Can an office be your new home?

Posted on 9th July 2020

At the start of this new decade, we are going through one of the most unprecedented moments in our history. Amongst many other things, Covid-19 has shed further light on the difficulties the housing sector is going through, ranging from the increase of people being found homeless and living in over-crowded homes to tenants facing eviction.

Like two sides of the same coin, we have also seen the effects of togetherness and the support that has been shown to those who have been suffering as mentioned above. This was highlighted by the enormous effort by local boroughs bringing more than 1,000 rough sleepers into hotels in order to self-isolate and the Government putting possession proceedings on hold until July 2020.

It is now imperative to think what this crisis means for the need for housing and the effect of demand and supply in the longer term. As we await normality to resume, we should turn our minds to the new concept of homeworking which has effectively liberated many of their regular commute and which could have wider implications for housing.

As a result of so many now working from home, many office spaces have been left empty, leading to less commercial development and more empty office blocks. This opens the door for these spaces to take advantage of a permitted development right which the government put in place to turn these offices into flats without having to apply for planning permission. The deeper question would not be the number of potential accommodations which can be built but the quality of what would be available to tenants as a result. There are already a number of these which are used as temporary accommodation. These can be best described as sub-standard flats, which do not meet the minimum space standard or other requirements. The minimum space standard in the UK requires the floor space to be a minimum of 50 square feet.

When this was initially introduced by the government this was a means to boosting the housing market but in fact has turned into a majority of sub-standard developments. Over the past 5 years there has been a steady increase of permitted developments which were waived through without need for approval, according to Government data. This includes office to residential conversions.

There were already warning signs in place on the quality of these builds as identified by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in 2018 who warned, that office-to-residential builds under the permitted development rules were resulting in a higher number of poor-quality flats when compared to those completed under a full planning permission.

Amongst the size problems with the office conversions, there are other complaints that residents make which include crime, drug addiction, alcoholism and poor transport links, especially when those who are placed in these developments are separated from their family and friends.

A more stinging criticism of these office blocks was conducted by The Times in which they stated the price of these flats averaged around £800 a month and were as small as 14 square meters, barely bigger than the size of a typical parking space.

Until there are stronger rules in place or the plans of office conversions aren’t more closely scrutinised by the government, this trend will continue and the end user of these flats will have been left with a lot to be desired.

There are a number of possible alternatives that could be considered by the Government which could include open dialogue with councils and local communities, to enable the latter to have a say in the planning process for these conversions and overseeing the local developments in each borough. In this way, the Government could empower councils to build an effective infrastructure for their local communities and could result in a higher standard of converted builds.

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