A worrying new law means offices can be turned into residential buildings without planning permission. Artists’ studios and creative start-ups will be the first to go
Last week Eric Pickles finally rubber-stamped a plan that has long been mooted as an obvious salve to the housing crisis. We have acres of empty offices, a blight of vacant blocks in our cities – so why not turn them into homes?
With office vacancy rates as high as 20% in some regions (a result of oversupply and changing requirements in the downturn) while the urgent demand for housing continues to rise, it seems the perfect solution. The average age of first-time buyers is now 33, and planning minister Nick Boles has warned that grandparents will have to spend their retirements “propping up their kids and grandkids” unless we take action. And what is standing in our way, according to the coalition? Red tape. It is not the lack of political will to build housing, but the inflexible intransigence of planning policy that is the obstacle to change.
Last week’s announcement, the latest step in a piecemeal erosion of the planning system, will see the extension of permitted development rights (for a period of three years) to allow offices to be converted into residential spaces, without the hefty cost and delay of a planning application. The move has been welcomed with open arms by the construction sector and many architects, who no doubt see a potential new flood of conversion work on the horizon.
“This is wonderful news for architects and for the housing market,” said Marco Goldschmied, former RIBA president, who has long campaigned to abolish the rigidity of use-classes, seeing it as the first step towards a culture of “long-life buildings that can change uses over 100 years”.
Ian Fletcher, director of policy at the British Property Federation, said: “Given our acute shortage of homes this is an extremely welcome step … 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.”
People are becoming increasingly used to living in buildings not originally designed as houses, and the recent rise in property guardianship has ushered in a provisional domestic chic of living among carpet tiles and suspended polystyrene ceilings. For certain areas, it is easy to believe that it makes perfect sense: “If you walk around Fitzrovia you quickly realise there are an awful lot of less attractive office buildings which would do better as residential,” Charles Fairhurst, chief executive of Fairbridge Residential Investment Management, told the Financial Times.
Yet for a policy predicated on growth, this lubrication of change of use could have precisely the opposite effect. As the yawning gap between office prices and house prices continues to widen, developers are bound to cash in, get rid of their commercial tenants, and quickly parcel up floorplates into pokey flats. It could see a steady evaporation of affordable workspace across the country.
“The creative industries will be the first to go,” says Chris Brown, chief executive of Igloo Regeneration. “Those places like Tech City will be increasingly vulnerable, as the businesses’ leases tend to be shorter than three years.” He cites Hackney Wick, Deptford, Peckham and Tottenham in London; Ancoats in Manchester; Ouseburn in Newcastle; and Headingley in Leeds as particularly in danger, where cheap rents have fostered communities of artists’ studios and creative start-ups – but not for much longer.
Michael Bach of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies agrees: “Because of the large difference in property values between housing and offices, the impact of London, especially central London, could mean the ‘cleansing’ of many areas of small offices and, as leases end, larger blocks in the best locations, best condition and easiest to convert,” he wrote in a letter to the Evening Standard. “Is it really the government’s intention to reduce the number of jobs in the name of economic growth?”
It is a sentiment echoed, at the other end of the scale, by chief City planner Peter Rees, who has long opposed residential development in the City at the expense of office space. “Central London office stock is under grave threat from the wave of inward residential investment,” he told the Architects’ Journal. “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.”
Under the new legislation, local authorities may be granted exemptions from change of use, but only if they can show that it would lead to “the loss of a nationally significant area of economic activity” or “substantial adverse economic consequences”. While the City, and other key strategic employment areas, will no doubt gain exemption, many others will fall through the net.
Chris Brown warns: “There is only a one-off chance to make this case, which must be submitted by 22 February – hardly time to get a committee approval, never mind get together the evidence the submission requires.” And who will decide whether your local authority will gain exemption? None other than Eric Pickles himself.