London’s Empty Office Blocks To Be Turned Into Homes

Up to 40,000 new homes could be created in London and the South East by converting empty office blocks, planning minister Nick Boles is set to announce. The Government is hoping to re-write planning rules, making it easier and cheaper for developers to convert commercial space into flats. It’s envisioned that developers would mostly focus on smaller office spaces here and there, rather than, say, converting nine empty floors of the Heron Tower for tenancy.

Could it work? The supply and demand side of the argument seems — superficially, at least — to stack up. There’s no shortage of empty business premises; the national average is 12%. Meanwhile, the lack of housing in the ever-more-populous capital is a daily news item.

Yet the scheme is far from a no-brainer. Several local authorities — notably Westminster and The City of London — are expected to oppose the plans or seek an exemption, fearing that a surge in office-to-home conversions could compromise the amount of commercial space available as the economy recovers, thus hindering growth. Places like ‘Tech City’, the area around the Old Street Roundabout touted as a future leader of the tech sector, are particularly sensitive, with small companies increasingly needing floor space. Westminster Council calls the proposals ‘naive’. There are also concerns that the plans will do little to address the dearth of affordable housing, with developers understandably wanting to maximise profit by targeting the mid-to-higher end.

Something drastic needs to be done to break the housing deadlock. It’s good to see ministers pitching some kind of plan, even if it does have its flaws, and probably won’t go far enough. Yet if the scheme unfolds on the scale imagined, we could see all kinds of subtle side-effects, such as altered commuter patterns, changes to parking provision, and the need for more schools, supermarkets and recreational areas in previously commercially dominated areas, to name but a few. One simple change to the planning regulations could have hard-to-predict knock-on effects that would alter the local character of certain parts of London.

But let’s suppose this goes ahead. Which empty office spaces in London do you reckon would be ripe for conversion?

Image by O.F.E. in the Londonist Flickr pool.

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  • Nicolas Chinardet

    I also wonder if such conversion is economically appealing to landlords. I am guessing that renting to a company brings in more cash and fewer problems than renting to individuals.

  • James Guppy

    The Shard has a lot of empty space currently..

  • Richard

    Tax second homes, eliminate stamp duty, and sell council flats into the private market so that we all benefit from lower prices … if you can’t afford to live in London move somewhere else. Simple.

    • Paula

      Simple people and their simple solutions. I don’t think it is fair for young people to move out of London away from their families because they can’t afford to buy a place. Have you heard of communities and kinship?

      • Richard

        I agree … we need lower prices, lower moving costs, and easily transferable mortgages (I forgot to mention that). That is what my solution would give us all. I don’t think that it’s fair that working people struggle to live in a room in a shared house but those on welfare get to live in their own council flat slap bang in the centre.

    • Nick

      “if you can’t afford to live in London move somewhere else. Simple.”
      Nurses, teachers, police officers, fire officers, … how far from London do you want these people to live? Or does your utopia not need these workers in London?

      • Richard

        I wan’t them to live far enough away that the other Londoners start to notice that they are not there and are willing to pay to get them back. The answer is to increase wages to a realistic level not to fiddle around in subsidised housing for those who some official deems to be a ‘key worker’.

  • ClearBell

    We should be looking at empty residential property in London first before we go down this route. Councils should be able to compulsorily acquire and then sub let after any necessary refurbishment (to be charged to the landlord, freeholder) and if necessary be able to sell it off back to the market to recoup the costs (with agreement from the freeholder). It’s absurd that there is so much empty housing in the capital (for instance above shops). A fair-rent tribunal should also be established so that the costs of rental market is more structured and transparent.