Proposals to reform the planning system to make it easier to transform empty office blocks into residential buildings have been unveiled by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.
The Government believes one of the key barriers to increasing housing supply is the lack of land and buildings available for residential development or conversion.
In 2009-10 housebuilding hit a record low of 129,000 new homes, the lowest level in any peacetime year since 1924. Only 2.8 per cent came from office conversions. This is at odds with the latest commercial vacancy rate of 7-9 per cent, which suggests there is an oversupply of commercial land.
Pickles is publishing a consultation that proposes to scrap the planning approval requirement for changing use from a commercial property to a residential property, which can be costly and time consuming, so it is easier for developers to turn vacant offices into new homes.
Plans to bring empty commercial buildings back in to use to increase housing supply by deregulating the planning system was set out in the Budget’s Growth Review.
If all the long-term office space currently available was converted it could potentially deliver 250,000 new homes and save just under £140m over ten years in unnecessary red tape costs.
A wider review of the change of use rules, known as Use Classes Orders, and its interaction with permitted development rights will also be carried out to reduce the planning burden further.
Pickles has also called for local communities and authorities to make greater use of their existing local planning powers, Local Development Orders, to grant permission and reduce the planning burden locally.
Eric Pickles said:
“Many towns and cities have office blocks, warehouse and business parks needlessly lying empty, while housebuilding has fallen to the lowest in peace time history because the planning system has tied developers up in knots of red tape.
“By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump start housing supply and help get the economy back on track. Councils already have powers to give greater local planning discretion and they should us them more to promote growth.”
Decentralisation and Planning Minister Greg Clark added:
“Patterns of office use have changed as employers prefer large open plan spaces to individual offices and as more and more people work from home. That has meant that there are many offices that have been vacant for years.
“This change will make it easy to turn redundant offices into much needed homes. This will replace derelict properties with buildings in good use, contribute to relieving Britain’s housing shortage and give a valuable boost to the building industry.”
The Government has already taken action to help increase availability of land and housing supply. This includes the New Homes Bonus, Community Infrastructure Levy and measures in the Localism Bill including Neighbourhood Plans, the Community Right to Build, and the Community Right to Buy.
In addition, Ministers have announced a full review of national planning policy by 2012, and a commitment to reduce regulations on housebuilders, including the introduction of a local standards framework. The Homes and Communities Agency is also examining how the disposal of publicly owned land can be used for housing.