Why Making it Quick and Easy to Turn Offices into Flats isn’t Such a Good Idea

graphic image of office blocks

Julia Thrift and Dr Rosalie Callway

The government has recently announced it is making it easier for developers to turn large empty office blocks into flats. For many people – especially those desperate for a home of their own – this must sound like common sense. After all, with more people working from home, many towns and cities have surplus office space. Why not cut the planning ‘red tape’ and get these offices turned into flats as soon as possible?

Unfortunately, evidence shows that this initiative is unlikely to make a significant difference to the quantity of new homes created, but is highly likely to result in the creation of ‘homes’ that are of a desperately poor quality. Given knowledge that the homes people live in have a profound influence on their health and wellbeing, policymakers should urgently think again. Already, more than 2.5 million people are unable to work due to ill health, which is awful for those people and an increasing drag on the economy.

So what’s wrong with the latest announcement? It is based on an assumption that simply isn’t true. The government wants 300,000 new homes built every year. This hasn’t been achieved for years, but planning isn’t the problem. Since 2010, planning permission has been given for more than 300,000 homes every year – they just haven’t all been built. In part, this is because private-sector home builders restrict the number of new homes on the market to maintain their profit margins. If we rely on commercial housebuilders to solve the housing crisis it will never be solved because, counter-intuitively, it is not in their business model to build so many homes that the price of new homes falls, as the Competition and Markets Authority has noted. The TCPA (Town and Country Planning Association) agrees that building new homes must be a priority and has set out how this can be done quickly, ensuring affordable homes, in the right place and built to a good standard.

Even if the planning permission process isn’t the reason not enough homes are being built, it could still be argued that turning empty buildings such as offices, retail outlets and industrial buildings into new homes as quickly as possible is sensible. Unfortunately, the proposed way of doing this is far worse than it would appear. This latest announcement is one of several since 2013 that have made it possible to convert commercial buildings into homes without having to seek full planning approval from the local council. The law has changed to make such conversions ‘permitted development’. Understanding why this deregulation of planning has resulted in some homes that are so awful they have been described as ‘the slums of the future’ involves understanding what planning exists to achieve.

Firstly, the planning permission process determines what gets built where. While some empty office blocks are in locations suitable for housing, many are not. Some are far from essential amenities such as shops, schools and parks; some are unsafe to access on foot due to a lack of pavements; some have no space for children to play, resulting in kids playing in car parks. 

Secondly, the planning permission process is pretty much the only mechanism to ensure the delivery of the right types of homes and where they are needed. Many basic features that any ‘home’ should have can only be required through planning permission. The design of the home, whether it is insulated, whether it has any sound-proofing – even whether it has any windows – are set out in national and local planning policies. The planning application process also outlines the contributions that developers must make to support provision of affordable housing, local health care services and other essential amenities, But these policies simply don’t apply to most new homes created through permitted development. As a result, there is nothing to prevent unscrupulous developers cramming as many flats as possible into an open-plan building that wasn’t designed to be divided up, with walls that are as cheap and flimsy as feasible, and windows that don’t open. As one distressed resident of a poor-quality permitted development conversion told the TCPA, ‘When my neighbour lights a cigarette the smoke comes into my flat’. 

But, you might say, surely building regulations provide a ‘safety net’ to ensure that any building is of a basic decent standard? Building regulations and housing law are separate from planning permission and all buildings must meet many of these legal requirements, even buildings created through permitted development.

However, detailed new research undertaken by the TCPA shows that building regulations simply do not comprehensively provide the basic quality assurance that people assume. This is partly because each regulation was created to prevent a particular harm: they were never designed to be a holistic approach to ensuring the health and wellbeing of residents. Furthermore, as the TCPA’s research has revealed, the way that building regulations apply to conversions done through permitted development is immensely and confusingly complex and with significant gaps and loopholes. This includes gaps regarding converted residential properties ensuring structural safety and accessibility.. 

The government’s ‘sensible’ announcement is likely to result in thousands of flats crammed into unsuitable buildings, in unsuitable locations. Councils will be unable to refuse these conversions – even if they will result in hundreds of children living in cramped, poorly insulated flats, with no proper windows, nowhere to play, and no local schools to go to. 

The TCPA thinks that all new homes, whether created through planning permission or permitted development, should meet basic quality standards to ensure that they support their occupants’ health and wellbeing. We are running a Campaign for Healthy Homes to achieve this and hope you will support it. The homes that are built today should last for hundreds of years and will shape the lives and health of generations. As a nation, we cannot afford to get this wrong.

This blog was written by Director Julia Thrift and Dr Rosalie Callway, Policy and Projects Manager of the TCPA.