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Comment: allowing offices to become homes could have dangerous side-effects

Arita Morris argues that proposals to allow office to be converted into housing without planning permission could fall short of its aims

Relaxing the rules on changing commercial buildings in England to homes sounds good on paper but it is in danger of delivering unintended consequences. With a shortage of 750,000 dwellings forecast in the next 15 years, it’s essential to pinpoint why the policy could fall short of its aims as well as the opportunities it could provide.

The government’s proposal to allow commercial (B1) to residential conversions (C3) without applying for planning permission (on which the consultation closed on 30 June) will undoubtedly benefit some towns and suburban areas. However, this change to the Town and Country Planning Order of 1995 is unlikely to boost housing numbers on the scale envisaged – particularly for family housing.

This is firstly down to the type and footprint of the most widely available buildings and the lack of amenities and social infrastructure around them. This means those most likely to benefit from extra supply are first time buyers, couples and older people.

London and the South East are likely to present the greatest opportunity, with office space constructed in the 1940s-1970s offering the largest feasible reservoir of capacity. But this supply is diminishing as a shortage of new office pipeline supply, driving up rents and reducing vacancy rates.  

It’s worth bearing in mind that these properties face greater technical challenges than more recently-developed offices. So the work needed to bring them up to standard may still trigger planning applications for operational development, such, for example upgrading the external envelope to meet minimum thermal requirements.

Another factor is that the proposals will mean opportunities are spread unevenly across different commercial premises and regions. For instance, many cities in the north and Midlands have a surplus of central urban residential apartments, a fragile housing market, and a lack of commercial property, so they are unlikely to benefit much from these proposals.

Meanwhile, planning obligations could counteract new development rights. Affordable homes targets, lifetime homes, renewable energy quotas, requirements for parking and amenity spaces could all make new developments less viable.

Greater clarity on charges for property owners is also needed, including corporation and capital gains tax, and on the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and New Homes Bonus Scheme.

So what can be done? As well as recommending taking into account the factors above when deciding where and how to invest, the following changes would help make the process more certain for those involved.

First, national planning policy must contain an acceptance that certain ‘additional’ planning benefits will be lost in these limited circumstances.

Imposing thresholds and other conditions may well act as a deterrent to developers, and frustrate the policy intention of delivering new housing. They should be used only to allow a limited range of practical issues to be “checked” by the local planning authority and not open up the question of principle or give rise to a long list of contributions.

A thorough analysis should be conducted of any property up front to ensure that it can meet market demands as well as planning policy requirements. The government should therefore ensure planning permission requirements around ‘change of use’ remain sacrosanct.

In order not to undermine planning strategies for employment devised by local authorities and their communities, councils should be given restricted powers to protect employment areas by opting out of the new permitted development rights through Article 4 Directions (which allow development rights to be removed in special circumstances.

These proposals are to be welcomed in principle but the opportunities they seek to create could be limited unless further detail and guidance accompanies the change in law.

Arita Morris is an associate director at architects and designers Child Graddon Lewis

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