Why demolition rights move could appeal to housebuilding sector

For planners who thought last year's proposal to allow demolition of office buildings through permitted development rights had been dropped, an announcement at last week's Conservative Party conference contained a surprise.

Demolition: government announces policy change
Demolition: government announces policy change

Buried in the small print beneath a press release announcing communities secretary Sajid Javid’s £5 billion housebuilding boost was a promise to deliver 4,000 additional homes by extending existing office-to-residential permitted development rights (PDRs) to allow for demolition of office premises and their replacement with housing "on a like-for-like basis".

Currently, only conversions of existing buildings are allowed. Stuart Irvine, director at planning consultants Turley, said: "This is a surprise as this wasn’t an area we thought the government would go into, given the resistance to the existing PDR rules."

A source familiar with the government’s plans told Planning that the extension of the PDR rules would operate under a "prior approval" system and that "consideration is being given to the detail of the right", with further announcements expected in due course.

The extension is seen as important because while the existing rights have proved very popular, with 6,500 conversion projects undertaken in the past two years, allowing demolition could have even broader appeal. Andrew Whitaker, planning director at the Home Builders Federation, said: "A lot of housebuilders have shied away from PDR because of concerns about the quality of residential conversions. A lot will move into this game now."

Irvine said: "Until now, we’ve had a range of ad hoc developers taking these schemes forward. Now the likes of Berkeley Homes are likely to see a real business opportunity."

Council concerns over loss of employment space will only be amplified by the extension to the scheme, with London already estimated to have lost more than 8,000 square metres of offices. In addition, the ability to knock buildings down will create concerns over the design of their replacements, while the use of the prior approval system will reduce the fees councils are able to levy.

Planning Officers Society board chair Mike Kiely said: "These can be large, significant buildings in town centres. It’s going to be hard to square the circle regarding national policy on good design, particularly as the paltry prior approval fees will reduce the resource we have to do so."

The upshot, according to Huw Edwards, senior planning partner at consultants Barton Willmore, will inevitably be more councils seeking to exempt areas from PDR rules through article 4 directions. "The worst case scenario is that we’ll see new offices springing up on greenfield sites outside towns because all the town centre sites have been lost," he said.

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