- Flexible space could facilitate the need for hybrid spaces while also reviving the UK’s high street.
- This is fuelled by changes to planning laws and a new-found appetite to convert empty retail spaces.
- A recent roundtable by UK-based Flexible Space Association (FlexSA) covered the topic in detail.
Could flexible workspace facilitate the ‘work near home’ trend while helping to revive the UK high street? The panellists on one of FlexSA’s latest webinars certainly think so.
A rise in empty retail spaces, changes to planning laws and an appetite for working closer to home is driving an increase in demand for flexible workspace in town and city centres. On 2 March, FlexSA was joined by three experts who are actively involved in this new trend.
William Stokes, Joint Founder and CEO of Co-Space, has opened a new workspace in a Berkshire shopping centre, whilst Zoe Ellis-Moore of Spaces to Places and Will Kinnear of HEWN are working with clients on projects bringing flexible workspace to the High Street.
You can watch the webinar in full here:
Let’s dive a little deeper into some of the topics discussed.
1) Class E is Boosting Flexibility
The UK high street has been under threat over the last few years as shops struggle to compete with online retailers and large retail parks.
A brand new planning use class, however, has the potential to revitalise town and city centres by making it easier for coworking operations to convert underutilised space.
On 1 September 2020, the Government changed use classes to allow for more flexibility in mixed use buildings. A number of individual commercial classifications have been replaced with a new use class: ‘Commercial, Business and Service’, otherwise known as Class E.
Class E covers a variety of uses, including:
- Cafes and restaurants
- Financial and professional services
- Indoor sport and recreation
- Medical or health services (to visiting members of the public)
- Crèche, day nursery and day centres
- Offices, research and development and light industrial
Under this new classification, changing between operations in the same use class doesn’t require planning permission. In other words, you can repurpose an empty or underused retail space into a coworking space without having to submit an application.
The new classification also enables a mix of uses within the same premises (e.g. coworking, retail and restaurant space in the same building), and premises can switch up uses on an ad hoc basis. For example, a space might be used for retail purposes in the day and as a restaurant in the evening.
When converting retail space into workspace, developers and operators need to plan how they’re going to incorporate natural light and good air circulation.
Creches and nurseries that were previously under use class D1 have fallen into the new Class E. This begs the question: is it now easier for coworking spaces to incorporate flexible childcare facilities into their offerings?
Time will tell.
2) Retail > Workspace Transitions are Underway
Working from home full-time isn’t working for everyone, and there’s a pent up desire for more coworking spaces on the high street. Some councils are actively pushing for mixed use space while others are becoming more receptive to the concept.
In Cambridge, a city with one of the most robust and growing economies in the UK, demand for office space has been on a upwards trajectory for a few years.
The flexible workspace sector has benefited from investment in the Cambridge Innovation Capital, an organisation that backs world-leading life sciences and technology companies with links to the local area.
In February 2021, Legal & General submitted plans for a new workspace in Cambridge’s shopping centre, The Grafton, in partnership with flexible workspace provider x+why.
The project is set to be one of the first retail-to-flexible-office-space conversions in the UK.
15,000 sq ft of the 500,000 sq ft space will be transformed from retail units into offices. A further 8,000 sq ft will be dedicated to breakout and event areas.
Meanwhile, in London, Westfield’s plan to turn 68,000 sq ft of House of Fraser (which totals 104,000 sq ft) into flexible offices has been approved by Hammersmith & Fulham Borough. The remaining 32, sq ft will be dedicated to retail.
3) The 15-minute City Concept is Becoming a Reality
According to the panellists, long commutes are on track to become a thing of the past and it’s becoming increasingly clear that people want to be “in the heart of things”, with easy and affordable access to their workplace and amenities.
This ties in with the 15-minute city concept which was theorised by Professor Carlos Moreno, Paris City Hall’s special envoy for smart cities.
With a focus on the “local”, the aim of a 15-minute city is to improve people’s quality of life by enabling them to reach everything they need – from housing and parks to restaurants, schools and offices – within 15 minutes on foot or bike. The environmental and local economic benefits are numerous.
The concept states that neighbourhoods should fulfil six social functions:
You can learn more about the 15-minute city concept in this video:
As well as potentially increasing footfall on UK high streets, coworking spaces could change the way different demographics utilise them. For example, more working people may end up visiting restaurants and leisure facilitates during weekdays rather than on evenings and weekends, as has been the case for the last few decades.
Moving forward, people are also more likely to think of their workspace as a place as opposed to a space (or a destination rather than a convenience).
In the near future, it’s very possible that instead of having to “commute in”, businesses will have a choice of flexible workspaces on their high street, each offering something unique.
The appetite for “work near home” combined with the office-isation of commercial space could well be the catalyst for a fundamental shift in the way we work.Are you on board? Share your thoughts and plans with us on Twitter: @Allwork_Space.