The property industry and local government are – for once – falling into line in a battle to stop misguided government proposals to continue the office to residential conversion planning bypass that has been trialled over the last months.
Indications are that the trial policy is already leading to a shortage of budget office accommodation. Increasing numbers of businesses are being evicted, as landlords spot an opportunity to convert second hand office blocks into more profitable apartments, without the need for planning permission.
Already the policy is threatening to develop new residential districts in urban centres, with nowhere for employers to house themselves. From Westminster to Croydon, new ghettos of flats are in danger of being developed, while businesses are forced to relocate further away from those centres – just the sort of thing that planning policies were supposed to prevent.
“We are one year into a three year experiment, and the government seems to be prejudging the outcome,” noted officer Paul Beckett of the Corporation of London, speaking at a recent planning meeting. The proposal to make the idea permanent has come in newly circulated proposals. While some authorities have successfully argued for an exemption from the current trial, there are fears such exemptions would not be allowed if the rules are permanently changed.
London mayor Boris Johnson has joined London First, the British Property Federation and the Planning Officers Society London are among those calling for greater protection of business zones, and have sent an open letter to communities secretary Eric Pickles.
“Affordable workspace is just as important as affordable housing in creating a sustainable, balanced economy,” noted Nicky Gavron of the London Assembly.
Typical of those now being hit by the policy experiment are office tenants in central Croydon. A number have been given notice to quit, as their landlords will profit from turning their blocks into flats. But the opportunity to relocate locally is evaporating, due to the substantial volume of secondhand office space being lost to residential conversions; while new office space is substantially more expensive. There are also quality concerns about the new homes being delivered. As developers no longer need to seek planning permission, local planning officers cannot push them to build to higher than the most basic standards.
Here is a policy that was introduced in the name of simplifying planning, and encouraging regeneration and the production of new housing. If the government fails to listen, and continues with its experiment, our cities will be left with insufficient business space, and companies will be pushed into paying more for offices, as only new space at higher rents will be available.
Paying higher rents means less money to expand or pay new staff – and a stifled economic recovery.
And if they are serious about encouraging the production of more homes, what is really needed is planning reform that allows more homes to be built, on more new land. And no more Help to Buy subsidies.