Comment: Are vacant shops the solution to our housing shortage?

Renting in St Albans typically requires 33 per cent of the average salary. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lockdown placed further pressure on retail businesses. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The challenges facing the high street were apparent way before COVID-19,  and the pandemic has made life even harder for already struggling retailers. 

One estate agency has come up with an idea, though it's unlikely to benefit retailers: turning empty premises into much-needed homes — nearly 25,000 of them. 

Keller Williams focused its analysis on 38 of the biggest hitters to have either ceased trading this year, or be due to close some or all stores in the near future. This list includes Topshop, TM Lewin, Cath Kidston, M&Co, Oasis and Jessops, all of whom had branches in either St Albans or Harpenden. 

Based on the average square footage of A1 retail space (2,195 sq ft), Keller Williams estimate that an enormous 19,735,230 sq ft will soon be vacant country-wide.

With the average UK property coming in at 790 sq ft, this equates to 24,981 potential new homes, with a market value of £7.4bn. 

Ben Taylor, CEO of Keller Williams UK, said developing unused retail space into housing could be a great way of "repopulating our high streets... while also delivering some sorely needed housing stock to the market". 

And while he notes that we will hopefully see some of these former premises reopening as retail units, "it’s becoming abundantly clear that we simply don’t shop in the same way we used to and so physical retail outlets are likely to remain largely redundant in many high streets up and down the nation.

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"At the same time, we’re seeing a lack of housing stock failing to satisfy the appetites of UK homebuyers, while housebuilders and the government continue to fail year on year in meeting delivery targets."

It's an interesting idea, albeit an overly simplistic one. 

In an area like St Albans, I struggle to see this as the solution to our housing woes. After all, vacant retail units are unlikely to be transformed into the larger family homes we're most in need of. 

Instead, they'd add to the over-supply of one and two-bedroom flats we already have in the city, no doubt with hefty price tags attached. 

In St Albans at least, there are shoots of hope for the high street. One Below has replaced Poundland, Honest Burger has arrived in Christopher Place and Darlish ice cream parlour is rumoured to be opening there later this month. 

Alban's Well has also opened its doors in the former BHS building, and its outdoor tables have been busy for weeks, with hardy diners donning hats and draping themselves in the pub's blankets, determined to keep their social lives on track whatever the weather. 

Yes, our determination to dine out may wane as we get used to doing so again, but in our coffee shop-focused communities, I see plenty of life in the old high street yet — just with more macchiatos and not as many clothes shops.