In responding to the shortage of residential property in central London, the government decided in 2013 to amend the Town and Country Planning Order 1995. These amendments were made to allow office to residential conversions. The lifting of restrictions had a time limit, and they were lifted in 2013 and ended in 2016.
On the face of it, this seemed a good idea. Central London had a housing shortage, and at the time there were a number of office buildings lying empty. However, like all good ideas, there have been some unforeseen side effects to this plan which could cause long-term problems for central London areas such as Soho and Marylebone.
Westminster Council is concerned over the number of office spaces being converted for residential use. According to the Council, over 1,800 million square feet of office space has disappeared over the past four years, and this number equates to the loss of around 11,000 jobs, jobs that have either disappeared or moved out of the borough.
The Council is also concerned that the conversion of office space to residential use will change the character of the area and destroy the delicate balance of residential, cultural, and commercial that has been established.
One of the problems facing those who oppose the conversion of office to residential is the relative ease of converting office buildings into flats. Office buildings are usually fairly modern, have separate floors and lifts already installed. It has already been done in some outer London boroughs, but a one bedroom starter flat in Hertfordshire East is going to be cheaper than one in Soho or Marylebone.
Over the years many of the Regency townhouses in the once fashionable squares of London, such as Fitzroy Square, have been converted into offices. Most of these townhouses were not really suitable for use as offices, and some owners have applied for permission to have them converted back to residences. But these residences may not be affordable to buy or rent.
And the same thing goes with apartments in the newly refurbished ex-office blocks – these will only be affordable to high earners or foreign investors. This reinforces the view of some people that areas such as Soho and Marylebone will become cultural wastelands of high rise and high-priced residences at the cost of their culture and character.
There has been some evidence that the conversion of office to residential has been slowing down. But many believe this is the result of uncertainty regarding the UK’s decision to leave the EU. They believe developers are keeping their powder dry and waiting to see what happens to the UK economy once the final deal of our leaving has been thrashed out. If the deal is a good one then expect the conversions to restart. If the deal is not a very good one, who knows what will happen?
So the controversy over office to residential conversion seems to be on hold for the time being. However, there are people who are concerned about the changes that may occur to areas of central London if the conversions continue at a pace once the EU deal has been settled. I suppose there may be those in high places who may attempt to halt the process, and who knows, maybe reverse it. Only time will tell.