Planning opinion: Sleeping at the office?


WOULDN'T it be strange to find yourself living and sleeping in a property where you had previously worked? Or to find yourself in a kitchen where you previously had a board meeting? The phrase ‘working from home’ brings a whole new meaning – when you look at the proposed reforms to the UK’s planning system. Robert Hartley explores the subject.

With much unused office space throughout the country and greater demand on housing, the government has announced plans to convert office space into residential without council permission, which will come into force in the spring.
The idea that commercial property can be more easily converted to residential was proposed last April. Offices and warehouses cost far less per square foot than residential property and the government sees a speedy change of use as a way of easing the housing crisis without upsetting anyone. The conversion of office space to residential is a good idea, particularly outside of London as there is an over-supply of stock.

The changes that are due to be implemented will ensure that the best use is made of existing buildings and previously developed land to provide new homes. Specifically, the new permitted development rights will allow a change of use from a business to residential.

This move is an important step in improving the planning system to ensure it can swiftly adapt to changes and opportunities that will facilitate growth; encourage sustainable development and importantly increase housing supply. 

The proposed changes will come into force in spring 2013 and run for a period of three years in order for the implications of the changes to be assessed. The government intends to review the benefits of the revised policy at this point and extend the changes indefinitely if they have been effective.

Importantly, the reforms will allow unique circumstances to be taken into account and local planning authorities will have the opportunity to seek an exemption where it can be justified on economic grounds. Specifically:
• Where there will be a loss of a nationally significant area of economic activity or;
• If there are likely to be substantial adverse economic consequences at local authority level which are not offset by the positive benefits

Requests for exemption are to be submitted by the end of February 2013 so that the government can confirm exemptions in spring 2013 when the policy will take effect.

To improve the viability of town centres, a range of buildings will be allowed to convert temporarily to a set of alternative uses, including shops, financial and professional services, restaurants, cafes and other businesses, for up to two years.

Finally, the changes will extend permitted development rights, which already allow vacant space above shops to be converted into a single dwelling without planning permission, which will allow two or more dwellings to be created. This proposal previously formed one of the recommendations of the Portas review accepted by the government in March 2012.

Overall it seems as though changes to national planning policy could achieve the government’s aims of delivering more housing and encouraging the re-use of empty buildings whilst giving local authorities and their communities the opportunity to influence development in their area, thus providing the final details do not prove too bureaucratic.

Whilst this approach will be suitable for some areas, the blanket approach is likely to raise interesting challenges such as the provision of affordable housing and other obligations which are likely to be bypassed under the new permitted development rights.

Commentators have also expressed concern that the changes will, in some areas, conflict with existing planning policy. For example, where policy has been implemented aiming to protect commercial uses and the suitability from a locational stand point of some commercial buildings for residential use.

For this reason the implementation of the three year ‘sunset clause’ seems sensible in order to properly assess the implications of these changes and the extent to which they are used.

It is likely that the changes will have a limited impact in central London and other major city centres where many offices that suit conversion to residential have already been selected by developers for this purpose; however the impact in other urban centres could be more notable. Essentially, a lot will depend on the viability of the conversion and development costs incurred.

So will office blocks become the new des res?  Most certainly. Using empty offices for homes makes sense and the government knows it.