It's all about money, even when it comes to culture, by Peter Bill

Prepare for a stream of prior approval applications to convert offices into homes now demolition is to be allowed under permitted development rights.

New-build permitted development will presumably still be subject to the current planning regime, but that's fine. Flattening an existing building to put up a new one tends to bring substantial increases in floorspace.

The existing office envelope contains plenty of cash, after all. Introducing permitted development for office-to-residential conversions in May 2013, originally on a three-year basis, has been a success. No wonder. Sub-prime offices valued at £150 per square foot can be turned into dinky flats worth £300, £450 or even £600 for the same area. The multiplying of sale values with conversion will be turbo-boosted by the new demolish and rebuild option.

A fund run by Ben Habib of investment firm First Property bought eight sub-prime office blocks around London for a total of £30 million in 2013/14, specifically to exploit the new rights. All are now sold, for £56 million in total, capturing £26 million in profit for his investors and permitting 655 new homes. None are yet built. Neither are many of the tens of thousands of other units gained using permitted development rights. Many are bound to be reworked, now demolition is an option.

For the past two and a half years, it has been the owners of office stock who have been doing the talking and trading, thanks to the fear that the window of opportunity would close in May. Few homes have been built in the gold rush to capture value. The process should become less frenzied now the window is to stay open. Make no mistake, this is a biggie. Permitted development rights to convert offices into housing are the most potent piece of planning legislation so far this century. Money talks.

Cheer up, Wolverhampton. Being voted Britain's most miserable town last week by the Legatum Institute is not so bad when you realise the institute's stated aim is to encourage "prosperity through revitalising capitalism". Wolverhampton should aim to cheer up its population by using planning to revitalise culture instead - even though the head of culture post was cut last year.

Not in the mood? Talk to Jeremy Grint, director of regeneration at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. The dapper cockney cogently explained to an audience of 250 at City Hall in London last week why councils need to embed culture as well as housing in local plans. If Barking and Dagenham can get its shaven head around culture, even Wolverhampton can.

The Greater London Authority's assistant director of planning Stewart Murray also launched The A-Z of Planning and Culture at the event, setting out a "magnificent seven steps to supporting culture through planning". Follow these, and happy people and rising house prices are (almost) guaranteed.

Peter Bill is the author of Planet Property www.planet-property.net


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