A controversial new law allowing the conversion of office space into residential development without planning permission took a further twist on 9 May 2013 when Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, announced that only 17 local authorities would be exempt from the new rules. This represents only a small number of those local authorities who applied for an exemption and is a mark of the Government’s determination to “bring back life” to outdated, redundant or underused offices and produce knock-on benefits to the wider community.
The local authorities that have been given this power are located across the country, but by far the majority fall within central London. The authorities within London are: the City of London, the London Boroughs of Camden, Hackney, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Newham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Westminster. Outside of London the authorities are: Manchester City Council, the borough councils of Ashford (Kent), Stevenage and Vale of the White Horse, along with the district councils of Sevenoaks and East Hampshire.
Although the exemptions will be welcomed by the successful local authorities, critics will remain concerned that the changes could potentially damage the availability of office space, particularly in high-value residential areas where office space would be readily sacrificed in favour of further residential development.
In a large number of instances, conversion will not be possible without additional works to the building which are likely to require planning permission. In those cases where there is no need for further works, there will be no ability for the local planning authority to secure financial contributions towards social infrastructure, affordable housing etc. Therefore, concerns remain as to the benefit of such conversions and whether the new laws will increase the pressure on existing infrastructure.