Guest blog by Julia Park, Levitt Bernstein
If there are people who are ideologically opposed to the conversion of redundant office buildings to residential use, I’ve yet to meet them. The idea of adapting buildings that are no longer needed (or no longer fit) for their original purpose to a suitable alternative use is nothing new – and makes perfect sense. And it’s even better if that alternative use is housing, given the numbers we need.
That was undoubtedly part of the government’s thinking when it first pushed the idea of ‘office-to-resi’ conversions in 2011. Obsessed with numbers and deregulation, its mistake was to incentivise this change of use through permitted development rights (PDR) – effectively giving developers a free pass to create new homes of any type and any quality in any location, as long as the building they used began life as an office.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. To be fair, while it was easy to see that many of the homes achieved in this way wouldn’t be ideal, few could have imagined that this policy would produce ‘homes’ of 13m2 or without windows.
The first really bad example I saw was a proposal to convert a small, run-down, two-storey, single aspect office block on a sliver of a site in north Islington, to four flats. This was superseded by a second proposal to double the number to eight. The smallest was 13.7m2 and none was larger than 17m2. Each had a tiny shower in one corner and the hob doubled up as a bedside table. I managed to arrange a meeting with a senior planner at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. If she was concerned, she didn’t admit it. When I suggested that many more might follow it was dismissed as a one-off.
Too many horror stories
Only it hasn’t proved to be a one-off, has it? Among some successful office-to-resi conversions, there have been too many horror stories. Newbury House in Ilford represented a new low. Hard on the edge of the A12 dual carriageway (one of the busiest roads in the country), I noticed it because makeshift curtains were shielding the open windows on one of the hottest days last summer.
Planning records confirmed what I had suspected – it was now housing. Some 42 of the 60 flats were described as ‘double studios’. They start at 14.7m2. The Guardian dug deeper and discovered that the London Borough of Redbridge (who decided that even Prior Approval wasn’t necessary) was using it as temporary accommodation. A resident confirmed that there was a problem with drugs and that some of the residents were vulnerable, young care-leavers.
I wrote to the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, and the Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, to express my despair at the living conditions. I questioned how the government could allow housing in such a hostile and polluted environment – and continue to condone two-person flats of 14.72 when its own, Nationally Defined Space Standard, (NDSS), which applies to conversions as well as new build, requires them to be at least 50m2. Where is the logic that says a home can be less than a quarter of the recommended, minimum size because it’s within a former office building?
Many others have highlighted similarly shocking examples. The Architects’ Journal featured one in Balham recently. Having received Prior Approval to convert a scruffy, two-storey office building on an industrial estate to 13 flats, the developer has now decided to push his luck by submitting a new proposal for 26. There is no outdoor amenity space, the corridor/escape route is narrow and convoluted, and a number of the flats look impossibly deep and narrow. Three of them sit beneath an industrial skylight, and without a vertical window, they offer no view out. Our prisons do better than that.
Contradictions in policy
While ignorance may have been an excuse a few years ago, it isn’t an excuse now. And neither can the government continue to ignore the blatant contradictions in its own policies and actions.
The 2017 housing white paper, ‘Fixing our Broken Housing Market’, stressed the importance of, ‘the right homes in the right places’. It notes that ‘it is so important that people have a say over where new homes go and what they look like through the planning process’. In relation to internal space, it promised to ‘avoid a race to the bottom in the size of homes’.
The revised National Planning Policy Framework, published last year, explains that one of the roles of the planning process is ‘to create places that are safe, inclusive and accessible and which promote health and well-being, with a high standard of amenity for existing and future users; and where crime and disorder, and the fear of crime, do not undermine the quality of life or community cohesion and resilience’.
This falls apart under PDR because its very purpose is to cut out the planning process. That means the local authority is unable to apply the NDSS or the other standards that ensure that new housing will be good enough. It also means that affordable housing contributions can’t be required.
Ironically, the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’ was launched in the same week that plans to extend PD rights further were published. Ministers are suddenly falling over themselves to convince us that they understand the importance of good design and that beauty in the built environment matters. Until they think again about PDR, it simply won’t wash.
As I said at the start, none of us should object when redundant offices can be turned into good housing. There is no need for a ban – proposals just need to be subject to the normal, democratic, planning process. Good conversions will be approved and bad ones will be rejected. That’s why the development control system exists.
Shelter, Levitt Bernstein, the Local Government Association and others have written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government on PDR. This can be seen online here.