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City among 17 councils exempt from office-to-residential conversions

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The City of London is among 17 local authorities granted exemptions from the government’s controversial relaxation of office-to-residential conversions coming into force on 30 May

Communities secretary Eric Pickles announced the long-awaited list of councils given immunity from the freshly permitted development right allowing conversions from class B1(a) to C3 today (9 May).

Local authorities winning exemptions include the City of London and the London boroughs of Camden, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Wandsworth, Westminster, Newham, Kensington and Chelsea.  

Outside the capital, the policy has been spared from Manchester City Council, the borough councils of White Horse, Stevenage and Ashford in Kent and the district councils of Sevenoaks and East Hampshire.

The exemptions apply to specific buildings, roads or zones within each of the local authorities.

Exemptions from the policy were sought by 25 London councils including the City of London which raised concerns the reform would affect the character of the financial hub.

The new permitted development right, coming into force on 30 May, is aimed at reducing the cost and weight of bureaucracy involved in office-to-residential conversion projects.

The changes will also allow agricultural buildings and vacant high street shops smaller than 500m2 to be used for new types of business without the need for change of use planning permission.

Buildings in any use class will also be allowed to be used as free schools for one academic year while the threshold for conversions between business (B1) and industrial premises (B2) and storage (B8) without planning permission has been extended from 235m2 to 500m2.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles said: ‘There is huge untapped potential in the many disused existing buildings we have and we’re determined that every one of them is put to good use.

‘By simplifying the process and relaxing some stringent rules we can provide a helping hand to those eager to boost their high streets or rural communities by cutting the time and costs needed to start up new businesses.

‘These reforms will provide a boost to the exciting free schools programme. It will make it easier for parents and community activists to convert buildings into new schools.

‘We’re also providing a great opportunity for outdated, redundant or under-used offices to be brought back to life by converting them into homes, protecting the green belt and countryside at the same time. This will also increase footfall and provide knock-on benefits to the wider community.’

City of London planning officer Peter Rees said: ‘We will continue to balance appropriate land uses within the City of London in accordance with our internationally acclaimed planning regime.  As we say in the City, “It’s Business, as usual”.’

Amin Taha of Amin Taha Architects said: ‘Apart from the heart of The City and Canary Wharf generally residential values are 2 to 3 times that of B1 office space. The ruling instantly increases land value against which standard 70 per cent borrowing can be leveraged, releasing that equity into the market in the form of construction stimulus as well as housing provision. It isn’t necessarily good news for large volume housebuilders but it’ll be interesting to see how quickly the rest of construction industry sees the benefits.’

Further comment

Nigel Abbot, partner at Cluttons:
‘It is undisputed that certain boroughs, particularly in London, must protect their office stock in order to attract investment and businesses. As such, it is unsurprising that exemptions have been granted to the City of London and Westminster. 

‘It is however, important to remain concentrated on the bigger picture. The UK is facing a severe housing crisis and if residential development is in the public interest they must be given the go ahead. The government has to demonstrate it is committed to facilitating growth and delivering the homes the country so badly needs.’

Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation:
‘We are pleased that the Government has kept exemptions from new rights to turn offices in to homes to a minimum. This is a sensible compromise that will allow vacant commercial space to be more easily returned to productive use, while offering protection for key business districts.’

Harry Cotterell, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA):
‘Allowing farm buildings of 500m2 or less the flexibility to change into a range of new business uses will help to stimulate rural economic growth. 
‘It will help underpin farming businesses currently under pressure by creating new jobs and businesses at a time when they are greatly needed in the countryside.
‘We are also pleased to see new regulations allowing the change of use of offices to residential. Many CLA members are currently paying empty property rates because of a lack of business tenants so allowing a change of use will reduce costs and provide much-needed homes in rural areas.’

Stuart Irvine, Director at Turley Associates comments:
‘These changes are positive and whilst there are still some questions to be answered about the specific detail, the clear message is that investment is good. The planning system is prepared to take a step back to allow it to take effect but the issue of ‘prior approval’ and how this is interpreted by each Local Planning Authority (LPA) needs to be watched carefully.” “Given the requirements for prior approval, the measures fall somewhere between traditional permitted development rights and a planning permission. There is some question as to whether LPA’s will simply use the prior notification process as a means of requiring planning applications. However the measures are clear on what can be considered. It is notable that reference is made to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) but there is no requirement to consider the local plan.”

Edward Lister, London deputy mayor for planning:
‘London’s offices play a crucial role in the UK economy, attracting investment and businesses from around the world. We need to maintain London’s status as a global commercial hub so it is absolutely right they should be protected. The Mayor is delighted that the government has fully accepted our robust case to exempt key London business districts from proposals that were outlined to allow offices to be converted to homes without planning permission.’




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