Take a walk in central Bristol these days and you’ll probably notice two things. There are more people sleeping on the street than there were a few years ago. Often, they are installed in sight of giant office developments adorned with ‘To Let’ signs.
“There’s a huge unmet demand for affordable homes and a near total block on supply.”
Jon Turney, AEOB shareholder
It’s a stark reminder of a larger mismatch. There’s a huge unmet demand for affordable homes and a near total block on supply. Bristol City Council built 100 affordable homes in 2014, in a city that registers two new homeless families every day. As in other cities, new residential building is for luxury flats, gated developments and, often, better-off students. Nationwide, there are getting on for 2 million families who cannot afford to rent or buy.
Diverting some of those office buildings isn’t a complete answer, but it could certainly make a serious contribution to solving the problem. That is the premise of the Bristol-based project Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB). It is well on the way to converting its first building. The gleaming glass edifices of the city centre aren’t within reach yet, but something more modest is under way, supported by community-minded social investors. AEOB raised £230,000 last year, which allowed them to complete purchase of a disused warehouse and office in St George, East of the centre. As soon as the remaining finance is in place, with luck later this year, the building will be refurbished and extended to create six flats.
Making all this happen demands co-ordinating legal and financial efforts with those of architects, builders and, the ultimate beneficiaries, prospective tenants. When the conversion is completed, around 10 adults and their children will live in an energy-efficient building, probably with some communal facilities such as a laundry room. In return for their commitment to the project, the final occupiers will enjoy long-term, secure tenancies at a fair rent – just what so many UK home-seekers need but are currently denied – while the aim is that shareholders will see a reasonable rate of interest once rents come in. There will be no dividends, as this is a not-for-profit, Community Benefit Society.
Meanwhile, Elinor Kershaw, who has graduated from AEOB secretary to site manager and now lives adjoining the plot, deals with all the preliminary work. There are timber and asbestos surveys to check off, trees to protect in line with the conditions on the planning permission granted some years ago and, as happens on derelict sites, plenty of undergrowth to clear around the building. Not to mention a boundary audit, visits from quantity surveyors, meetings with architects Askew Cavanna, land clearance, as well as organising prospective resident visits.
The whole project will demonstrate a new path to making better use of existing property, and AEOB want to inspire similar groups across the country to launch their own projects. The Bristol team are compiling a handbook of how they dealt with all the financial, legal, planning and regulatory issues, which will furnish a “how to” guide for others to use in their own locality. The Bristol project draws on support from the local Quaker network, but has also attracted investors from outside the city, including some in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Could it be the start of something big? Tony Crofts, a long-time housing activist who is one of the instigators of AEOB hopes so. “This is recreating the idea of the public working together to produce something that benefits us all, rather than the beleaguered struggle for lonely nuclear families to survive and feel we are fighting in a never-ending competition”, he says.
When our first building is done, we’ll publish a dossier so everyone can see how we did it. Then we hope making over empty office buildings can happen in many other cities in Britain.
words: Jon Turney, science writer, editor, lecturer and AOEB shareholder
Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB) is a community benefit society which aims to create affordable community housing from commercial property that has been left unused. It is based in Bristol and its first project will be here, but once successful it hopes to make its model available for use elsewhere.
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