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Industry reaction: ‘Threatened’ City seeks exemption from change-of-use law

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Architects have come out in support of the City of London’s latest efforts to sidestep a proposed relaxation of planning laws that would allow change of use from offices to homes without planning permission

Last week, the City released a report saying changes to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order, aimed at creating thousands of homes across the country, would threaten its position as the world’s leading financial centre.

The document (see attached), by research group Quod, warned that up to 1.2 million square metres of City office space could be converted into flats over the next five years, and argues that the City should be exempt from the shake-up.

Currently, only 10,000 people live in the City, mainly in the Barbican, Golden Lane, Middlesex Street and Mansell Street estates. Offices make up 70 per cent of all City floor space.

Stuart Fraser, policy chairman at the City of London Corporation, said: ‘These proposals could lead to a dramatic reduction in the volume of office space.

‘The City requires a high degree of certainty to meet the needs of current and future occupiers. Changes of use would undermine this, and the City’s ability to provide a fitting home for a range of businesses would be severely diminished.’

The profession has backed the City’s stance, with Michael Squire at Squire and Partners arguing there was a ‘case for protecting office use’ in the Square Mile. He said: ‘Clearly, a major change of floor space from office to residential would impact the City’s power to maintain itself as the pre-eminent international financial centre.’

Graham Morrison of Allies and Morrison agreed: ‘It seems contradictory for the home of the free market to protect a mono-culture. But the City of London’s wish to be exempt from this new rule is entirely justified. It would be good to have more people living in the City, but not at the expense of its unique position as a world trading centre.’

Craig Casci at Grid Architects suggested the government’s use change proposals should be abandoned altogether. ‘All cities have a legitimate claim to avoid the loss of employment space that this glib and reactionary legislation would bring.

‘The patterns of activity represented by changing use need to be tested through the planning system for impact and damage. The presumption that “if you can work in it, you can live in it” has not been borne out by any research.’

However, Jack Pringle, former RIBA president and co-founder of Pringle Brandon Architects, was sceptical about the City’s motives for exemption. He said: ‘Second-rate offices would be worth twice as much as residential. It’s not that the City wants to keep poor offices; they just don’t want residents.

‘The City is an office factory; it’s well-named as the Corporation. The last thing they want is residents who will demand a say in how it’s run.’

According to a City of London source, the use-change issue is ‘on communities secretary Eric Pickles’ desk for a decision at the moment’

The Government has consulted on proposals to change the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order, so as to grant a general permission for Business premises in Use Classes B1, B2 and B8 to be used for residential purposes, without the need for planning permission. The Government is now considering the outcome of consultation.

Other comments:

Amin Taha of Amin Taha Architects:
‘The Fishmongers’ Guild once told us they had a 300 year plan so I think City landowners plan well ahead. The government allowing developers (holding long leaseholds of City land) to turn a better profit through residential conversions will mess with this order, as multiple residential leaseholders tend to enforce the purchase/enfranchisement of their freeholds. 300 years will go down to 5-10. I think the City can afford to improve on its residential quantum but as they’ve independently run their affairs since the Romans landed I’m sure they know better.

Phil Shearer, Partner at property consultants Robinson Low Francis:
‘Although, as I understand it, the permitted development would only apply to vacant office space there has to be a degree of sympathy with the City of London’s concerns.
‘There may be situations where it is imperative that local authorities protect employment use and the City of London, in competing with other world cities to provide excellent commercial space, may well have a case for exclusion from the proposed relaxation especially as it is both a strategic and significant employment area.”

Chris Patience at Ellis Miller:
‘The City is the economic heart of our country, like it or not. It’s unique and has mature networks and infrastructure on a regional, national and global level. A red line should be drawn around The City to designate a zone which is solely for the generation of employment. The intensification of the City will in turn direct investment into peripheral areas that need it the most. Lets face it, currently land values in the City suggest that there’s a fast buck to made from residential, but that residential is only accessible to highly wealthy individuals or investors. To suggest that it could become a vibrant and mixed community is delusional. The City of London should continue to be a major industry in the UK and should be assisted rather than hindered by the planning process.’

Ron Sidell, Sidell Gibson Architects:
‘Surely it is not beyond our imagination to legislate and control the introduction of a balanced residential presence within the core and fringes of the City of London - legislation that may be creatively drafted in a way that specifically does not inhibit the continual change and growth needed for the commercial heart of the Capital. I cannot imagine anybody would disagree that this would only enhance and sustain the environment for the future and ensure that London remains the finest City in the world to do business.’








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