Small firms succeeding in Aylesbury thanks to innovative scheme

PUBLISHED: 10:59 26 July 2016

Council leader Martin Tett (centre) with Ines Respini Jones and Tomas Pukalski, two of the tenants at Porters Lodge

Council leader Martin Tett (centre) with Ines Respini Jones and Tomas Pukalski, two of the tenants at Porters Lodge

Bucks County Council

Small firms are being given a chance to succeed thanks to an innovative scheme offering cheap rent in a prime Aylesbury town centre location. Steve Cohen reports

Web designer Tomas Pukalski had one major problem when he invested his savings into a start-up company and began working on a host of contracts for his new clients. He desperately needed office space to make his business successful, but couldn’t risk taking on a long lease before he knew if things would work out for him.

“I was sitting in my bedroom in Aylesbury working on large projects but could not really expand without having an office,” said the 45-year-old father of three. “I looked into leasing somewhere but it would have meant a big deposit and a year’s lease.

“The whole idea of a business start-up is that you don’t know what’s going to happen within a year – it could be that in 12 months I would be expanding and needing an even bigger office, or it could be I would be going out of business. I couldn’t take the chance so I said no to the estate agent.”

But a solution suddenly presented itself to him early this year when he was able to rent office space at Porters Lodge, a historic County Council-owned building in Aylesbury town centre.

Polish-born Tomas and several other small businesses were given the opportunity to become tenants at reduced prices with no deposit and just one month’s notice period. This was all thanks to a ground-breaking scheme devised by the council and Buckinghamshire Business First (BBF), an organisation representing 8,000 companies in the county.

The idea was to utilise a disused building and turn it into a hub for small businesses, as well as a town centre hot-desk for other companies.

County Council Leader Martin Tett explains: “Porters Lodge is one of the most historical buildings in Aylesbury, and owned by us.

“There are exciting future plans for the building, but in the meantime we want to see it used to bring business and opportunity into Aylesbury town centre.

“Buckinghamshire is the entrepreneurial heart of Britain and we have more micro-businesses, which are companies with five or fewer staff, than anywhere else in the country. It’s our duty to give these firms a helping hand wherever possible to boost our economy and, in Porters Lodge, we saw a golden opportunity to do just that.”

The council leased the building to Buckinghamshire Business First, who in turn sub-let five offices at the rate of £295 to £495 per month, starting from early 2016 – and found all the space taken within just a week of launching the hub.

Philippa Batting, Buckinghamshire Business First’s MD, said: “We understand the challenges faced by the County Council in terms of budgets and having to focus on social care, given recent massive grant reductions. However, we have been really impressed by their forward thinking in using current resources, such as the Porters Lodge empty building, to create revenue for taxpayers and opportunities for small companies.

“This scheme creates jobs and supports a vibrant business community, and we hope this is the start of a model that can be replicated across the county. The council has shown itself to be a step ahead of the game in terms of its innovative approach to economic development and working in partnership with business.”

The approach is certainly paying dividends for Tomas Pukalski, who was the first tenant in the new hub with his company Framework Digital Ltd. He has now been able to employ three others on a part-time basis and believes his business has expanded by about 50% in the time he has been at Porters Lodge.

“I consider moving here as the best business decision I have made,” he said. “There is no other such commercial place in Aylesbury where there are so many things going on and people who are my potential customers are on my doorstep.

“This is exactly what your local council should be doing to help small businesses – Porters Lodge has made a massive impact for me since February.”

Tomas now enjoys a large office in the centre of Aylesbury, with free wi-fi for £495 per month. He has between 30 to 50 accounts and works with Google. He says this growth vindicates his decision three years earlier to invest his savings into a business with a future rather than spend it on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle ‘and have some fun’.

His enthusiasm for Porters Lodge is shared by working mother Ines Respini-Jones, an HR specialist who has run her own business since 2008. Ines, 41, was successfully working for a number of clients from her own home, but felt at a disadvantage.

“At home, I found the washing machine was looking at me and the kids wanted a snack,” said the mother-of-two from Wendover, who now shares a large office with another HR expert, Cecily Lalloo. Although the two women operate different businesses, they collaborate and problem solve for each other.

Ines added: “I think in the case of people who are small businesses, there is a tendency to feel isolated and lonely – and that brings lack of motivation and productivity. I feel myself being really productive and efficient at Porters Lodge and I think the hub is a great idea.

“These types of space are very popular in London. We get an office feel without having to be in a big corporate environment. I call it the ‘water cooler chats’ where sometimes the best ideas come. When the option of this office space came up, we jumped at it immediately. There is nothing like this anywhere. There are no downsides to this.”

Porters Lodge is situated opposite the historic Judges Lodgings building at the rear of Old County Hall, off Exchange Street Car Park, Aylesbury. In recent years, it was used as ad hoc offices for a variety of organisations such as the Race Equality Council, and the county council has also previously used it for its clerk’s department and legal team.

However, it had been empty for three to four years before being leased to the business group after spending around £37,000 on refurbishments, including the repair and decoration of the interior and exterior of all the windows.

Records show the site was originally the kitchens for the town’s jail which was demolished in 1847. The lodge was built around 1850 as an admin block to help the judges. Almost two centuries later, it is proving its worth as an innovative way to get business moving in Buckinghamshire.

“We see this as paving the way for many such schemes that will help boost our small companies,” said Council Leader Martin Tett. “It’s really important to us that business start-ups succeed in Buckinghamshire, and we are thrilled with the way this has gone so far.” 

Why Buckinghamshire is the entrepreneurial heart of Britain

• £15 billion economy

• 32,050 registered businesses

• 3rd fastest growing economy in the UK

• 6th highest productivity rate of the 139 economies in the UK

• Highest proportion of very small companies in Britain with 76% employing 5 or fewer people

• 2nd highest share of home-based workers in the UK

• Business start-ups are over 30% above the national level

• 580 foreign owned companies have their European HQ in Buckinghamshire


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