Boles Should Go Further

The new planning minister’s desire to allow redundant office blocks to be turned into housing is a worthy one - but why stop there?

Nick Boles’ argument is that there is huge over-capacity.

The coalition is excluding the City of London from participating in this (and how would a government with a demographic composition like the Cabinet’s ever include the City?) but even in London’s West End there is an estimated nine million square feet of empty offices. Across the rest of the country there is far, far more.

Yet what about empty shops?

The British Retail Consortium says the average UK town centre vacancy rate is now 11.3 per cent (with many locations having as many as 15 per cent of retail premises empty) while the Local Data Company, a consultancy, says more than 1,400 additional stores have closed or are at risk of closure since the New Year alone.

Why should they, too, not be eligible for ‘easy’ conversion to homes?

Of course it is plainly obvious that not every empty store, nor empty office, can become a residential unit: but surely the planning minister is right when he says that, in relation to offices, we need to explore every brownfield option as well as being open-minded about greenfield development in the future?

We have been here before, of course.

A year ago I wrote this piece in the FT about the government’s intention to allow easy office conversion: so far, it’s difficult to see that the previous good intentions were turned into real progress on producing more homes.

We just have to hope that Boles is more aggressive than his predecessors in making his speeches become reality....and that he thinks outside the office blocks, too.

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