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Boles and Pickles should be congratulated for implementing a long-overdue reform

Bravo for as-of-right opportunities for office owners to convert their buildings for residential use without planning permission, says Paul Finch

As usual when a restriction is removed, there is the sound of bleating from people fearful of the consequences freedom offers. So it is following the government’s very sensible announcement about as-of-right opportunities for office owners to convert their buildings for residential use without planning permission. Oh dear, what will happen if the initiative doesn’t work? Oh dear, what would happen if town centres were full of apartment blocks? Oh dear, what will happen to the office market?

In brief, the answers to these particular bleats are: if nothing happens we will be no worse-off than we are now. (Incidentally, these proposals are reversible and not compulsory.) Secondly, cities would be immeasurably improved by a flood of residents animating urban centres. Thirdly, as the office market has shown convincingly over decades, it works perfectly well provided politicians keep their noses out of it with fruitcake ideas like Office Development Permits, which older readers will remember kept supply restricted and thus made fortunes for developers who could obtain them.

I have to declare an interest in this matter: the joint editors of Planning in London magazine (Brian Waters, Lee Mallet and myself) have been arguing for many years that this change to the Use Classes Order should take place. Until the announcement last week, it seemed that the political classes had lost their nerve in the matter, following lobbying from the City of London and others.

An exemption looks likely for the Square Mile and it will be open to the City and other authorities to argue that this change should not apply where they can show there are exceptional circumstances. Let’s hope ‘exceptional’ is what they are.

The principal reason for backing use class flexibility is the obvious inefficiencies in second-guessing what is the most appropriate use for building stock. At a time of acute housing shortage in certain parts of the country, it makes sense to allow existing buildings to be converted to help meet that demand. This sounds so obviously sensible that it is hard to understand why many planners, some politicians and, indeed, the RIBA have worked themselves up into a state of righteously indignant opposition.

The same people who, 30 years ago, treated office developers as pariahs and droned on about how offices were freezing out buildings that accommodate ‘real jobs’ are now getting sentimental about the joys of the service economy and predict doom and disaster if we don’t have an office vacancy rate of … well, you can pick your own percentage.

A marginally more sophisticated argument is that the potential extra housing stock will be purchased by overseas investors and thus will do nothing for locals. In reality the investment will happen anyway, so the smart move is to create sufficient supply both for the investment and the user market. That is precisely what we have failed to do, at least in London, for two decades - even though we knew there were huge flows of inward migration that we weren’t building for.

Nick Boles and Eric Pickles should be congratulated for implementing a long-overdue reform to the Use Classes Order. It will mean work for architects, because conversions are not necessarily as simple as they seem and in many cases require clever design and technical thinking to avoid material changes which would bring the redevelopments back into the planning system.

The change should also affect the way we think about designing for adaptability (and thus longevity), an area which the RIBA should be investigating and promoting - rather than sticking its head in the sands of housing shortage and planning dogma.

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