Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Residential conversion of offices – announcement expected “relatively soon”

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed the lack of any recent posts. This is entirely due to the work involved in preparing my forthcoming book for publication. I am pleased to report that this is proceeding to schedule, and the only complicating factor at the moment is the question of whether or when the government will further amend the GPDO. It now seems fairly certain that it will do so, and it is our intention that the expected amendments will be incorporated in the book, even if this slightly delays its publication.

Since July, when the government pulled an expected announcement almost at the last minute, there has been feverish speculation as to when the government will announce its expected extension (or removal) of the deadline for the residential conversion of offices under Part 3 Class O, and the likely extent of this freeing up of the rules, including the new safeguards that may be introduced in the form of additional matters to be considered by a local planning authority when determining a prior approval application in respect of this type of development. All residential conversions of offices under this provision are currently due to be completed no later than 30 May 2016, but funding for such developments has all but dried up, because lenders fear that developments that are not already in train may not be completed by the deadline. It might, I suppose, be described as “the Cinderella dilemma”.

The Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, appeared before the Communities & Local Government Select Committee yesterday afternoon, and in the course of the meeting he was asked when an announcement on these further changes to the GPDO can be expected. Lewis said he was sorry that it was “not possible to make an announcement today”, but he told the committee that ministers are hoping to make an announcement “relatively soon”. Ministers, he said, are currently looking at feedback from the consultation on this subject and will take account of views expressed by local authorities. He said that they “want to get it right”. He hoped that an announcement would be made “in the not-too-distant future”.

Rumour has it that what caused the delay in the planned announcement of the government’s intentions in July was an almighty ear-bashing that De-CLoG ministers received from Westminster City Council and the City of London. This was sufficiently unnerving to prompt them to take the proposals back and look at them again. However, this certainly has not resulted in the abandonment of the intention to extend or remove the May 2016 deadline for the residential conversion of offices; the puppet-master-in-chief at No.11 Downing Street would never tolerate that. What we may get, therefore, may be some slight watering down of the previously proposed amendment to Class O (compared with some of the off-the-record briefings coming out of De-CLoG in the past year).

I am still keeping my fingers crossed that the announcement which is expected “relatively soon” or “in the not-too-distant future” may in fact be made before the end of this month, and that a Written (or even Oral) Ministerial Statement in the Commons will coincide with the laying before parliament of The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (Amendment) Order 2015” (or some similar title). It is possible that the May 2016 deadline may simply be extended for three years (as was originally proposed in the ‘Technical Consultation on Planning’ in July 2014), although ministers had more recently talked in terms of its entire removal. Ministers had intended to remove the exempted areas (“Article 2(5) land”), but they may have been persuaded to keep these, at least in London.

The other likely changes (as previously canvassed over a year ago) include the addition of an extra matter for prior approval, namely the potential impact of the significant loss of the most strategically important office accommodation, although this is likely to be tightly defined to avoid widespread rejection of office conversions by LPAs on this ground.

So we still have to play a waiting game, but maybe not for much longer.



  1. I expect that Government may add a consideration to the PD right to allow LPA's to assess whether the office use is redundant and consider the impact of the loss of office.

    They have included such tests in the retail to residential change of use, for example, and it has made these prior approval applications more sensible as it can actually be assessed whether the existing use is redundant and what the impact of the loss of the use would be.

    Such an addition would still facilitate the release of vacant redundant office space, but would not permit the loss of viable occupied office space where such space is in demand.

    If Government had included such a test from the start this permitted change would have been less controversial.

  2. I would disagree with Jonathan’s assertion that there is a ‘redundancy’ test that applies to the residential conversion of shops. Class M simply provides that the LPA must determine whether it is undesirable for the building to change to a residential use because of the impact of the change of use on adequate provision of services of the sort that may be provided by a building falling within Use Class A1 (shops) or, as the case may be, Use Class A2 (financial and professional services) [i.e. depending on which of those two uses classes applies to the current use of the building that is to be converted], but only where there is a reasonable prospect of the building being used to provide such services, or (where the building is located in a key shopping area) on the sustainability of that shopping area. This is not the same thing as deciding whether it is ‘redundant’.

  3. In my view such questions of judgement should play no part in legislation. The degree of subjectivity simply muddies the water as to what is permitted development and what is not, and the notification process becomes a planning application by any other name.