How Office Space Could Be Home to New Reform Bill; Plans to Allow the Conversion of Redundant Office and Other Industrial Space into Homes Are Bold but Does the Fine Print Match the Rhetoric, Asks Louise Brooke-Smith

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Byline: Louise Brooke-Smith

The Government's "Plan for Growth" document issued earlier this year set out its aspirations for more development to fall outside the established planning regulations and at the same time increase the supply of housing.

In a strong statement, it suggested that if all the long-term office space currently available was converted to residential use, it could deliver 250,000 new homes and save just under pounds 140 million over 10 years in unnecessary red tape costs.

This is part of the broader reforms sweeping through the planning system in the Localism Bill, which include the presumption in favour of sustainable development announced in the Budget.

Now the Department for Communities and Local Government has issued a consultation paper formally proposing a change of use of commercial property to residential use. It is seeking views by the end of June.

This could mean granting permitted development (PD) rights for the change of use from class B1 (Business), B2 (General Industry) and B8 (Storage and Distribution) to class C3 (Dwelling Houses) without the need for planning permission.

Specifically, the proposals suggest: Introducing new PD rights for the change of use of any B1, B2 or B8 property to residential use. Only external works constituting development would need planning permission.

Potentially extending PD rights to allow for more than one flat above a shop.

Developers would certainly welcome a cut in some of the ridiculous red tape that deters development taking place.

This is even more pertinent when it comes to new homes. The UK faces one of its worst housing shortages, with over five million people on waiting lists. House-building in England is at a record low. Only 129,000 units were completed in 2009-10, although English households are projected to grow by 232,000 per annum.

In contrast to the post-war boom years when public sector housing was strong and thousands of houses were built, today's annual social housing completion total is a drop in an ocean of dire need.

Many saw the 'right to buy' policies of the 1980s as the death knell of public sector provision with housing stock disappearing and nothing replacing it. While there have been some valiant attempts to redress this - and the role of housing associations has been pivotal - there remains a massive shortfall of homes.

Without a major overhaul of housing supply and some realistic incentives for the industry, can tinkering at the edges of the planning system help? Some feel strongly that the current consultation is something of a political PR stunt.

The proposals still require planning permission for external works and Building Regulations approval for internal works, so this may not lead to a speedier decision process for developers.

They also allow local planning authorities to issue an Article 4 Direction to withdraw any proposed permitted development rights. Indeed, it is highly likely that local authorities will restrict any new rights in key strategic employment locations and possibly on sites not close to existing town or district centres. Certainly, a change of use may simply not be acceptable in some areas due to issues of parking, noise and residential amenity.

The proposals could, nevertheless, lead to isolated communities with little access to transport, schools or other essential community facilities. …