Will new planning regulations cause tension in cities?


View of an empty Office block: UK March 2009Earlier this month, the government announced its latest proposal for the further relaxation of planning laws – this time, for an initial three-year trial period, looking to allow office buildings to be converted into residential dwellings without the need to apply for planning permission.

The introduction of the plan, which does not include shop premises or other business or industrial buildings, is anticipated for the spring of this year. However, the City of London has already been granted exemption from the plan and other councils, no doubt including the inner London boroughs, may also look to follow suit.

However, exemption will only be granted in exceptional circumstances – namely where a community is at risk of substantial adverse economic consequences far outweighing the positive benefits intended by the proposal.

The planning regime is in place in order to allow councils to retain a mix of land uses to meet a community’s future demands – and the location and economic impacts of where businesses can afford to establish themselves are critical factors to be considered.

However working patterns are changing. Will we actually need as much office space in the future as traditionally the planning system sought to allocate? There are certainly already significant parts of cities with an oversupply of office accommodation – and plenty of vacant buildings ripe for conversion to residential use as a result.

The reform will include a planning process to assess significant impacts on transport and highways, high flood risks and land contamination. It has not yet been made clear whether the proposed change would allow some floors in the same building to be retained as offices whilst others are converted for residential purposes; though this arrangement is not an uncommon feature of purpose-built and already converted buildings in urban areas. It is likely that much will depend on the feasibility of such conversions within the physical constraints of a building.

A key question is whether residential homes and business offices would be good neighbours for each other. Demands on services are very different for each. How will the more traditional planning issues, formally accessed via a planning application, and the increased demands on services by a larger residential population be met?

Whether this change will stimulate the housing market in an effort to address the current housing shortage will depend on location and affordability. In parts of central London, where residential land values are extremely high, this change will certainly be welcomed by developers, if it not blocked by councils being granted exemptions.

There has already been much talk in Westminster about a change in its previous policy to reduce the amount of offices being converted to residential.

The planning system is about the control of the use of land in the public interest. Development should meet the needs of the present, without detrimental impact and with the ability to provide for the future. This government’s drive, however, is to encourage economic growth through the planning system by facilitating and encouraging development. The two aims are not necessarily aligned.

As to how beneficial the change will be for a local area, in terms of meeting the housing demand, boosting the construction sector and supporting economic growth, will still all depend on developers’ access to capital, in order to fund any new schemes.

At a local level there may be a sense of more limited engagement in the shaping of an area. As a result, the balance between what the planning system strives to achieve and the interests of commercial developers and what is in the public interest will still be a topic of debate.

Rachel Lee is a planning specialist advising developers at niche property law firm Brecher


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