Meanwhile UK's Jess Steele talks about the initiative's success

The Meanwhile Project - an initiative of the Development Trusts Association (DTA) in the UK - was launched in April 2009, with government support, to revitalise town centres. DTA's head of consultancy Jess Steele talks about her experience with the scheme. 

Jess Steele
Jess Steel heads up the Meanwhile Project in the UK.

How did the Meanwhile Project come about and who conceived the idea?

The idea of 'meanwhile uses' has been around a long time. There is a Meanwhile Gardens in Westminster which was set up in the 1970s and development trusts like Coin Street Community Builders have shown how important it is to have 'Meanwhile' uses for sites while you raise money to develop them for the long term. 

The Meanwhile Project emerged when I was on secondment into central government. I responded to a request for policy ideas to deal with the impact of recession in town centres with a set of photos of boarded-up shops and an idea to encourage local communities to bring them into use on an interim or meanwhile basis. 

The Meanwhile Project was launched by Hazel Blears (Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government) and Andy Burnham (Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport) on 14 April 2009 as part of the 'Looking After Town Centres' policy.

Why is it important? 

It is about seizing the moment and acting now to realise the opportunities that vacant spaces present, finding ways to do this and avoiding blight and disruption to local communities.

How long have you been with Meanwhile?

Since my return full time to the Development Trusts Association in June 2009, I have been leading the Meanwhile Project with the support of Meanwhile Space community interest company. 

We have been working with landlords, projects, local authorities and agents to 'explore, develop and test' Meanwhile across England. 

The first phase ran from May - October 2009 and was about seeking out those projects around the country that were already doing great Meanwhile work as well as those that were trying to, and learning with and from them about the obstacles that were holding them back. 

We developed model leases, provided advice and helped find ways to make it easier for projects to happen.  The second 'consolidate and roll out' phase has focused on encouraging places to take action, sharing the findings so far and developing more tools to enable the process.

Although artists and exhibitions are part of Meanwhile, you consider it to be about "more than just the arts"? Can  you expand on this?

Artists have been using spaces in a temporary way for a long time as exhibitions in galleries are essentially temporary uses of spaces.  We continue to support this type of use, but we wanted to push the boundaries of temporary use and explore ways to make it easier for people to use vacant spaces in ways that benefit the community, to run projects or services that you don't normally find on the high street, to test ideas and create opportunities that people wouldn't normally have. 

What type of spaces does Meanwhile have for different types of use? 

We are currently working with a very broad mix of uses, including a digital inclusion lounge, a co-operative member-led supermarket, a social enterprise centre, a creative art hub for young people, a design studio offering local people mentoring opportunities and workspace for artists that also delivers public workshops that are free to attend. 

What kinds of people are needed for this type of scheme to work? What qualities should they possess? 

Working with the willing and finding the right people to drive the projects are the most important success factors.   

Often it can be quite a clunky process and there needs to be someone with the passion and drive to keep the project going, often working long hours on a volunteer basis. 

There has to be someone who is able to motivate, argue a case, inspire, bring money in (and make it go a long way) and think through the practicalities.

Even though the scheme is about the temporary re-use of spaces, there appears to be a need for local empowerment and engagement with town centre managers. Please say something about this.

Town centre managers are often the people who know the town best. They will know the detail of who owns what and the background about what has already been tried. The best TC managers are brilliant - the only problem is often the information is all in their heads.

Can you say something about the seasonal use of spaces and how this has worked or could work? 

During the boom times we have created an over-supply of retail units and even in locations where empty shops are not an issue, there are temporal cycles that happen and take a long time.  

It can often take around six to nine months for agreements to be drawn up and this is a time when something temporary but exciting and beneficial could be happening.

Please say something about the concept of 'irresponsible ownership' and what Meanwhile is doing to challenge this.

Waste of resources is becoming less and less acceptable and there is also a perception change about the ownership of the public realm and what might be called 'common wealth' - those assets that local communities feel they own even when they don't.

Private owners have a duty to the community when they purchase a property or land that is part of the public realm to maintain it and put it to use.  

Examples of seriously irresponsible ownership would include Hastings Pier which has been abandoned by a company registered in Panama to avoid English law, or an old theatre in Plymouth where the owner is in prison for allowing drugs to be dealt on the premises. 

But any owner who leaves a property vacant when it could be put to good use can be encouraged to take a more responsible approach. 

What are the benefits to landlords and property owners of schemes such as Meanwhile?

Meanwhile can cover the costs for a landlord while they are seeking a commercial tenant or awaiting planning permission.

It does not pay rent but it does cover business rates, utilities and insurance which means the property doesn't cost the owner so much while it sits empty, yet it as if the property were empty as it is still open for showing people round and a short (10-day) termination notice applies.  

The marketing potential from having the property in use is immense and many properties are let as a result of meanwhile use.  This kind of use keeps the building safe and it is often returned in a better condition that it was received in.

Approximately how many properties has Meanwhile made use of since its inception?

As projects can be as short as a week or a few days it is very difficult to keep track of everything that is happening around the country.  There are nearly 500 members on the Meanwhile Ning forum. We have so far directly supported projects in 15 places through the Meanwhile Project.

Approximately how many of these (or what percentage) have been successful to the extent that they have converted to commercial leases?

