The government's housing drive accelerated this month with the announcement of rules to make it easier to convert offices, launderettes and light industrial units into housing. Experts said the changes could benefit applicants, but some have also raised concerns about the suitability of residential units that could come forward and the impact on employment stock.
The announced changes bring to an end months of speculation about the future of controversial office-to-residential permitted development rights. In a statement, planning minister Brandon Lewis said that the rule - introduced in 2013 on a temporary basis, and due to expire in May - would be made permanent.
The government said those who have already received permission will have three years to complete the change of use, which it said would end potential uncertainty for developers. Currently 17 councils have also designated zones exempt from the rights. The government said these would have until May 2019 to make an Article 4 direction if they wanted to continue requiring applications for the change of use.
The government said nearly 4,000 conversions were given the go-ahead between April 2014 and June 2015. "These rights were set to expire on 30 May 2016 - potentially introducing unnecessary bureaucracy that would hamper the conversion of underused office buildings and slow down the delivery of thousands of new homes," it said in a statement.
Under the changes, the permitted development right will be extended to allow developers to demolish office buildings and replace them with new build residential units without needing to apply for permission, subject to limitations and prior approval by the local authority. The current temporary permitted development right precludes the demolition of office space for housing.
Martha Grekos, partner and London head of planning and infrastructure at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said the new rule would open the door to housebuilders. "It will add value to buildings because it will allow more purpose-built development to come forward, as opposed to, say, costly and compromised refurbishment," she said.
David Brown, planning director at consultancy GL Hearn, said the change "could be a very big deal". He said: "If you are no longer bound by old, almost redundant office blocks that you have to convert and work around, it provides a great opportunity to put something back that's better, more attractive, more efficient, providing the kind of homes that I guess government would want to come through as part of this initiative."
Richard Lemon, associate director of planning at consultancy CBRE, said in principle the new rule could be fairly significant, but he imagines that there will be "all sorts of hurdles for applicants to jump". He said: "I'm sure that the overall bulk and the mass of the building will need to be agreed by the local authority at the very least. Developers will need to demonstrate that they can satisfy the local authority that the proposal is acceptable."
Mike Kiely, chairman of the board of the Planning Officers Society, said it has been opposed to the permitted development right for some time, adding that in some cases it had resulted in low-quality housing coming forward. "Residential is clearly important but so are jobs, and this is not targeted at vacant offices in any sense whatsoever," he added. "We have experience of occupied offices being given notice to quit in order to bring this forward. We are going to run into a problem of affordable office space before very long."
The government also announced plans to introduce a permitted development right to allow the conversion of launderettes and light industrial units into homes, subject to prior approval by the local planning authority. Kiely raised concerns about the proposals, outlining that launderettes provide an essential service, often in deprived areas. He added that industrial units "are fundamentally not designed to be residential". He said: "Quite often they are metal-framed buildings with a thin cladding on, they do not lend themselves to conversion at all." He added: "They tend to be located in industrial areas, which are characterised by noise, smells and heavy traffic."
Grekos said the new rule would exacerbate the shortage of light industrial stock, adding that a lot of work would be needed to upgrade land to bring it forward for residential use. "I'm a bit sceptical where that's going to work," she said. "I know the whole idea behind this is very much to bring forward housebuilding. But we always need to think about houses that are suitable for actual living."
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: "The 2008 economic crash devastated the housebuilding industry, leading to the lowest levels of starts for any peacetime year since the 1920s. We have turned around a broken housing market and our measures will make it easier to turn empty and underused office buildings into new homes."