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Permitted development affects housing quality, London Councils group warns

Words: Laura Edgar

The conversion of offices to homes is harming London’s town centres and results in “sub-standard” housing, says cross-party organisation London Councils.

Introduced in May 2013, legislation fast-tracking the conversion of offices to homes can also undermine new jobs and economic growth says London Councils, which represents the London’s 32 borough councils and the City of London.

In The Impact of Permitted Development Rights for Office to Residential Conversions: A London Councils briefing (PDF), it says figures submitted by London boroughs show that approval has been granted for at least 100,000 square metres of occupied office floorspace between May 2013 and April 2015. In total, 834,000 square metres have been granted approval.

The temporary measure is due to expire in May 2016, but the government has said it might extend it as well as removing current exemptions applied to Canary Wharf and East London's ‘Silicon Roundabout’.

Claire Kober, London Councils’ executive member for infrastructure and regeneration, urged the government to clarify its position on making these rights permanent and removing existing exemption for central London and town centres.

“Permitted development rights prevent boroughs insisting on an affordable housing quota, meaning that much-needed low-cost homes for rent or ownership agreed through the planning process will not be delivered. We urgently need more homes but a planning free-for-all is not the answer,” said Kober.

Office space already lost has displaced jobs and threatens the “viability of economic centres”, she added.

“It is very difficult to support jobs and growth without suitable commercial property and the loss of this kind of accommodation has a knock-on effect on community amenities such as GPs’ surgeries and dentists.”

The warning by London Councils comes as new analysis commissioned by the British Council for Offices (BCO) shows that 557,418.3 square metres of office space in England has been converted to residential use.

The BCO analysis shows that office to residential conversion is most prominent in areas that are not protected.

In Islington conversions are taking place at a “rate of 5.2 per cent of current office stock under the new rights in the non-exempt area”. This, says the BCO, equates to a loss of 21,181.89 square metres of office space since May 2013.

In exempt areas operating under normal planning conditions the conversion rate is 0.5 per cent.

Looking outside of the capital, the research highlights that in Bristol 80,825.65 square metres of office space has been granted prior approval. Since 2013, 50 per cent of approved office-to-residential conversions have been implemented in the city.

Richard Kauntze, chief executive of the BCO, said it is time to take stock and consider the impact of permitted development rights for office to residential conversions.

“While the PDR can certainly contribute towards much-needed housing, a cautious approach is required. When, in 2013, the government consulted on the possibility of allowing the conversion of offices to housing without the need to secure planning permission, the BCO stressed the vital need to avoid a free-for-all. This is now more important than ever, as the increase in office-to-residential conversions since the introduction of the PDR represents a growing challenge in how to satisfy office demand,” he said.