Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has unveiled proposals to reform the planning system to make it easier to convert empty office blocks into residential buildings.
One of the key barriers to increasing housing supply, according to the government, is a lack of available land and buildings for residential development or conversion.
Housebuilding reached a record low of 129,000 new homes in 2009-10, the lowest level in any peacetime year since 1924. Office conversions accounted for only 2.8% of the total. This contradicts the most recent commercial vacancy rate of 7-9%, which indicates an oversupply of commercial land.
Pickles is launching a consultation in which he proposes eliminating the need for planning permission to change the use of a commercial property to a residential property, which can be costly and time consuming, to make it easier for developers to convert vacant offices into new homes.
The Growth Review of the Budget outlined plans to repurpose vacant commercial buildings to increase housing supply by deregulating the planning system.
If all long-term office space currently available was converted, it could potentially deliver 250,000 new homes while saving just under £140 million in unnecessary red tape costs over ten years.
To reduce the planning burden even further, a broader review of the change of use rules, known as Use Classes Orders, and their interaction with permitted development rights will be conducted.
Pickles has also urged local communities and authorities to make better use of their existing local planning powers, known as Local Development Orders, to grant permission and reduce the planning burden on the ground.
“Many towns and cities have needlessly empty office blocks, warehouses, and business parks, while housebuilding has fallen to the lowest in peacetime history because the planning system has tied developers up in knots of red tape,” Eric Pickles said.
“By freeing developers from the shackles of bureaucratic planning, we can assist them in converting thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jumpstart housing supply and help the economy recover.” Councils already have the authority to grant more local planning discretion, and they should use it more to promote growth.”
“Patterns of office use have changed as employers prefer large open plan spaces to individual offices and as more and more people work from home,” said Greg Clark, Minister of Decentralisation and Planning. As a result, many offices have been vacant for several years.
“With this change, it will be much easier to convert vacant offices into much-needed homes.” This will help to alleviate Britain’s housing shortage and provide a valuable boost to the construction industry by replacing derelict properties with buildings in good use.”
The government has already taken steps to increase land availability and housing supply. This includes the New Homes Bonus, Community Infrastructure Levy, and Localism Bill measures such as Neighbourhood Plans, Community Right to Build, and Community Right to Buy.
Ministers have also announced a full review of national planning policy by 2012, as well as a commitment to reduce regulations on housebuilders, including the implementation of a local standards framework. The Homes and Communities Agency is also looking into how to use publicly owned land for housing.