The proposed change in legislation will extend “permitted development” rights, allowing offices and light-industrial buildings to be converted into housing without the need for planning permission nor the usual obligations to provide affordable housing. First introduced as a temporary measure in 2013 to give housebuilding numbers a quick boost, and originally due to expire in May 2016, the new legislation would see the rule made permanent. Given that a building can be worth three times more as housing than as an office, many fear it will lead to wholesale evictions of small businesses and the loss of workspace, with London and the south-east facing the brunt, where house prices are so high.
“The government says it is targeting vacant or underused office space,” says Michael Bach, chair of the planning committee of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies. “But the planning system isn’t capable of targeting whether buildings are in use or not. Instead, this opens the door to obliterating occupied, fully functioning office space. For developers, if you don’t have to provide affordable housing or meet housing standards, it’s a no-brainer. Spaces for small businesses and voluntary groups will be wiped out. As a long-term measure, it is disastrous for London.”
The move has been welcomed by the British Property Federation, which says the rule will be “a useful tool in breathing life back into underused commercial space”. “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,” says chief executive Melanie Leech. “For such situations, this policy is helpful.”