Blog Post

Shopping for a home? Retail conversion in London

Our Research Director Claire Harding examines the potential of turning office and industrial spaces into housing for Londoners.

John Lewis have been in the headlines recently because they want to convert or expand properties they own to provide 7,000 homes for private rent, available with or without their brand’s furniture and appliances. Their position as department stores to the English middle classes means that they will always get press coverage – but they are not alone among commercial property owners in thinking that residential property is a better bet at the moment – and indeed policy makers in the City of London and at the Greater London Authority are tentatively thinking the same thing. The conversion of the Centre Point tower block and the planning permission granted for Transport for London’s 55 Broadway offices to be turned into flats may turn out to be the start of a wave.

There are both risks and benefits to this sort of conversion and converting offices is a bit different to converting West End shops. London’s bricks and mortar retailers were already seeing a challenge before the pandemic hit – mostly because of the strong growth of online shopping from the mid-2000s onwards. The pandemic has massively accelerated the trend towards buying online, and if Londoners are buying in person it seems more likely to be at a local independent shop than a city centre chain. Some are responding by offering experiences alongside shopping – perhaps expert tech advice, or an in-store bar. Others have moved online only. And others, sadly, have simply collapsed. The ground floors of former branches of Gap and Topshop are unlikely to make nice homes, and might be tricky as offices – so a key challenge for central London policy makers in the next year will be to find positive, flexible approaches for shops which don’t quickly find new tenants.

Interestingly, John Lewis’s announcement isn’t just about their retail space – it’s also about the space that they have been using for warehousing and distribution. A lot of this sort of activity in London takes place in our city’s industrial land, which is used by everyone from manufacturers to car mechanics, tailors to courier firms. In the last few decades, it’s been more common for industrial spaces than retail spaces to be turned into new homes, and London has lost quite a lot of its industrial land. Of course, companies shouldn’t hold on to industrial land if it doesn’t fit their needs, and London needs lots more homes. But when the Mayor and the boroughs are looking at conversion of industrial land, it’s important to be strategic: once converted, industrial land is hard to get back. This has far-reaching consequences: churches and community groups often use ‘industrial’ spaces at weekends. And a lack of land to distribute deliveries to courier vans means they have to travel further, and pollute more.

Debates about whether a specific shop, office building or warehouse should be turned into homes can seem like local issues – and indeed it is vitally important that local people are given a say in what happens. But they are also about the big questions for our city – how many homes do we need, and what are we willing to change in order to get them? When and how should the state intervene in decisions made by private landowners? And what, ultimately, is our city for?

Centre for London is currently running an Industrial Land Commission – find out more here. And we’re planning a project on how we can maximise the benefits of more people living in Central London – if you’d be interested in supporting this, please get in touch with our research director Claire Harding.

Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.  Read more from her here.