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Economy / Jobs

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

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
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