Bemoan the MacBooks – but the rise of the coffee shop workspace is a reminder of public service cuts

This man should be in a library. Image: Getty.

There’s are many reasons why watching Friends in 2018 feels like such a blast from the past: the poorly-aged fat jokes, the landline phones, the screaming lack of diversity for a show set in central Manhattan.

But watching the gang hang out at Central Perk during a recent Netflix binge, a new thought suddenly struck me: this was the last time coffee shops were just for, well, getting coffee. Before the age of scrambling for power outlets and stretching one small americano over several hours of research, coffee houses were simply places to meet, date – or, in the case of the Friends, spend every waking hour of your life socialising. (Seriously, when do any of them actually go to work?)

In the Costas, Neros, and bare-brick hipster roasteries of today, you can barely move for laptops. Some, like London’s Shoreditch House and Forge & Co, have capitalised on the trend by offering meeting rooms, skype booths and even spa services for a hefty annual fee. Others see the macbooks and ipads as an anti-social blight on coffee shop space, erecting smug “no wifi – talk to each other” signs with increasing frequency.

But in the rush to condemn laptop-users for inflicting their stony silence on the regular clientele, the troubling forces behind the coffee shop’s unstoppable transformation are often ignored or forgotten. With the UK’s public libraries threatened by cuts and closures, freelancers, students and other remote workers often find themselves with little other choice when it comes to workspace.

An estimate from last year put the number of self-employed people in the UK at 4.8m. The number of freelancers alone in the UK increased by 43 per cent between 2008 and 2016. The demand for a quiet environment providing desks, chairs, toilets and power outlets is greater than ever – yet library access continues to dwindle, with more than 478 closures recorded across Britain since 2010.

Even if your local library hasn’t closed, it’s probably experienced a squeeze of some kind. Volunteers are rapidly replacing paid staff to keep up with budget cuts, shortening opening hours in the process. Cafes and charity shops have been forced to move in, limiting available desk space and resources. Whatever is free often gets snapped up quickly and early in the day.


Part of the overcrowding problem, of course, is that libraries are just one area in which the UK’s public services are floundering. Since 2015, state schools have lost almost £2.7bn in funding. Recent research from the University of Oxford estimates that as many as 1m000 “Sure Start” centres – introduced to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children – have closed since 2009. In a survey last year, 84 per cent of local councils blamed government cuts for the UK’s soaring homelessness problem. For school children with no place to go, cash-strapped parents, and homeless people simply looking for warmth and a toilet that won’t cost them, libraries have become the next port of call.

This isn’t to say that vulnerable people, children, and low-income families shouldn’t be welcome in libraries: the monumental role they play in enabling social mobility cannot be overstated. Rather, it’s to say that, when people are forced to use their local library as a replacement for child care, social care, or services for the homeless, something’s gone seriously wrong.

With over 22,000 coffee shops in the UK, it’s little wonder that workers-from-home flock to them in their droves. In many cases, they’ve got a much better shot at desk space, long opening hours and a hushed atmosphere than they could bank on at their local library today.

The sad thing is, many accept this situation without ever wondering what a generously funded library system could look like for them. You only need to visit the home page for Stockholm’s public libraries for a stark comparison: bookable group study rooms, homework help, librarian appointments and well-stocked shelves. There’s even, bizarrely, an electric piano available in one of them.

With funding returned to the right places, our libraries could look this way too. Without it, lower-income families will have their access to computers and literature slowly eroded, whilst freelancers and students will routinely pay for the privilege of a workspace in their local Costa.

Libraries represent some of the last truly public space in the UK today; it’d be a tragedy for every section of society if we lose them.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.