UK Politics

Vince Cable blasts Eric Pickles' offices-to-flats policy

Empty office block Image copyright Thinkstock

Business Secretary Vince Cable has attacked one of Eric Pickles' flagship policies to solve the housing shortage.

He said allowing developers to convert offices into flats without planning permission was robbing people of employment opportunities.

A new survey by the Local Government Association suggests firms are being served with eviction notices so their offices can be turned into housing.

Mr Pickles' communities department said it was "providing badly needed homes".

The permitted development rights changes were introduced in May last year and proposals have been put forward to make the move permanent.

'Unbalanced development'

Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, Mr Cable, MP for Twickenham, said the policy flew in the face of Mr Pickles' commitment to local decision-making, calling it a "particularly bad example of central imposition".

"In an area like mine in south-west London large swathes of commercial property are in the process of disappearing so that people can build converted flats on them.

"Now you could say, 'You're desperate for the housing,' which we are. But it does mean there is nowhere for small firms to operate.

"So we are creating the homes but driving out employment, which is perverse, and it just means you are getting terribly unbalanced development."

The Local Government Association (LGA) survey fond vacant offices had been brought back into use in some areas - but in others more than half of applications had resulted in partly or fully occupied offices turning into flats.

'No consultation'

Four in 10 of the council planning officers polled said the measures had reduced office space within their area and only 20% thought it had brought vacant office premises back into use.

Image caption Housing Minister Brandon Lewis says councils don't want to lose development taxes

The survey also revealed 60% of councils agreed the changes had reduced the provision of affordable housing.

Some 46% of those that responded said that between half of and all prior approvals involved office space which was either partially or fully occupied.

Councillor Peter Box, the LGA's housing spokesman, said: "What was meant to provide a new lease of life for empty offices has, in reality, seen organisations kicked out of their premises so landlords can cash in on the higher rents they can charge for flats and houses.

"High streets and communities have been changed with no consultation of those living and working in them."

'Brownfield regeneration'

A number of authorities have lobbied for and received exemptions from the policy where the measures would have a detrimental economic impact on their areas.

But the LGA said the government wanted to end these exemptions - and it warned office space and affordable housing would be squeezed even further if the policy was made permanent from 2016.

The survey, which was carried out over the summer, was fully completed by 93 English councils (a 29% response rate), with 19 councils providing incomplete responses which were also included in the survey.

Conservative housing minister Brandon Lewis said: "Our change-of-use reforms are providing badly needed homes such as studios and one-bedroom flats for young people, especially in London where there is a particularly acute need for more housing.

"This is helping promote brownfield regeneration, protect the Green Belt and increase housing supply at no cost to the taxpayer. More housing in town centres also increases resident footfall and supports local shops.

"The Local Government Association simply oppose these changes as town halls can't hammer these regeneration schemes with punishing development taxes."