The rush to turn offices into flats

Empty office block

It was billed as a clever wheeze to create new homes - but could scrapping planning rules turn out to be a major miscalculation?

There is something uniquely depressing, chilling even, about empty office blocks. The way they loom silently over us as we hurry past on the way to work or the shops, the wind whipping at our legs, reminding us of gloomy economic times.

Case study: Archway Tower

Archway Tower
  • Archway Tower, a vacant 17 storey former social security office in North London, is to be turned into flats without planning permission
  • Islington borough council is against the scheme
  • It has accused developers Essential Living of trying to squash "a large number of small, sub-standard bedsits" into the building
  • Essential Living says the scheme will provide modern, stylish accommodation for young professionals, with a "club room" and concierge
  • They also plan to brighten the building's gloomy black facade up by re-cladding it in white
  • Like other developers they say councils can no longer realistically demand the inclusion of "social housing" if they want the big increase in rented accommodation they say is needed

They are not, on the face of it, places where you would pay good money to set up home, even if they have been given a makeover.

Yet thanks to controversial changes in the planning system in England, that is precisely what thousands of us will be doing over the next few years.

Developers have long coveted these relics of recession, but their efforts to convert them into flats has been frustrated by local authorities hoping to keep them as they are, ready for new businesses to move in when the good times return.

That all changed in May when the government scrapped planning permission for converting them into flats for the next three years.

Planning Minister Nick Bowles claimed the move would create 130,000 badly-needed new homes, using up 5% of vacant office space.

Officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government were far more cautious, suggesting it might result in as few as five extra conversion projects a year across the whole of England.

The early signs are that they were both wrong - and there is something of a bonanza brewing, in London and the South East of England at least.

In one London borough, Richmond, 107 schemes which will create hundreds of new flats, have already been given "prior approval" since the new rules came into force in May.

DCLG officials estimated a maximum of 175 office-to-residential changes in the first year, but research by Planning magazine in the summer found 46 councils had already received more than 260 applications between them.

"It remains to be seen how many of these offices, having had permission to do so, are actually converted into homes," says reporter John Geoghegan, who carried out the research.

"But the level of interest among developers, particularly in London, is clearly higher than the government anticipated."

London's booming property market has already led to hundreds of former shops, pubs, offices and factories being converted into luxury houses and apartments.

Now many local authorities fear the new rules will accelerate this trend, forcing out businesses and robbing local people of employment opportunities.

Labour-controlled Islington council in London says 17,000 square metres of office floor space have already been lost, much of it occupied rather than vacant, adding up to the equivalent of 1,400 jobs.

Utopia Village, Primrose Hill Camden council has stopped developers taking over workshops in Primrose Hill

"The danger is you end up with a dormitory situation, with more people forced to commute for work, which is environmentally unsound and changes the character of the area," says David Linnette, Conservative chairman of Richmond Borough Council's planning committee.

Richmond was one of a group of local authorities, including Islington, to unsuccessfully challenge the new rules in court.

The councils believe they have been unfairly robbed of what has traditionally been one of their core functions. Half the local authorities in England applied for an exemption from the new regime, but only 17 succeeded.

Exempted areas

Canary Wharf

Some 165 local authorities applied for exemptions on economic grounds. Just 17 succeeded.

  • The City of London
  • Kensington and Chelsea
  • Parts of the Isle of Dogs including Canary Wharf
  • Central Activities Zone and Tech City covering areas of the City of London, Westminster, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Wandsworth and Camden
  • Royal Docks Enterprise Zone in Newham
  • Milton Park Enterprise Zone, Oxfordshire
  • Harwell Oxford Enterprise Zone
  • Manchester city centre
  • Gunnels Wood Employment Area, Stevenage, Hertfordshire
  • Two areas in London Borough of Hackney: De Beauvoir and Mare Street
  • Three areas in Sevenoaks, Kent
  • Commercial centre, Ashford, Kent
  • Areas covered by East Hampshire District Council

"Where is the spirit of localism in this?" says Mr Linnette.

"It is not as if we are dinosaurs, sticking our head in the sand, all we are asking is that we are able to make up our minds locally about this."

London Mayor Boris Johnson managed to gain exemptions for some areas including the City of London, seen as being of national economic importance, and the West End, where he wanted to preserve the "rich" social mix that is already being threatened by soaring property prices.

No one, Johnson included, doubts the need for new housing - if the number of households in England continues to increase at the current rate supply will outstrip demand by 750,000 by 2025.

And some argue that some of the office blocks being targeted by developers, drab, rundown 1960s and 1970s towers that have been standing empty for years, are unlikely to have been used as offices again, even if the economic boom times return. Why not put them to good use?

Planning Minister Nick Boles said: "This common sense planning reform is delivering badly needed new homes on brownfield sites in our towns and cities, at no cost to the public purse.

"Increasing the resident population of town centres means local shops and other businesses benefit from people living close by.

"Those who oppose this measure need to explain exactly where they want new badly-needed homes to go."

The Green Party's Jason Kitcat, leader of Brighton and Hove council, argues that the new rules will have precisely the opposite effect to that claimed by the minister.

"Office workers would no longer spend money in the shops at lunchtime. Everyone living there has to travel to work so the area will come to life on Friday and Saturday but for the rest of the week it will be dead."

Camden Council

Mary Portas
  • Councils can still block developments on certain grounds - such as flooding risk or parking
  • Camden council, in North London, has received 59 office-to-residential prior approval applications, of which 10 have been refused and 29 granted
  • Government retail tsar Mary Portas was part of a successful campaign to block the conversion of 23 small business workshops into 53 luxury flats in upmarket Primrose Hill, where she lives
  • Portas has called for the new rules to be restricted to offices that have been "actively marketed yet still remain vacant for at least six months"

Mr Kitcat, whose council is among those continuing to fight for an exemption, said local authorities should be allowed to start building houses again instead.

