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Architect petitions government over ‘hugely concerning’ office-to-resi conversions


Levitt Bernstein’s Julia Park has petitioned the government to debate the impact of controversial rules allowing offices to be converted into homes without planning permission

Her petition (full text below) argues that, in bypassing national and local policy and standards, many homes developed under permitted development rights (PDR) lack space and daylight, ‘raising urgent questions about their fitness for human habitation’.

The government will respond to the petition if it attracts 10,000 supporters. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.

The right allowing change of use from office-to-residential accommodation without planning permission was initially introduced in 2013 on a three-year trial, but was made permanent in 2016.

In January this year, the then housing minister, Kit Malthouse, revealed that more than 42,000 homes were delivered under the right in the three years to March 2018. 

But in April, Labour pledged to scrap PDR, with shadow housing minister John Healey claiming the rules allowed developers to dodge affordable housing requirements and build ’slum housing’. He said many homes did not meet space standards and were ‘rabbit hutch’ flats.

Last year, a damning RICS report documented how office-to-residential conversions were resulting in ‘extremely poor-quality’ housing, with only 30 per cent of units meeting national space standards.

To coincide with the petition, Levitt Bernstein has updated its report, initially published in February, on why the government should end PDR.

It suggests that conversion of offices into housing should only involve buildings that are ‘genuinely redundant’ and ‘have the potential to become good places to live’.

Space and light continue to be squeezed out

The report, which includes case studies, states that ‘quality seems to be worsening as the more promising opportunities become scarcer. Space and light (ironically the two attributes within the home rated most highly by the public) continue to be squeezed out.’

An MHCLG spokesperson said: ’Permitted development rights (PDRs) allowing the conversion of buildings to residential property was made permanent in 2016 and in the last three years it has delivered 42,000 new homes.

’We have said we will review PDRs for conversion of buildings to residential use in respect of the quality standard of homes delivered.’

Petition text

Permitted development rights allow developers to convert office buildings to housing without planning permission. Bypassing national and local policy and standards, many of these new homes lack space and daylight, raising urgent questions about their fitness for human habitation.

The Government has promised not to sacrifice quality for quantity but these conversions have resulted in the smallest new housing built with permission in this country. Professional bodies and the press have exposed flats of 13m² and others without external windows, often in wholly unsuitable locations such as industrial parks and alongside major roads. Residents include vulnerable people and families, whose mental and physical health is at risk. It has become a matter of huge public concern. 


Readers' comments (5)

  • John Kellett

    The trouble is that the ‘office to resi’ is not the issue, the non application of the National Space Standards is. Most redundant office buildings make excellent homes IF designed by architects to the NSS. The problem is the desire to maximise developer profits beyond reasonable by not paying for them to be designed by qualified people and not building them to regulations and good practice.

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  • The problem might also be that there are politicians - and maybe the governing party - benefiting from the largesse of some of the developers responsible for the rubbishy housing. Room for investigation, surely.

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  • I designed very many 60's and 70's office buildings, many of which are now inevitably redundant as offices due to dramatically changed office requirements. However the basic slab design and structure makes them ideal and viable and for conversion into excellent modern residential buildings. There are no good reasons not to allow automatic approval for the change of use from offices to residential but every good reason for setting minimum standards controlling the size and quality of the flats produced and ensuring the quality of the exterior design is maintained. Several of my early office building - Bromley North and Harrogate for example - have been sensitively converted to flats and are arguably better buildings as a result. Eros House Catford however was allowed to be converted without proper control and the result is a grossly disfigured building with very poor quality flats. The result slum dwellings with extreme complaints from unfortunate occupiers and very adverse press publicity. So change of use permitted development but with conditions to control the size and quality of the flats created and the architectural integrity of the converted building. Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA

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  • Industry Professional

    Owen, the question is therefore: is PD an appropriate mechanism for enforcing quality? I can see how space standards are simple enough to be included, much like the current volume calculations in PD. But other aspects of housing quality surely need professional judgement.

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  • Control quality with some prescriptive quality criteria, such as the old Housing Quality Indicators (HQI)...space standards and much more. As Robert points out, the problem is political, and the residential market is in the grip of the volume housebuilders, when combined, this scotches any hope of a public sector housing revival.

    Read ‘Britannia Unchained’ (2012), as its authors include three members of the present executive (cabinet)...Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Liz Truss. These are the rabid, zombie children of Thatcher, intent on imposing ‘neoliberalism squared’ on the country, in spite of forty years of failure of this particularly perverse school of economic theory.

    This is disaster capitalism writ large...subdue the general populace with economic disruption and a ‘shock doctrine’ of rancid, destructive and dogmatic ideological political policies. No-deal Brexit being just the latest weapon in this long litany of political onslaught...by the time you have scratched a living on a zero-hours contract and found a loaf of bread in the shops, you will have lost the will to live, let alone vote!

    The only ‘trickle-down’ coming out of this is death from above, due to deregulation, privatisation and austerity (eg Grenfell and Whaley Bridge Dam). A handy pothole should save you the expense of a burial plot, as you sacrifice yourself to avoid being a scrounging burden by claiming a state pension or a ‘free’ TV licence!

    They cite Canada as an economic model to aspire to, while glossing over the fact that Canada did not deregulate their financial markets, as the UK did in the eighties with ‘big bang’. Their inaccute research and sloppy concepts belie the very malaise they allege is the problem with UK plc. Conveniently placing the blame for the 2008 credit crunch at the feet of the ‘lazy and unproductive’ British worker, while their policies destroy the economy and jobs.

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