How to transform empty office blocks – with a simple change in the rules

The Hive Dalston, on Kingsland Road. Image: Google Streetview.

Nestled among the trendy bars and restaurants of Hackney’s Kingsland Road lies an ugly, unassuming office block. Despite its looming facade you could be forgiven for missing it entirely.

And yet inside, late on a Thursday night, the four-story building is a throng of activity. Its occupants are not overzealous executives, but members of a local community group.

The Hive Dalston – Human Interest Versatile Environment – was set up to transform the block, which until last May lay empty for eight years. Founder Gee Sinah persuaded the building’s developer to allow the space to be temporarily used for free: “We opened about three weeks later on a budget of £250, with everything either made out of pallets or carried up the stairs – stuff that was either donated or found.”

It has since hosted a wide array of events: from gigs to charity fundraisers, dance performances and language classes – even two tribal ceremonies. Besides a main stage, the space now boasts a cafe, art gallery, training facilities and a recording studio. The Hive also hosts start-ups and social enterprises.


The motivation behind the project, Sinah explains, was that “these spaces are currently a blight on the area and a criminal waste of resources. We’re expected to recycle things like tin cans and plastic bottles – and yet land banking companies are able to keep land empty for 10 or 20 years until it gains value. That’s just ridiculous.”

He stresses that the project has been driven by the needs of the community: “The Hive is a platform built by underprivileged people so that they can also have a voice. Right now, these empty, useless spaces are more important than ever because people can use them to help rebuild their lives.”

Sinah credits a squatted community centre that was known as the 491 Gallery with helping him find his own feet after a personal crisis: “I had lost my job, I had lost my family, I lost everything. Places like this save people.”

Despite this experience inspiring the project, he emphasises that, unlike a squat, the Hive promotes a cooperative model that benefits all parties involved – crucially this includes the landowner as well as local businesses and neighbours. “It’s not about rioting or smashing things up, it’s just about reinvigorating a sense of community within people.”

Make do and mend

It’s a model that many believe has the potential to expand across London and beyond. The project has ambitions beyond simply demonstrating that the concept can work: its organisers hope to build a collective pool of “flatpackable” resources that can deployed at short notice wherever permission is granted.

“The Hive is just a flagship,” Sinah explains. “It’s not about this single building, it’s about building an infrastructure that is strong enough for people to be able to run projects themselves without having to bend over backwards for funding.

“So much waste is produced on a daily basis that you could build 20 Hives a week all over London. We have a deal with Wilmot Dixon that has supplied all of our materials for free – from less than the waste of one of their sites we built the entire Hive.”

With the building's lease coming to an end this summer, Sinah is now imploring local councils to introduce a new planning classification that would enable landlords and community groups to temporarily repurpose empty buildings more easily. There is already a “meanwhile lease” system in use in some places; but critics argue that it is difficult to access for smaller community groups and social enterprises, leading to the dominance of large, profit-making “property guardian” companies.

Sinah argues a new “re-space” classification would help free up huge amounts of space: “It’s almost a no-brainer for councils. It’s a slick way of encouraging community groups to rebuild simply by cutting red tape and bureaucracy.”

It’s a policy that appears to be gaining traction politically. Should he be re-elected, London Assembly member Tom Copley has pledged to pursue the idea with the city’s next mayor: “I think we need to be looking a lot more at how we can bring properties into use – both public and privately owned.”
“You benefit the high street by making it more vibrant and dynamic. You benefit the community by providing spaces that they wouldn’t have. And you often also benefit the property owner as well, because the building’s being looked after and sometimes it means that they’ll qualify for a discount on their business rates.

“So, really, everyone’s a winner.”

Ben Dilks is commissioning editor for an international thinktank. He tweets as @BenDilks

 
 
 
 

Uber has introduced a levy to fund electric vehicles in London. But who exactly is benefiting?

Bleurgh. Image: Getty.

Uber is introducing a levy of 15p per mile on London users to help fund a transition to electric vehicles and help tackle air pollution. Its goal is to encourage half its drivers to go electric by 2021 and to go fully electric by 2025.

There are a number of benefits to the idea. Moving to cleaner transportation is an important public good with a myriad of general health benefits. It should be an urgent priority for all UK cities. But the question of who pays for this transition is fundamental to whether it is done fairly. As a process, change needs be done in partnership with people, not to them.

So who is actually being asked to foot the bill for this much needed transition? Fresh analysis by the New Economics Foundation shows that while the PR benefits are likely to accrue to Uber, its consumers and drivers will foot the bill in its entirety, while also taking on much of the risk.

Uber estimate that drivers will be eligible for £4,500 in funds to purchase a new electric vehicle after three years of service – the maximum period of time for which drivers can accrue credit. By comparison, the cost of a cheap second-hand electric car meeting Uber’s requirements for UberX costs in excess of £12,000, while a second hand vehicle suitable for UberLux would set drivers back around £45,000.

For those drivers receiving around £4,500, this would still imply the need to contribute thousands of pounds, if not tens of thousands, in personal funds. Even after allowing for a fall in prices for electric vehicles, drivers are being asked to make a minimum contribution of between 55 per cent and 85 per cent towards the total cost of electrification. The remainder of the cost will be met indirectly by consumers – either in the form of higher charges or else being priced out Uber’s services altogether.


Where drivers don’t have access to this sort of cash, the expectation will be that they borrow – which means taking on the risk of debt repayments while earning close to minimum wage. Being able to keep the 15p levy once driving an electric vehicle is unlikely to cover the cost of new interest payments. But failure to use the scheme at all could mean unemployment after 2025.

While drivers are forced into arrears to consolidate their jobs, Uber may also find itself with a considerable surplus from the scheme, as a result of drivers leaving the platform early or choosing not to apply for the grant. Uber has suggested that any surplus will be reinvested into supporting facilities, such as charge points for electric cars. But this means that the cost of moving to green infrastructure is coming at the expense of extra private debt for drivers (which could otherwise have been funded out of the levy). Such a trade-off is simply incompatible with a green transition that is morally just.

The shift in strategy from Uber towards more renewable transport technology is clearly welcome on environmental grounds. Doing so solely at the expense of consumers drivers is not. For any transition to be fair, Uber needs to meet its share of the costs.

Duncan McCann is a Researcher at the New Economics Foundation. He tweets @DuncanEMcCann. You can find NEF’s work on transport here.