Mixed response to Government office conversion plans

As predicted earlier this week, the government has confirmed new measures that will allow office space to be converted into homes without the need for planning permission. Further reforms are also intended to help boost rural communities and create jobs by allowing agricultural buildings to be converted for other business use, such as shops, offices, restaurants or leisure facilities without the need for planning permission. But the scheme has met with a decidedly mixed response from organisations as diverse as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and local authority chiefs. 

Announcing the decision Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “We want to promote the use of brownfield land to assist regeneration, and get empty and under-used buildings back into productive use.”

The government has already come up with ideas for reusing its own building stock, with a decision last year to make empty government buildings available to start-up businesses. Eighteen locations across England were identified as having the potential to be used by aspiring entrepreneurs including locations in London, Rugby, Leeds, Runcorn, Birmingham, Oxford and Bristol. Under this latest initiative the permitted development right to convert from office to home will be in place for two years following lobbying from the Lib Dems within the coalition and local authorities will have an opportunity to seek an exemption if they can demonstrate there would be substantial adverse economic consequences based on local circumstances.

Planning Minister Nick Boles said: “These changes are an important step in improving the planning system and making sure it is in the best possible shape to swiftly adapt to changes and opportunities that can provide a big boost to the economy. We are determined to make sure perfectly good underused properties are converted for homes and uses that will benefit our communities.”

Yet while business leaders organisations the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors (IOD) have both welcomed the move as a way of boosting the economy, RIBA has sounded its own reservations.  The chair of RIBA’s planning group Ruth Reed said: “We agree with the need to significantly increase the supply of housing, but extending the permitted development rights for conversion of commercial to residential property in many instances, may lead to the wrong type of homes in the wrong place and will not be the antidote to the housing crisis. Whilst there are undoubtedly some offices that may lend themselves to residential conversion, there are a range of factors including the layout of the building, specific design requirements and location of buildings that would render many unsuitable for the change of use proposed. Local planning authorities continue to be best placed to make these judgments.”

Local authorities themselves issued similar misgivings. Mike Jones, chairman of the Local Government Association’s environment and housing board issued a statement saying that the proposal would be “helpful” in some areas, but warned ministers against imposing a “one-size-fits-all policy”. He said: “It should be for councils and residents to decide when and where this relaxing of the rules would be beneficial for the local area and the people who live there.”