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Government to relax office-to-housing planning rules

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The government is expected to relax planning rules to make it easier for developers to convert offices to housing later this week

Previously change of use conversions like those being proposed, has been both a costly and lengthy process, yet these changes will make it easier for developers.

The rule change could see a rush of conversions in London.

The City of London is opposed to the plans, widely supported by architects they have campaigned to be excluded from the change after raising concern that changes would affect the character of the finanical hub.

The corporation also argued that the changes would be difficult to reverse, if work in the financial sector increased and office spaces was again needed.

Peter Rees, planning officer for the City of London said: ‘The City of London has made no secret of our concern about the impact of the proposed change to planning rules upon our role as a world business centre.  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. 

‘The current office vacancy rate across the London Central Activities Zone is around 8 per cent which is regarded as normal and healthy and there is an increasing rate of planning approval for commercial to residential conversion in Westminster and the other Boroughs which surround the City.  Central London office stock is under grave threat from the wave of inward residential investment.’

Shops and warehouses will also not be covered by the new permitted development rights.

The change is expected to be announced by planning minister, Nick Boles in the next few days.

Former ACA president Brian Waters, who has campaigned for a relaxation of permitted development rights since 2006, said the reform would create a surge of new work for architects.

He said: ‘By relaxing the use classes order in this way it will allow a large number of small projects to go forward quickly. It will allow thousands of houses to go ahead and bring regeneration.

He added: ‘There is however bound to be some collateral damage. Some low cost employment opportunities will turn to housing.’

Asked to explain how architects could benefit from the reform, he said: ‘If I was asked to survey the swathe of property around Wembley, for example, there are a lot of buildings that are very sad but could be easily converted into housing. Conversion would increase the value of the building immediately. It would be real bread and butter for many architects because it is the scale of work smaller companies can handle easily.’

Carl Dyer, a partner and property specialist at law firm Thomas Eggar, also welcomed the proposals. He said: ‘We’ve a huge and growing housing shortfall. We should be building a quarter of a million new homes a year. Instead, there were less than a hundred thousand completions last year, the latest of a long list of dismal statistics on the house building front.

‘Our house building industry simply does not have the capacity to bridge the gap with new build housing in the short or even medium term.

He added: ‘Policies requiring ever more affordable housing have made the problem worse: they reduce supply still further, and housing allocation becomes a political instead of an economic decision. Any solution which can help increase supply will assist more people than any affordable housing programme ever has. This will not be nearly enough; but it promises to be a sensible step in the right direction.’

A permitted development right for the conversion of offices into residential was initially mooted as part of the NPPF but was dropped last summer following a public consultation in 2011. Eric Pickles announced plans to introduce the permitted development right, effectively resurrecting the proposal, in a written ministerial statement in September.

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