We all realise that the UK has been struggling to meet the demand for new homes. We have seen what has happened in Sefton , as the council, eager to meet the Governments housing targets rushes through planning applications which cover our green belt sites with concrete and homes and encourages housebuilding on flood plains.
Meanwhile this lack lustre council does not bid successfully for Government money to revitalise brownfield sites into attractive housing opportunities. Our councillors’ ineptitude is staggering. They say they support the “green agenda” but snatch the fertile agricultural land from us, driving roads through what was valuable farmland land.
Where else can we find opportunities to provide homes? The answer has been staring the councillors in the face for years but they have failed to recognise it. We have witnessed for years the changing face of our town centres and high streets as many of our well known department stores closed, deciding instead to sell products on line or from much smaller premises. There is no denying the fact that our high streets need to be remodelled to reflect the ways in which are lifestyles have changed, as have our shopping habits. This will present challenges but these are not unsurmountable. A willingness to think differently and to bring creativity of thought and design to this problem could help to regenerate our high streets and at the same time help solve some of our housing issues. No one is advocating taking a bulldozer to the well-established buildings in our high street but, what we are suggesting is that “ living above the shop “ should, in some cases, be encouraged and for some members of our community has considerable advantages.
Research shows, for instance, that many of the shops in Lord Street, Southport, were at one time large flats. The upper floors were then used for storage by shop owners, but with the advent of “just in time delivery” now lie empty. An untapped resource, which could be utilised once more for its original use and helping to provide affordable homes.
The Government has responded to this challenge by reforming some planning legislation to allow this to happen more easily, whilst at the same time ensuring that developments are attractive, safe and meet the needs of the local population.
Let us look at what the main issues facing planners, councils and architects as they try to tackle this issue:
- Access to the buildings and services.
- Fragmented ownership of buildings.
- Poor structural condition of the buildings
- Cost of refurbishment and rebuilding programmes
- Securing the balance between residential and retail use
- Encouraging community support for the redevelopment.
- Encouraging the local council to refer to converting retail premises to residential units in their planning documents and to encourage them to broker partnerships with the private sector to help design and fund aspects of this work.
These issues are not unsurmountable. With ingenuity and goodwill they can be overcome. Small incremental steps could help to revitalise our high streets, bringing vibrancy to the area and releasing the potential of unused and valuable space.
Let us look at what type of development we could envisage:
A refurbishment of space above shops, upgrading of finishings , flooring and safety aspects to create small flats .
Conversion of spaces by building partition walls, inserting services, sound proofing, stairwells, windows, fire escapes
Adding extensions to existing structures, to the sides, rear or to the top of buildings, which could help transform the appearance of outdated buildings making them more attractive.
Redesigning of green spaces and leisure facilities to support these developments.
Complete re-development, which would be costly and time-consuming and may require reworking of major services but something that may need consideration where town centres need consolidating.
This type of planning and development is what is required for the future. We cannot keep looting our countryside. Our fields feed us and with a growing population we need not only homes but food to feed us. We must be more imaginative in our thinking and in our planning for the future. Consider for a moment, what our future generations would think if we continue to build on our greenbelt.
“You did what? You built on land that could feed us and let your shops lie desolate and your high streets fail.”
Revitalising our town centres by building homes helps maintain the social function and role of the town, preserving its identity but at the same time redirecting its focus and direction for the future.
But who will build this type of home we ask?
The Government announced in January 2020 extra support for SME builders whose role has diminished following the financial crash, but whose skill, talent and expertise would be suited to projects such as this. This would be particular beneficial if the builders were local and were familiar with issues associated with projects such as this. These builders would be able to access short term loans from a £1.5 billion scheme financed through British Business Banks ENABLE programme.
Working in partnership with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Homes England to address both access to finance and the UK housing shortage, the ENABLE Build programme will allow smaller building companies to access funding which they have until now, found difficult to access. In order to access this funding , councils must have plans and schemes in place so that they can act swiftly and meet the funding guidelines. The role of councillors and councils is crucial for the success of projects such as these. Is Sefton Council and our councillors aware or even interested ?
Obviously we are not demanding our high streets are turned into housing estates but what we are proposing suggests that creativity, imagination and a desire to make a difference is required by our council. The most successful places and communities are those that inspire and provide places for people to flourish. Living close to places where there are employment opportunities and where retail, leisure and recreational are concentrated could be an attractive proposition to some people.
Our environment is precious and we must make every effort to protect and enhance it. Sustainability is fundamental, it is not an option. As we address our housing issues and as we rejuvenate our high streets by providing homes, the design, the construction methods, materials and the use of technology must be used to reduce fuel poverty and help meet our carbon and environmental goals.
Some local authorities have already started this type of redevelopment of their high streets; we need to learn from them. We know that some redevelopments will be more challenging than others, but it is the possibility that remains … the challenge is unlocking and developing the potential.