Super budget hotel operator easyHotel has appealed after failing to win retrospective permission to convert the second half of an Old Street office block into hotel rooms.
The move comes after the hotelier previously used the appeal process to convert half of the building to a hotel in 2011. And the hardball approach sees it battling against planners at Islington, who appear dead set against losing office space to alternative uses.
The company first looked to open one of its hotels in the building in 2010, with the conversion of the ground, first and second floors of the building to create an 80 bedroom hotel within the six floor office block. That application was refused by Islington planners in early 2011, and won on appeal in August 2011.
Since then, the company has used the other floors of the building as office space, latterly under its easyOffice serviced office brand, as well as for its own corporate use. A marketing report submitted with the conversion application noted the property achieved no more than 50% occupancy, and failed to attract other longer term occupiers. Consultants noted: “80-86 Old Street is located in a pitch that houses multiple uses with the immediate vicinity of the building, from residential, student accommodation, retail, office and non-residential institutions.” The 1985 post-modern block has no appeal for trendy tech occupiers, who seek older character space, and has insufficiently large floorplates to appeal to corporates in the area, they claimed.
The 2015 application sought to create 12 further bedrooms in the basement, and to convert the third and fourth floors to create a further 66 rooms, growing the hotel to a total 158 bedrooms.
Islington’s latest decision, issued this month against an application lodged in July 2015, gives five areas for refusal. The authority argues there is insufficiently “clear and robust evidence” to prove there is no demand for the office space, and says the intensification of hotel use on the site is considered excessive and inappropriate, creating noise and disturbance. It also notes a failure to deliver 10% of rooms as accessible, inappropriate servicing requirements and failure to meet a slew of other environmental objectives.
The response of Islington is in line with other boroughs, which appear to be hardening their stance towards hotel conversions. Some of this is a reaction to permitted development rights, which have robbed some areas of second hand offices as they convert, without the need for planning, to residential use.
But some of the negative attitude towards hotels appears to be borne of misconceptions about what visitors to London want. Camden recently refused permission for a basement car park conversion to a hotel, off Tottenham Court Road, in part due to concerns that the guest rooms would not have windows; easyHotel similarly makes no secret that many of its rooms are also windowless.
LPA Perspective: Going ahead anyway and seeking permission after the event is always a risky strategy, but here it seems Islington’s hard line on losing office space left easyHotel with no choice but to expect to go to appeal. It does not appear to be a corporate strategy elsewhere, and as easyHotel expands around the UK and abroad, it appears to be operating a more co-operative approach with planners.
That the 1980s building is of the wrong style and type to appeal to TMT types, who like to be around Silicon Roundabout, and media types clustering in Clerkenwell, appears to be the case. So why must Islington insist on rigidly applying its policies, when the alternative would be an empty office building, or perhaps one occupied by a charity to defray business rates?
While the London market is currently seeing a slight dampening of hotel demand, the capital’s hotels are consistently nearly full, with room rates (in response to that demand) climbing ahead of inflation. easyHotel is one of a new breed of super budget hotels, looking to bring the cost of staying in the capital back below £100 per night – something the capital ought to be encouraging, as a way to facilitate more visitors.
And new hotel formats, particularly at the budget end of the market, need a different appraisal. Planning committees get held up considering servicing, where coaches will stop, and late night noise, generally ignorant of the fact that the clientele of these hotels generally demand no servicing, turn up on foot using public transport, and just want to get to sleep. Time for a reality check.