Government ministers have acted to stop councils restricting the conversion of commercial office space to residential use. Islington and Broxbourne councils, specifically, will no longer be able to use a legal loophole to prevent conversions, in situations where they would otherwise be allowed.
The move will give developers greater certainty when looking over tired office buildings, with an eye to creating new apartments from them. While less prevalent in the capital, the transformation of such buildings is credited with helping to deliver substantial numbers of new homes. Some developers are using conversions to create substantial private rented sector apartments, such as Westrock, as detailed here.
The office to residential conversion route was eased last year, when government officials decreed such conversions would be permitted development – meaning they could go ahead without the need to seek planning permission for a change of use. Several central London boroughs sought exemptions from the scheme, claiming they needed to retain their stock of office sites. Some, such as the Corporation of London, argued successfully for the exemption, others won an exemption in certain parts of a borough; others were unlucky.
Islington and Broxbourne chose another route to prevent the conversions in their area, harnessing an existing legal power, the “article 4 direction” to prevent schemes going ahead. Ministers have pointed out that an article 4 direction can only be used in exceptional circumstances, where there is clear potential to damage a neighbourhood, not as a blanket ban.
Earlier this year, planning minister Nick Boles commented: “Ministers are minded to cancel article 4 directions which seek to reimpose unjustified or blanket regulation, given the clearly stated public policy goal of liberalising the planning rules and helping provide more homes.”
Those involved in planning have welcomed the government intervention. Charles Mills, planning partner at Daniel Watney, commented: “This will be welcomed by developers as these article 4 directives essentially prevent them carrying out office to residential conversions under permitted development rights. It is somewhat ironic that Islington, which is in dire need of new homes, was one council deliberately holding up new development off the back of political grandstanding.”