Home office to homes from offices – striking a quality balance?

With so many homes having a dedicated ‘office’ and more office buildings with plans to become converted to homes – the broader impact on town planning, urban economy and carbon footprint requires careful management.  There must be a consideration for quality construction in the conversion process to ensure a truly viable and attractive future format of where we live and work.

The way we work in 2022 has evolved beyond any conceivable recognition from the workplace 50 years ago. A recent survey predicts that office space will decrease by a further 9% in the near future. There are several office buildings being reassigned for residential use; a reflection of hybrid working becoming the norm. There is a continuing rise in the number of planning applications approved and 2021 saw the highest rate since 2017.

The reduction in demand for office space in some locations in Scotland could be used to counter demand for housing and this is part of the Scottish Government’s permitted development rights (PDR) review. PDRs remove the need to apply for planning permission before carrying out certain types of development. The measures proposed are intended to support the roll-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and the resilience and recovery of city, town and local centres. Regulatory bodies are calling for this to be done with a considered approach with long term benefits and with quality of conversion being the key.

RICS highlighted the need for offices to be converted to housing once it was evident that the commercial sector demand was falling – however there are concerns following the UK Government trial of allowing this through permitted development rights.  RICS commented that “Scotland’s PDR regime is more stringent, so as an alternative, it should be made easier to deliver viable office-to-residential schemes through the planning permission process. This would maximise the existing asset base in a sustainable way, providing affordable homes in close proximity to pre-existing facilities while contributing towards community and wellbeing.”

The RICS felt that the recent loosening of PDRs in England, was not right and emphasised issues around substandard homes, including building and space standards, advising that safeguards would be needed to ensure quality is not bypassed. Following this, the Royal Institute Town Planning (RITP) response to the Scottish Government’s recent PDR review (2022) phase 2 consultation calls for ‘first evaluating the existing use class categories as to whether they are fit-for-purpose for the modern era and ask the Scottish Government to undertake a review, and if deemed necessary, undertake an overhaul of the entire use classes legal framework.’

The RTPI also agree that new residential development in Scotland’s centres should be plan-led rather than consented through new PDR, to support the managed increase in town centre living. The RTPI believe that the planning system is a critical means by which quality developments are delivered and necessary social infrastructure provided through Developer Obligations.

This balance of repurposing office space and overhauling the planning system in Scotland, is as much mirrored in the future format of workforces, productivity and how the balance of home v office-based working will impact town centres. What a great opportunity we have at our fingertips! Through sensible planning measures Scotland could lead the way and create new community hubs, developed through repurposing and reusing building stock. This would be greener, support supply chain management in construction and enhance SME activity –contributing to a stronger and quicker economic recovery.

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