COLUMN: Why not look at former shops to ease the housing crisis?

ACCORDING to official figures, the UK requires 120,000 homes a year to keep up with demand.

However, a general lack of development finance, colossal amounts of red tape, a near collapsed construction industry and new cash extraction schemes have contrived to bring the number of new build homes to an all-time annual low. This is despite Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister’s best efforts.

A strange paradox exists thenas, nationally, nearly 15 per cent of all town centre shops are empty, regional differences aside. This is in part down to the state of the economy; however internet shopping accounted for all retail purchases in 2010 and is estimated to rise to 23 per cent by 2016.

With the average lease length now down to 4.8 years, tenants are renegotiating repairing liabilities and attempting anything they can to reduce financial obligations, often releasing the underused upper floors back to the landlord.

Tenants are coming to the end of the 25 year leases agreed in the 1980s, the 10 year leases agreed in the 90s and the sub 10 year leases of the last decade. A quarter of existing high street leases are due to expire in 2013, 50 per cent by 2015.

Some commentators have suggested that many town centres have been blighted by the Full Repairing and Insuring Lease, which has become popular with investors and landlords in the UK since the 1960s.

It has in effect created ‘ghost towns’ in the evening when everyone has gone home, leaving town centres to feral youths, whilst the populace hides at home, usually located on the outskirts of town.

Pre-First World War buildings are usually the easiest to convert back to residential use, as they were designed with this in mind. Some Second World War buildings were specifically designed for retail use so could be more difficult, requiring whole blocks to be converted at the same time to gain upper floor access.

Boston is very lucky in this regard, having many superb older buildings compared to other towns. However, retailers in Boston are faring better than they are in many other places, as occupancy rates are relatively high.

Bringing vacant shops and upper floors back into residential use could be implemented quickly and bring life back into town centres. Up to 400,000 units could be created nationally in the next five years.

Isn’t now the time to reconsider our town centres?