The scheme to tackle the housing crisis by converting offices to homes is back-firing and should be scrapped, local councils say.A change in the law in 2013 allows developers to convert offices to flats without going through the planning process.But the councils said it also allowed developers to duck their responsibility to provide affordable housing.The government says the system is creating badly-needed homes.According to the Local Government Association (LGA), in many places more than half of all new homes have been developed under the scheme – including nearly three quarters in Stevenage.However, it says the system – known as permitted development – undermines the vibrancy of cities where homes, shops and offices are jumbled together. It also makes it hard for people to keep fit by walking or cycling to work.
Under the normal planning process councils can insist on developers contributing towards providing social housing, schools and roads.But the LGA is angry that by avoiding the normal planning process developers can escape without making a contribution.The LGA’s Martin Tett said: “The conversion of offices into flats is one way to deliver much-needed homes, but we can’t have developers ducking their responsibility to provide affordable housing and infrastructure.”It is absolutely appalling what’s happening. In 10 years time people will look back and wonder how on earth we could’ve created desolate dormitory suburbs with no employment.”It is essential that councils have an oversight of local developments to ensure they are good quality and help build prosperous places.”The picture varies from city to city. In some places offices have long lain vacant. In other areas councils report that businesses are being evicted because new flats are more profitable for property owners.
“Some councils are getting desperate,” Cllr Tett said. “They’re trying to keep local offices but they’re seeing their areas get turned into commuter suburbs.”Councils warn that office space could dry up, leaving businesses and start-ups without premises.Office-to-residential conversions under permitted development rules accounted for 64% in Three Rivers, Hertfordshire, and 61% in the London borough of Sutton during 2016/17.In Nottingham, Basildon, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hounslow and Harlow the proportion was more than half.’Free hand’Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey said: “Ministers are letting developers cash in without making any contribution to the community. It gives developers a completely free hand to build poorer quality homes that aren’t affordable to local people.”A government spokesman said: “We are determined to build the homes our country needs and permitted development rights play an important role in helping us deliver more properties.”We need a mix of dwelling types to meet different housing needs and over 17,500 additional properties were created by converting offices in the year to March 2017.”Permitted development rights, he said, are only part of the overall solution for housing.The spokesman said councils have the power to remove permitted development rights where it is necessary to protect the surrounding area. But Cllr Tett told BBC News it’s very hard for councils to achieve that.Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin