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Gov’t faces London revolt on new office-to-resi reforms

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Business groups, planning officers and Mayor of London Boris Johnson have called on the government to drop a key element of its latest proposed planning reforms.

A raft of planning changes floated over the summer includes allowing the planning-permission-free conversion of offices to homes in core London business districts – removing exemptions won by Johnson last year.

A rule-relaxation that came into effect in May 2013 makes conversion of commercial space easier in most of the country, but does not apply to London’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ), parts of Canary Wharf, the Tech City area, and the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone.

However, the exemption would be removed under wider-ranging proposals put out to consultation in July, potentially driving a new residential boom in the City of London, much of Westminster, parts of Camden and the South Bank – all of which are in the CAZ - at the expense of employment space.

Johnson said today that he had written to communities secretary Eric Pickles opposing the change, along with the Planning Officers Society, lobby group London First, and the British Property Federation (BPF).

Johnson said lifting the London exemptions would lead to the ‘incremental unplanned loss of office accommodation in strategically important office areas’ that would weaken their current commercial appeal.

‘While increasing housing output is of vital importance, I am concerned that removing the exemption in our most thriving business districts could compromise both London and the UK’s future economic growth,’ he said.

‘London’s success depends on a rich mix of uses and more high value residential property in central London could upset this balance and change the area for good.’

Faraz Baber, director of planning policy at London First, said central London’s currently protected areas were ‘internationally recognised’ hubs of economic activity.

‘[They] have a finely balanced mix of land uses that are carefully managed by the planning process,’ he said.

‘They must remain managed through the planning system.’

BPF chief executive Liz Peace said streamlining the planning system was important, but that it was wrong to underestimate the importance of agglomeration for businesses.

She said: ‘Productivity rises when places of employment are in close proximity to one another.’

Mike Kiely, chairman of the London branch of the Planning Officers Society said it was significant that ‘all sides of the development sector’ had come together on what was a ‘vital issue’ for London.

However, London Assembly Member Nicky Gavron – who speaks for her party on planning issues – said Johnson’s opposition to the proposed reforms did not go far enough.

‘This is a bad policy for all of London not just parts of it,’ she said.

‘Permitted development drives up the land value of employment space – even where property owners don’t convert, they will use it as a reason to increase rents, forcing businesses to close or to leave London.’

This is a bad policy for all of London not just parts of it

Planning minister Brandon Lewis said the change-of-use reforms were providing badly needed homes and that London had a ‘particularly acute need’ for more accommodation.

‘We recognise that there is some nationally strategic office space, such as in the City of London and Canary Wharf, and we will review how the current exemptions are handled moving forward,’ he said.

As AJ reported last month, the City of London Corporation has calculated that it could lose up to 18 per cent of its office stock – enough to house 100,000 workers – if the government’s proposals are implemented.

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