Office-residential changes: reaction
The government has published its long-awaited proposals to allow office buildings to be changed to residential use without a planning application. The planning sector has been giving its reaction.
Countryside campaign group the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has raised concerns that “without further safeguards and assurances, greater freedom to convert farm buildings will risk damaging the character and beauty of the countryside”. CPRE said the changes will remove the need to apply for planning permission to convert redundant farm buildings into shops, restaurants, hotels and offices; and office space into housing (for up to 3 years). It is urging the government to provide more detail about proposals to allow the conversion of farm buildings and said there is the danger of “unleashing on the countryside a wave of unsightly ‘barns’ that are intended to become houses at a later date; and increasing the amount of development and car traffic in rural areas by encouraging offices and shops to relocate from town centres”.
Andy Black, associate at consultancy PRP sent this response: “Stimulating the regeneration our town centres and former commercial areas by providing housing is fully supported. It sits comfortably with spatial planning principles and planning as a whole . The suggested ‘prior approval process’ will therefore play a key role to ensure that the right housing is provided in the right locations. In general PRP welcomes any initiative that resolves the growing shortfall in housing. PRP previously considered the effects of a change in permitted development rights during the consultation in 2011. We have some comments relating to the details contained in today’s announcement.
1) It is clear that no formal change has actually come into a force yet. It would appear that Local Planning Authorities will have the opportunity to apply for exemption from the changes (as has already happened with the City of London). The announcement today does not make it clear on the process or timescales for these exemptions to take place.
2) It is unclear how will the provision of affordable housing be dealt with through the new PD rights? If no affordable housing is required as result of a change of use then this will have a dramatic effect on the economics of the land market and the supply of affordable housing in areas where it is most needed.
3) The same point applies to other planning requirements renewable energy, planning obligations, CIL, parking levels, amenity space, secured by design, lifetime homes, and provision of wheelchair accommodation. If these other rules are relaxed then this could lead to an increase in these proposals coming forward above more suitable and sustainable housing sites.
4) In the London context it is unclear to what effect the new homes provided through office to residential conversions be expected to comply with guidance such as the Mayor’s Housing SPG? This specifies minimum space standards, levels of amenity space and advises against provision of elements such as single aspect, north facing units.
5) We are unsure of the effect that this announcement will have on predicted levels of housing supply? If Council’s feel they can achieve housing numbers through office to residential conversion then there could be an increase in resistance and refusals for sustainable urban extensions and other windfall sites. How does this fit with the Government’s agenda for Garden Cities as advocated in the NPPF?
6) In order to successfully convert a office building to residential it is almost inevitable changes to the external appearance would be beneficial. Such changes would still require submission of a planning application”.
Rhian Kelly, CBI director for business environment, said: “We have been calling for measures to allow the housing market to flow more freely for some time. This move towards more rapid development will get better use out of underused office space and support the construction industry.”
Ian Fletcher, director of policy at the British Property Federation, said: “Given our acute shortage of homes this is an extremely welcome step. Office to residential conversions won’t work for all buildings, or in every area, but 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.
“Such conversions will be good for those seeking homes, the wider community and local authorities, who will gain from the New Homes Bonus and council tax receipts that occupation generates. However, will need to see further detail on how ‘local exceptions’ schemes will work. Any exemptions should be few and far between, and this aspect will need to be tightly drawn and policed if it is not to undermine the overall policy objective.”
DCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain’s letter to chief planning officers explaining the changes can be read here.
Jeremy Castle, director in central London planning, Deloitte Real Estate: “This proposal sounds like a great way for the planning system to help kickstart the economy, but it doesn’t appear to provide an immediate fix. Even though the regulations will come into force in the Spring, there will still be hurdles to overcome, including highways impact and flood risk, alongside planning permission for physical works such as balconies. These requirements could lead to councils resisting change in areas that haven’t been granted exceptional exemption from the change of use.”
Chris Wilmshurst, associate, at planning consultancy Vail Williams said: “Today’s announcement is particularly important for the property sector. While clarification is still needed on when the new rules will take effect, they could be good news for those areas where it is economically viable to convert empty and under-used offices for residential use, offering an opportunity for office buildings to change to residential use to provide much needed housing with a consequent uplift in value”. He added: “We also welcome the secretary of state’s approach to only grant exemptions to those local authorities which can demonstrate exceptional circumstances, confirming the government’s intent that this new measure will be successful and widely used.”
Howard Bassford, Partner, DLA Piper UK LLP said: “With the economy still moving slowly – if not in recession – with first-time buyers still at home with mum and dad, or in rented accommodation, initiatives that free up office space for residential uses are likely to be good news. For developers, planners and lawyers, key questions will revolve around the effect on neighbourhoods in terms of traffic consequences – how will rush hour change?; and demand for services: will there be enough schools, doctors and shops? Developers converting buildings will be expected to pay. Ultimately, without the cost of brand new buildings, if the benefits for developers outweigh the cost of providing services it will be good news for them as well.”
Carl Dyer, partner, Thomas Eggar LLP said: “The government’s proposals are to be welcomed. We have 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. The consequences are there for all to see: people living with their parents for longer; the rising age of first time buyers; impaired labour mobility; people living in breeze-block sheds being built in gardens in East London; and (mortgage finance permitting) ever rising prices as demand stays always ahead of supply. 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.”
Ashley Damiral, head of planning, at Law Firm CMS: “Any moves to think laterally about increasing housing supply and at the same time reduce vacancy rates are to be commended. However, it must not be overlooked that permitted development rights operate outside the section 106 planning obligations regime, which is used to ensure that, where an application for planning permission has to be made, development meets policy requirements and is acceptable in planning terms. This means that office to residential conversions will be delivered across the country without securing affordable housing and local infrastructure and without addressing other site-specific impacts.”
“Shops shouldn’t forever remain shops, as the modern high street requires leisure and cultural uses and, better parking and some residential properties. But to open up the floodgates to allow any shop to be lost to housing without proper consideration of the planning issues would have been the wrong move and would have contributed to the further decline of the high street.”