In a statement issued during October 2015, the Government announced it would extend the temporary permitted development (PD) rights beyond their expiry date of 30 May 2016. New regulations have now been issued enabling this to take effect. They will be in force from 6 April 2016. Rather than needing a more ‘traditional’ planning application, this means it is possible to convert office premises to residential use subject only to local authority prior approval of a limited range of matters.
During summer 2014, as part of its ‘Technical Consultation on Planning’, the coalition government considered various measures designed to streamline and simplify the planning process. It was proposed to:
- extend existing PD rights allowing offices (Use Class B1(a)) to be converted into new homes / residential (C3);
- remove exemptions preventing ‘office-to-resi’ conversions in areas considered by the government as “strategically important”; and
- establish new PD rights to allow the creation of homes in buildings used for light industry B1(c) and warehousing (B8), subject to prior approval of certain matters – such as with B1(a) to C3 conversions.
- In mid-October 2015, it was then indicated that the existing PD rights for office-to-resi conversions would be made permanent – extending beyond their previous temporary operation. This had limited the operation of the B1(a) to C3 change to a 30 May 2016 expiry date, with developers completing conversions by May 2019.
The Permitted Development Right & New Regulations
The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) Order 2016 (the 2016 Order) has now been revealed, coming into force on Wednesday 6 April 2016. This will have the effect of amending the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. Alongside the amendment covering change of use, the 2016 Order also provides for amendments in relation to minerals permitted developments. Most importantly however, it means office-to-resi conversions can proceed under PD rights indefinitely, rather than developers being restricted to complete conversions within a specific time-frame or a more detailed planning application having to be submitted. Exercise of the PD rights will, though, still be subject to prior approval being received from the relevant local planning authority in relation to flooding, highways, transport and contamination impacts.
It is understood that the existing exemptions from the PD rights for areas the government consider to be ‘strategically important’ will remain. Ministers previously exempted 33 areas across 17 local authorities, following concerns regarding the adverse impact on employment. It seems protection for such areas is to continue, potentially limiting opportunities for conversions to ‘exclusive’ residential use-areas in the City, Westminster and surrounding boroughs.
Since their introduction in May 2013, there has been considerable use of the ‘office-to-resi’ PD rights. An Estates Gazette report in late summer 2014 highlighted that the combined number of applications (including conversions involving both demolition and refurbishment of offices) in the capital had approximately doubled since the new rights were introduced. In a statement released during October 2015, the government noted that almost 4,000 conversions had been given the go-ahead between April 2014 and June 2015 alone.
However, the PD rights have not been without controversy. Some commentators argue there is simply insufficient infrastructure (such as shops and local healthcare facilities) to cater for the resultant influx in residential accommodation. The inability to sustain any sense of ‘community’ in areas where conversions take place has also been emphasised. That small, sub-standard housing units may result is a concern. The planning spokesperson for the Labour London Assembly – Nicky Gavron – commented that 1,094,550 square metres of floorspace would be lost in the capital if existing prior approval applications went ahead. This would in turn “result in tiny sub-standard housing which fails to serve the needs of Londoners”. Whether a greater number of office-to-resi conversions will help or hinder economic growth remains to be seen. While certainly leading to loss of scarce employment space, conversions can rejuvenate underused commercial space. Nonetheless, stringent assessment of physical feasibility and financial viability is needed to ensure development projects are realistic.
One important point to note, is that the 2016 Order makes no mention of a previous proposal to extend the PD right to allow applicants to demolish offices and rebuild so as to provide the space for housing. This is despite this being a key element of the reform as confirmed by planning minister, Brandon Lewis, following the 2014 consultation. More substantive external alterations needed to facilitate the change of use are therefore likely to still require formal planning permission, at least until the Housing & Planning Act is passed.