Surveyors press owners to fill flats above shops

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The Independent Online
FINANCIAL institutions are looking like poor estate managers by letting flats go empty over shops and other town centre businesses, says the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The RICS calculates that more than 80,000 people now homeless or living in unsuitable accommodations could be housed if just 80 of these institutions changed their policy.

Some owners of town centre properties are now seeing the sense in letting previously vacant flats, gaining rent and security as a result. Boots is renting out flats on the market, and Norwich Union has assisted RICS in a new scheme at Haywards Heath in Sussex.

Last month a single-parent family moved from a hostel into a flat over a shop as tenants of the Mid- Sussex Housing Association. The cost of refurbishing the property were met by the association with a grant from the local council. Property owner Norwich Union and leaseholder QS Familywear co-operated in enabling the project.

RICS says many more empty flats could be let if the owners co- operated; the retailers themselves are often prevented by the terms of their leases from sub-letting.

As part of the Spare Space? campaign, RICS representatives are visiting financial institutions that own an estimated 80 per cent of the properties deemed sutiable for occupancy. The campaign chairman, Michael Newey, said the effort may be extended to encouraging shareholders to put pressure on companies to change policy.

'At a conservative estimate, there are 100,000 suitable flats lying empty,' Mr Newey said, adding that the Government had put the figure in London alone at 93,000.

'Eighty per cent of these are owned by 80 organisations, and the decisions of these 80 probably have more effect than the policies of local authorities. The prohibition in leases of anyone living or eating on the premises is writing off large numbers of properties.'

Both RICS and the Institute of Housing have called for 100,000 new properties a year to be built to deal with the housing shortage. Mr Newey suggested that a policy review by property owners could therefore save large amounts of green belt land from development. 'It is a matter of releasing the land's hidden resources,' he said.

The advent of assured short- hold tenancies, which do not provide security of tenure, should have encouraged property owners to review practice on leases, he added.

The RICS initiative has attracted criticism, however, from the Living Over The Shop scheme funded by the Department of Environment and the Housing Corporation. Ann Petherick, director of LOTS, said: 'They have duplicated what I have already done. It is unfortunate RICS got involved at all. There are structural reasons for the problems, and the institutions have no control over what happens once a property is leased. They can't take the initiative. The wording of leases can only be changed once owners see the successes - not by people telling them to do it. Things won't change overnight,' she said.