The government has officially announced the new policy allowing the conversion of offices to residential without planning permission
The reform is aimed at speeding up the conversion of empty commercial space into desperately needed housing.
Lasting for three years, the fresh permitted development right will allow conversions from class B1(a) to C3 to proceed without ‘the cost and delay of a planning application’.
Under the policy local authorities can ask for exemption where they can demonstrate there would be ‘substantial adverse economic consequences’.
The City of London has already argued that the freedom to convert offices to residential could undermine its unique commercial offering. However today’s announcement mentioned no outright immunity for the Square Mile.
Confirming the City would seek an exception, City planning officer Peter Rees said: ‘Property consultants estimate that 20 per cent of the office floor space in the square mile would be in immediate danger of conversion to flats if we do not achieve an exemption from the rule change.’
Central London office stock is under grave threat from the wave of inward residential investment
He added: ‘Central London office stock is under grave threat from the wave of inward residential investment. Blocks of ‘resident-lite’ apartments are replacing the employment space of the Capital and we trust that the City of London will retain the planning tools necessary to stem this danger.’
Chris Wilmshurst of planning consultancy Vail Williams said: ‘While clarification is still needed on when the new rules will take effect, they could be good news for those areas where it is economically viable to convert empty and under-used offices for residential use, offering an opportunity for office buildings to change to residential use to provide much needed housing with a consequent uplift in value.’
British Property Federation policy director Ian Fletcher said: ‘Office to residential conversions won’t work for all buildings, or in every area, but any trip through our suburbs soon exposes redundant office space that with the best will in the world is never going to be brought back into commercial use.
‘Such conversions will be good for those seeking homes, the wider community and local authorities, who will gain from the New Homes Bonus and council tax receipts that occupation generates.’
A further reform, also announced today, will allow redundant agricultural buildings to be converted to shops, restaurants, small hotels and offices without planning permission. A size limit will apply but has yet to be announced.
Disused town centre buildings will also be permitted temporary change of use as part of a bid to encourage new shops and start-up businesses.
Such buildings could become shops (A1), financial and professional services (A2), restaurants and cafes (A3) or offices (B1) for a period of up to two years.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles said: ‘We want to promote the use of brownfield land to assist regeneration, and get empty and under-used buildings back into productive use.
‘Using previously developed land and buildings will help us promote economic growth, provide more homes and still ensure that we safeguard environmentally protected land.
‘We are absolutely determined to support people striving to bring life back to their communities and high streets.’
Planning minister Nick Boles added: ‘These new changes ensure the very best use is made of our existing buildings to provide new homes and makes sure we get the most use we can out of our previously developed land.
We are determined to make sure perfectly good underused properties are converted for homes
‘These changes are an important step in improving the planning system and making sure it is in the best possible shape to swiftly adapt to changes and opportunities that can provide a big boost to the economy.
‘We are determined to make sure perfectly good underused properties are converted for homes and uses that will benefit our communities.’
The move however has not been welcomed by the RIBA. Ruth Reed, past president and chair of the RIBA Planning Group said: ‘We agree with the need to significantly increase the supply of housing, but extending the permitted development rights for conversion of commercial to residential property in many instances, may lead to the wrong type of homes in the wrong place and will not be the antidote to the housing crisis.’
Extending the permitted development rights will not be the antidote to the housing crisis
‘While there are undoubtedly some offices that may lend themselves to residential conversion, there are a range of factors including the lay out of the building, specific design requirements and location of buildings that would render many unsuitable for the change of use proposed. Local planning authorities continue to be best placed to make these judgements.’
Ruth Reed, past president and chair of the RIBA Planning Group
We agree with the need to significantly increase the supply of housing, but extending the permitted development rights for conversion of commercial to residential property in many instances, may lead to the wrong type of homes in the wrong place and will not be the antidote to the housing crisis.
Whilst there are undoubtedly some offices that may lend themselves to residential conversion, there are a range of factors including the lay out of the building, specific design requirements and location of buildings that would render many unsuitable for the change of use proposed. Local planning authorities continue to be best placed to make these judgements.
Mark Farmer, head of residential, EC Harris
‘We welcome the government’s announcement of its plans to allow office space to be converted into homes without the need for planning permission but it still leaves a few questions and the devil will no doubt be in the detail. For instance, does exemption still apply if you materially change the external appearance of an office building to make it more suitable for residential as was suggested in the initial consultation document in 2011? This alone is probably the single biggest constraint on the real impact of this relaxation as most office buildings will not be ‘fit for purpose’ as residential space without significant alteration.
The local authority opt out if will cause potential uncertainty and risk with developers and building owners
‘There is also no mention of affordable housing / section 106 treatment either - an area on which I am sure local authorities would be keen to get clarity on with many potentially standing to lose out from loss of otherwise expected ‘planning gain’ revenues. The ability of local authorities to opt out if they can prove to the Secretary of State there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ why such conversion shouldn’t occur will also cause potential uncertainty and risk with developers and building owners. They will want early and clear guidance as to whether they have a permitted development opportunity or not. This issue might negate the positive effect that this initiative might otherwise have brought in terms of stimulating UK housebuilding delivery.’
Rhian Kelly, CBI director for business environment
We have been calling for measures to allow the housing market to flow more freely for some time. This move towards more rapid development will get better use out of underused office space and support the construction industry.