Letter: House the homeless over the shop

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article 'The Government must put its houses in order' (11 April) focuses on the scandal of the huge numbers of dwellings lying idle, including those above shops in town centres, and identified the crucial role played by landlords in letting residential property.

As initiator of the 'Living over the shop' campaign in 1989, I believe the potential available above shops may be even greater than is commonly appreciated. Although the English House Condition Survey conducted by the Department of the Environment in 1986 estimated 53,000 vacant habitable dwellings over shops, this included only existing dwellings and disregarded the potential offered by the conversion of redundant storage or office space, or the division of obsolete dwellings. Including this accommodation could increase the potential as much as tenfold.

While I agree with your analysis of the deterrent effect of landlords' perceptions of the risks involved, I would argue that, particularly where commercial property is concerned, there are two essential prerequisites to bringing vacant accommodation into residential use. The first is some form of protection for the landlord against the perceived risks, and the second is practical assistance with the management of residential properties.

These concerns can be overcome by persuading owners to grant commercial head leases to organisations such as housing associations, which can then renovate, let and manage the flats on behalf of the owner. Within the last two years 2,000 flats have been created above shops in this way, with help from the DoE and others.

It is ironic, therefore, that the Government should choose this point to reduce its commitment rather than building on the successes. With so many properties standing empty, the Government should accord higher priority to an innovative scheme that has been proved to work.

Yours sincerely,

ANN PETHERICK

Project Director

Living Over The Shop

University of York

York

(Photograph omitted)

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