Solve the hous­ing short­age by liv­ing in, not over, the shop

Yorkshire Post - Property - - PROPERTY - Robin and Pa­tri­cia Sil­ver

TWENTY-ODD years ago, the gov­ern­ment spon­sored a scheme to con­vert the empty space on the floors above shops in town cen­tres into homes. At that time, it was es­ti­mated that at least 250,000 homes could be cre­ated from these va­cant ar­eas.

This would be a sim­ple way to use the ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture of re­tail premises and, at the same time, re­pop­u­late ur­ban ar­eas that had be­come places only to go to work or to shop and dur­ing evenings and at week­ends, they were of­ten empty and des­o­late.

The scheme known as “Liv­ing Over The Shop” co­in­cided with a time when old ware­house and in­dus­trial prop­er­ties were be­ing snapped up by de­vel­op­ers and con­verted into loft-style res­i­den­tial ac­com­mo­da­tion. These prop­er­ties, how­ever, tended to be around the edges of the town cen­tres while the va­cant up­per floors of shops were of­ten right in the cen­tre. Both types of de­vel­op­ments proved pop­u­lar with young oc­cu­piers who were keen to buy into the new wave of ur­ban liv­ing, but nei­ther at­tracted the va­ri­ety of de­mo­graphic groups that are needed to build ar­eas into vi­brant and sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ties. All this de­spite the fact that flats above shops were, on av­er­age, 20 per cent cheaper than equiv­a­lent-sized homes in build­ings with­out ground floor re­tail premises.

Fam­i­lies wanted fa­cil­i­ties like schools, play ar­eas, doc­tors’ surg­eries and green spaces and to be­gin with, these were rarely pro­vided. Park­ing was of­ten a prob­lem and there was lit­tle to at­tract the el­derly to choose to live in the town cen­tre. As a re­sult, these ar­eas were of­ten over­pop­u­lated with stu­dents and other short-term ten­ants who tend to be a more itin­er­ant group with fewer ties to their phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

Cyn­ics com­plained that you can’t turn back the clock. These shop premises had pro­vided the homes for the shop­keep­ers and their fam­i­lies for gen­er­a­tions and dur­ing the more af­flu­ent post-war years, they had cho­sen to move out to the sub­urbs for the fa­cil­i­ties and life­style.

Thus they rid them­selves of the stigma of liv­ing over the shop and, out of pref­er­ence, they chose to com­mute into town to work in their shops.

To­day, re­tail­ing has changed yet again. It is hardly sur­pris­ing that so many shops have closed down, as our habits have gone through an enor­mous trans­for­ma­tion. The in­ter­net has ac­quired a mas­sive and rapidly grow­ing slice of our reg­u­lar spend­ing, su­per­mar­kets of­fer an ever widen­ing range of prod­ucts, out of town cen­tres have sprung up and shops are now open for more days each week and more hours ev­ery day than ever be­fore. As a re­sult, more and more shop premises stand empty.

One in seven shops in Bri­tain are va­cant. In some cities, Sh­effield and Brad­ford are two ex­am­ples, over a quar­ter of all shops are empty and most can be found in ar­eas where the de­mand for shop premises will never re­bound. It is likely that a fur­ther 10,000 shops will close this year.

With the con­stant cry of a ma­jor hous­ing short­age in this coun­try, it seems ob­vi­ous that these shops should be con­verted into homes. They have good ground floor ac­cess that is ideal for any wheel­chair users and for ba­bies still in prams and of­fer a chal­lenge to ar­chi­tects to use the in­fra­struc­ture of the build­ings in an imag­i­na­tive way. As well as adding to our hous­ing stock, these con­ver­sions would re­move the de­press­ing ug­li­ness of boarded up, of­ten graf­fiti sprayed, aban­doned shops.

We need more proac­tive plan­ning pro­ce­dures and greater use of Lo­cal De­vel­op­ment Or­ders by lo­cal authorities to change the his­tor­i­cally des­ig­nated uses of build­ings. Shop prop­er­ties could then pro­vide up to 420,000 new homes in Bri­tain whilst also re­mov­ing a source of ur­ban de­cay and con­tam­i­na­tion. A dou­ble suc­cess story by any stan­dards and suc­cesses in the hous­ing mar­ket are rare finds these days.

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