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Firms hopeful for office-to-resi work

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Architects have welcomed the government’s long-awaited office-to-residential conversions planning boost, despite concerns it will do little to boost housing numbers

From the end of this month, conversions from class B1(a) offices of any size to C3 residential will become a permitted development right in all but 17 UK local authorities. Manchester and most of central London will be exempt.

The controversial relaxation of the rules is part of a raft of government-backed measures intended to unleash the ‘huge untapped potential’ of derelict
buildings by reducing bureaucratic costs and delays.

Industrial, agricultural and high street conversions below 500m2 will also benefit from the reform, which will see free schools temporarily permitted in any
building for one academic year.

Broadway Malyan planning director Lance Flannigan said the shake-up overturned ‘restrictive and outdated’ planning policies which ‘for too long and often for no good reason, have been used by local authorities to block the supply of new homes, on the basis that it will result in a loss of office or employment floor space’.

Amin Taha, of Amin Taha Architects, said it would ‘instantly increase’ land values - residential land is worth twice or three times as much as office plots in many areas. Taha said the move would stimulate borrowing and ‘release equity into the market in the form of construction stimulus, as well as housing provision’.

Nearly 700 local authorities, concerned that the new regime would gobble up towncentre employment space, sought exemption.

There are fears that some disgruntled councils might yet press for a judicial review and potentially derail its introduction.

However, according to an impact assessment by the Communities and Local Government Department, the annual rate of conversions will have increased by only five a year
when the policy expires in 2016.

Arita Morris of Child Graddon Lewis estimates that any surge of conversions to private housing would be limited to parts of south London, Southampton, Bristol and Cambridge.

Even without the cost of a traditional planning application, ‘basic’ conversion costs would be at least £1,600/m2, the practice argued, and could increase
with changes to Part L.

Morris said: ‘Only locations where there is a wide enough gap between residential and office values will be considered worthwhile.’

But Mark Farmer, head of residential at EC Harris, said: ‘One area which might benefit is the private rented sector. There is huge pressure to build cheaply in metropolitan locations to create financial viability and office conversion can be one way of doing this.’

Further comment


Capita Symonds associate director Tony Hutchinson: ‘Intelligent reuse of existing buildings in urban areas can increase the viability of new projects through reducing low cost options, bring new footfall to a high street helps shops. The issue is do this well, looking at the whole life cost of a building and how to create sustainable homes.’

Broadway Malyan Director Peter Crossley: ‘This policy should be widely welcomed. Rather than damage the character of town centres we believe that it could help the rejuvenation of provincial towns where conversion of empty office space in dying high streets could provide real opportunities to bring life and spending power back into the centre of our towns. Empty office space doesn’t help small businesses or create jobs - people do.’

Hugh Petter, director ADAM Architecture: ‘Historically, particularly before the arrival of the railways and other public transport systems, our towns and cities had many more houses in their centres.  With increased mobility and urban expansion, particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, businesses and shops tended to congregate in these town centre locations and many houses were converted to commercial and retail use. 

Mary Portas and others are currently looking at what to do with town centre locations where there is insufficient demand to maintain the commercial activity which took place there before the internet and the recession.  The obvious answer is to convert these vacant buildings back to residential use.  Not only does this ride on the tide of history, but it also makes a significant contribution to our housing needs, brings our town centres back to life, and helps to make those businesses that do survive in these central locations more viable.

 Andrew Montague, managing director Consensus Capital: ‘Interestingly we are looking at a live case study on this very subject that we are currently appraisal in in Bolton. Bolton is a very depressed town – the high street is over 70 per cent vacant with mainly pawn, charity, cheque shops in situ – in addition the commercial units above the retail is empty and costing landlords money (no longer do they receive vacant building relief so empty space is a real cost). Our business model takes the defunct vacant offices and turn them into residential (stage 1) – this creates immediate employment in the area through construction (we always source local trades & professionals).

Stage 2 provides new (and much needed) affordable accommodation back into Bolton – albeit located in the city centre – therefore re-populating areas which have become vacant and in some cases derelict. (stage 3 ) – due to the repopulated location of residential tenants – new services are required to support a community – healthcare, convenience  stores, retail services, child care facilities (ie nurseries) etc which in turn help re-populate the high-street as well as create jobs long term.

So – in our opinion not only are the new relaxation laws critical to support construction, homes, jobs and economy, but should be adopted across the UK to speed up the process of recovery. If the country is making money then new commercial sites will be developed for commercial (which in turn will be far more effective for modern day use (ie low carbon output, better parking facilities etc etc) – which in turn create (guess what) construction jobs, and long terms associated service sectors to support the onward process.

For architects – both local and national firms would benefit from the impact of the new legislation as more developments will be kcik started and general recovery in the market!.

Alfred Munkenbeck, Munkenbeck + Partners: ‘Hooray, but too bad if most of London escapes. First of all, planning in the UK has become much to restrictive and bureaucratic…. putting an artificial and unhelpful damper on the natural economy.  Development Control has become sui generis… disconnected from its original purpose through mission creep.  

