It seems that the only way is up for warehouse stock.

Peter Higgins

While SEGRO sets its sights on a multi-storey shed at Meridian Water in Enfield, north-east London, Amazon is taking the idea of capitalising on ‘unused airspace’ to new heights.

Last year, the global ecommerce company filed a patent for giant flying warehouses filled with drones, and then at the beginning of 2017 it lodged a second patent, this time for underwater sheds.

Although these ideas seem far-fetched and are, in reality, years away from becoming viable alternatives to the traditional shed, they do highlight the very real issue of industrial stock shortage in today’s market. Warehouse take-up in and around Greater London has skyrocketed in recent years, driving supply down; demand in London is now so strong that it’s thought the capital has between just six and eight months’ worth of available stock remaining.

Research published in our latest Databook reaffirms this. The data indicates that availability of industrial stock in our London and South East patch is at a staggeringly low 2.4%. And, more specifically, in east London, availability stands at just 700,000 sq ft, compared with a long-term demand trend level of 1.4m sq ft per year.

In this region especially, strong competition for industrial land from housebuilders is having a severe knock-on effect, prompting occupiers to commit to pre-lets for greater space, such as Amazon, which last year signed up to 2.2m sq ft of warehousing at the London Distribution Park in Tilbury.

Although these ideas seem far-fetched, they do highlight the very real issue of industrial stock shortage in the market

It is because of the diminishing supply and high demand that both occupiers and industrial developers are considering alternative ways of generating space in the current stock-starved market. At the 23-acre Meridian Water site, SEGRO’s multi-storey plans are likely to generate almost 450,000 sq ft of space on a 6.5-acre plot - a site that would ordinarily only be capable of hosting around 130,000 sq ft of space.

Multi-storey sheds are just the first step, and while the flying and underwater warehouses seem outlandish, they are simply taking the original concept to the next level. By utilising unused space - both above and below ground - these trailblazing methods could counteract an endemic problem of inefficient space usage in current warehouse set-ups, as well as simplifying the processes of picking stock.

To genuinely address the current issues around space inefficiency, the industry needs to become a lot more adept at responding to innovation and modernisation. True, technological advancements would need to progress at a significant rate for underwater and flying sheds to become a commonplace way of storing and distributing goods any time soon.

But other techniques, such as drone delivery and robotic sorting, picking and packing, are already being successfully trialled and are much more achievable in the short term.

However, these technical capabilities would need to be matched by the industry’s own willingness to evolve and innovate in order to be viable on a widespread level in the near future.

Based on the current market conditions, where land supply problems are becoming increasingly acute and pressure for urban logistics floorspace is growing fast, it is perhaps inevitable that the traditional, single-storey shed will one day become a thing of the past - and when that time comes, maybe flying warehouses will not be such a pie-in-the-sky idea after all.

Peter Higgins is divisional partner at Glenny