• Resi march continues, as Westminster barrier drops

The march of residential conversions in Westminster continues, with three recently approved schemes adding 175 flats to the borough’s pipeline of homes.
The approvals come just as the council, in line with other London planning authorities, seeks to clamp down on the conversion of office premises, concerned that valuable workspace is being lost. Westminster imposed its own, more restrictive policies in September 2015, and at least two of these projects would have struggled to pass under the new regime.
The most substantial change is at First Chicago House on Long Acre in Covent Garden. Here, a Seifert designed office block from the early 1980s, rising up to eight storeys, will be replaced by a new structure in two blocks up to 14 storeys high, containing office space on Long Acre, and 119 flats in a scheme put forward by Northwood Investors.
The design by architects PLP includes 11 affordable housing units, ground floor retail and a “cultural rehearsal space” that would be passed to the council at a peppercorn rent. Basement parking for 30 cars is included, accessed by a car lift: this is to be conditioned so that no dweller can claim a permanent space.
The net effect of the redevelopment is a loss of 10,381 sq m of office space. Officers described the loss as “substantial” and noted the scheme was submitted prior to “the application of the office protection approach which came into effect in September”.
The scheme won approval despite many objections from local residents about loss of light. There was also a suggestion that the redevelopment had missed an opportunity to open up a pedestrian route through the rectangular site, which is bounded by streets.
And at the Press Association’s offices on Vauxhall Bridge Road, a smaller conversion will provide 26 flats. The existing seven storey office block, Denison House, was granted permission in 1989 as a scheme including four high level apartments; two have subsequently been converted to offices. The proposal was to completely convert the block to apartments, losing 4,029 sq m of office space in the process. Again, the project was submitted before rules tightening conversions were introduced in September 2015.
Despite the block having a predominance of 2 bed units, accounting for 77% of the flats and contrary to the council’s policy, this was considered acceptable in what is a busy, noisy location.
The applicants, via planning consultant Turley, argued that on-site affordable housing provision would be impractical. They also initially argued that just £390,000 could be afforded as a viable contribution towards off-site provision, against a Westminster tariff of £3,629,237. A council counter argument reduced the total to £2.816m as being viable, against which a best offer of £2.15m was negotiated.
The third project, in Audley Street, was less contentious as its predominant loss was of an underused multistorey car park, and a disused petrol filling station. Here, permission was granted for a comprehensive development to deliver 30 apartments in a nine storey block, complete with amenities including a swimming pool, and basement parking.
The project supercedes a residential permission that was granted permission in 2010, to convert the multistorey garage on the site. The applicants had revised the scheme, having now included additional buildings in Red Lion Yard and Audley Square.
The redevelopment was considered acceptable, as there is sufficient local alternative parking, and as the site had been identified in the UDP as an opportunity site. Setting aside long term vehicle storage, the car park’s peak use has been just 44%.
The site was submitted for planning with two alternative approaches to provide the required affordable housing tariff, calculated at £43,788,000.
Any new applications will now have to pass scrutiny under a new policy enacted from September 2015. In the core Central Activities Zone, a list of named street and Opportunity Areas, it is no longer acceptable to propose residential development, where it results in the loss of office space.
Announcing the intention to implement the policy in May, Westminster’s deputy leader Robert Davis warned: “Exceptions to this will be very rare because in the time period this interim position is expected to operate, delivery of commercial, and more specifically office floorspace will not recover sufficient to permit office losses.” Notwithstanding this, a mixed use scheme will still be permitted to have appropriate residential elements within it. “This approach will secure the future jobs and businesses needed in the heart of London to support a successful and competitive UK economy,” argued Davis.
The council calculates that 167,000 sq m of office space was lost in the years 2011-2014, with a further 158,000 sq m due to be lost under consented schemes. In arguing for the greater restrictions, it said that loss of offices damages global competitiveness, pushes up office rents, and erodes the character of commercial areas, increasing expectations that residential amenities will be provided.

LPA Perspective: Westminster’s move to restrict further loss of office space is a not unreasonable reaction to central London’s current situation, and received plenty of support. Other boroughs are fighting their own battles, on a similar issue, though they are battling against the government’s permitted development experiment, which permits office conversions to residential without planning permission. Having exempted itself from that particular free for all, Westminster still found itself facing the onslaught of conversion requests, as the London residential market pushes for ever more units. And, with prices consistently rising, more and more areas of central London are more valuable with a residential consent, than with any other land use.
In common with plenty of other boroughs, Westminster ends up horse trading around the issue of viability, and taking substantial haircuts against its affordable housing tariffs, in the name of getting schemes under way. In contrast with other boroughs, it often puts together multi-site deals, to get affordable homes built elsewhere in the borough – often the most pragmatic solution.
Westminster’s approach on these central sites also strongly pushes residents away from the thought of owning a car. Conditions make it hard for them to claim a parking space, while it is becoming a regular condition that the developers pay for a 25 year membership of a car club, for each apartment.

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