Government eases regulations for three years to allow office space to be converted into new homes without need for planning permission

Ministers have relaxed planning rules to speed the conversion of offices into homes and enable free schools to secure premises more easily.

The new permitted development rights, announced last week, are part of a move within government to cut planning regulations further in a bid to stimulate growth.

The permitted development rights for office-to-residential conversions will remain in place for three years and will allow office space to be converted into new homes without the need for planning permission from the local planning authority.

Local authorities will be able to object to the new right, but only if they can demonstrate that there will be substantial adverse economic consequences.

Further reforms will enable a range of town centre buildings to convert their use for up to two years, in a move aimed at speeding the conversion of empty high street buildings into new uses.

Rhian Kelly, CBI director for business environment, welcomed the move to ease the conversion of offices to homes. “We have been calling for measures to allow the housing market to flow more freely for some time,” she said.

“This move towards more rapid development will get better use out of underused office space and support the construction industry.”

However, Ruth Reed, chair of the RIBA planning group, said permitted development rights for conversions “may lead to the wrong type of homes in the wrong place and will not be the antidote to the housing crisis”.

“While there are undoubtedly some offices that may lend themselves to residential conversion, there are a range of factors including the layout of the building, specific design requirements and location of buildings that would render many unsuitable for the change of use proposed,” she said.

“Local planning authorities continue to be best placed to make these judgements.”

For free schools, the new rights will allow groups wanting to start a school to open in a greater range of buildings - such as offices, hotels, hostels, shops and warehouses - for a year without needing planning permission.

Securing premises has consistently been identified as one of the most difficult obstacles to setting up a free school. Last September, the Department for Education said 24 schools that were approved to open were unable to because of difficulties in securing premises.

It is hoped that the 12-month grace period will enable free schools to press ahead with their plans, rather than wait for change-of-use approval.

Louise Allanach, EC Harris partner, said the lack of available sites “has long been acknowledged as the single biggest barrier to free schools opening on time”.

She said the change in planning requirements would help, but said free school groups would still need to be “more creative and flexible in their thinking around what buildings could work as a free school”.

The government also opened a new estate agency-style website listing its surplus properties, to make it easier for people who want to set up a free school to search for and find sites.

Planning shake-up

Key points

  • Change of use from B1(a) office to C3 residential. Councils can seek an exemption to development rights on economic grounds but the secretary of state will only grant an exemption in exceptional circumstances.
  • Uses that can convert temporarily for two years to other uses include shops (A1), financial and professional services (A2), restaurants and cafes (A3) and offices (B1).
  • Agricultural buildings, up to a specific size yet to be determined, will be able to convert to other business uses, but not residential.
  • Free schools to open in a range of building types, including offices, hotels, shops and warehouses, without change-of-use approval for 12 months.