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Many housing associations own a small but very useful amount of non residential property. The scale varies from housing association to housing association with some having a commercial portfolio of anything up to 10% of overall holdings and some hardly having any commercial property at all.

A number of associations are now looking to proactively manage their commercial portfolios in order to influence a range of outcomes, not just necessarily about maximising rental income.

Whilst for a few housing associations their commercial portfolio is an asset which they actively manage, for a large number it is at best an inconvenience and at worst something which they completely ignore. There might be very good reasons why this is the case. The rules about commercial property are entirely different from the rules about residential property and it is almost certainly not the core activity of any housing association to provide commercial property. However, where a housing association does have commercial property, it should look at this not as an inconvenience, but as an opportunity to promote its own objectives free from much government or external interference.

One of the areas that could enormously benefit from this and which is being actively pursued by clients, is the healthy eating concept. Any of a housing associations non-residential portfolio can be put to uses which promote the healthy eating concept. For example, preference can be given by an housing association to retail shops which promote healthy eating. High street chains selling unhealthy food, or perhaps fast food outlets, can be discouraged in favour of healthier equivalents. In many cases, such healthier fast food outlets enhance the local communities and reflect their communities far better than a national or international chain. Diversity in the food market would therefore be encouraged, and the nature of any such outlet can be tailored to, and arise from, any specific community that it serves.

Other associations have taken a proactive role in not letting (or not renewing) leases to other commercial tenants where activities may be perceived detrimental to a community (e.g. bookmakers or a high cost credit brokers).

The key point to remember here is that housing associations commercial properties are not regulated to the same degree as their residential properties. Each housing association is free to do with that property anything that it wants to do subject only to the broad parameters of its general objects and of planning law. Therefore, fast food outlets can be local fast food healthy outlets. Food retailers can be retailers of fresh organic produce rather than processed food. Information centres can be set up promoting the healthy eating concept in any of these premises.

The lesson to be drawn from this is clear. Housing associations are free to do it, they own the property, and they have the ability to put their non-residential property to any use which in their opinion promotes the wellbeing at their communities.