Viewpoint - 15/08/2013

Converting shops into homes risks widening the north south divide

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Today we have two property crises running simultaneously: housing and retail. Britain faces the worst housing shortage in decades, while 54 retailers went into administration last year, leaving a blight of empty storefronts on the nation's high streets.

Unintended consequences could have a damaging effect

The government is now looking into a simultaneous solution by allowing the conversion of empty retail units into residential properties. With 7,000 vacant shops in London's high streets alone, these empty properties seem like the perfect solution to the UK's lack of homes.

While this proposal may appear logical, the government will need to consider the unintended consequences. The government's intention is to allow developers to quickly convert and make use of empty offices, but we have already seen numerous proposals for the conversion of fully occupied office stock in high-value residential areas.

Valuable retail space could be sacrificed

In the search for new housing stock, the proposals could sacrifice valuable retail space for the sake of residential. The retail industry makes an enormous contribution to the economic success of a region and the country as a whole, so shrinking the size of it could have a serious impact on areas' economic recoveries.

While the need for new housing is clear, there is also the danger that retail-to-residential conversion would exacerbate the current divide between the north and south of the country. In London, where the values for prime residential properties are higher, there will be greater demand for conversions. Without proper controls and safeguards this could shrink local retail centres. In the north, however, conversions would be less appealing.

Clear strategy over management of conversions is needed

The government needs to clarify how conversions would be managed from a town planning and community development perspective. There must be checks to ensure that retail stores within a town are grouped together to make it easily accessible and convenient for potential customers. Interrupting the flow of a high street with flats and houses will affect the strength of the high street and could damage the remaining retailers.

Unlike disused offices, which have been converted into housing and have contributed new homes and helped breath new life into previously deserted areas, retail outlets pop up in many smaller residential locations where stores perform an important function for the community. This proposal could put many of these locations at risk. Prime retail space in town centres should be protected – even if the shop is currently empty at the time.

This article featured on the the Guardian Housing Network and was written by Adam Mirley, Director of Planning and Development Consultancy at Lambert Smith Hampton.


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