Monday, July 06, 2009

National retailers leaving homes empty

Inefficiency in the public sector is always an easy target. Indeed I’m not against having a go about it myself especially when it results in property being needlessly left empty. The target today appears to be quangos. Or should I say QU.A.N.G.O.s (Quasi autonomous non government organisations). The Empty Homes Agency isn’t one in case you were wondering; we are an independent charity with no government funding.

But is inefficiency solely a problem of the public sector? If what I have heard this week is true the answer is no. Several local authorities have told me that a few national retailers have appalling records of leaving residential property they own empty. This seems extraordinary, particularly when these companies are operating in areas with high levels of housing demand, and some of them are struggling to make money from their core business at the moment. I’m amazed not to say dismayed, but the evidence for these accusations appears compelling.

William Hill bookmakers have over 2000 branches nationwide. Many have flats above and many of these are within the ownership or control of the bookmakers. How many are empty? I don’t know but one London borough knows of seventeen just within its own boundary. The smaller Coombe Bookmakers operating in the South East of England seems to have a similar problem. A third bookmaker Coral are apparently very touchy about the subject and threatend one council with court for even raising the matter with them. Since I was told about this I started looking out myself and there appears to be a theme here. All the bookies run by these companies do indeed have what look like empty flats above.

Shell owns over 600 petrol stations in the UK; many of them set amongst houses in towns and villages. A worrying number of neighbouring houses to their stations appear empty. From Hampshire, to Suffolk to Cumbria to London the problem appears the same. On investigation it turns out that many belong to the petrol retailer having been acquired in the past presumably with future expansion in mind. What’s going on I don’t know but at least two (in Guildford and Ipswich) have been empty for more than twenty years.
Is this inefficiency, deliberate policy or merely coincidence? I ‘d be grateful for your own views and reports. Please let us know here, here or leave a comment below


  1. You're right. I have lots of bookies offices with empty flats over them. My attempts at communication are ignored. I suspect they are wary of having tenants over offices with large amounts of money. There's the potential for burglary either by the tenent or by others who may hold the tenant hostage whilst they dig through the floor of the flat. I can sympathise with that if it's the case, but you'd think they'd utilise the flats for storage, office or staff space rather than waste it.

  2. It may be a similar situation to one locally, where a jeweller with an empty flat above has said that their insurance precludes having anyone living in the flat for security reasons. I guess in times gone by they might have had their own security man or caretaker living in the flat - now it just sits empty and I don't think there's anything I can realistically do about it.

  3. Where I live, in the expensive and over-heated south east, the first high street building to have a live-over-the-shop scheme was a bank. So the security answer really doesn't wash. As usual it's down to motivation. Maybe with commercial rents dropping in the recession big corporations will start to look at making money out of the rest of the building.