The communities secretary’s proposal to relax planning rules around the conversion of office buildings into homes could have a number of implications for local infrastructure

John Bosworth

There has been a recent announcement from the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, that the government intends to relax permitted development rights to allow the conversion of empty offices into residential dwellings without the need for planning permission. This proposed amendment to the General Permitted Development Order may go some way to encouraging development and injecting life into a struggling construction industry; however, there is concern that it may go too far in abandoning key principles of planning control in the context of residential development. This could well have significant practical implications for occupiers of the developments and their local communities and place considerable strain on the capacity of local authorities to meet maintenance and improvement needs.

The demise of local infrastructure?

Under usual circumstances, if there were a proposal to convert a large-scale office building to residential use by way of the planning system, you would expect the local planning authority to require undertakings on the part of the developer as a pre-condition to the grant of planning permission. Traditionally such requirements are imposed through a section 106 agreement, often a complex, hotly negotiated document that takes account of all local factors and seeks to balance any implications of development through the delivery or facilitation (usually financial) of local infrastructure. It is difficult to see how this can be achieved through an amendment to the General Permitted Development Order on a national basis. If this measure does go through, without such requirements the upshot will potentially be the development of communities with inadequate local facilities. Specifically, the following concerns apply in the context of affordable housing and education facilities:

  • Affordable housing A section 106 agreement would generally require 25-50% affordable units throughout England and Wales, depending upon local factors. It will be interesting to see whether the changes attempt to require the provision of affordable housing to address the risk of a shortfall.
  • Education facilities Office buildings that convert to residential may be located in an area where there are no nearby primary schools, which indeed may be an area where the local planning authority would not have permitted the residential use for those reasons. Under the proposed changes, office blocks will be capable of being converted in areas where there are no local facilities and no guarantee that facilities will be provided. CIL - addressing the shortfall?

For local planning authorities who have adopted a community infrastructure levy (CIL) schedule, the deemed planning permission granted by the General Permitted Development Order could be made subject to payment of the levy in the usual way, which would account for many contributions. However, authorities yet to adopt
a CIL schedule will clearly miss out on such contributions.

Practical implications

Most planning authorities have standards in terms of the overlooking of adjoining land which apply to residential uses but which do not apply to other types of use. Therefore it is possible that conversions will result in infringements of local standards. Likewise, it is unusual for a building to be converted to residential use without requiring some physical alterations, if only to comply with modern Building Regulations requirements. We await confirmation of whether the amended permitted development rights will allow (or even require) certain external alterations to be made to the building, such as recladding, to meet current thermal standards or whether these external changes will require planning permission in the usual way.

Locality exemptions

The new permitted development rights are expected to take effect in spring 2013; however, it looks likely that local authorities will be able to exercise some controls. Early indications are that they may be able to apply to exclude localities within their area if they can show that this is necessary, either for the reason that the development rights would result in the loss of a nationally significant area of economic activity or alternatively that, weighed against the benefits of flexible development, it would have substantial adverse economic consequences at a local level.

John Bosworth is a partner and head of the planning team at solicitor Ashfords