A question of value and an agenda to boot: The Open Workspace debate by Simon Pitkeathley, CEO of Camden Town Unlimited and Euston Town BIDs and Open Workspace Providers Group Member

08 March 2016

There are many things in London that have an inherent value that is difficult to quantify. Whether it is the capital’s cultural diversity, or the quality of its public spaces, there is much that we see value in, but cannot quantify on paper. 

The Open Workspace Providers Group faces exactly the same problem in trying to quantify the social and economic value that incubators, coworking spaces, artist and makers spaces make to London. That is a conundrum our Group has been grappling with, and one the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is starting to come to grips with. Their interim conclusions can be read here: http://www.ippr.org/publications/start-me-up. 

In the meantime, we are all agreed that open workspaces in London provide social and economic value. Open Workspaces are key to supporting over 800,000 SMEs and microbusiness operating in London, who account for nearly 50% of all employment opportunities, and account for approximately £430 billion of business turn-over, in the capital. Many of those are social enterprises who run a variety of schemes that support local people to secure skills and jobs within their communities. 

As such, it is our belief they should be protected, in light of measures at the national level that could risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The publication of the Open Workspaces agenda sets out how exactly the next Mayor can help do that. It consists of seven actions the next Mayor could take to help open workspaces in London within his or her first 100 days. 

One of the top priorities for the Group is the extension of business rate relief to open workspaces, to help reduce running costs for providers and make space more affordable for businesses. At the time of writing, spaces used for charitable purposes receive an 80% relief on their business rates liability, with some local authorities providing additional discretional reliefs of up to a further 20%. As Open Workspaces create tremendous social and economic value to their local and regional economies, we believe this relief should be extended, helping to protect providers and make space cheaper for the entrepreneurs, social enterprises, and SMEs that benefit from these spaces. 

In the first instance, we hope the new Mayor can be an advocate for promoting the importance of open workspaces to the Treasury and other Government departments. As Business Rates are devolved to local authorities and reliefs potentially devolved as part of the package, we believe the next Mayor can coordinate an approach to Business Rates across the boroughs that support open workspaces. 

In his or her advocacy role for London, we want to see the Mayor lobby national government to limit permitted development rights allowing office to residential conversion. This policy unfairly impacts start-ups and has resulted in landlords turfing entrepreneurs out of neighbourhoods to make room for more lucrative residential tenants. According to London Council figures, permission has been given for the conversion of 834,000 sq ft of London office space, which could result in the equivalent of 32 football pitches worth of office space being lost. This squeeze on space makes it increasingly hard for open workspace providers to compete for space, limiting choice for consumers and particularly the new and growing companies that fuel London’s economic growth. Allowing for local authorities to place Article 4 exemptions on open workspaces, to protect this kind of space across the Boroughs would be a step in the right direction.  

These are just two of seven asks. The Group has other recommendations, covering partnerships between workspace providers and housing developers, the use of public assets, protection for industrial/commercial buildings, business support services, and the use of the Community Infrastructure Levy to provide a comprehensive package of proposals that would boost open workspace in London. 

Our agenda provides a list of points for the next Mayor that can act as an immediate programme to protect open workspaces, and we hope to work with him or her in the first 100 days of the new administration to start taking action in each of these areas.