The government’s decision to release 20 empty buildings for start-up businesses at affordable rents has been met with wide debate.

Many praise it for creating more favorable conditions for start-ups in otherwise under-resourced areas[1].  Coupled with the lack of Grade A office space putting increased demand on secondary and tertiary space, and it is a very effective way to create new, cost effective space that gives entrepreneurs a leg-up.

Others consider it a token gesture, an initiative designed to garner column inches rather than improve the climate for small businesses or reduce public spending. The real issue here is that the government’s un-used building portfolio is vast – 20 really is a fraction of its 550 empty buildings.  That’s somewhere in the region of 450,000 sq. ft. of space, costing the taxpayer £70m in empty rates taxes alone.

Although the government intends to increase the number to 300, it has actually missed an early win. Why not start with a more confident target that shows real commitment to small businesses and reassures the taxpayer that one of the many holes in the public purse is being sewn up quickly?

With such demands on the availability of office space, many of these buildings could, with effective office design, fit-out and proper ongoing management, be the answer to established businesses as well as those starting out.  That’s not forgetting other potential uses such as homes for community projects, arts and theatre groups, youth clubs and day centres.  The list goes on.  In resource hungry areas these buildings should be community assets, not reminders of what once was.

Whether or not the government has realised the real potential of its un-used buildings, we’ll just have to wait and see.