A government scheme intended to turn redundant offices into new homes is causing some existing businesses and charities to be evicted, councils have warned.
New planning rules, called permitted development rights, introduced in May last year, allow for offices to be turned into homes without planning permission.
The policy is designed to bring empty and underused offices back into use, but a survey of heads of planning services in English councils by the LGA has found many ‘office-to-residential’ applications have involved offices that were either partly or fully occupied.
It warns that, in some areas, landlords have served businesses with eviction notices so as to cash in on higher residential rents and sale prices.
But the Department for Communities & Local Government has hit back at the LGA’s complaints, claiming the organisation opposes the changes because its members want to bring in “punishing development taxes” for regeneration schemes.
A number of local authorities have lobbied for exemptions from the policy, including Islington LBC, which struck a deal last month to protect “the most important clusters of businesses and charities in the borough”.
More than a quarter of respondents to the LGA’s survey (27%) said that between 50% and 100% of prior approvals received under the planning rule involved part or fully occupied commercial space, while 32% of councils said the figure was below 50%. Forty-one per cent of respondents did not know the figures.
The poll, fully completed by 93 councils and partially by a further 19, found four out of 10 local authorities believed the planning measures had reduced office space in the local area, while only two in 10 thought they had brought vacant premises back into use.
More than half of local authorities said the scheme had resulted in housing that did not meet identified need, while 60% said the changes had reduced the provision of affordable housing.
The Department for Communities & Local Government closed a consultation at the end of last month on making permanent the permitted development rights, which are due to expire in May 2016. The LGA said that, if the measures were made permanent, office space would be reduced and infrastructure put under strain.
Peter Box (Lab) leader of Wakefield MDC and the LGA’s housing spokesman, said: “What was meant to provide a new lease of life for empty offices has, in reality, seen organisations kicked out of their premises so landlords can cash in on the higher rents they can charge for flats and houses. High streets and communities have been changed with no consultation of those living and working in them.
“Councils have told us permitted development rights have meant that not only is there less office space available, there is also less of the vital infrastructure we need too. These changes have created homes which do not meet the identified needs of a community, which has put pressure on schools, roads and health services, as well as making fewer houses which are affordable at a time when rents and house prices are soaring.”
Housing minister Brandon Lewis said: “Our change of use reforms are providing badly needed homes such as studios and one-bedroom flats for young people, especially in London where there is a particularly acute need for more housing.
“This is helping promote brownfield regeneration, protect the Green Belt and increase housing supply at no cost to the taxpayer. More housing in town centres also increases resident footfall and supports local shops.
“The LGA simply opposes these changes as town halls can’t hammer these regeneration schemes with punishing development taxes.”