Britain’s acute housing supply issues are not new.  They have been talked about for decades and whilst successive governments have generally recognised the problem, they have failed to enact the necessary measures to make a dent in it.

The recent announcements by the Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, are no different. They may however provide some help which, until we get a government that is willing to consider wholesale planning reform, is perhaps the best we can hope for.

Alongside the Government’s announcement regarding the prioritising of brownfield development (as if no-one has thought of developing brownfield land before!) new flexibility will be added to the permitted development regime to support the conversion of commercial buildings such as offices and shops into new homes.

These changes will come into effect on 5 March and will provide that there is now no limit to the floor space that can be converted under Class MA (previously capped at 1,500 sq m) and there is no requirement for a building to have been vacant for 3 months. 

In addition, blanket Article 4 directions which councils have previously used to block permitted development rights across entire boroughs will no longer be allowed, forcing those local authorities which were previously unwilling, to have to engage with the permitted development regime.

From the perspective of both developers and those hoping for an increase in the housing supply, this added flexibility is a welcome change, particularly bearing in mind that Class MA conversions benefit from not being subject to affordable housing obligations.  With the floorspace cap gone, many more commercial buildings will now be eligible for conversion to housing via this streamlined planning process.

Will this put an end to the nationwide housing deficit?  Of course not.  But it is better than nothing and could be particularly helpful in enabling the re-purposing of secondary office space – much of which currently sits below the minimum EPC threshold and will require significant capital expenditure in order to upgrade and future-proof it.  Knight Frank report that 140 million sq ft of office space in London alone falls into this category, and with growing vacancy rates amongst tired secondary office buildings, the UK’s city centres are not short of potential candidates for conversion.

Of course, not all offices will be suitable (or viable) for conversion.  Given the nature of offices there will generally be a need to adjust windows, improve sound proofing and insulation and modify floor heights, not to mention the importance of providing windows in residential accommodation which can sometimes prove a challenge when converting deep office floor plates.

These changes won’t solve the housing crisis but, until more substantial planning reforms are forthcoming, developers will have to work with what they have.