How did the easing of lockdown restrictions earlier this year impact on demand for office space?
Office space is still a bit of an unknown at the moment. I don’t think companies have fully decided what they’re going to do. What we’re seeing is companies that have a lease expiring soon taking the decision to downsize. There’s also a reluctance from employees to come back into the office. It probably needs to be a balance of the two – working from home and in an office. When there’s a lease coming to an end, companies will look at it quite seriously, while other businesses haven’t fully decided yet.
How can commercial/office spaces harness the new demand for more flexible working?
Because of the uncertainty, if you’re a landlord it’s really about offering flexibility – maybe having a break clause, for example. We have to be much more creative. Rents have not really dropped, but flexibility is really the key now.
What are the benefits for office space workers in coastal West Sussex compared with elsewhere? In terms of work/life balance, price, availability?
Places like Worthing can benefit as where the rents are very high in Brighton, they’re much lower. You could pay £18 per foot at the top of the range in Worthing for office space whereas in Brighton you’re looking at more like £30 to £35 per foot. Also, a lot of people who work in Brighton actually live in Worthing, so it could be the biggest beneficiary in terms of office space, compared to the rest of the coast in West Sussex.
What type of businesses are attracted to working on the coastal strip?
A lot of companies already based there are looking to expand, but we have also had government departments setting up to help people back into work, who may have been furloughed and lost jobs.
You need to have the infrastructure and you need to have the sites to attract new businesses. Although prices are quite high compared to some parts of the country, they’re not as high as in London. People have realised they don’t want to spend time commuting on trains and we get companies saying they don’t want to be in London, and they could be in coastal West Sussex where they’d have a better quality of life. But it’s probably going to take a bit of time.
What opportunities would encourage employees and their employers to work across the coastal area/businesses looking to expand or relocate?
What a lot of companies look at when they’re coming into an area is whether their competitors are there or if they’re looking there, as then they know the area has the right kind of potential employees with the right skillset. What coastal West Sussex is very good at is getting schools, universities and businesses to talk to each other about what skills are needed. This is not something I’ve seen in other places. If you can get students inspired by knowing they could go and work at Rolls Royce for example, then you’re keeping talent in the area.
How important is digital infrastructure/connectivity and roll-out of gigabit fibre across coastal West Sussex?
Digital connectivity is going to become more and more important. That’s a question you get asked about a lot – how good is the connectivity? I think it will move up the list of priorities. It also gets around the logistical issue as the better the connection in the area, the less you have to get stuck on trains commuting elsewhere.
Many existing small businesses and micro entrepreneurs are currently using collaborative workspace. To support their future growth, what space, support and expertise could these growing micro businesses need in the future?
Communication between the likes of local authorities, economic development officers and businesses is key. It’s about understanding how a business operates and how they want to expand – and then ensuring there are the sites with planning permission and having a planning system that doesn’t take years for approval. This is a big issue with many planning systems, when what we really want is a steady stream of planning and building. Businesses don’t want to have to wait three years. You have to be ready to jump on something.
The more you understand the businesses in your geographical area, the more you can help them.
How will changing work practices alter the way we use our commercial, office and retail space in coastal West Sussex? What trends are you seeing in terms of demand, rental prices, and movement of businesses?
For office space, it’s a bit early to tell. With retail, many businesses were very enterprising and started internet sales during the pandemic. Landlords have had to readjust the level of rents and that has definitely helped businesses. A lot more local businesses have set up and often it’s the small local ones which have replaced the big national businesses which have gone. The biggest challenge is for the big department stores. It’s likely the upper parts will be used as residential space, but we’re still a bit early into this. Some of them will be replaced by local businesses.
The industrial sector is one that has really blossomed throughout all this, with demand exceeding supply. All across coastal West Sussex rents for these spaces have climbed. But there’s very little physical availability and until you develop new sites that’s going to put pressure on the market which will affect local businesses. There’s a real need to develop sites on the industrial side.
I think office rents probably won’t change in the short term but probably what you will find is some of the buildings will go to residential use. That’s not a bad thing as it means developers will build brand new buildings, which is what companies actually want now – they want air conditioning, raised floors and good connectivity. A lot of them now are above shops with limited parking, no charging points for electric vehicles or bike storage.
How can space be used more creatively in the future to benefit businesses and the wider community?
What local authorities can do is to make towns a more interesting place to go to for shoppers. You don’t want people leaving in half an hour. What other activities can you put on to maintain that level of customers for a longer time? Chichester and Worthing are thinking more about that. You have to think about car parking charges of course. You want people to make the trip.
The other issue is access – improving the small road systems is something which should be addressed – if there’s a way to have bridges or underpasses at level crossings. It can be a real turn off for businesses otherwise. But we’re moving in the right direction. You need to think about the infrastructure for living and working.