Of the sweeping changes to the Permitted Development regime which came into effect on 30 th May 2013, arguably the most controversial has been the creation of new Class J, under which existing B1(a) office buildings may be converted to C3 homes without the need for planning permission (albeit with a ‘sunset clause’ limiting the change to 3 years). Whilst ministerial statements announced that the change would “make a valuable contribution to easing our national housing shortage” and “provides an excellent opportunity to create much needed new homes”, it was greeted with considerable dismay by local authorities, many voicing concern that the move could serve to harm economic development by depleting office stock and generating a shortfall of affordable employment space as the economy recovers. Indicative of the levels of concern generated by the amendment was the number of requests for exemption from the new measures prior to their introduction: 1,387 requests in total made by 165 councils, including 30 out of 33 London boroughs and 7 of the 8 biggest cities outside the capital.
Exemptions were however granted sparingly: the bar was set deliberately high by the Government, local authorities being required to demonstrate “exceptional circumstances”, where the introduction of the new permitted development rights would “lead to the loss of a nationally significant area of economic activity or substantial adverse economic consequences at the local authority level which would not be offset by the positive benefits the new rights would bring”; only 17 of the 165 applications were successful. Of those, the overwhelming majority are clustered within the capital (10) and a limited number of designated enterprise zones in the south east, with the notable exception of Manchester City Centre.
This has, inevitably, generated considerable controversy. The London Borough of Islington has issued judicial review proceedings relating to the reasons why exemptions were granted for certain areas but not others, and has said that three other London boroughs, Tower Hamlets, Richmond and Sutton, were supporting the move, with LB Richmond participating in the proceedings as joint claimant. Islington has already issued an Article 4 direction to restrict the operation of the new rights in certain areas of the borough, the second local planning authority to do so after Brighton and Hove City Council. Whilst Nick Boles has emphasised in Parliamentary debate that the policy is aimed at the revitalisation of ‘redundant commercial space’, Richmond, Brighton and Sutton have all confirmed that they have received prior approval applications for offices in use, and it is feared that this pattern is likely to be repeated in those areas where differences in value between residential and commercial space is most marked. It is no coincidence that the above-named councils were revealed to be amongst those to have received a higher number of prior approval applications than anywhere else in the country (together with two other London boroughs: Camden and Hammersmith and Fulham).
Nothing daunted, on 7th August 2013 the Government opened a consultation – “Greater flexibilities for change of use” – which proposes (amongst other measures) to create a permitted development right to convert A1 and A2 uses (small shops and providers of professional / financial services respectively) to C3 residential use. Responses thus far have been muted, but it seems likely that although the proposed measure may be met with enthusiasm from developers, it will do nothing to assuage local authority concerns.