Empty Shops and the Housing Crisis: a Perspective from the Second World War
By David Cowan
Britain lacks enough affordable housing. The problem is clear: too few houses are being built to meet the needs of an ageing population. One estimate suggests that about 300,000 new houses are needed each year, whilst about half of that are actually constructed. With the demand for new housing exceeding availability, renting is becoming increasingly unaffordable; buying is now a pipe dream for many, especially the young.
Policy-makers are rightly considering the solutions to this crisis. Theresa May recently proposed, amongst other measures, ‘to make it easier for shops to be turned into housing if that’s appropriate’. It is good that Britain’s shortage of affordable housing is being taken seriously by the government.
Yet May’s proposal is not an especially original idea. During the Second World War, empty shops were also converted into houses.
As physical resources and labour were redirected towards the war effort, housebuilding all but ground to a halt. This worsened existing problems with overcrowding. At the same time, bombings depleted the remaining housing stock. About a third of Britain’s houses were damaged; nearly half a million were destroyed.
Those seeking housing were left with few options. One solution, recorded in Bolton by a local newspaper, was that ‘many of the empty shops about the town’ were ‘converted into living premises.’ Streets which once looked ‘forlorn’ due to ‘the number of empty shops’ were given over to residential housing: ‘shop display windows have been replaced by house windows, and a lot of property is occupied. There must be a big demand for these converted shops, for as soon as alterations begin in one of them a notice appears announcing that the premises are not to let.’
The same solution was also sometimes used as a result of evacuation. As evacuees were sent away from urban and industrial areas, they strained the availability of housing in small towns. In Fleetwood, Lancashire, some evacuees ‘were billeted… in an empty shop’ when they were turned away from private homes.
Here is a clear precedent for May’s proposal. Nevertheless, it is a comparison which suggests something of the timidity of contemporary housing policy. In both cases during the war, it could be expected that the converted shops would revert to their prior, commercial use, after the war was over.
Then, converting empty shops into houses seemed to be a stopgap, serving to temporarily alleviate local spikes in demand. Now, the policy of conversion is being proposed as a permanent solution—even if it can realistically only help a fraction of those seeking accommodation.
Indeed, it was the shame of such a severe housing shortage which, during the war, encouraged planners to propose an extensive programme of housebuilding. In Scotland alone, it was estimated that 470,000 new houses were needed to replace those which were ‘unfit’ to live in (as well as those which had been destroyed during the war, and to house newly married couples). May’s speech, by contrast, attracted criticism for failing to propose helping councils build more social housing.
May’s proposal offers a piecemeal solution to a problem which is ever worsening. What is needed is not just headline-grabbing, ‘common-sense’ ideas, but a serious commitment to the building of high-quality social housing across the country.
 Tatsuya Tsubaki, ‘Planners and the Public: British Popular Opinion on Housing during the Second World War’, Contemporary British History, 14:1 (2000), 81-98, at p. 82.
 ‘Chat and Comment’, Bolton Journal and Guardian (31 July 1942), p. 3.
 ‘Seven more evacuee prosecutions’, Daily Express (20 July 1944), p. 3.
 Department of Health for Scotland, Planning our New Homes: Report by the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee on the Design, Planning and Furnishing of New Homes (Edinburgh: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1944), p. 11.
Image: ‘Blitz Repair Squad’s London Camp- Everyday Life With the Blitz Repair Teams, London, England, UK, 1944′. By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/Blitz_Repair_Squad%27s_London_Camp-_Everyday_Life_With_the_Blitz_Repair_Teams%2C_London%2C_England%2C_UK%2C_1944_D21303.jpg