If there is an oversupply of office space and a shortage of housing then allowing the market to operate freely would correct this. The problem is that the market is distorted by planning regulations. There could potentially be hundreds of thousands more homes through converting surplus office space. A change in the planning rules – which allows conversion from B1 (a) to C3 – may not sound terribly exciting but it means the dream of home ownership could become reality for many more people.
It is also a market solution. Rather than requiring a subsidy, a substantial number of extra homes could be provided simply by the state getting out of the way. Why should planning officers meddle? The buildings won't change their exterior. Council should be pleased that they will obtain the New Homes Bonus and increased Council Tax revenue for doing nothing very much at all.
Yet the Labour Party is opposing it. Islington Council is spending money on (you guessed it) a Judicial Review. They object that there is no "affordable housing" included. This is the mindset that unless new housing is subsidised and controlled by the state then it doesn't count. Yet increasing the supply of housing will mean that more people can afford to get onto the housing ladder – especially in places like Islington.
The Planning Blog says applications have been pouring in at a faster rate than expected:
"Planning has counted almost 130 'prior approval' applications submitted so far in eight authorities alone, just two months into the scheme."
Good news I would have thought. However Nicky Gavron, planning spokesman for the London Assembly's Labour group say:
"This just goes to show the government had no idea of the impact of this policy and its consequences for jobs and growth, particularly in London."
Nick Boles, Minister for Planning, has responded:
"Our planning reforms are delivering badly needed new homes on brownfield sites in our towns and cities. It is the height of hypocrisy for Labour politicians to call for more housing and then oppose this practical way of increasing housing supply and bringing in new private investment. Labour need to explain where exactly new homes should be built if they don't support brownfield regeneration."
Labour's hypocrisy on this is staggering. The Shadow Housing Minister, Jack Dromey, has called for another 400,000 homes. Where? How? They won't say how they would pay for them. They don't want them on the green belt. Yet they also oppose converting office space.
Nor is it credible to pretend you can promote growth by preventing building being converted from one use to another. There could be many reasons why an office building is not needed even as the economy recovers. It could be that more people are working from home. Or that it is in the wrong place.
Labour's approach that the state can direct where we live and work shows them to be utterly out of touch with the modern world.