Recently, a consultation paper recommending the conversion of empty shops in failing high streets to houses/flats was published by the department for Communities and Local Government.
In order to create more urgently needed housing, the paper puts forward the idea of granting permitted development rights for the conversions, which would allow developers to apply to councils for prior approval for the conversions.
The consultation, which will run until 15 October, is intended to make it easier to bring empty and underused high street units back to life, while also solving the housing shortage crisis.
Changes will be limited to buildings of less than 150 sq m and will come into force from April 2014, depending on the outcome of the consultation. Developers will be able to convert shops into a single dwelling house or a maximum of four flats. The consultation also recommends allowing the conversion of barns into a maximum of three homes, in order to address the need for rural affordable housing.
The reasons behind the move were outlined by Planning Minister Nick Boles: “Thousands of empty and underused buildings, often on the edge of town centres, are going to waste because people do not want the hassle and uncertainty of submitting a planning application. Removing this barrier will bring more people closer to their town centres, providing a much needed boost to local shops and ensuring we make the most of buildings that are already there for new homes.”
However, at Guardians of London, we believe that another solution to those long-term empty retail units, in the interim, would be to put property ‘guardians’ into them, such as those we provide (http://www.guardiansoflondon.com). We place carefully vetted guardians (usually professionals or key workers e.g. nurses, teachers etc) into short and long term empty commercial and residential properties. They live in and protect these buildings from the risk of vandalism, malicious damage, theft and occupation by squatters.
The guardians have to live by a strict set of guidelines laid down by us, under the rules of their licence. They pay for a licence rather than paying rent.
Until the conversion applications by developers have been passed by the councils, which could be a lengthy process, this would provide an excellent solution to two problems. It offers affordable housing for those in need and the presence of guardians in a retail unit means landlords can avoid having to hire in expensive security firms or to board up their units. Neither of these options provides a satisfactory method of securing a commercial building.
In addition, instead of paying out to secure their empty property, landlords also stand to make a revenue on their building from the licence fee paid by the guardians
It was also reported that councils will be permitted to reject the application on the basis of ‘loss on the economic health of the town centre, the need to maintain an adequate provision of essential local services such as post offices, and the potential impact of the change of use on the local character of the area’. However, the secretary of state will retain the power to overturn refusals if local authorities use them ‘unreasonably’.
Again, if applications are rejected for whatever reason, the shop will simply lie empty for many more months, so putting these units to use as temporary housing makes absolute sense.