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News - 1 February 2009

The Creative Workspace Conundrum

Brighton has literally thousands of artists whose contribution to the city’s cultural and artistic offer making it such a great place to live is a matter of record. But they, and the thousands of others involved in creative industries, need somewhere to work. In a city where space is scarce (and hence expensive) how do we accommodate their needs?

In January, the Economic Partnership was one of a number of partners that went on a tour of three creative workspace projects in London organised by the city council’s Cultural Services Department. Each had come up with separate schemes for accommodating artists in London’s East End and they were all impressive in their own right.

Artists Studio Company (ASC) provides affordable workspace for 650 artists across nine sites in Brixton, New Cross, Stratham, Camberwell and Bethnal Green.

It takes on buildings that are nearing the end of their useful lifespan, usually on short leases and then either converts them or refurbishes them with their own building team to relatively low specification studio space. Because they are a registered charity they are entitled to an automatic 80% reduction in Uniform Business Rates and the local authorities they deal with are usually prepared to waive the other 20% because they want to support artistic activity.

This makes a considerable saving for the company (nearly £100,000 p.a. on one of their centres) and it allows them rent out the studios at an affordable £9 to £15/sq foot.

Urban Space Management (USM) in Tower Hamlets had one of the most impressive business models, which was demonstrated at their Container City development at Trinity Buoy Wharf at the confluence of the River Thames and River Lee. It is home to an artists’ community of about 350 people and the word “home” is used in a very real sense since many of the artists actually occupy live/work units. The “units” are all made out of specially adapted steel shipping containers that once plied the high seas carrying goods between the UK and the rest of the world.

But the idea of living and working in a shipping container belies the luxurious nature of these units. The standard 20 x 8 foot, rust-proof steel boxes can be converted, insulated, joined together, and fitted out to make modern, spacious units that can be racked up to five storeys high. Requiring no foundations other than a concrete pad at each corner, an entire office complex can be assembled in a matter of days.









A third company Acme Studios is a charity based in Bow and recognised as the key strategic development agency for artists' studios in England. Its philosophy is similar to that of ASC except that it not only rents buildings for conversion but also owns an increasing number of buildings. It was formed by artists in 1972 and has a track record of working with property developers whose primary interest is building residential units but often in areas where the local authority is also insisting on some employment use in the development.

Acme has been able to stike deals where the developer builds the studio space at cost and to Acme’s design and then Acme provides a ready supply of artists to rent the space at affordable rates giving full occupancy to the finished project from day one. In 2006 Acme designed 50 new artists' studios, in partnership with property developers Barratt, at The Galleria in Peckham which offers over 16,000 sq feet arranged over four floors.

It provides over 370 studio units offering 211,000 square feet in 10 studio blocks throughout east and south-east London at inclusive rent levels of between £7.50 and £9.20 per sq.ft

Being a charity, and hence eligible for rate relief, is an important contributor to the reduced costs of artists studios but it also comes with the complication that relief appears to be straightforward if artists that are producing individual pieces of work occupy the studios but vulnerable if craftspeople occupy them mass producing work. The exact definition of mass production appears to be a grey area so studios tend to shy away from craftspeople altogether.

Brighton has about 20 organisations of various sizes offering space to artists with the most high profile probably being the 55 studio Phoenix Centre near St Peter’s Church but there is clearly a need for many more.

Brighton & Hove does not enjoy London’s plethora of old industrial buildings that could be converted as per the model adopted by ASC, or necessarily have and obvious site for a Container City (although the concept is very “Brighton”) as per the USM model and since there is likely to be very little new build in the next three years the Acme model would also be problematic in the short term.

However, that isn’t to say that there aren’t possibilities that could be explored. On the way back from the visit to London a conversation with the Council’s senior economic development officer Andy Glover highlighted at least one possibility in the city. The 59,000 sq foot Montefiore House in Hove that was vacated by Legal and General when they moved to City Park and remains vacant.

Montefiore House (photo source: Stuart Johnson)

Legal & General are still paying the rent and rates on the building until the lease expires in September of this year. When it expires the £550,000 p.a. rent payment (equivalent to £9.55/sq foot) will end and the liability for the uniform business rates [UBR] (in the region of £256,000 p.a.) will revert to the landlord. With just 27 parking spaces the complex may not appeal to a new office based business, especially in a recession, but it might appeal to one of the charities that specialise in artists’ workspace and who would not be liable for 80% of the UBR.

The Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership has invited ASC, Acme and USM to attend its April meeting to present to the partnership. Let’s hope it leads to something creative.

Space is an ongoing issue in the city for all types of workers and a variety of studies over the past two years have identified an urgent need that isn’t going to go away.

Read related items on:
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Glover, Andy
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