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Uncertainty – A tale of mixed messages for office to residential permitted development.
On 30 May 2013, the Coalition Government effected one of the most talked-about changes to planning legislation for many a year. The amendment to the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO), allowing the change of use of offices to homes was met, in equal measure, by both jubilation and distain. Hurrah… a means to offload poorly performing office accommodation (and some not so poor), previously hamstrung by those pesky policy constraints. But then alas… the loss of control for councils, the means by which to control development and more importantly, PLAN. Much has been written in the intervening period about the reactions of both developers and local authorities, who’s right, who’s wrong and why. But little has addressed or even thought to consider the stage we now enter. We’ve arrived at a period of uncertainty, that word which is a blight on the profession of planning and that worries developers the most. It is too often used to blame and to ultimately excuse failure or periods of economic downturn. It is often misapplied, but right now, it appears wholly accurate. On May 30 2016 this all ends. The opportunity to change the use of an office to a dwelling will fall away. As always the devil is in the detail – the legislation requires the residential use to be begun on or prior to 30 May 2016. But what qualifies ‘begun’? The National Planning Practice Guidance considers that the residential use can be retained permanently so long as it is ‘completed’ prior to that date. But what does this mean…? Can you construct one dwelling, in a scheme approved for many and thereby consider the use of the entire building to have ‘begun’? Does ‘begun’ then mean that one unit should be fit for occupation or does that unit have to be occupied? Does that occupation need to be under contract, or can you let your nephew (for example) stay there whilst the scheme is completed around him? Or, if one unit is not enough to consider the use ‘begun’, is there an acceptable percentage of the scheme that can be ‘completed’ in order to establish the use? Or does every dwelling approved need to be fit for occupation or occupied? If so, if part ‘begun’ by 30 May 2016, would the entire right fall away or just the part that is not fit for occupation or occupied? And why is this suddenly so important? Well, we’re now over half way through the allotted time frame. In less than 18 months, the right to change the use will fall away unless the use is ‘begun’, the means by which you do not know how!? If you are yet to start on site or worse still yet to apply to use the rights on your property – do you have enough time to reach the end and how would you know if you had got there in any case? We have now reached the time when this becomes a serious consideration – and it could prevent developers taking already permitted schemes forward. Uncertainty will add to the delay. But wait, the ‘Technical Consultation on Planning’ released by DCLG last summer says the right could be extended – allowing schemes granted prior approval to be ‘completed’ up until 30 May 2019 no less! And with it a new office to residential right introduced, to replace the existing one from 30 May 2016. But it would be different, without exemption zones but with more controls to render property exempt and still without a proper definition of what ‘begun’ or indeed ‘completed’ might mean…Unclear?..Uncertain?..Out of breath? You’re not alone. And there is more… In December 2014, the proposed amendments to the office to residential change of use were conspicuous by their absence in a DCLG report outlining proposed changes to legislation over the next 6 months. This might suggest it is unlikely to come forward before the May election. Yet there are whispers that there is still an intention to publish a whole new GPDO before the end of March. Yet more confusion!? If nothing is forthcoming before the election and we have a change in administration, will this ever come forward? And as an aside, if commercial values (in London at least) continue to rise, one starts to wonder whether any Government, incumbent or otherwise, or indeed the market in general, will have the appetite for extended rights. The office to residential permitted development right was introduced to deliver housing and the initial uptake has exceeded expectations (although delivery rates remain to be seen). As a tool for housing delivery it has potential, but it has hit a road block and the current level of uncertainty is increasingly likely to stall development. A Ministerial statement (or two…) is desperately needed and a decision should be made – one side is bound to be dissatisfied, that is unavoidable, but to have a right that is unusable, causing uncertainty by its very existence, is far worse.

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