By Connie Booth, LHBT volunteer
Connie Booth is an art historian who lives in London and spends her time doing what she enjoys most – researching and writing about historical subjects. She started volunteering as a writer for the LHBT earlier this year and contributes news articles, as well as newsletter and social media. content.
At least 20,000 commercial properties in London have been empty for at least six months, and about half of those have been empty for over two years, according to a 2018 report on making use of London’s empty spaces by the Centre for London. And in our current recessionary economic environment, in which so many of our high street businesses are closing, this number is likely to have increased.
These empty buildings, as well as vacant land, are providing new opportunities through a concept called Meanwhile Use, which is the temporary use of vacant spaces as they await longer-term redevelopment. They are usually occupied for a relatively small fee and with a view to support local growth or deliver social value. And the users of these spaces? Local community groups, start-ups and other small businesses, and not-for-profit organisations.
Meanwhile Use is being increasingly practiced across London and is actively promoted by the Greater London Authority, who published a comprehensive Research Report in 2020. Empty historic buildings are prone to deterioration and damage, so the temporary occupation that comes with Meanwhile Use not only presents an opportunity to engage with or test socially focussed re-use, but also supports the care and management of vulnerable buildings, while longer-term solutions are being developed.
A recent example of this is in North London, in a Georgian grade-II listed former one-room schoolhouse and the attached school mistress’s cottage. This is the Girls Charity School (the Charity School), located within the Church Street Conservation Area in Edmonton, in the borough of Enfield. The Charity School is on Historic England’s Heritage-at-Risk Register. The London Historic Buildings Trust (LHBT), which works with Historic England and the London Boroughs to restore historic buildings so that they can be removed from the Register, is progressing with restoration plans for the building, in partnership with Learning for Life Charity and in collaboration with the owner of the Charity School, as well as Enfield Council and The Enfield Society.
The Charity School
Built in 1793, the Girls Charity School was where girls of the lower classes were educated and prepared for domestic service, until the Education Act of 1902 standardized and upgraded the education system, after which the school became obsolete. In 1913 an Order of the Board of Education established a new entity, The Girls’ Sunday School Foundation (GSSF), which would own the Charity School building and attached cottage. While the GSSF remains the owning trust for the site, by 2010 they had largely become redundant and had no clear vision for its future. Since the mid-20th century, the premises had been used principally as a community centre, but over that time the building fell into disrepair and becoming unsafe, it closed over 10 years ago.
Fortunately, this pattern of deterioration and lack of use has all changed. In early 2020 a temporary arrangement between the GSSF and a commercial Guardian company (Live-in Guardians) installed a single resident guardian following completion of approximately £12,000 of in-kind repairs, which made the building safe for occupancy. Subsequently, since June 2022 the Charity School and attached cottage have become a lively hive of creativity with new occupants – six resident artists from The Florence Trust, an artist mentoring and residency program. Their occupancy is based on Meanwhile Use, enabled through License to Occupy agreed between the Florence trust and GSSF and facilitated by LHBT.
The Florence Trust
Meanwhile Use provides a much-needed stop gap for the Florence Trust, after it had to leave its former premises of nearly 30 years and then COVID hit. Steve Allbutt, an artist himself and a former 2008-2009 Florence Trust resident artist, took over as Director of the Trust in 2019. Allbutt comes with a great deal of experience in the creative sector and provisioning affordable studio space for artists. He decided to temporarily pare down the Florence Trust’s residency model from twelve international artists to six local artists.
Finding affordable studio space has certainly become more difficult in London given that the commercial property market has turned prohibitively expensive. Allbutt explained, “London rates per square foot are beyond our capacity and that of other artist studios, and as a result, artists are being pushed further and further out of London.”
As an artist and someone who runs several studios, Allbutt was already familiar with Meanwhile Use, which he saw as an ideal solution for the Florence Trust. He was in touch with Historic England’s London and South East Heritage-at-Risk team, whoput Allbutt in touch with the LHBT to discuss opportunities for a new base in London.
LHBT, who were in the process of developing a long-term solution for the Charity School site, suggested a possible temporary occupancy for the Florence Trust’s six artists. Meanwhile Use agreements can last a few days to several years, in the case of the Florence Trust they will occupy the Charity School for two-years, until June of 2024 when the LBHT will start the capital phase of the restoration project.
The Florence Trust’s resident artists at the Charity School are delighted about their new studio spaces. Sylvia, an installation artist, moved into her studio over the summer. She said of the space, “As soon as I come through the side gate there is a feeling of peace, and when I walk through the door of my studio I feel a calmness, and the hubbub of the rest of my life becomes irrelevant.” Sylvia’s studio is on the ground floor at the back of the school mistress’s cottage. The room has a large south-facing window, so it overlooks the beautiful and wildly overgrown back garden and old brick walls, something else that Sylvia loves about her space.
