Converting offices for residential use is great for adding to the UK’s housing stock, but it allows developers to bypass affordable housing requirements.

The government needs to meet its 300,000 new homes a year quota, and over the past two years 30,575 new homes have been created by turning offices into flats, amounting to around one in 10 of all new properties built in the period. Although this is a significant boost to the market, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), not a single one of these conversions was an affordable home, and none resulted in additional investment in local infrastructure or community.

The LGA warns this amounts to a potential loss of 7,500 affordable homes that could have been created. Developers can make these conversions without having to apply for planning permission from the local authority, meaning the council and local community get no input into the proportion of affordable housing built.

Planning prosperous places

Martin Tett, the LGA’s housing spokesman, said: “Permitted development is detrimental to the ability of local communities to shape the area they live in. Planning is not a barrier to housebuilding, and councils are approving nine in 10 planning applications. But it is essential that councils, which are answerable to their residents, have an oversight of local developments to ensure they are good quality and help build prosperous places.”

However, defending the policy, the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We are determined to build the homes our country needs and permitted development rights play an important role in helping us deliver more properties. We need a mix of dwelling types to meet different housing needs and over 17,500 additional properties were created by converting offices in the year to March 2017.”

One argument for the freedom of developers to be able to convert office space into homes, aside from to ease the housing shortage, includes the benefit of putting empty and unused buildings back into use, prompting regeneration in many areas.

Change of usefulness

Particularly as ‘modern working’ grows in popularity in the UK, with more people working from home and hot-desking, the amount of commercial space needed is expected to decrease. Many also argue that converting existing buildings into residential accommodation is a favourable option to building on greenbelt and brownfield sites, as the structures already exist and infrastructure is often already in place.

Glen Harding, CEO at Headoffice3, said: “The office-to-residential sector has enjoyed a boom period thanks to the decline in office usage due to changing working practices.

“The permitted development rights were originally introduced to ease the burden of new development in the light of ambitious house building targets, and the policy worked. Local authorities were obliged to support it and, within the first year, we saw 3,152 office-to-residential applications granted. The number for the first quarter of 2017 was 629 compared to 828 for the same period in 2015.

“These homes have been fashioned from unwanted office space, which might otherwise have been a blight on the surrounding area.”