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Office-to-resi changes: 'Reckless' and 'unnecessary'

Tucked away in a statement heralding the publication of the Housing and Planning Bill, the prime minister notes that the temporary rule allowing property owners to convert offices into flats almost overnight, without the need for planning permission, will be made permanent.

While it may sound like a small technical tweak, this is actually a reckless measure that sacrifices jobs and will do little to create the homes we actually need.

Of course we need to build more homes, but the trial has shown that this policy results in the wrong types of homes in the wrong locations, and lets developers off the hook with no requirement to contribute any affordable housing.

The converted housing does not even have to meet affordability, environmental, or disability standards set by local authorities.

“Developers are driving businesses out to make way for conversions”

The government makes out that these are “disused” offices, but the reality is that developers are driving businesses out to make way for conversions.

Not a silver bullet

At least 322 fully occupied office spaces across London were earmarked for conversion in just the first two years of the trial scheme, according to a report last month from London Councils.

Even where property owners don’t convert, they use the increased land value as a reason to drive up rents, forcing businesses to close or to leave London, much to the detriment of our capital’s economy.

“The worst part is that this policy is entirely unnecessary”

Affordable workspace that start-ups and small businesses need to thrive will be hardest hit, begging the question of where the tech cities of the future will emerge.

The worst part is that this policy is entirely unnecessary.

Councils already had the powers under the planning system to allow conversions where appropriate – but this also meant the ability to protect office space, ensure good standards of housing and encourage balanced mixes of dwellings and commercial space alongside the infrastructure they rely on.

Permitted development takes that ability out of councils’ hands, denying them a tool to help build the areas in which people want to live and work.

So much for localism.

Cross-party opposition

That is exactly why this has been widely resisted by councils of all political complexions.

When initially introduced on the temporary basis to expire in May 2016, 165 councils across England applied to be exempted – only 17 were given exemptions.

Boris Johnson once claimed “we will go ballistic on this”, threatening that “thermonuclear weapons will be used.”

That was in September 2014, and he failed to live up to that rhetoric.

Now that he’s an MP, I hope he will remember that promise and secure an exemption for the whole of London before yet more businesses are forced to pay the price.

Nicky Gavron AM is Labour’s London Assembly planning spokesperson and a Londonwide assembly member

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