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Empty high streets’ potential to ease UK housing strain

‘With the government still yet to formally respond to Mary Portas' review of the high street, swift action from local authorities and forward-thinking developers is crucial to revive the UK's town and city centres,’ said Peter Bolton King, chief executive of the NAEA.

‘Commercial property owners are facing high business rates for buildings that no one occupies. Therefore, in the right circumstances, converting these buildings for residential use could have an aesthetic and economic benefit,’ he explained.

‘However, such renovations are not simple undertakings. We advise that a thorough evaluation of the work involved is carried out beforehand to avoid additional cost burdens.

When converting this type of retail space, the location should always be carefully analysed. However a property in the city or town centre may well provide easy access to many desirable residential amenities,’ he added.

In order to ensure any potential conversion goes smoothly, the NAEA has drawn up a list of considerations.
Cost is an important consideration. It says that although fitting out an existing property might seem cheaper than buying a new, modern property, commercial space often requires costly skilled labour to comply with standards for residential use. Additional building requirements are often applicable to dwellings such as Part L regulations that ensure compliance to conservation of fuel and power, so it is always important to check in advance.

Access is another major point. Given that this type of property is likely to be situated within town centres where zoning restrictions can affect parking and access routes, it is important to look at this before purchasing the property. It is therefore worth contacting your local council to clarify rights of way and parking arrangements.

Similarly, as some premises might have shared access to additional space upstairs, such as an existing flat, it is worth speaking with the owners to find out where you stand, as this will no doubt impact on any internal changes you plan on making.

It also points out that additional external works might not be exempt. It must be remembered that the legislation in question applies to change of use only and so any extensions or renovation of shop fronts are likely to be subject to regular planning permission. Additionally, changes to high street premises, especially in market towns might be bound by covenants that require the facia to remain in keeping with the surrounding area and this could also add to the cost if specific materials are required.

It also recommends taking a look at the whole area to get a feeling for it and be sure you are comfortable living somewhere which isn't a purely residential neighbourhood. For example, while you might be closer to the shops, you could in fact be further away from a school. Noisy neighbours might also need to be considered if your property is located near to bars, nightclubs or takeaways.

And it warns that the timescale needs to be taken into account. Some local authorities adopt a blanket policy when considering change of use planning applications whereby the property must be placed on the market from anywhere between six and twelve months. If the owner can prove there is no market for the building commercially, they may consider a change of use. However it is always advisable to check with the local authority before proceeding with any work of this type.