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Empty buildings - planning changes may bring new homes

publication date: Oct 7, 2011
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The Local Data Company, LDC, ( is without doubt the leader in retail location data. Local field staff carry out a rolling programme of research into the retail scene in 740 cities and towns. The company publishes results and analyses monthly. Sadly there is no comparable single source for other types of commercial property.

The vacancy rates for the individual towns that are worst affected suggest the emergence of ghost towns with blighted areas surrounding those smaller centres that still show some signs of life. Changes in shopping patterns account for much of the damage. Large out of town retail centres offer free parking, the growth of internet shopping with free delivery within narrow time slots is a valid choice, pet lovers buy pussy food and dog biscuits from Amazon more cheaply than local pet stores without the cost of transport and the pain of carrying heavy boxes and bags from store to car and from car to home.

While many women (and a few men) enjoy retail therapy in city centre stores, every retailer worthy of the name now boasts an online store and a new breed of virtual retailers without a physical presence other than a warehouse for storage, packing and shipping are now formidable competitors to traditional retail outlets.
out-of-town shopping

Out of town 
“Shopping and Leisure Centres” have become destinations in their own right providing a family outing.
The top 10 centres, out of 100 nationwide, defined by Retail Week, draw shoppers from a wide radius. This suffocating combination of changes in shopping patterns, growth of online retailers and competition from major centres accounts for the sickness of the high street and the near death of many secondary shopping locations. Factor in global recession, unemployment and changes in lifestyles that mean shopping daily – and locally – simply doesn’t work for many people, it becomes clear that the high street is not used in the same way as 30 years ago.

Costs and ownners
Vacant property carries a heavy cost; rates after a short period, regular inspections to check security, insurance, keeping the buildings weather proof, with little prospect of a paying tenant – wasted resources do not come cheap.

Town centre property is almost always held by major financial institutions who saw long leases and upward only rent reviews as wise investments, although a surprising amount is owned by local authorities.

Secondary locations are held by a mix of smaller institutions, family trusts and private landlords, a group of investors least able to stand the financial strain. Many will let on short leases or monthly terms virtually rent free to escape the cost of rates and repair. Charity shops are major beneficiaries while some local authorities and private landlords sponsor small scale art galleries and individual artists to bring some life back to the dead appearance of a street of empty property. (‘pop up’ shops).

Look above the empty shops in the high streets of your town. It will often be obvious that the shop fronts have been pushed into the ground floors of buildings that were once terraces of residential property. Even those shops still open will have blank windows above the fascia with no sign of life.

More recent construction, the small parades of neighbourhood retail units built after World War II will have residential space above designed originally for the shop keeper for managers and their families.

The hidden values
Whatever the age of the shops, they have valuable attributes in common. The infrastructure is in place, roads, pavements, street lighting and drains. The front and back walls are in place and main services connected even if not in use. Bringing such buildings back into use as individual homes or small groups of flats must be less costly than new build since investment in new infrastructure is unnecessary.

The waste of commercial property is equally serious although less well documented than the retail sector. Scattered across almost all towns and cities are empty office buildings, old multi storey warehouses and factories, some vacant for many years.

Although much good work has been done by converting industrial space into attractive homes – the warehouses beside The Thames in London, in the Liverpool docks and many other cities, that now fetch eye watering prices are an obvious and excellent example – and there is still too much waste.

Awful examples include Trenchard House in Soho, once the home for unmarried police officers, empty for almost ten years and now soon to be developed into 100 homes, a mix of private and affordable housing. King’s Reach Towers, once the home of IPC the magazine publishers, has only been empty for four years, but once redeveloped will provide 173 homes with a roof garden and some ground floor retail space. London property prices and demand for London homes may well have drive these deals, but many former industrial towns in the Midlands and the north could provide similar examples at lower values.

Hope for new homes
There is hope that the revised planning regime, the draft National Planning Policy Framework, NPPF, published for consultation on 25 July 2011, will establish a clear policy in favour of development and economic growth. Driving planning decisions through the system in months rather than years will be a welcome change.
There will be dangers in finding in favour of development too frequently that could lead to loss of amenity land and buildings, but the demand for homes, particularly those rescued from the wasteland, cannot be denied.