Photography students from the Northern School of Art preparing for a show of their work at Empty Shop in Hartlepool. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

‘Meanwhile spaces’: empty shops become a creative force across UK

From hat-makers to carpenters, art centres to gift boutiques, new life is coming to properties abandoned in the retail slump.

Meanwhile seems such a bland word. Ostensibly, it is a scrap of time between one event and another. But in every hard-boiled thriller, it is where the real excitement lies: meanwhile, our hero shimmied down the drainpipe; meanwhile, on the other side of town…

… there’s an empty shop. Businesses have gone bust. They haven’t been able to pay business rates; they haven’t been able to compete with Amazon; the way we make and buy things has changed so radically, so fast, and they haven’t been able to keep up. Or a shopping centre has opened not far away and the trade has moved there or collapsed because of the competition. Or a developer has bought the space but has not figured out what to do with it or is awaiting planning permission. Whatever the reason, it’s empty.

According to a recent report on empty space in London, more than 20,000 commercial units have been empty for at least six months, and 11,000 for more than two years. And planning permission for development has been granted for 2,700 hectares (6,672 acres) of land – the equivalent in size to the London borough of Lambeth – but construction has yet to start.

That is a lot of space, just waiting, blankly, for the next thing to happen. And on high streets, it is a depressing sight (you only need to walk down a denuded high street in, say, Doncaster, or Shrewsbury, or Oxford to feel this), not to mention wasteful, when so many people are unable to afford somewhere to live or work. But a movement is afoot to change all that.

Enter the “meanwhile space” – the use of temporary contracts that allow community groups, small businesses or individuals to move into these vacant spaces and set up shop, on the understanding that they will leave within an allotted time.

Artists, of course, have long used empty commercial buildings as studios and gallery spaces, but now others (and not just in Britain) are seeing the potential. The uses to which these spaces are put are thrillingly varied. Jessica Tsang, a trustee on the board of the Meanwhile Foundation – which aims to “create socioeconomic value from vacant property” – says they have also provided outlets for textile designers, carpenters, hat-makers, kombucha brewers, tech businesses, charities, tailors, hack spaces and even a boxing gym, a coppicer and a slime factory.

Many also provide living quarters: in the Sussex town of Hastings, a derelict building called Rock House has been transformed into a mixture of businesses, charities and flats, all with securely capped rents (fixed at 30% of median income in the area). The social enterprises that run it are now crowdfunding to do the same for another Hastings space, the Observer Building. This will not technically be a meanwhile space – they hope to own it outright – but the project has much the same ethos. In London, the thinktank Centre for London recently estimated that between half and two-thirds of meanwhile space in London is occupied by live-in property guardians, who pay reduced rents in exchange for making sure properties aren’t vandalised or squatted.

Last week, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Meanwhile Foundation and Meanwhile Space CIC launched Open Doors, a project that aims to spread the meanwhile idea further afield. Five locations have been chosen for the pilot phase: Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford, Rochford, Kettering and Slough, with a brief to tackle the issue of ailing high streets. Tsang says they have had 28 applications so far, including from a homelessness charity, a diaspora group that wants a “making space” for Nigerian artisanship; and a group wanting to organise regular meet-ups for people with chronic pain… click link below to read full story.

Source: The Guardian

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