Andrew Timoney Mills Reeve

Are cities scarred by office to residential developments?

In May 2013, the then UK Coalition government passed an amendment to the General Permitted Development Order which allowed the conversion of offices into new residential dwellings without the need to obtain full planning permission. Instead, developers had ‘deemed approval’. Andrew Timoney writes.

The concession was made permanent in 2016. Many UK towns and cities have seen tired old offices turned into ‘new’ residential units via the permitted development (PD) mechanism, but despite the resulting increase in housing stocks, the scheme has many failings which are now causing headaches for town planners and developers.

Quality and size

Critics have complained that PD rights allowed developers to build sub-standard dwellings, cutting costs along the way. Often, conversions squeeze in too many dwellings. Labour has committed to ending PD rights, claiming the PD regime has enabled the creation of ‘slum housing and rabbit hutch flats’.

When the 2013 amendment was passed, new dwellings created in office buildings did not have to be of a minimum size (unlike new purpose-built dwellings) and did not even require windows. For example, in 2019, the planning inspectorate granted approval (on appeal) for the conversion of an industrial building in Watford into 15 studio apartments, seven of which would not have a single window.

In many converted buildings, old fixtures, fittings and apparatus were left in situ. I know of a 10-storey town centre converted building which still has old vertical blinds from its office days. Leaving in apparatus such as lifts may seem a good idea at the outset, but they are expensive to replace and in many cases, replacement is due within a few years of conversion. Rather than the developer meeting the costs of repairs and replacements upfront, such costs then inevitably have to be met by residents through service charges – something which would not have occurred in a new building which would be protected by guarantees.

External alterations

The PD concession didn’t extend to external alterations to a building, so any changes to the external appearance of an office building required planning permission in the usual way.

How many developers decided not to bother with external alterations on that basis, leaving eyesore office blocks which are now flats? I can think of plenty.

Shelf life

There comes a time when the cost of necessary repairs outweighs the value of the building and it makes more economic sense to knock it down and start again.

In 2008, the United States Department of Energy calculated that the average office building had a lifespan 73 years.

But residential leases are more commonly granted for between 125 and 250 years. After deducting the years a building has spent as an office, such leases may not have long to run before very significant costs need to be incurred to keep it in satisfactory condition.

Whilst undoubtedly PD conversions have created much-needed residential premises, many local authorities have realised their shortcomings and have sought to remove PD rights in their area. However, in many areas this arguably came too late.

So what are the long term consequences? Consider the effect on town centre development plans: whereas previously an empty and or ugly office building could be demolished to make way for purpose-built residential dwellings (or anything else), those buildings are now full of people who call them home.

Rehousing residents will be a great deal harder for local authorities or developers than it would have been to knock down the empty office building and build something properly designed and purpose-built in its place. The need for more housing is undeniable and no doubt some office buildings were amenable to conversion to dwellings, but many were not. In these cases, the PD regime was a quick fix and ill thought-out. The impact will continue to be felt in towns and cities for decades to come. For some people living in converted buildings though, the problems are already acute.

  • Andrew Timoney is senior associate at leading law firm Mills & Reeve 

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