The new City Corporation post-Covid recovery plan is a comprehensive roadmap for consolidating the Square Mile both as “the world’s most innovative, inclusive and sustainable business ecosystem” and an “attractive place to work, live, learn and visit”. But it was one particular aspect of the plan which hit the headlines; the Corporation’s reported intention to create 1,500 new homes by converting empty offices into housing.
This represented a “sharp change in direction” for the UK’s premier business district, according to the Guardian, and the story was grist to the mill for those predicting that working from home would mean the end of the office, as well as critics of the City’s ever-expanding glass and steel skyline.
Just one problem – it’s not going to happen. “Recent headlines were very misleading in suggesting that we are setting out to change offices into homes,” said Corporation chief Catherine McGuinness bluntly last week, speaking to the New London Architecture network. “We’re not. We are not going to turn office space into flats,”
So what’s going on? The confusion seems to stem from one line in the plan: “The City Corporation will explore new ways to use vacant space and aim for at least 1,500 new residential units by 2030”.
The figure of 1,500 refers to the Mayor’s London Plan 10-year target for 146 new homes a year in the City. This is already incorporated in the Corporation’s own draft Plan, due for adoption next year – a “modest” increase, according to McGuinness, which is “not going to be at the expense of office space.”
Modest it certainly is. The City has 9.3 million square metres of offices, a further 760,000 square feet being built, and just 7, 650 homes housing around 8,000 people. Those homes make up just one per cent of Square Mile real estate according to an insightful commentary on the plan from development financier Daljit Sandhu. Adding another 1,500 by 2029 “will not materially change that ratio or indeed the nature of the City itself,” she says.
Guildhall chiefs continue to bet on business, with planning rules resisting any loss of office space including a blanket ban on “permitted development” conversion of offices to housing without planning consent enabled by the City having exceptional powers in this area. Vacant or low-use space, according to the plan, could be repurposed for retail or culture, including low-cost opportunities for creative business.
With business leaders supporting a return to the office and next month’s reopening of the Waterloo & City line commuter link between Waterloo and Bank representing an “important milestone” in getting Central London “back to life”, according to Sadiq Khan, the Corporation looks on the right track.
“We’re hearing lots of demand for office space,” McGuinness said. “The City is going to remain predominantly a business area and we are not planning to change that.” In fact the Corporation is looking to increase the amount of office floorspace significantly, last week unveiling a striking set of CGI images of new high rises expected to be completed by the mid-2020s.
Back to business as usual then? Not quite. “We’re looking at the City of tomorrow,” McGuinness said. “People will be coming back but using their facilities in a different way. We’ve realised the importance of place and people as well as the business that is done here.”
That means a new focus on the tech sector, support for culture, and, perhaps above all, delivering an “outstanding” environment. With the future still uncertain, the Guildhall will be monitoring progress closely too. “There will be a lot of work around data, to see how people are using the City,” McGuinness said.
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