Last week the Government announced which areas will be exempt from the dangerous new policy allowing developers to turn offices of all sizes into flats almost overnight without planning permission. Whilst there was good news for central London, two-thirds of the London councils which asked for exemptions came away empty-handed.
I am very worried about this policy. As chair of the London Assembly Planning Committee, I heard at our March meeting that granting office-to-residential permitted development rights will usher in a free-for-all of unmanaged conversions, with local councils and local people losing all control over which office space is lost and where it’s lost from. A range of experts expressed alarm at the threat to jobs, particularly in start-ups and SMEs that rely on the sort of marginal premises that will become most at risk of conversion. Even where conversion doesn’t happen, the hope value bestowed on the properties could drive up rents to unaffordable levels.
To add to our consternation, we were told that the planning system already includes the tools councils need to allow offices to be converted to residential.
That’s why I wrote a letter to the Department for Communities and Local Government asking to reverse the policy. Failing that, I argued that the Government should grant exemptions for every part of London that asked for one.
Which is why I was so disappointed last week when it emerged that two-thirds of the London councils which asked for exemptions had that request rejected. Even some of those local authorities which did manage to secure an exemption for part of their area found that their entire request wasn’t met in full.
What will happen to these jobs?
The maps of exempted areas shows Government only picked out firmly established parts of central London, primarily the Central Activities Zone, for exemption.
I have also seen the scoring matrix used in an attempt to justify these decisions, and it is anything but reassuring. Councils were told how many points they scored based on different criteria, but there was no reason given behind any of the scores. This, coupled with the fact that very similar areas where variously granted or denied exemptions, makes it look suspiciously like these were arbitrary decisions taken without listening to the very real concerns of local people.
In response to the announcement, I put out the following statement:
“These exemptions should be seen for what they are, a Government which trumpets localism whilst once again not listening to local concerns. It’s extraordinary that only ten out of 33 London boroughs were exempted from this policy when the economy needs all the help it can get. The vast majority of London is at risk of losing the office space that existing small businesses and start-ups rely on to thrive.
“We know there are better ways of getting housing than at the expense of jobs and growth.
“How will the Tech Cities of the future pop up when any property outside the boundaries will have too high a value for many businesses and start-ups? The difference in value between employment and residential properties is already high, and this policy will double or treble it in areas which aren’t exempted.”
The full press release and statement is available on the City Hall Labour website.