Vacant buildings with a social conscience

vacant buildings

Stuart Woolgar, CEO of Global Guardians Management Ltd, considers the social consciousness of vacant buildings

Vacant commercial property surrounds us, more than ever before, and it’s sad to watch what has happened to some of our formerly thriving city centres as well as larger retail and business parks, and no empty building or property seems to be off-limits to the threat of illegal occupation or petty vandalism and theft.

And yet, this situation is such a dichotomy. On the one hand, there is so much vacant property, but at the same time people are crying out for more affordable housing. This is particularly true in and around London where rents can be prohibitive and buying your own home is beyond the mortgage capability of most. For key workers, and they’re not only in the NHS and emergency services, the need to be near their place of work, to do the hours they’ve been putting in, has been critical.  Who wants or needs a lengthy, expensive commute home to the distant suburbs when all that will give you is a few hours’ sleep before you have to get up and repeat the process if you’re even lucky enough to get home? And regrettably, key workers often aren’t on high salaries.

Vacant buildings

Even before the pandemic hit us, the number of vacant buildings has been slowly increasing, especially now the public sector is trying to centralise, economise and reduce their property portfolios; but a lot of these buildings are difficult to re-let as they are often old, purpose-built, or need considerable updating and refurbishment. Many are simply being sold off and demolished to make way for new housing or other development, and regrettably, often there isn’t enough affordable or social housing within the new scheme. Obviously, the financial dynamics of the deal are understandable, but sometimes there has to be a third way. I was really glad to read the new report by the Centre for Policy Studies in mid-July which shows that if just our unwanted retail space could be repurposed, it would potentially create at least 500,000 homes, or more if the space were converted into flats. ‘Reshaping Spaces’ also shows how allowing for mixed-use regeneration could unleash tens of billions in private finance to “build back better” and level up left-behind high streets and commercial spaces across the UK.

Planning restrictions

Planning restrictions have been amended over the past year, making the conversion from commercial to residential easier, but not everyone is happy with this easing of our planning regulations. Some planning departments in London councils have decided to ban them from next year and plenty of other commentators, such as Shelter, the Local Government Association (LGA), the British Property Federation (BPF) and the National Trust, as well as many MPs, want the whole system reviewed. They fear the new rights will result in local planning authorities losing planning control which could lead to a spate of low-quality homes being built or apartments that are way too small and no better than rabbit hutches.

So, taking the whole situation into account, not much is going to change in the immediate future. Regrettable and bad news for many on low incomes desperate to find an affordable home.

The cardboard economy

Have you ever struggled to make ends meet when you’ve had to choose between paying your rent and bills and buying food? Or simply struggled to pay the rent to keep a roof over your head, never mind bills and food? Very sadly, even now in the 2020s, and even with a benefits system that is supposed to protect the less well off, this struggle is not an uncommon occurrence. We are also now seeing the rise of a new phenomenon, what has been dubbed ‘the cardboard economy’. These are individuals who are in paid work, but still homeless and often sleeping on the streets, including rising numbers of women, many of whom, understandably, live in constant fear of being molested. These people have lost their homes for a variety of reasons and the unfortunate irony is one tends to need an existing address, or references, not to mention a deposit, to rent private accommodation because the waitlist for social housing is so long.

Property guardianship

It makes me so sad, knowing there are often stories of undeserved hardship and simple bad luck behind people queuing outside food banks, or buried under duvets in shop doorways, and I wish there was an easy solution to their problems. Regrettably, this is rarely the case. But my organisation can at least help those who are in paid employment. Property guardianship is a strange phenomenon, but in reality, it’s such a simple concept, and when managed properly and ethically, has afforded countless working people a way out of their accommodation problems whilst at the same time, providing a much-needed security service to the property owners.

For those who don’t know about property guardianship, in a nutshell, it is a Protection By Occupation service which complies with British Standard BS8584:2015, a standard Global Guardians helped create and continuously develop.

Our expert maintenance operatives convert vacant or derelict properties given over to our care by their owners, into temporary living space for our Property Guardians to ‘protect by occupation’ until the building is sold, demolished or re-purposed and refurbished. The guardians pay us a licence fee to live in the converted property, not rent as they are not tenants, and this fee is usually considerably less than equivalent rents for accommodation in the surrounding area. Although by necessity their accommodation is temporary, many of the buildings we protect lie empty for years while their owners debate what to do with them, or the interminable planning applications go through, or for a variety of other reasons, so we have guardians who have been occupying buildings for long periods and have grown to be part of the local community. Of course, sometimes the building has to revert to its owners relatively quickly, but in that event, we always strive to re-house our guardians straight away so they are rarely, if ever, left without accommodation.

Global Guardians is in partnership with many of the leading housing associations and property developers and most of the local authorities across London, and together we are striving to offer Global Guardians’ ‘third way’ – that means helping deserving people get on their feet and often making a new start in life. Everyone should have that chance if they need it.


Please note: This is a commercial profile

© 2019. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license

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