This is not the ultimate goal of Meanwhile. Some of the projects will go on to use the same property commercially, some will move on elsewhere to test out more ideas, some were only meant to last for a short period of time. 

Just because something is impermanent doesn't mean it isn't powerful - think blossom, lightning or a festival. We shouldn't be afraid of impermanence, but we should celebrate the impact the project has had on the local community and the benefits of using spaces that would otherwise have stayed vacant.

In regards to the ones that have converted to commercial leases, were there any common factors as to why they were successful eg type of business, particular location and so on?

Anecdotally those that have converted to commercial leases have done so because of the transformation of the space aesthetically (bright, clean, used spaces are easier to imagine in productive use for prospective tenants) and in terms of changing its relationship with surrounding environment (a used, occupied space can change an area, making it less threatening and more appealing). 

These transformations generate a more attractive commercial prospect for any future commercial tenant. 

Why is the choice of place so crucial to the success of schemes such as Meanwhile? 

I don't think choice of place is crucial. Projects can be undertaken in any type of space (the usual factors permitting). Choice of the appropriate project within the context of the place is crucial. And most important of all is choosing people who have energy and initiative. 

In terms of run-down shops or sites that are going to be redeveloped, what are the key concerns and issues to take into account? 

In redeveloping shops for meanwhile use, health and safety is important, since it is usually to allow public access. 

Security is also crucial: who will open/close and manage the space, who will make sure it is being used responsibility, who will ensure legal obligations are met? 

This may be part of an agreement between the temporary landlord and the occupying projects. Also who will make sure the space is maintaining quality and ensuring the meanwhile project sustains a good profile and more landlords see the benefit of working with them. 

What are some of the concerns that landlords and property owners have about allowing their properties to be temporarily used in this way?

Primarily they want to make sure they can get it back when they need to and in good condition. A close second is that their asset is being well looked after and liabilities being covered. 

What are your responses to those concerns?

Use the meanwhile lease, as it offers full protection against their concerns as above. 

What about developers' concerns? For example, if they allow use of space then when they ask artists to leave, it can be a PR disaster for them and they look like the 'bad' guy? 

That's where the culture of Meanwhile and the concept that short-lived projects can have impact must be communicated throughout.

Effective communications will prevent this, constantly referring to the project in terms of 'whilst we have this opportunity'. If you don't want to be on the front page at the end for kicking someone out, get everyone on the front page at the start saying how great it is to have this meanwhile opportunity. 

The projects too should be working with the developers, ideally delivering projects that complement the longer-term use. There may well be elements of the meanwhile project that the developer wants to retain, having used meanwhile activity as a tester and to build an active users community. 

How do you deal with the issue of once an area that's full of artists and creative enterprises get gentrified, rents go up and the artists are forced out, leading to possible bad feeling on the part of the artists and local community? 

That's a wider regeneration challenge; meanwhile projects are always consciously short-term(ish) and possibly mobile. The use of the meanwhile approach allows artists and other groups access to affordable and exciting spaces, but it certainly doesn't guarantee any kind of security. 

How can you overcome things like local people who get used to a particular shop, gallery or meeting place etc for a couple of months being disappointed when it disappears?

It's a meanwhile project! Imagine if it had never happened and the place had been empty and lifeless throughout. 

This goes back to communication and the constant referral to embracing the opportunity now. If there is a real demand then the project might well find itself a commercial backer, or with its proven track record it could go and find a different empty space and regather its community of interest and support in a new location with new supporters. 

What challenges/difficulties have you encountered with Meanwhile? 

People worried about what happens when the project finishes.

Gaining access to willing landlords.

The perverse disincentives in the rate relief system. 

How were these overcome?

The concerns about 'sustainability' are addressed through communication throughout the project. 

The search for willing landlords is about gaining momentum and being able to point to bigger and bigger back catalogue of successful projects returning real benefits to landlords starts to shift opinion. 

The rate relief issues are still live but there is interest from politicians and civil servants in addressing some of these questions.

In terms of the benefits/outcomes of Meanwhile to date: can you provide any concrete examples? 

Margate Windows of Opportunity: Once a grim, rubbish-strewn arcade, a magnet for anti-social behaviour and a blight on a thoroughfare between town centre and seafront, now a bright, colourful and soft environment, feeling safe to walk through, with commercial activity starting to return. 

Cambridge Beginspace: A disused bank building becomes a magnet for enterprise with 30 in incubation whereas otherwise it would be dead, unproductive space.

What advice/tips can you offer to people wanting to set up schemes similar to Meanwhile? 

If you want to take over an empty property, craft a proposal that presents clearly the benefit to the landlord and wider community, winning over the stakeholders that will help realise the project. 

Don't fixate on one property. Create a longlist, analyse the barriers to whittle into a shortlist of workable properties. Then be prepared to sell the concept hard and be clear why it is worth supporting.

Also ensure you have answers to the technicals, such as who will hold the lease, how will costs be met, who will insure the premises and so on. 

If you're running a support programme like the Meanwhile Project be very flexible but also very definite in what you will and won't fund - we fund everything and anything except rent (landlord's profit). 

Provide the right amount of money as it's needed with more to follow if all goes well. Make sure the projects you fund feel part of a supportive network and want to show off what they've done well and share the lessons they've learned. 

Contact: Meanwhile Project