Theatre Delicatessen offers a rare and brave example of how to put the interiors of derelict buildings to good use. Tarek Merlin explains why we should all follow suit

Last Saturday night, I found myself frantically racing up and down the northern end of Regent Street trying to find the entrance to a disused office building, inside of which a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream was just moments away from its opening act.

I finally stumbled into the unmanned entrance and on into a gutted room. It resembled an impoverished community-centre meeting for troubled teens and their parents, all nervous-looking groups of people nuzzling bad coffee in plastic cups. I soon realised, however, that all was not as it seemed. The overzealous middle-aged woman with too much make-up and a glint in her eye who was marching towards me wasn’t just excited to see me, and as she started to speak in Shakespearean tongue (politely asking me to step aside), it dawned on me that she was actually Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (doubling up later as Titania, queen of the fairies), and I was late. The whole play sprang to life right then and there, as the seemingly random assortment of people surrounding us suddenly emerged as characters from the play.

Later, as four young lovers made their plans to follow each other to the depths of the Shakespearean forest, we, too, all hurried through the strange derelict space down a dank corridor and into another room which, transformed only by subdued lighting and the actors’ performance, led us into the land of the fairies. Meanwhile, the soundtrack was derived from tweaks and plucks of the built environment that surrounded the performers. Tapping on derelict metal panels, scratching the rough brickwork and running their fingers over defunct radiators, they recreated the sound effects of the Shakespearean forest.

Theatre Delicatessen, the company that put on the work, is committed to finding disused spaces to create site-specific theatre. This is significant not just because they put on a magical play inside, but because they brought this disused building into our consciousness and laid the seed of a question in our minds: just how many other derelict spaces are there in London, and why aren’t they being used?

According to the Empty Homes Agency, an independent campaigning charity that exists to put empty properties back into use, there are close to a million empty properties in the UK. At least 200,000 of these are “long term empty” (that is, far more than the six months Local Authorities use to define the term). It is hard to say how many there are in total, as there is no single organisation in the UK responsible for monitoring the issue, and with roughly 85% of all empty residential properties being privately owned, there is no easy way of finding out who owns what. One thing is clear, however: empty properties are everywhere – from Georgian town houses in Hampstead, to grotty one-bed flats in Tower Hamlets and corporate offices in Regent Street.

It was reported recently that government- owned vacant properties alone cover an area bigger than 60 football pitches, and it is claimed that by leaving them empty, the public purse is missing out on something like £130m per annum in rental/sales income.

Tapping on derelict metal panels, scratching the brickwork and running their fingers over defunct radiators, they recreated the sound effects of the Shakespearean forest

It seems, though, that the government is acting to change two key issues. At present, empty properties are exempt from council tax for up to a year, after which time they enjoy a 50% discount, which encourages people to keep their homes empty. This is now being addressed and the local authority can apply the full rate, but it remains discretionary.

The second way is through complex VAT relief. Broadly speaking, refurbishment of an existing building attracts the normal 17.5% VAT, whereas new build construction is “zero rated”. For empty buildings, the normal VAT rate applies, but it’s a discounted rate if the period of emptiness has been over three years (again encouraging people to leave properties empty and wait for the discounted rate to kick in before renovating). This is now being reduced to two years. Baby steps, baby steps.

Meanwhile, our volume housebuilders are under immense pressure to deliver the government’s target of 240,000 new homes per year. When faced with such high demand, is it any wonder that sometimes quality of architecture and quality of build escapes them? This blinkered drive towards new build stems directly from central government and verges on something of an obsession, ignoring viable and perhaps more sustainable alternatives.

I’m not arguing that we should stop new builds, but with such a large number of empty properties lolling around the country, they have the potential to provide at least a part of the solution to the housing shortage. And surely it’s far more sustainable to refurbish an existing property than to construct a new build housing block, destined to come down in 50 years (or less) because everyone inside has gone mad owing to unforgiving space standards and monotonous design.

So, even if it’s not to put on a Shakespearean play, please can we put our empty properties to good use?