As I blogged about earlier this year one way of easing the housing shortage in London is to allow offices to be converted into homes.
There is a greater demand for housing than for for office space – the market should be allowed to adjust supply accordingly.
Before switching to another department, the former Planning Minister Nick Boles helped to ensure that it does.
Last year the Government introduced legislation that allows offices to convert to homes without having to apply for planning permission.
That has had a significant impact. In January, just six months after coming into force, a survey carried out by the Estates Gazette found that more than 2,250 applications for change of use from office to residential had been made. In May, a report by Knight Frank said applications for such conversions amounted to 3.2 million square feet.
However Labour-run Islington Council had attemted to thwart the supply of new homes by issuing a blanket “article 4 direction” across the whole borough. This power under the national policy planning framework is meant to be for special circumstances.
Mr Boles intervened to stop it being abused in such a fashion.
As at the time of introducing the permitted development right we granted an exemption for the central activities zone, the (non-immediate) article 4 direction had the intended effect of removing office to home conversion permitted development rights from the entire borough area. National planning policy and guidance is clear that such expansive article 4 directions require particularly strong justification, given the clearly stated public policy goal of liberalising the planning rules and helping provide more homes. It was my view that the council had not provided this justification and therefore it was given an opportunity to narrow its direction.
Ministers have considered Islington’s proposal for the article 4 direction to apply to a reduced area but determined, in light of the tests set out in national policy and guidance, that it remains unacceptably expansive and unjustified. Taking into account the background of the significant need for new housing in London particularly, Ministers have taken steps to cancel Islington’s article 4 direction in relation to class J of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995.
This coalition Government are committed to providing more homes on brownfield land, and our change of use reforms are helping deliver these without burdening taxpayers. These conversions coming forward will help offer competitively priced properties, accessible to hard-working people. 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.
This revocation should send a strong message to the housing industry that we will act to provide certainty and confidence in our change of use reforms, supporting new investment in homes and helping bring underused property back into productive use as housing.
Personally I would ease restictions so that land within the Green Belt – which is not always be “beautiful countryside” could have some new housing – provided the housing was beautiful and in sympathy with the local area in terms of its style and materials.
However we can all agree that the housing shortage in London is acute. The response of Islington Council’s Executive Member Housing and Development, Cllr James Murray is to sneer about “valuable” office space being lost and in instead an increase in “bedsits.”
I would be surprised if all the conversions were for bedsits. But if someone chooses to pay to buy or rent a bedsit in Islington – rather than spend the same money on rather more space outside London – why should they be denied that choice?
If you want to buy a “studio flat” – as the estate agents prefer to call them – in Caledonian Road or Hollywood Road it will cost around £160,000.
If you go a bit further north – to Haringey or Enfield – then the same money could buy a flat with it’s own bedroom. But someone might work in Islington and find living there convenient. Or they might like Islington. Why shold the same person be treated as a model citizen owning a one bedroom flat in Tottenham but be regarded as a blot on the landscape if they instead choose a bedsit in Islington?
It’s all very well for Cllr Murray. He’s already on the housing ladder. Now he wants to kick the ladder away.
Furthermore if there is snobbish hostility to bedsits among Islington’s Champagne Socialists might they not reflect that easing the housing supply would help more to afford to move to bigger properties? The more offices that our converted the more properties with a separate bedroom, or two bedooms, or three bedrooms, will become available.
The route to true “affordable housing” is not subsidy or bureaucratic targets but allowing the market to prevail.