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Unlocking The Potential Of Empty Buildings, Creating Affordable Homes

Oct 3, 2023

By Gareth Ellis, Associate Architect, CAD Architects

In an earlier CAD Architects’ blog article we looked at how changes to planning laws are making it easier to convert commercial buildings for residential use.

This trend is likely to be accelerated further by a new report published this summer, which highlights the scale of the opportunity and its potential to address housing shortages across the UK.

Two all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) have called on the Government to turn empty buildings into affordable housing, after their report found that repurposing properties could create thousands of new homes.

The report, which is titled ‘Rethinking commercial to residential conversions’, was published in July 2023 following a joint inquiry by the APPG for Housing Market and Delivery and the APPG for Ending Homelessness. It found that 20,000 homes could be created from empty local authority buildings alone. In addition, the report found there was significant potential for repurposing commercial properties, with 14% of retail unit space and 7% of office space currently vacant.

The figures are compelling and they come at a time when creative housing supply solutions are urgently needed.

However, the MPs highlighted three areas where specific measures are needed in order to maximise the potential.

Firstly, they warned that standards should be strengthened to ensure that homes are always fit to live in. Amongst other recommendations, the groups are calling on the Government to implement the ‘Healthy Homes Principles’ to ensure high quality homes. These are a set of standards which would apply to all new housing, including conversions, and include access to amenities such as shops, schools, GPs, green spaces and transport, fire safety, access to natural light, as well as ensuring that homes are warm and well-ventilated to avoid damp and mould issues.

Secondly, the APPGs are calling for all conversions to be required to make contributions towards genuinely affordable housing to help meet local need and tackle homelessness. The Government has already signalled its intent to do this through the Levelling Up Bill, but the MPs are calling for the measures to be brought forward to deliver benefits in the immediate term.

Thirdly, the groups also said there should be clearer guidance on how local authorities can have more influence over conversions in their areas, to ensure that they align with local housing and economic development plans.

Ben Everitt, chair of the APPG for Housing Market and Delivery, said: ‘We wanted to look at creative housing supply solutions that are available in the short-term, and hope that the Government will take forward our recommendations, which are both practical and pragmatic.

‘This includes publishing data on the number of commercial properties that have been vacant for over two years and requiring local authorities to report on vacant buildings in their local areas.

‘This would establish a clear picture of the potential scale of empty commercial properties which could be converted into affordable housing which is so desperately needed.’

At CAD Architects, we wholeheartedly support the repurposing of disused and under-used buildings to provide much-needed homes.

There is a massive shortage of affordable housing across the UK and the impact is especially severe in the Southwest of England, where there is a high demand for second homes and holiday rentals. Meanwhile, many High Street shops, facing stiff competition from online sales, are closing down. This can create exciting opportunities for new residential space, as town centres transform into places offering new ways to live, work and play.

Empty property is a wasted resource. Empty local authority buildings, unused retail unit space and unused commercial buildings present a golden opportunity, ripe for development into affordable housing.

At CAD, we are specialists in guiding our clients through the planning regulations affecting change of use. Our planning team work closely with our architects, who can create visionary designs which make the most of the space in empty commercial properties.

One recent example of this was a project where we were tasked with the refurbishment and extension of commercial buildings in St Nicholas Street, Truro. This project re-introduced residential use to these buildings with nine new flats above the existing shops.

The development offered a model for the effective use of land in urban areas by making better use of existing underused structures and sites, which can be unlocked through careful and considered design. The development is sustainable, making use of existing redundant and underused structures, whilst encouraging car-free, active travel and the use of local high street facilities. Care has been taken by the design team to fully embrace the opportunities for improvements to the Truro Conservation Area and to create a finished product which achieves a high design standard, enhancing the City of Truro.

Get in touch to find out more about how CAD Architects can help you unlock the potential of this exciting approach as it continues to evolve: studio@cadarchitects.co.uk

The full report ‘Rethinking commercial to residential conversions’ can be downloaded here:

https://www.appghousing.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/rethinking-commercial-to-residential-conversions-joint-appg-final-report.pdf

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