‘The definition of B-1 use is employment use that is compatible with residential.  There is therefore, by definition, no sensible reason why B-1 uses should be separated from residential.  Preserving employment space does not create jobs as such.  If there is a demand for employment space its value will rise… with lack of demand, value will fall or space will remain empty.  Throughout most of Britain but particularly in London, there is far more demand for residential than for employment space, yet development control keep trying to protect “endangered” employment space from the onslaught of evil residential.  Why?  What will happen if residential values fall through increase in supply and commercial values rise from relative scarcity?  Is that a problem?  Won’t that just restore a bit of balance?’

Chris Williamson, partner Weston Williamson:‘As with the proposals to allow large extensions to houses without permission I feel that these changes are unconsidered attempts to try to boost the economy rather than well thought out policies. I am all in favour of a relaxation of the cumbersome planning regulations but think a blanket coverage is misguided. We need to boost the economy but deserve better than avoid knee-jerk proposals.’

Chris Roche, founder-director 11.04 Architects: ‘It is potentially a win-win situation, as it will stimulate the economy through increased construction activity, and deliver more much needed homes. I note some architects are concerned this could lead to developers by-passing architects but who needs those kind of developers. A sophisticated developer will recognise the need for using creative architects to maximise value.’

Alan Shingler, Sheppard Robson: ‘While a market remains for office, change of use should be measured against the broader economic impact but relaxing planning restrictions to enable sustainable reuse & renewal of obsolete office buildings has to be a positive move.’

Andy Black, associate PRP:  ‘Overall we welcome this policy change to ease the conversion of offices to residential use. However we are concerned that  local authorities are required to “have regard to the NPPF during the approval process as if  the application were a planning application”. We are unsure of the implications of this and whether it will give an opportunity to reject applications to convert offices to residential on other grounds. We would welcome further guidance on this area from DCLG in due course.

‘We are somewhat surprised that only 17 Local Authorities appear to have been granted exemption to the changes in permitted development rights as we are aware that DCLG received over 700 applications and feel that many Local Authorities will be somewhat dismayed at not being granted exemption.

‘The Permitted Development Rights will not apply to Listed Buildings, although the policy does not clarify if this extends to locally listed buildings. No mention is made of Conservation Areas and Local Authorities will be reliant on ‘Article 4’ directions having been made to resist permitted development in these areas.’

Peter Morris, Peter Morris Architects: ‘Considering the vast housing shortage in London the relaxation of planning restrictions on office-to-residential, is very welcome. Could the changes go further? I say yes. Local planning policy suffers from the enormity of the task to regulate where we live, work and play.

‘It is like trying to steer the titanic away from the iceberg. Planning policy is too slow for modern urban life. I have seen too many town centres and high streets fall victim to restrictive use class zones. Planning and Building regulations need to be more flexible to allow Architects to do what we do best - design clever buildings with two or three basic programmes of working, living and playing according to the need. 

‘The times are a changing, let us trust in innovative clever designs to change with the times, rather than crash into the iceberg.’

Reza Schuster, director MJP Architects: ‘Noises about increasing housing supply at a time when UK output is at an all time low sound great, but there are doubts that this policy will actually deliver.  Any change of use which doesn’t satisfy “prior approval” requirements will still need planning permission.  Likely external modifications allowing a change of use (windows, access, etc) will also need planning permission.  Can’t help feeling this is presentational policy in place of an effective stimulus.  It llooks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… but I fear it might just be a turkey.’

Stride Treglown Tektus director Dominic J Eaton: ‘I suspect that office buildings that are prime for this type of conversion are being considered because they no longer provide the standards and spec required for a modern office facility. One common shortfall is that the floor to floor heights being too small.  However, these  dimensions that now struggle to accommodate modern office accommodation are ideal for residential. In fact we have found that the floor to floor heights are greater than required which makes for very pleasant ‘spacious ‘ apartments. In one case we were able to accommodate a mezzanine level.

‘There is also the sustainable side to this recycling. Reusing perfectly good structures with the possibility of recladding and giving a tried building a new lease of life is in my opinion a good thing. There is also the issue of utilising the potential of all available brown field possibilities, and I feel that this approach of Office to Residential is an easy win.

‘Notwithstanding the financial issues of land values and borrowing, there is the potential economic benefit reusing what’s there instead of starting again. I cannot see the sense in the effort and energy in demolishing a building to replace it with a similar one, unless there is quite a considerable uplift in density and height etc. Again, our experience has demonstrated that concrete structures harden with age and can often take more loads than they were initially designed for. To this end we have been able to add additional floors onto of the existing structure, and in one of our projects the number of floors was limited only by the number of dwellings the developer felt the market and location could support.

‘I also like the random nature of this approach to city centre planning. I sometimes feel that too much planning and ‘zoning’ can sterilise a city.  The introduction of alternative uses on a more ad-hoc basis has the potential to provide a true ‘mixed use’ environment. Many of our ‘commercial centres’ die in the evening because all the office workers have gone home. It would be great to add new activity and a real presence to these areas, as well as the sustainable benefits of living and working within walking distance of each other.

‘I believe that type of permitted development could unlock many sites that would otherwise sit dormant. It has the potential to make existing sites attractive because there is no requirement for planning approval and the build cost benefits. The planning element is often, from my experience, the biggest hurdle to development, and so if a site already has a ‘planning ticket’ then the programming implications and associated costs can be fundament to the schemes viability.’








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