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Housing: Office Conversions

Volume 767: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of how the policy to allow offices to be converted into housing has worked so far, and whether they intend to extend the policy beyond next year, when it is due to lapse.

My Lords, we announced on 12 October that we would make permanent the permitted development right for the change of use from office to residential use. From April 2014 to June 2015, 3,971 schemes have secured the permitted development right, which will deliver much-needed new homes.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is she aware that the British Council for Offices has estimated that 6 million square feet of office accommodation has been lost? In London, it is more disastrous than that: 834,000 square metres have been lost, 40% of which was due to evictions. They are thriving businesses trying to deliver for the economy, which have been thrown out by unscrupulous landlords trying to make profit from running around the planning rules. This is an unintended consequence of a policy that was right when it was brought in. We should look again because clearly that was not the idea. It was to create jobs and homes, not to create the complete opposite, which is what is happening.

I thank the noble Lord for that useful supplementary question. As he and I know, in Stockport and Trafford the policy has worked very well and has helped to deliver much- needed footfall and population to some of our town centres. The British Council for Offices estimates that the right has resulted in 7,600 much-needed homes, including in London and the south-east. The office market continues to develop, as noted by the British Council for Offices, with modern office developments being brought forward, but where there is evidence that it is necessary to protect the amenity and well-being of existing business areas, as the noble Lord said, local planning authorities can bring forward Article 4 directions to remove the right and require a planning application. Twenty local planning authorities have already done this.

My Lords, is the unused office space that could be used for housing counted in the empty dwelling figures? If not, should it be as one indicator of what new build is required?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, it is not counted in the empty dwelling figures because at that point in time it is not dwellings.

My Lords, has the Minister made any assessment of the number of workplaces that have been destroyed when local authorities impose housing plans that do not take real account of the needs of the local economy?

The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, pointed out the figures in his supplementary question. That is why Article 4 directions are very useful in stopping some of that exodus of much-needed office space where it is not appropriate.

My Lords, I am slightly confused—perhaps my noble friend can assist. I am slightly surprised that this Question is being answered by a Minister from DCLG. Bearing in mind the exact wording of the Question, is this not something for the Home Office?

I thank my noble friend. I speak for the Government as a Minister. However, I appreciate my noble friend’s great sense of humour.

My Lords, has there been any assessment of the impact of the huge number of garages—petrol stations—all across London that are closing and becoming housing, and of the difficulty in finding somewhere to get petrol within London?

The noble Lord raises a very interesting question, and he will not be surprised to learn that I do not have an exact answer to it. I thought he meant garages attached to homes, as there is evidence that they have been used as dwelling space. However, I will get him that figure if it exists.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government are prepared to review the waiver on Section 106 contributions for office conversions for much-needed sports, arts and public realm contributions, and whether she feels that the absence of a requirement to provide car parking spaces is wise given the huge reduction in bus services in some areas of the country?

My Lords, to put the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, in perspective, it is important that we know what is happening to demand for office spaces. I understood that with more people working from home, the demand for office spaces was waning somewhat.

My noble friend makes a very good point. My answer to the noble Lord’s first question is that it varies a lot across the country. In the north-west, where both I and the noble Lord live, there is a demand to build housing within town centres in an attempt to revitalise them. However, there is also a demand for housing nationwide; where that situation is distorted and reversed and office space is being lost, an Article 4 direction can be made.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an elected councillor in Lewisham, south London. For this great capital city to thrive, we need housing available to rent or buy for people on a wide variety of incomes who do all the jobs that need doing in the capital. Does the noble Baroness agree with the Housing Minister, Mr Brandon Lewis, when he said yesterday that Londoners had to make a judgment call about whether they could afford to live in the capital?

My Lords, we all have to make a judgment call on whether we can afford to live in the capital. It is certainly true that London has the highest house prices in the country. This Government’s aim is to provide more houses— 1 million new homes by 2020—so that the demand is met overall and people have somewhere to live.