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Converting office space into homes could rebalance the housing market

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: Controversy should not derail this welcome reform

The government consultation over as-of-right permission to convert office space to homes has aroused predictable controversy. There are two main opponents of the idea: the City of London and a substantial section of the planning professions.

In the case of the City, it is not opposing the root and branch of the idea, but simply the effect it will have on its own area. It is a sort of reverse nimbyism, rooted in sound logic. If the City is to be a major world business market, it needs as few hurdles as possible to provide the buildings necessary to do that business.

The more residential blocks you have there, the more real nimbyism will grow like a virus. You only have to note the way in which Barbican residents have consistently opposed any development they can see from their spacious windows – apart of course, for the massive residential towers in which many of them live – to realise what would happen were conversion to happen across the Square Mile. The government should exempt the City, and indeed any other area where a compelling argument such as this can be made.

The more general argument from some planners has less logic. It is based on the idea that only they know best, and that the identification of so-called employment areas should trump the need for the housing that those in charge of planning have failed to deliver.

In London and parts of the south-east there is an acute shortage of homes, not offices. This is not because planners have done us a favour by granting lots of office permissions, but because successive governments and some local authorities have utterly failed to grasp what is required to provide enough homes for all our people, including several million immigrants who have arrived in the last dozen years. If the planning system gets political misdirection, it fails.

The idea that you could provide affordable housing in any great number by penalising private housebuilders was always ludicrous, and the failed experiment in London under Ken Livingstone’s leadership proved that point. Demand up, completions down, in both private
and affordable sectors.

Imagine if the office market was subject to the same batty idea: you can have an office permission for 100,000 square metres, but 50 per cent of it will be leased to tenants who can only pay affordable rents. In no time at all office development would be stone dead, thereby increasing in value that which already exists. In turn this would push office rents sky-high, even for mediocre space.

That is exactly what has happened in the housing market in London, and why the idea of converting unused or under-used commercial space is a good one. It will mobilise architects across the country and result in rapid results, since designs would only need building control approval. I don’t believe planners who oppose the idea are doing so as a matter of self-interest. That is too cynical; in my experience they are quite idealistic about what they should be achieving, and what worries them about the government’s draft proposal is that it represents a threat to the concept of a balanced built environment – with the removal of office space seen as the commercial equivalent of ethnic cleansing.

They should go with the flow and monitor what actually happens, rather than avoiding the issue by giving local authorities autonomy in this area. If we suddenly find a shortage of office space, particularly for smaller firms, the likelihood is that the market will deal with it, subject to a constructive planning approach. These days, the conversion process will not seriously affect the workplace market, not least because of remote working made possible by the extraordinary advances in communications technology, letting you carry your workplace with you.

But you still need a roof over your head when the working day is done.

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