Commentary: Homing in on surplus offices

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The Independent Online
The idea of converting some of London's 20 million sq ft of empty office space into homes is becoming a reality. In 1990 there was not a single planning application for such conversions. Last year there were 93, and now there are six a week.

The logic is compelling because the commercial market is even more dire than the residential one. An analysis of the central London office pipeline published yesterday* suggests that only a tenth of the sites with planning permission will be developed within the next five years, and that half will never be worth developing.

Add in some of the 20 million sq ft of unlet office space, and you have potential accommodation for students (and student nurses), the homeless, and those who want to live in central London and save on the cost and strain of commuting.

The equation makes so much sense that the Department of the Environment is urging councils to allow changes of use. But the process has a long way to go. Banks and developers are often unwilling to admit that their dreams of office development will never be realised. Planning committees, especially in inner London boroughs, are proving inflexible or even hostile.

Moreover, the finances of such schemes are often marginal: so the fact that conversions have to pay VAT, whereas new construction is zero-rated, is an obstacle. But the biggest boost would be if the Treasury worked out that an office-to-family-flat conversion, costing pounds 50,000, could save pounds 13,000 a year in bed and breakfast accommodation. Anyone for more homes at less cost?

*The Home-Office Report. Publishing Business Ltd, 27 John Adam St, London WC2N 6HX. pounds 35.