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Living Over The Shop

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 utilise 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 whilst 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% 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 life style that did not exist in the town centres. 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.

Overall, 1 in 7 shops in Britain are now vacant and this is after 15 million square feet of retail space has been demolished to avoid paying empty property business rates. 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. On top of this, 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 generally 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 a more imaginative way. As well as adding to our housing stock, these conversions would remove the depressing ugliness of boarded up, often graffiti sprayed, neglected and abandoned shops that when found in local shopping parades spreads from one shop to the next like a cancerous growth.

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!