Office Shortage? What Office Shortage?

“What do we want? More office space! When do we want it? Now!”

Do you remember that march down Princes Street?

No, nor do I. For the simple reason that it never happened, nor is it ever likely to.

Still, Edinburgh has a modern urban economy, with a large and prosperous service sector (it has a rather less significant manufacturing sector than I’d like, and that is a weakness, but one for another day). So, of course, the city needs space for those office-based employers.

But how much office space, and how much weight is given to land for that use when it is competing, with, say, land for affordable housing, small enterprises or even green and public space?

I cannot be the only person to have grown weary of the constant refrain about Edinburgh’s shortage of “Grade A” office space and to find that difficult to square with the evidence of “office to let” signs all around.

It’s a real live dilemma in some key city sites too. For example, the emerging master plan at the old Fountainbridge brewery site has had to reconcile community aspirations for more affordable housing and small business space with a decade-old planning brief which earmarks a lot more office space on the site. Thankfully, it looks like community views are being heeded in a way that, so far, does credit to both the community and the developer.

But the bigger question remains. How much office space does the city really need and what is the role of a planning authority in responding to it?

That is why it was so important to welcome representatives of the commercial sector to the City Council’s Economy Committee recently (7 October), to better understand the components of future demand.

Theirs is an important voice but I confess to being disappointed by the paucity of evidence for new office space being a priority land use.

Firstly, the current office vacancy rate in the city is almost 10%, as high as it has ever been, apparently. That seems inconsistent with an emerging shortage.

Secondly, we are told that the pipeline of new office development is behind historical trends. But so, what? Historical trends are irrelevant: it is current and future demand which matters. After all, the pipeline of new premier-league-quality football stadia is behind historical trends; and rightly so, as future demand is, shall we say, sluggish.

So what of future demand? It turns out that no-one really knows. There are future projections of current leases coming to an end with an assumption that these will result in new demand for office space. But that is simply an intuition, with no quantitative evidence to back it up. It is just as possible that the current 2.2 million square feet of vacancy will be taken up and old leases will be replaced with new ones.

And then there’s the thorny question of work patterns. The City Council itself is undergoing a pretty significant scaling-back of the number of premises it occupies, with greater emphasis on home-working and smart-desking. Surely the commercial sector is thinking in the same way.

This all matters because land is scarce in a city like Edinburgh. If the city is to adapt in a sustainable way to the twenty-first century it needs better evidence and greater imagination as to how to manage competing demands for land.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 11 October.