While Sylvia prefers a quiet workspace, Sarah, a sculpture installation artist, is motivated by the sounds of the city, so her studio in the front of the old school room is the perfect space for her. Her studio has two large windows, which are old and single paned, so you can hear the Church Street traffic and voices of both passersby and the people waiting at the bus stop located immediately in front of the building. Sarah doesn’t mind the noise, “…it gives me a kind of momentum,” she said. In addition, the studios have white walls and natural light, which is important for her. She explained, “I love it here – there is a lot of beautiful natural light, and the walls are white, which is the best way to imagine how your work will behave in another space.” Sarah finds the building cosy and homey, and she said it’s like a second home.
Enfield Council and The Enfield Society
Enfield Council, who maintains an oversight on listed buildings within the borough, had been concerned about the Charity School for some time and had been trying to identify a long-term solution for the site since it closed.
The Enfield Society, whose aim is to conserve the borough’s heritage and environment, were also concerned. Richard Stones, a retired lawyer and Secretary of The Enfield Society, was instrumental in coordinating the interested parties, including Historic England, the Diocese of London, the Vicar of All Saints church and the Council, to resolve some complex historical property issues. This paved the way for funding to be raised to make both emergency and remedial repairs to the building, thus making it safe and habitable. With LHBT’s involvement, additional funding was secured in order to explore long-term solutions for the site and plan the restoration of the building, which is currently taking place.
For Rebekah Polding, Enfield Council’s Head of Cultural and Town Centre Development, Meanwhile Use of the Charity School by an artists’ organisation is favourable on many levels. She explained, “Artists are creative and handy vanguards of Meanwhile Use buildings because they do not require pristine workspaces, and they bring so much added value. Their creativity means they can do a lot with a little.” We see evidence of this at the Charity School. The building is old and full of character – the floorboards are worn and stained, some of the wall plaster is crumbling and other walls are covered in old paneling, wallpaper is peeling in places, the windows are drafty, and the studio space that abuts the street is noisy. However, the Florence Trust artists have been able to find beauty, peace, and inspiration in this environment.
The Florence Trust’s occupancy of the Charity School is also aligned with Enfield Council’s ambition for its communities to thrive through culture and creativity. Polding’s work supports this through her knowledge and understanding of the creative sector, and of new and innovative ways to fill empty workspaces, including Meanwhile Use. Enfield is now home to over 250 creative organisations, all joined through a Council-run network, which enables communication and partnership on projects.
The Benefits of Meanwhile Use
Meanwhile Use of the Charity School is an ideal socio-economic solution for the involved parties and the wider Church Street community. By taking this approach, occupancy fees end up a fraction of what commercial premises can cost and tenancy agreements are shorter-term and more flexible. Thus, the concept provides an affordable solution to small organisations that require space, reducing their financial risk and by extension that of landlords who take them on as tenants. According to the Florence Trust’s Allbutt, “The two-year Meanwhile Use tenancy at the Charity School allows us to continue our artist residency program while we turn the business around and make it more sustainable. Meanwhile Use has helped the Florence Trust to survive.”
Importantly, the wider community benefits in several respects. Empty buildings no longer blight local areas and tenanting these empty buildings creates jobs, leading to increased local footfall and thereby economic benefit for the area.
Our heritage is also being looked after. After remaining on the Heritage-at-Risk Register for several years, the Charity School buildings have had remedial and safety works done, which has helped arrest deterioration. With the newly repaired windows and doors it is also less at risk of being vandalised.
With the Florence Trust becoming a meanwhile user of the Charity School, not only is LHBT achieving its overall goal of working with the London Boroughs and Historic England to restore buildings in order to remove them from the Heritage-at-Risk Register, it is also fulfilling its aim of delivering meaningful social impacts by ensuring its projects embrace groups and people that might not otherwise engage or associate with heritage assets.
Meanwhile Use is also benefitting the Charity School’s current owner, the GSSF. The restoration project will not begin until the middle of 2024, and while they are occupying the buildings, the Florence Trust will pay some of the ongoing expenses plus a small fee, which means the GSSF are not incurring the ongoing costs that they would if the buildings were to remain empty.
Meanwhile Use can be an ideal solution that allows for ongoing property expenses to be paid, provisional and remedial work to be done and for otherwise empty buildings to be used and looked after. The positive impacts on all parties involved can be profound, which is why it is so encouraging to see an increase in Meanwhile Use across London, as landlords gain a better understanding of its benefits. In the case of the Charity School, Meanwhile Use is making use of an important building with a long and remarkable history and at the same time it is enabling the protection and preservation of our cultural heritage. The Charity School has a purpose again, after so many years of underuse. Here’s to a new beginning for the Girls Charity School of Edmonton.
LHBT Project Managers gave short talk on establishing meanwhile use in historic buildings; the presentation and slides can be viewed here.