• Guidance on office conversions

Mayor Boris Johnson has published supplementary planning guidance, to help London boroughs deal with office to residential conversions.
The move comes as the government confirmed it plans to make its controversial permitted development rights scheme permanent. New legislation will now make it possible, under certain circumstances, to convert offices, light industrial units and launderettes to residential.
Currently, parts of London and notably the Central Activities Zone have an exemption from the permitted development rights, meaning developers cannot pursue the automatic switch of a building from office to residential use, instead needing full planning permission.
Notes the report: “The underlying message is that the need to accommodate housing growth does not have to be at the expense of the business, culture and other strategic functions of the zone. It is very important that London’s nationally and internationally significant business locations in and around the CAZ are safeguarded from national proposals to liberalise office to residential permitted development rights.”
Current exemptions will expire in May 2019, with no provision for fresh exemptions to be allowed. Instead, individual boroughs will need to set out Article 4 Directions under the Town and Country Planning Act – the established alternative under the planning system.
Following the introduction of permitted development rights as a trial in 2013, the CAZ gained an exemption, along with the north of the Isle of Dogs, Tech City, Kensington & Chelsea and the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone.
According to the London Plan, the capital will need to provide employment space for 177,000 more office jobs between 2011 and 2031, representing around 2.3 million sq ft of office floorspace. Recent consideration of this estimate suggest the figures ought to be increased, say the GLA.
The mayor’s office has said it will provide boroughs with support, such as preparing the necessary evidence base to robustly argue for an article 4 direction, for those authorities whose boroughs currently have an exemption. The SPG appears to discourage the addition of further areas under article 4 directions, unless “these can be justified by local evidence”.

LPA Perspective: The mayor has clearly listened to the concerns – voiced loudly by some, such as Westminster – from those who see the loss of office space as detrimental to the continued business vibrancy of central London. This SPG is effectively a guide to the boroughs, showing them how to arrange an article 4 direction correctly, and in advance of the loss of their exemptions in 2019. All being well, this will ensure that the office to residential free-for-all remains something that cannot happen in the centre of London and key other business areas.
The move seems both sensible and logical, to ensure the current situation continues. Planners need the power to deploy their policies, to maintain a balance of uses; and to resist the loss of office space to a variety of other uses, be that residential, hotel or other options. Second hand office space – so long as it is in floorplates that are of sensible shapes and scales – continues to provide lower cost business space that is essential to support new and young businesses growing in London.

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