In May 2013, the coalition Government introduced legislation that allows offices to convert to homes without having to apply for planning permission. This has had a positive effect creating much needed new homes. In January 2014, six months after coming into force, a survey carried out by the Estates Gazette found that more than 2,250 applications for change of use from office to residential had been made. In May, a report by Knight Frank corroborated the extent to which the policy has helped provide new homes, with applications for prior approval for conversions now standing at an estimated 3.2 million square feet.
We recognise that there may be very local reasons that mean such permitted development rights might not always be appropriate. In these circumstances local authorities can issue what is known as an article 4 direction. The national planning policy framework states article 4 directions should only be used in limited situations where it is necessary to protect local amenity or the well-being of the area. The Government’s planning guidance specifies that there should be particularly strong justification to withdraw permitted development rights where a direction applies to a wide area or where prior approval powers are available to control development.
In my written ministerial statement of 6 February 2014, Official Report, column 29WS, I reported that the London Borough of Islington had issued a blanket article 4 direction which had been applied to the whole borough, outside of the central activities zone. As at the time of introducing the permitted development right we granted an exemption for the central activities zone, the (non-immediate) article 4 direction had the intended effect of removing office to home conversion permitted development rights from the entire borough area. National planning policy and guidance is clear that such expansive article 4 directions require particularly strong justification, given the clearly stated public policy goal of liberalising the planning rules and helping provide more homes. It was my view that the council had not provided this justification and therefore it was given an opportunity to narrow its direction.
Ministers have considered Islington’s proposal for the article 4 direction to apply to a reduced area but determined, in light of the tests set out in national policy and guidance, that it remains unacceptably expansive and unjustified. Taking into account the background of the significant need for new housing in London particularly, Ministers have taken steps to cancel Islington’s article 4 direction in relation to class J of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995.
This coalition Government are committed to providing more homes on brownfield land, and our change of use reforms are helping deliver these without burdening taxpayers. These conversions coming forward will help offer competitively priced properties, accessible to hard-working people. Those who seek to oppose these changes need to spell out exactly where they think new homes should go instead, given the pressing demand for housing and the need to protect England’s beautiful countryside.
This revocation should send a strong message to the housing industry that we will act to provide certainty and confidence in our change of use reforms, supporting new investment in homes and helping bring underused property back into productive use as housing.