Fancy living in a converted office? The government wants you to but Jay Das thinks it’s a short-term solution that will create long-term problems

As the effect of the recession continues, many businesses are going to the wall, leaving a glut of empty office and workshop spaces in towns and city centres contributing to their decline.

Long-term empty office space needs to be brought back into use and the government has proposed a solution - automatic changes from B1 (office), B2 (general industrial) and B8 (storage and distribution) to residential dwellings. Landlords would be able to change the use of the building without having to apply to the local council.

The short-term benefits would be speedier regeneration as conversions draw in residents. But in the longer term the picture is not so positive, with the prospect of higher business
costs, increased residential complaints and overloaded local services.

The purpose of the planning system is to ensure that any development is sited in suitable locations. For this reason commercial premises are usually located in central areas or industrial parks and away from residential development. There is a natural tension between residential and commercial development, which stems from a number of intrinsic conflicts:

  • public transport vs car parking requirements
  • dirty, noisy vehicles and deliveries vs quiet residential streets
  • tall office buildings vs low-rise housing and the associated problems of overlooking and loss of privacy
  • evening operations vs sleep
  • dust, pollution and noise vs public health and nuisance.

Indeed, when planning applications are currently made in residential areas to change a building’s use, for example when individuals want to convert their garages for business, local residents tend to object. Their objections usually centre on the belief that traffic will increase or that property values will fall due to unsightly building, processes and vehicles or from noise nuisance. Presently, the planning system considers all this and suitable action is taken to address or ameliorate. No more.

Under the proposals, no assessment of planning merit will be required. The only requirement is that the change of use should not require external alterations to the building. Conversion will be placed on the same footing as adding a conservatory and the extra demand for local services such as education, parking and healthcare or the impact on and from neighbouring uses will not be taken into account.

We already know that when residents move into mixed office/industrial areas there are increased pressures and costs on existing businesses from the need to improve sound insulation, introduce quieter methods of working and ban early and late working to prevent sleep disturbance. These extra costs could drive out some businesses.

Lost local commercial areas are unlikely to be easily replaced when the market recovers and with chronic housing shortages across the UK it is unlikely that the loss of office and commercial land to housing will be reversed in the foreseeable future.

But it doesn’t end there. Restricted supply of office and commercial space will further increase costs for businesses, making some industries unviable.

The government states that the market can determine land value, but if planning does not play its role in managing need against market forces, commercial uses will be forced into less desirable parts of the country, resulting in less sustainable forms of development and a more disparate land-use landscape nationwide.

Yes, a solution needs to be found to the housing problem, and automatic change of use could provide some short-term relief to housing availability and urban decline. But in the longer term, it can only hamper our ability to return to sustainable, commercially viable uses.

Jay Das is a partner in Wedlake Bell LLP