Vibrant town centres need workers as well as residents – Will the Government listen?

A healthy town centre needs activity throughout the day and the evening. Purely residential means shops cannot survive and an evening economy ends up just being bars and restaurants. The Government need to take heed and reverse the removal of office and employment space in central London. 

Recently, the government announced that it would be permanently allowing offices to change to residential accommodation without the need for planning permission. Originally, these conversion rights were to end in May 2016.

The government has also decided to remove the central London exemption areas which some boroughs have, now allowing office to residential conversions in these locations as well.  Lambeth’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ) exemption areas include the South Bank, Waterloo and Vauxhall, where the majority of the boroughs offices are located.  This exemption will go in May 2019.

Removing our planning powers means Local Government cannot protect employment space, vital for a healthy borough
Removing our planning powers means Local Government cannot protect employment space, vital for a healthy borough

This has been disastrous for Lambeth’s business base. Our latest monitoring data shows that since the introduction of permitted development rights for office to residential conversions, we will be losing 45,012 sqm of office floorspace which is 100’s upon 100’s of jobs and a massive loss of trade for local town centres. Couple that with the reduction in public sector workers as a result of the Government cuts to the NHS, Local Government, the Police and the JobCentre and the picture for Lambeth businesses looks grim.

The CAZ in Lambeth accounts for 28% of all existing B1a office floorspace in the borough, which equates to over 13,300 jobs.  Waterloo alone contains over half of Lambeth’s current jobs and is a major office location. Much of the forecast growth in jobs in the borough will also be in sectors that require B1a office floorspace. Vauxhall is part of the Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area and is the largest area of redevelopment in Central London, expected to deliver some 22,000 new jobs overall.  Most of these will be office-based jobs at risk under the loss of the CAZ exemption.

We are very concerned about these latest government announcements as they take away more of our planning power meaning that we have less control over the development that is occurring in our borough. Even more worrying are the types of homes which are built as a result of these rights, often not meeting London Plan floorspace requirements and devoid of any affordable housing which our borough is in great need of.

To ensure that offices in the South Bank, Waterloo and Vauxhall do not become vulnerable to residential conversions, the council is committed to putting in place an ‘Article 4 direction’ which will reinstate the need for planning permission, thereby returning planning control back to the council.  Other inner London boroughs are having to do the same to protect their parts of the CAZ. Unfortunately, preparing an Article 4 direction is time consuming and costly, and comes at a time when councils all over London are required to make more and more savings.

We recognise though, how important our office space is for employment in the borough and we are committed to protecting it. We have also decided to look at other areas in the borough which we also think need protection.

Areas which we think are at risk from these conversions include our key industrial and business areas (KIBAs) as well as some of our town centres such as Brixton and Clapham, where there are a lot of creative and artistic businesses.  We are carefully identifying the KIBAs we think need this protection, recognising that it is unlikely that the council will be successful in applying this approach to all of its KIBAs or to its town centres for that matter. We have already seen economic losses rights across the Borough in our town centres – the Piano House in Brixton has been home to over a dozen businesses for the past 15 years but they are all now being evicted as the buildings owner seeks to cash in for expensive residential housing, with nothing the Council can do to stop them.

The new Mayor of London as well as the Government of the day need to think again about this relaxation of planning powers and let local authorities balance the demand for housing and economic space. Left to the market the highest price wins and we could be left with a dormitory borough devoid of space for exciting entrepreneurs and start ups, the basic shopping offer residents need and the lunchtime and after work pound which employees bring in their droves.

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Author: jackhopkins

Labour Councillor for Oval ward in London Borough of Lambeth, and Cabinet Member for Jobs and Growth covering economic development, regeneration, planning and entrepreneurship. (formerly Community Safety) Interested in partnerships, training and development, social mobility and Arsenal.

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