Repurposing Empty Commercial Spaces to Help Address the Housing Crisis in the UK: Research Findings

A new piece of research, conducted by The Empty Homes Network on behalf of Habitat for Humanity Great Britain, aims to explore and understand the current opportunities available in reutilising socially-owned vacant buildings and spaces, for use as accommodation for those at risk of homelessness  across England, Wales and Scotland. It also aims to provide an understanding of opportunities to help address the current social housing supply and demand across England, Scotland and Wales. The research has been funded by our UK flagship Partner M&G plc

Every family needs a home, but not every business needs a building

Research Highlights 

  • An estimated 7,000 commercial and business premises across England, Scotland, and Wales, currently owned by Local Authorities, had been empty and vacant for over 12 months.
  • It is estimated that these spaces have the potential to create over 19,500 residential units through the conversion of vacant office and retail space.
  • On average, each Council owns 18 commercial or business properties that have remained vacant for over 12 months.
  • When combined, retail and office space accounts for over 55% of all vacant buildings owned by local authorities in England and Wales, over 38% in Scotland
  • An estimated 165,000 privately-owned commercial and business premises remain empty across Great Britain, potentially providing a partial solution to the current housing and homelessness crisis.
  • When accounting for business premises owned by Local Authorities vacant for less than 12 months, this is likely to be much higher due to the impact and repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Changes in shopping habits and a shift toward a working-from-home culture could potentially lead to increased vacancy rates of retail and office spaces in the short term, but decrease as the economy picks up as measures and restrictions ease.

With the number of homeless people in the UK and the use of temporary accommodation on the rise, coupled with the number of available properties declining, we need to become increasingly innovative in our approach to both house-building, and the repurposing of existing buildings and housing stock.

Whilst house building remains the primary option for Housing Authorities and Associations, the private, charitable, and third sectors continue to provide a critical supply of accommodation that not only supports the work of Local Authorities across the country but often offers those who are most vulnerable a lifeline in their search for homes.

Undoubtedly, the private sector presents the largest singular opportunity for additional supply, either through privately renting to those in most need or through the increasing number of Councils offering to lease property from landlords on a guaranteed, secure arrangement. It is also the private sector, along with the charitable and third sectors, who provide the most innovative ideas when returning empty and vacant property to use due to the reduced bureaucracy, efficacy of their approach, and their ability to make informed decisions quickly rather than having to go through layers of seniority and scrutiny.

Given the declining rates of occupancy in retail, office, and community buildings, is there a yet largely untapped housing solution? Our research investigates and analyzes the number of business and commercial properties owned by local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales, against the housing demand for social housing for vulnerable and homeless people that these local authorities face.

The effects of Covid-19

Prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, data from the Office National Statistics showed that footfall on the high street had fallen by 10% over the previous 7 years, largely attributed to the rise in popularity of retail parks, internet shopping and a change in shopping habits. The internet accounted for 21% of all retail sales at the end of 2019, and at the end of the first national lockdown in 2020, this had risen to 33%. With footfall on the high street down by 55% in December 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, it is clear that the pandemic has negatively affected visits to the high street over the past 18 months.

However, this is likely to recover somewhat as lockdown restrictions ease, and consumers regain their ability to shop and socialise in town centres once again. Similarly, with traditional office-based roles and the restrictions imposed by Central Government meaning that the work from home message had to be adhered to, it is expected that whilst many will return to their usual place and ways of working, businesses are finding ways to adapt their approach.

While it’s probable that a significant transition period will be required to enable company employees to return to office-working safely, the emphasis and costs of adapting office space to comply with restrictions and social-distancing measures may put some smaller companies off and may continue to afford their workforce the option of working from home.

Will the traditional high street recover, and will a walk to the home-office replace the daily commute? Whilst the immediate changes in societal shopping and working habits mean that the landscape of office and retail premises occupancy is uncertain for the foreseeable future, it is only after the impending boom when shoppers return, diners are able to eat out and staff can return to the office setting, that the consequential effects of the pandemic will be felt in the months, or possibly years, to come.

That’s why programmes like Habitat for Humanity’s Empty Spaces Renovation Project have a really important part to play in reviving the high street and providing much-needed social housing.

You can find the full Research here.

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