The government has denied that it is mothballing an initiative to create 300,000 homes above shops, despite the housing minister admitting the ODPM was struggling to overcome “a number of barriers” to the project

Campaigners and the property industry had hoped that the “flats above shops” scheme, which had been championed by former housing minister Lord Rooker, would have become reality by now.

In a report submitted to the government in September 2003, the British Property Federation called for the creation of a national agency to bring retailers together with housing providers such as housing associations to release the “airspace” above shops for housing.

The Housing Corporation had been asked to draw up a business plan for the proposed agency, which would have smoothed problems over leases and gaining access to the potential homes.

However, in a written parliamentary answer last Tuesday, housing minister Yvette Cooper said: “This is a potentially useful source of housing units, which could also help in reviving town-centre living. There are, however, a number of barriers preventing much of this potential from being realised, including the complex ownership patterns in high street property.

“We are considering a number of ways in which these barriers might be overcome, and we will announce how we intend to take this forward in due course,” she added.

Her comments were taken by campaigners to mean that the initiative, which had been hailed in previous years by John Prescott as a possible solution to the housing crisis, had been shelved.

Roger Humber, a planning consultant, said: “So is this another much-publicised initiative that has disappeared into the long grass? Besides getting supermarkets to build flats through mixed development, is the use of ‘airspace’ a dead duck?”

Cooper’s comments come as housebuilders continue to predict that the numbers of housing starts are, as one put it, “likely to fall off a cliff next year” because of a market slowdown.

This was confirmed on Tuesday by ODPM figures that showed the average house price in April was £181,832, down from £183,346 in March.

An ODPM spokesperson said: “We would have liked to have done something by now but we are getting down to the nitty-gritty and hope to get something decided on this as soon as possible.

It is not being mothballed.”

The initiative’s progress so far …

  • September 2003 British Property Federation publishes report calling for national agency

  • July 2004 Housing minister Keith Hill says government has set up a taskforce to “deal with that problem”

  • Autumn 2004 Housing Corporation and English Partnerships working on “scoping study”

  • June 2005 Yvette Cooper admits “barriers” are proving hard to “overcome”