How the 'freedom' to demolish office buildings for new homes would work

The government has renewed its plans to allow offices to be demolished and replaced with new homes. But the latest proposals envisage more control over the consent process for councils than previously suggested. Some commentators say this will soften council opposition. But others raise concerns about loss of commercial floorspace and a lack of developer interest.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick (pic: Getty)
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick (pic: Getty)

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick used the recent Conservative Party Conference to resurrect the Tories' long-held idea to allow developers to demolish commercial buildings and replace them with homes without the need for full planning permission. In March, Jenrick’s predecessor, James Brokenshire, had effectively kicked the idea into the long grass after the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) admitted that more than two-thirds of respondents to a government consultation opposed it. Brokenshire said the government would "continue to consider the design" of a proposed permitted development (PD) right that would allow such proposals to gain consent.

While details won’t be published until the long-awaited Accelerated Planning Green Paper due in November, a ministry spokeswoman confirmed the new plan is different in a key respect. Where previously the idea was to create a new PD right for demolition and rebuild, this time the idea is to use the permission in principle (PiP) route, a new form of consent established in 2017.

Very little beyond the concept of using PiPs to allow demolition and rebuild of commercial buildings has been revealed. The PiP route as currently defined has two elements – the "in principle" approval itself, setting the general quantum of homes; and a second stage, known as a technical details consent, which deals with all remaining elements.

Jenrick said at a party conference fringe event that the "revolutionary" idea would give "the freedom for a developer to demolish", but would ensure housing quality by requiring they "work productively with the local community and authority as to what that replacement actually looks like". Jenrick said such considerations would cover issues including quality, size of homes, parking and the appearance of facades. Commentators have suggested these discussions would form the second stage of the PiP process, the technical details consent.

Jenrick said the new powers were aimed at "smaller developers outside of London and the South East" and he hoped that "poor quality and neglected" 1960s- and 1970s-built offices would be replaced with "high-quality new homes". He also said he hoped the PiP process met some of the concerns raised about PD rights, adding: "We don't want that to lead to local authorities gumming up the system and unnecessarily preventing developments from happening, but we do want it to mean that developments are sensitive and good quality."

Dominick Veasey, director at consultant Nexus Planning, said the change of tack would answer concerns that a PD right would simply leave councils with no control at all. "In this route, councils still have control of what’s built because of the checks and balances of the technical details consent," he said.

But many questions remain unanswered. Claire Fallows, partner at law firm CRS, said: "One of the core difficulties will be defining precisely the type of office buildings which can attract such applications." Jenrick said he wanted to see redevelopment of "neglected" commercial buildings, but didn’t specify whether the right would in practice be restricted to "neglected" properties or not.

Grant Leggett, director at consultant Boyer, said the current common practice whereby councils require developers to undertake a 12-month marketing exercise to prove lack of demand before converting commercial premises to residential would be a nonsense for a supposedly fast-track route. "Therefore, they need to find a way to define neglected – how on earth do you do it?" he said.

Another question is how the process would work. Currently, there are two ways that a site can be granted PiP – through designation by the local authority in its brownfield register, or by an application from a developer. However, the application route is currently restricted in primary legislation to minor development of less than 10 homes only, which is unlikely to suit the demolition and rebuild of large commercial premises. CRS’s Fallows said changing this would require primary legislation.

Mike Kiely, chairman of the Planning Officers’ Society, said he expects the government to get round this by creating a PD right covering all commercial property to be granted PiP. This could potentially be enacted by amending the General Permitted Development Order (GDPO) which sets out permitted development, meaning any applicant would simply need to show a site-met criteria defined under the GDPO to be granted PiP. Details of the replacement scheme would then be determined via a further technical details consent. "I think they’re thinking about using the GDPO to grant a PD right for all commercial development to get permission in principle," Kiely said.

He added that he thought it was unlikely the new measure would be restricted to certain types of building. "The government used the phrase 'neglected office buildings' about earlier PD rights, but it was just rhetoric – those rights applied to all buildings and I’d expect them to do the same here," he said.

Opposition to the earlier proposal for a demolition PD right came from local authorities concerned they would lose both valuable employment space and the ability to mitigate the planning impacts of developments, while also missing out on the usual application fees. Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association, said the latest proposal would be opposed as it was still rooted in the desire "to remove safeguards and allow building without planning permission".

However, Kiely said using PiP would mitigate many of the concerns. "This way means the fees will be better and authorities should still be able to get planning obligations and control unit size, landscape impact, amenity space," he said.

Stuart Irvine, a senior director at consultancy Turley, said he "fully expects" a blanket approach to introducing the new PIP mechanism. Such an approach may remove uncertainty and in some areas would help regenerate out of date employment stock, he said. But he warned that it is also a "dangerous approach" that risks the "loss of valuable office accommodate, particularly where residential values run ahead of commercial returns".

Boyer’s Leggett said the challenge for this policy may, conversely, be developer appetite, given the "pitifully low" take-up of PiPs so far. Applicants will still have to work up a scheme to some level of detail prior to applying for PiP, he said, in order to determine the development quantum. "The question is why on earth would someone choose this route rather than outline permission," he added. "I’m not seeing how they can articulate it in a way that makes it attractive."

But Irvine said the PiP process, in allowing the principle of consent to be established up front, allows "greater certainty for investors" compared to the risk and uncertainty of submitting a planning application, particularly one determined by committee members.

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