Return of the Ghost Town

If you work in an industry long enough, you inevitably find that what goes around, comes around. And this is precisely what is happening in the UK commercial property sector.


There has been a noticeable trend in recent years to convert commercial property into residential premises. The logic is an obvious one, and the conversion of often ugly, 1960s-style buildings in our town centres into more attractive residential dwellings for our townsfolk has typically been well received, both locally and within the media.


There are, however, some potential issues heading our way. One relates to planning. In certain cases, it seems, permitted developments are being allowed of the interior envelope of commercial properties, but if you want to change the external look then you have to apply for planning. That, in itself, is perhaps not a problem, until you consider the challenges Councils are having in clearing their planning backlogs. We know of one Council, for example, that is currently four months adrift of its statutory deadlines for responses, and the situation is likely to get worse before it gets any better.

And there is another, perhaps more pressing issue. The unintended consequences of converting commercial to residential is that in some areas, there is now a dearth of commercial properties available to rent. That, in turn, is pushing potential employers away, which is an irony. It is also having another effect. It means that investors are being attracted to buy up land to develop commercial sites, safe in the knowledge that finding suitable tenants is not going to be an issue, and recognising the high returns that can be made.

Creating affordable homes in which people can live is of course vital; if in doing so, however, we drive potential employers and small businesses out of our towns, we run the risk of creating a new generation of ghost towns with no commerce.