There is a shortage of housing. However, technological advances have made working from home easier thus reducing the demand for office space. Thus a planning policy that allowed office buildings to be converted into homes would seem sensible. Yet some Labour councils in London – notably Islington and Camden – have been resisting this.
In May last year the Government changed the law to allow for offices to be converted to homes without having to apply for full planning permission. The motive was to allow office building that were often redundant, empty and under-used to provide new housing on brownfield sites, helping to regenerate town centres.
Already it has had a significant impact. Last month the Estates Gazette reported there were more than 2,250 applications for change of use from office to residential in the first six months since this change was introduced – some of the developments of more than 100 homes.
Often the new homes are “affordable” – in the genuine rather than bureaucratic sense of the term. The conversions provide relatively low cost market housing. It is unsubsidised but it certainly provides wider opportunities to get on the housing ladder.
Some limited exemptions were provided, but while Islington Council sought to appeal for greater powesr to block these conversions their case was dismissed by the High Court.
The Planning Minister Nick Boles is acting to prevent councils blocking new homes without valid grounds. He says:
“My department is therefore writing to these authorities to request that they consider reducing the extent of their directions so that they are more targeted. This will ensure that offices which should legitimately benefit from this national right can do so. Ministers are minded to cancel Article 4 directions which seek to re-impose unjustified or blanket regulation, given the clearly stated public policy goal of liberalising the planning rules and helping provide more homes.”
Mr Boles adds:
“We are also aware that some local authorities may be unclear on the correct intention of the detail provisions of national legislation for office to home conversions. In some instances, authorities do not appear to have applied the correctly intended tests to determine applications for prior approval and have sought to levy developer contributions where they are not appropriate (on matters unrelated to the prior approval process). To ensure the permitted development rights are utilised fairly across England, my department will update our planning practice guidance to councils to provide greater clarity on these points. Unjustified state levies should not be applied in any attempt to frustrate the creation of new homes.”
“These practical planning reforms are providing badly needed new homes on brownfield sites, close to urban locations and transport links, at no cost to the taxpayer.
Yet a small minority of town halls are trying to undermine these reforms, not least, since they are unable to hit such builders with state levies or since they may have an irrational objection to more private housing. Yet, these conversions coming forward will help offer competitively priced properties, accessible to hard-working people. Moreover, those who seek to oppose these changes need to spell out exactly where they think new homes should go instead given the pressing demand for housing and the need to protect England’s beautiful countryside.
Ministers wish to send a clear message to the housing industry that we will act to provide certainty, confidence and clarity, and that we are supporting their investment in these new homes to bring under-used property back into productive use as housing.”
A small example of how the market could ease the supply of housing if allowed to. Camden and Islington Councils seem to believe that new homes only count if they are subsidised and part of some bureaucratic plan.