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I have written before about the sluggish progress in getting more flats provided above shops. Planning rules have been eased but there is still a lot of wasted potential. It makes sense as a way of reviving high streets in towns around the country where retailers are inevitably struggling to cope with online competition. Even more pressing is the contribution that could be made to easing the housing shortage.

So often, great attention and huge budgets are devoted to “affordable housing”. But the market already means flats above shops are 15 per cent cheaper.   I spent many years above a rather good French restaurant in St John’s Wood High Street (my landlord being Marc Glendening a contributor to this site). Any savings in rent were probably outweighed by the temptation to go downstairs for dinner.

Light sleepers might not be suited to such accommodation in a busy high street. But I am not a light sleeper. To make what should be an obvious point, those very sensitive to noise should look elsewhere for somewhere to live – that should not mean the rest of us should be denied such opportunity.

To give an equivalent example the planning restrictions on micro homes are unreasonable. Let us take ceiling height rules (whether for flats above shops or anywhere else).  My own Council, Hammersmith and Fulham, says that while “the nationally described space standard sets a minimum ceiling height of 2.3 meters for at least 75 per cent of the gross internal area of the dwelling” the local requirement is 2.5 meters. That is 8 feet and two inches. For someone of my height that’s about right – I often bump my head visiting country cottages. But is it really any business of the Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s planning department to be so prescriptive? All the virtue signalling about minimum space “standards” just restricts supply and makes overcrowding worse.

We will all have different priorities. It might be location. It might be a tall ceiling. It might be avoiding noise. We should be treated as adults and allowed to exercise those priorities rather than being ordered about by municipal jobsworths.

There are 290,315 “retail outlets” according to the most recent figures I could find. Some will be in shopping centres – others will already have homes above them. I don’t think we quite know what the potential for new homes is but common sense suggests it must be substantial. Even when there are already flats there could often be another storey. From an aesthetic point of view, looking down on terraced mansard roofs often amounts to an enhancement. (A point noted by Create Streets.)

In a speech to the Federation of Master Builders this month Sajid Javid, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, noted that of the “217,000 net additions to the housing supply” last year “almost 40,000 of those net additions came about from change of use, including taking spaces above shops and turning them into homes.” He said:

“This government has, quite rightly, put a lot of time and effort into regenerating high streets and strengthening local economies.

That has generally focussed on the retail side of things, but as the report you’re publishing today shows there is no reason why commercial and residential cannot coexist happily together.

I grew up in the flat above the family shop, so I’ve seen for myself how it can work not just in theory but in practice too.

That’s why last month’s Budget set out plans to make it easier to create quality homes in empty spaces above high street shops.”

The FMB have produced a report which says:

“Local authorities should explicitly make reference to building homes above shops on the high street within their various planning documents such as local plans, SPGs and SPDs. This would provide a focus for this type of residential redevelopment and signal to the market that this is a worthwhile option that the lead authority is willing to encourage.”

That is a modest enough request – yet one that most councils have yet to meet. The report calls on councils to actively try to overcome problems of access or the need to broker deals “to overcome disparate ownership”.

Too often councils have been obstructive. Instead of being part of the problem, they should become part of the solution.

16 comments for: Councils must do more to encourage flats above shops

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