so this means consolidation, intensification, and co-location of uses where possible – as well as protecting ‘industrial’ employment areas, like Stewarts Lane. In the future, the most likely solution is to build upwards, and make existing industrial areas more dense – moving away from single storey warehouse buildings – while resisting temptation to build flats with token industrial use on the ground floor.
Battersea’s businesses are overwhelmingly small, and many employ under 10 people – covering every category from technology firms and event planners to nurseries, and property maintenance. There are a fair few small offices, but they are popular and are constantly under pressure from developers wanting to convert them to flats and sell them off – which is an easy win for developers but damaging to the long term future of our businesses and our town centres. This is why Wandsworth has put some restrictions on converting offices to flats along the western end of Lavender Hill.
There’s also lots of demand for offices for micro businesses (2-5 people), and the recent trend of some smaller shop fronts being used as offices for small businesses (for example at the eastern end of Lavender Hill) has been helpful for businesses, and reasonably compatible with the desire to keep an active and lively ground floor use for high street buildings.
Some tiny businesses also want space with the flexibility to move and grow – and don’t necessarily want to be tied in to a 15 year lease! This has fed in tot he rapid growth of flexible co-working space – the Battersea Studios (on Silverthorne Road) is maybe the biggest local example, but we also have many others including IdeaSpace on Lavender Hill, and the Scratch Hub co-working space on the lower level of Battersea Arts Centre. These can offer everything from a single desk (for the self employed who want somewhere other than home to work) to medium size offices on flexible terms. These are very popular and bound to keep growing.
Affordable workshop & studio space
It’s not just about smart offices: more robust business space, where ‘messy’ creative businesses can operate, is also important. The Battersea Business Centre on Lavender Hill is a good example of affordable workshop space that can accommodate caterers, workshops, artists and the like – an increasingly rare option in the area. Fortunately it is being protected as a local employment space: the images below show the Employment Protection Areas along Lavender Hill.
What’s the council doing about it?
An important way the Council can steer the development of space for local businesses is via the Wandsworth Local Plan – an important document that sets the vision for future development in the Borough. It matters, because any major new proposed developments (whether flats, offices or indeed anything of any size) will need to be broadly consistent with the plan. And the need for space for businesses is not lost on the Council. We recently took part in a Council-led workshop with community groups, as part of their ongoing work to update the Plan (which your author has reported on in some detail on sister site the Clapham Junction Action Group). It was an interesting discussion, that covered a surprising amount of ground, and we were encouraged by the thoughtful approach of several of the Council policy leads. Everyone agreed we need local businesses and jobs, to avoid the borough being a dormitory suburb.
With land at a premium, and flats always the lowest risk option for developers, the employment areas we have are always under pressure from developers, which means imaginative approaches are needed to keep our local businesses alive. Local business space is rarely headline news – but hopefully this quick review helps illustrate why it matters! We’d welcome your thoughts & ideas on the issue, and will keep you posted on any major developments as well as the the Local Plan.