LGA - Offices left empty by COVID-19 could result in surge in substandard home conversions

New analysis by the Local Government Association found that more than 16,000 affordable homes could have been lost in England in the past five years as a result of offices converted into homes under permitted development rights, which allow developers to bypass the planning system.


Corner of an office building against a blue sky

Office blocks that are left empty following the coronavirus pandemic risk being turned into potential substandard housing as a result of rules that allow developers to convert buildings into homes without planning permission, councils warn today.

New analysis by the Local Government Association found that more than 16,000 affordable homes could have been lost in England in the past five years as a result of offices converted into homes under permitted development rights, which allow developers to bypass the planning system.

The findings come ahead of the LGA today giving evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry on permitted development rights.

In some areas of the country, office to residential conversions account for a significant proportion of new homes.

Different types of accommodation will be appropriate for different people at different stages of their lives, and in some cases office conversions can provide a suitable option, but we have long had concerns about some of the substandard housing created from permitted development conversions, and the lack of any requirement for developers to provide affordable homes or supporting infrastructure.

Last year (2019/20), more than half (56.6 per cent) of all new homes in Trafford were office conversions, with 40.9 per cent in Crawley, 37.5 per cent in Harlow, 36.7 per cent in Walsall and 36.3 per cent in Luton.

This means communities are unable to have their say on these conversions to ensure they meet high quality standards, nor is there a requirement for the developer to provide any affordable housing or supporting infrastructure such as roads, schools and health services, as there would be if planning permission was required.

It comes as the Government has extended permitted development rights to apply to all commercial units and business premises – meaning shops, banks, restaurants, gyms, creches and offices can now be turned into homes without planning permission.

An independent report commissioned by the Government last year found that permitted development conversions can “create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers”.

It is good that the Government has moved to allay the negative impact on communities of permitted development rights by introducing space standards for new homes. However, concerns remain about the quality, design and safety, as well as location of this type of housing. This also does not address the standards of housing previously delivered under permitted development.

The LGA, which represents councils, is calling for permitted development rights to be scrapped as part of a strengthening of the locally-led planning system.

It fears that with office blocks and other types of business premises potentially being left redundant following COVID-19 as a result of a switch to greater home-working and the economic downturn, that many will be acquired by developers to bypass the planning system and turn into housing.

Councils are able to remove permitted development in specific areas through what is known as an Article 4 direction, which can be a lengthy process requiring approval of the Secretary of State.

The LGA warns curtailing councils’ ability to use Article 4 would represent a further blow to local democracy.

Cllr David Renard, LGA housing spokesperson, said:

“There is a real possibility that some office blocks, retail and commercial spaces will remain empty beyond COVID-19 and end up being converted into housing under permitted development rights, bypassing the local planning system and the voice of local communities, who will be hamstrung in their ability to raise any objections or issues.

“We have long had concerns over the substandard housing created from permitted development conversions, and the lack of any requirement for developers to provide affordable homes or supporting infrastructure.

“The planning system exists to enable the delivery of a mix of high-quality, affordable housing that meets the needs of local communities, and gives those communities the opportunity to shape and define the area they live in.

“Councils are committed to building the housing this country desperately needs as part of the national recovery from coronavirus, but we urge the Government to protect the future quality of new homes by permanently revoking the permitted development rights for change of use into homes.”

Notes to editors

Quality standard of homes delivered through change of use permitted development rights - Report on the independent MHCLG funded research into quality standard of homes delivered through certain permitted development rights for the change of use

The amount of affordable housing required as part of any development varies by local area usually starts at 25 per cent.

If this was applied to the 64,798 office to residential conversions under permitted development in England between 2015/16 and 2019/20 – nearly 6 per cent of all new housing built – it would amount to 16,200 affordable homes going unbuilt.