Although it has succeeded in transforming any number of unsightly and under-utilised office buildings, the Government’s campaign to get Britain building by relaxing planning regulations was always likely to prove vulnerable to less desirable housing solutions.
And a spate of recent office conversions through Permitted Development Rights (PDR) across London and the South East has underlined the risks inherent in giving housing providers a free rein.
Old office blocks are being converted into hundreds of flats – some as small as 14 square metres. Half the size of a budget hotel room, which aren’t exactly palatial to start with.
Almost 14,000 new residential units were created from former office space last year alone.
Housing charities, local residents and the national media have branded them ‘Dog Kennels’ and ‘rabbit hutches’ and much else besides – but this is unlikely to deter the hundreds of thousands of desperate people looking to get on the property ladder, even if these flats represent the very, very bottom rung.
There are powers for an LPA to refuse an office to resi Permitted Development scheme on Transport and Highway Grounds, so a local council presented with schemes such as this could take their case to the Inspectorate if it wanted to, given many of the occupiers will have cars.
But with converted offices accounting for almost three quarters of the new housing supply coming on line the government is unlikely to order a major rethink of its office-resi conversion strategy any time soon.
And there is in fact enormous demand for this type of accommodation in the South East as young people grab any opportunity to have a place of their own.
I have just valued a very tidy studio of 13.5 sq m. It was immaculate – clearly someone who cared about their own space.
The studio was within a block of 13 similarly sized units - which are cheap compared to the equivalent one or two-bed apartments available in the area.
Unlike other parts of the country, the main issue here in the South East is that as these office blocks are being converted more people are moving to that area.
This means they need jobs.
Unfortunately much of the older office space has been converted and this may be artificially pushing up rents of the remaining office space as supply diminishes.
Businesses in the South East who are already facing Business Rate hikes will have this to contend with as well!
So whether you regard the phenomenon as the law of unforeseen consequences in action, a return to the bad old days or the logical outcome of the Government’s decision to relax Permitted Development Rights, there will be no shortage of younger people prepared to take them.
But how will future generations categorise the policy that gave developers a free hand to create rooms too small to swing a particularly undernourished cat?
Surely the Government’s intention in the first instance was to keep the big construction companies busy during the worst downturn since the last war - and if this helped ease the housing waiting lists so much the better. Office conversions outlived the downturn and became a dominant factor in the construction industry into the recovery and beyond.
And now it seems it has resulted in homes many of us would shudder to think of our offspring living in.