Residentrification: the new word on the block at Newbury Business Park
Business parks are the somewhat unloved, edge-of-town work places, where in a pre-pandemic world, many of us went to earn a crust.
But they are evolving.
Newbury Business Park is a good example of a changing shift in how we work – and live.
Four of its office buildings have now been turned, or being turned, into residential flats.
And the finishing touches are currently being put to more than 100 new homes on one of the former office buildings, Emerald House.
The proposal involved a change of use application to convert empty office space under Permitted Development Rights – so the council had to tick the change of use box.
West Berkshire also has a lack of social and affordable housing, so on the face of it, refitting old offices into new flats seems equitable.
But the move to ‘residentrify’ isn’t going down too well.
“The supply of offices in Newbury is very low at the moment,” said John Varney, director at Newbury commercial property letting agents Dean Varney.
“Over the last 15 years we have lost around a million square feet of office space.
“A lot went to make way for Parkway, but the rest have gone for residential conversion.
“It seems counterintuitive to lose office stock when the district is trying to attract inward investment.”
Baby buggies outside and curtains which don’t quite fit the office windows give away the blocks now turned into social housing flats.
One young man, who didn’t want to be named, said he really liked living on the business park.
“It’s nice and quiet,” he said. “But you can tell it used to be offices, as the walls are very thin. It’s a bit like staying at the Travelodge as you can hear everything. But the flats themselves are really nice.”
Across the way, young mum Bryony Keyes said she moved to Newbury Business Park over a year ago with her daughter, now two.
“The council put us here,” she said, “But I have a private landlord. It is really nice here and feels safe for my daughter.
"The best thing is it is quiet outside, although the walls are a bit thin. I’d be happy to stay here; I like it.”
Neighbouring the repurposed blocks is one of the most prestigious brands on the park.
Freixenet, with its swanky, black glass offices and displays of its sparkling wines, play sharp contrast to the badly fitted blinds and curtains.
The move to diversify the business park use presents a dichotomy for its future.
West Berkshire Council is big on trying to attract inward investment – to get companies to relocate here.
It’s even launched a new website aimed at helping industry do just that.
The council is one of the district’s biggest employers, but is itself reducing the number of offices it uses.
A recent staff survey showed 76 per cent of its workers preferred hybrid working – opting for around two out of five days in the office.
“The demand for staff to work more flexibly has influenced the decision to centralise the council’s office accommodation in Newbury, rationalising three buildings into one,” said chief executive Nigel Lynn.
“Making the Market Street offices our main site allows for us to have the majority of staff under one roof for the first time in the history of the council, which will deliver financial and environmental savings.”
So if the council is reflecting a trend, what scale of inward investment is likely in the district?
According to Mr Varney the majority of offices, including the council ones in Newbury, are either out of date or not fit for purpose.
Furthermore, he says, developers are holding off from doing up or starting again with business park office buildings.
“They won’t take the investment risk without a tenant lined up to move in,” he added.