Homework corrections

A county court judgment has redefined live/work clauses, but councils want a Government ruling on planning regulations, Chris Partridge reports
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The Independent Online

Live/work owners who want to give up the work bit and just live in their properties have been handed an unexpected legal weapon to forestall enforcement action by planning authorities. A judge in the London County Court has ruled that the term "live/work" means the occupant can either live or work there, but has no obligation to do both.

Live/work owners who want to give up the work bit and just live in their properties have been handed an unexpected legal weapon to forestall enforcement action by planning authorities. A judge in the London County Court has ruled that the term "live/work" means the occupant can either live or work there, but has no obligation to do both.

The judgment is being eagerly examined by live/work residents in Hackney, where nearly 300 planning contravention notices have been issued demanding confirmation that the occupants both live and work on the premises.

Judge Roger Cooke had found that the definition of live/work in the planning guidelines was "vague and arguably ambiguous" and could be interpreted to mean "live and/or work". The case was not, however, directly about planning enforcement but concerned a live/work owner of a leasehold flat who wanted to force the landlord to extend the lease - something that is only possible with residential properties, not workplaces.

The judge was also looking at one of the very early live/work schemes, a Victorian brick and cast iron workshop in Nile Street, Shoreditch, owned by the Bishopsgate Foundation charity that operates the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Bishopsgate Institute and, oddly, the Eagle pub immortalised in Pop Goes the Weasel.

The successful transformation of Shoreditch into one of London's trendiest areas encouraged Hackney planners to give the go-ahead for about 900 live/work developments, and the wording has been tightened up with experience.

"The older planning permissions in Shoreditch were much wider," says Natasha Rees, the solicitor acting for the leaseholder. "However, the case will have an impact on planning enforcement cases, depending on the wording of the permission." Hackney council is determined to clamp down on what it sees as abuse of live/work agreements by developers greedy to put profitable blocks of flats in areas zoned for jobs. Despite the recent influx of wealthy residents, Hackney has some of the worst pockets of deprivation in the country. "We developed our live/work policy to kick-start regeneration in Shoreditch but the only real boom has been from housing," said a spokesman for the London borough of Hackney. "Developers are targeting employment land with residential schemes, and we are concerned employment land is being eroded."

Live/work schemes do not carry any obligation to provide an element of affordable housing, and many recent developments are seen as ploys to avoid the need to provide social housing. As a result, the council has put a block on future live/work applications. "We need clear guidance from the Government on live/work," the Hackney spokesman said.

David Pearl, whose company Structadene owns many live/work units in Hackney, says the live/work idea is unenforceable. "What happens if the resident works from 9.00 to 9.30 every morning?" he asks. "In the real world we don't go round checking and as long as they pay the rent we don't care."

Pearl is blunt: live/work was only a way to insert residential developments into commercial zones because the profit margin is higher. "It was a way round the planning process," he says. "Eventually live/work units are bound to become residential - the whole thing is a nonsense."

Tim Dwelly, a director of the pressure group and self-help website Live Work Network ( www.liveworknet.com), is pressing the Government to make live/work official. "There is nothing explicit about live/work in government planning guidelines, so local authorities are cautious about it," he points out. "If you do it properly you can get real benefits from live/work, creating a visible cluster of businesses that can network with one another and hire one another." The Live Work Network has submitted proposals to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister on ways in which live/work could be regulated to prevent developments slipping into purely residential use.

Meanwhile, in Hackney, smaller developers who have provided successful live/work accommodation are frustrated at the block on new building. Louise Goodison is an architect and developer of a much-admired terrace of houses including several live/work houses in Clarence Mews, Hackney. The houses have a workshop or office on the ground floor and a flat above, which makes them ideal live/work units because the areas are physically separate. The live/work units are now home to thriving photographic studios as well as Goodison's practice, Cazenove Architects.

Bringing workers and residents to the mews has reclaimed a street that was seen as a no-go area at night, Goodison explains. Zoning the mews as either strictly residential or solely commercial would have left the mews unguarded half the time. "For us it was a really good way of regenerating a scruffy alley," Goodison says. "Having people living there gives a 24 hour presence which makes it much safer. The zoning strategy they have is a disaster."

But Goodison's proposal for live/work units in another part of the borough have been refused.

"A new application has been rejected twice," she says. "The council just does not want people to live there. There is no way we would now get planning permission for what we did in Clarence Mews."

The builder John Laing Homes is said to have abandoned plans for live/work units in Hackney, going for a block of affordable housing and accommodation for key workers.

Ironically, the concept of the "key worker" is already becoming tainted. What happens if a key worker decides they don't want to be a police officer any more and retrain as a designer or a public relations consultant? And what happens when they retire - do they get evicted? The planners have a lot of extra planning to do to avoid further court appearances and new rulings about the changing ways we live and work.

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