"Even if every office in the city centre was converted into flats, it would do nothing to ease the housing shortage," he told BBC News.

There also concerns about the quality and price of the new homes being created.

Some argue that converted offices with no balconies or gardens may be ideal for developers looking to make a quick buck but are not suitable for families to live in.

Developers no longer have to include affordable housing as part of their plans or jump through some of the other planning hoops traditionally demanded of them.

Stuart Robinson, head of planning at commercial real estate firm CBRE, said many of the locations and buildings were inherently unsuitable for housing and it would only be the less reputable developers that would want to get involved with schemes that did not go down the normal route for planning permission.

And, as a result, some projects could end up as the "slums of tomorrow" with no attempt by the developers to provide the necessary facilities like car parking, shops and amenity space, as they would be expected to do under the traditional planning regime.

"The danger is you get back to a situation that led to the introduction of planning controls in the first place," he said.

But he also suggested that some local authorities had brought the changes on themselves by being so obstructive towards developers in the past.

In his Autumn statement, Chancellor George Osborne announced plans for a further liberalisation of the planning regime in England, potentially scrapping planning permission for change of use from shops to restaurants or assembly and leisure uses.

The government insists it has "no plans" to continue allowing offices to be converted into flats without planning permission after 2016, when the rule change expires.

Some planning consultants believe there is a good chance the change will become permanent. Whatever the case, it is a change which will already have left its mark on England's urban landscape, which may never be quite the same again.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    Ever since I moved to London I have looked at offices and thought "I wouldn't mind living in one of those converted into a flat-its better than what I am living in at present." Unfortunately the prices will not be aimed at those of us most in need like workers who need affordable homes but will attract foreigners with money or landlords buying to let at an extortionate profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Turn one of these office blocks in to apartments specifically for MP's. No need for second home allowances and all the extra bills that come with them.
    Could work a bit like student accommodation.

    Others into small places for single folks and some nice family units. Could help to stimulate some city centre areas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    In London at least you can bet they`ll be luxury apartments for rich foreigners.

    254.Recall Tian Square
    This new proposal would take us back there to those terrible ghettos of cramped families, crime and drugs.
    Sums up another HYS... funny how the Beeb never pick topics where facts are needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    Tragically many private landlords will use this to exploit the poor and they will quickly become slums. High rise flats failed and office block flats will fail in the same way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    I'm confused... over in the US they managed to build apartment blocks in the same sort of buildings used to house offices and they are generally occupied by upmarket buyers/tenants. When it's done here it's suggested that they're going to become a repeat of the tower block slums on the 60s and 70s. Can we not do anything right in this country?

  • Comment number 276.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    I must admit that these relaxation of planning rules is a double edged sword. It frees up developers to produce much needed housing (but time will tell) but it also bypasses much essential legislation that was needed to ensure socially responsible building projects. Now it will be all about maximum profit with minimum responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    Well said.
    Good night all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    Yes. Let's encourage conversion, but let's have oversight of a conversion of unneeded offices to decent homes. i.e. planned oversight. Let's not just let developers make money out of creating slums and beggar the consequences. Good planning is pro development but anti slums.

  • Comment number 272.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    I have gone on about doing this for years. As technology makes the need for vast offices less important - virtual working rather than going to a place of work every day - it makes a lot of sense to convert these empty caverns into much needed flats and apartments. I live in Bracknell where offices have been empty since the day they were built. This is a waste of space. Encourage conversion now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    11 Hours ago

    So we convert places of employment into places to house the unemployed and pay housing benefit to the BTL landlords. And so the disappearance of Britain down the plug hole accelerates.


    Of course because only the unemployed need a roof over their head don`t they. In London at least you can bet they`ll be luxury apartments for rich foreigners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    More 'housing' I thought that was what everyone wanted?

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    @265. Yes, I know. But prior approval of the LPA is required in relation to flooding, highways and contamination matters only. They cannot refuse applications because of appalling lack of space, no play areas for families, inadequate access, inappropriate neighbouring land uses etc, etc. All that is just bureaucracy of course. LPA's do not refuse just for fun.

  • Comment number 267.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    11 Hours ago

    What a dilemma for socialists, this is a gateway to the housing they crave yet developing them causes people to make money. What to do???


    Assuming that there will be social housing which i very much doubt. What is more likely is luxury apartments will be built which will overheat the housing market and create a housing bubble much earlier than anticipated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    Perhaps it is the removal of all of the bureaucracy that is encouraging more builders than ever to submit plans to convert old office blocks. You do realise they still have to submit plans, don't you? And that these plans have to still abide by all other rules and guidance? And that the Council can veto them if they are likely to impinge on public health and safety?

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    ex council offices round the corner from me have just been turned into flats and most are now occupied - whether bought-to-let or not couldn't say. No gardens or balconies but plenty of parking surrounded by grass and right in the centre of town. You'd have to pay me to live there, lol... but better than derelict offices in the middle of town... local planning permission was essential imho

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    `Developers no longer have to include affordable housing as part of their plans`

    So you know what will happen, these flats will be prohibitively expensive and will price out all but the rich and affluent and will do nothing for those hoping to get on the housing ladder. Looks like we`re on our way to another housing bubble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    Yes Bob C. I agree. Many listed buildings (I'm a professional in this field), pre-date the planning system. They were usually the best buildings built in a massively unequal society, when most people (probably your and my own antecedents) lived in relative squalor. (see b'ham's listed back-to-backs). The market didn't clear the slums. I love old buildings - but don't want to live in a shanty town


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