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  • TP Editorial Team

My Predictions for Planning in the Post COVID-19 World

Clearly COVID-19 is having an unprecedented and far reaching effect on everyone’s lives – their health (both mental and physical), home, work, travel, leisure, and social lives.  But what might the lasting impact be on planning and development into the future?

Could this be a golden opportunity for reviewing your work and living space options? Reconfiguring, converting, extending, installing incidental buildings, and/or redeveloping your physical assets are all on the table. Making the right choices now for the post COVID-19 future could ensure you are ahead of the game to maximise your financial returns on land and/or premises.

Well thought through planning and development options could also improve employee satisfaction, or your own home life or theirs, by providing a more flexible and better quality of working and living environment.

Over the last few months, we have been supporting our clients through these uncertain and unsettling times with our experience, clarity of thought, up-to-date knowledge, practical options, and innovative solutions. 

Below are some of my musings and thoughts on possible future trends and opportunities for residential and office uses:

Office and Residential Development Opportunities

The social distancing restrictions and ‘work from home if you are able to’ Government guidance have forced employers and employees to be more innovative in the ways they work and interact. Technology has inevitably played a huge part in enabling people to work from home with, for example, ‘virtual’ meetings and electronic filing.  This fundamental shift away from in-person face-to-face meetings and paper-based business has shone the light on what can be achieved. 

Many are now pondering what longer-term benefits, learning and cost savings can be taken from this enforced remote working trial.  Businesses are unlikely to go back to the pre COVID-19 way of working and they are instead starting to challenge previous commercial and operational assumptions.  The crisis has necessitated more resilience which must go further than just reopening workspaces for ‘business as usual’. 

Moving beyond the current crisis, businesses need to develop robust strategies and consider restructuring to survive and grow during the forecast recession.  One option being considered by many businesses is to radically reduce dependence upon, and the costs of renting and maintaining physical office space. 

In the future, this might be achieved through hot-desking and shared office space once/if successful COVID-19 treatments, effective herd immunity, and/or a vaccine are widely available.

Many are likely to continue to work from home, if not 5 days a week, then certainly 2 or 3 days a week given that, for many businesses, the enforced trial has proved largely successfully.  This is likely to increase demand for home extensions, incidental office buildings, or a house move to secure more floorspace and/or garden space.

The shift from primarily working from shared office accommodation to more flexible home and office working could potentially increase productivity and reduce overhead costs for the business.  Also, by eliminating the commute and giving more flexibility to spend this otherwise ‘dead’ time with the family or engaging in sport, hobbies, and social activities, it could provide positive outcomes for employees. 

Encouragingly, a 2019 Harvard University study found that people who are given the freedom to ‘work from anywhere’ were 4.4% more productive than those who have more rigid workplace requirements.

A report by commercial property investment management company JLL in April 2020, suggested up to 30% of corporate real estate portfolios will include flexible working space by 2030 as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, what does this mean for planning and how can we help your business adapt and help you improve the working from home environment, to be ready for the post COVID-19 world?

Clearly there will be opportunities and demand for:

  • conversion or redevelopment of vacant office buildings,

  • construction of purpose-built home/office workspace, and

  • development of properties which offer more outside green space.

Conversion or redevelopment of vacant office buildings

Offices are very often located in town centres with good access to public transport, retail, community, and other service facilities.  They are therefore ideally located as a site for residential accommodation when no longer needed as office accommodation.

Existing Permitted Development Option

Under current Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (as amended) (GDPO) Class O already allows for the conversion of offices to dwellings - houses or flats - without the need to apply for planning permission - subject to Prior Approval and proposals meeting the specific exceptions, limitations and conditions set by national legislation or site-specific planning conditions.

Most external building work associated with this change of use are likely to require planning permission but currently PDR office to residential conversions are not required to comply with minimum residential internal or external space standards, affordable housing requirements, or contribute towards supporting infrastructure such as roads, schools.

A Local Government Report, January 2020, concluded that since 2015 (when the PDR was introduced), 54,162 new homes have been created from conversion from offices in England i.e. the total conversions amount to 6 per cent of all new homes nationally.

Potential New Permitted Development Option

Heralded new PDR changes seem set to allow for demolition of vacant commercial buildings, industrial buildings and residential blocks and permit their replacement with ‘well-designed new residential units which meet natural light standards’ according to the ‘Planning for the Future’ policy document, published by the MHCLG, 12th March 2020.  This will most likely be implemented through changes to the regulations, though it was suggested in the autumn by the Secretary of State that a new freedom to demolish commercial buildings and replace them with homes could be established using the permission in principle (PiP) route.

Details still need to be consulted upon so at this stage it is not known what the specific exemptions, restrictions, limitations, or conditions might be, or if, perhaps Building Regulations will be amended to set minimum standards. If it is introduced as a PDR through the regulations - without a requirements to pay developer contributions such as for affordable housing, or a full planning application fee, or to meet local policy requirements - then it could be a financially attractive option for the redevelopment of vacant commercial buildings, industrial buildings and residential blocks buildings.

Seeking Planning Permission Option

It may not always be the best option to rely upon PDRs for office conversion or indeed to wait for the possible introduction of a demolition and redevelopment PDR.  Though PDRs do clearly provide a quantifiable ‘fall-back position’ and the reuse of brownfield/previously developed land, particularly in the most sustainable locations, continues to be a priority for the Government and local authorities.

The greatest returns and saleability of land and premises may potentially be achieved by a well-designed development proposal which will respond most effectively to the emerging business and residential needs of a post COVID-19 world. 

Construction of purpose-built home/office workspace

In a post COVID-19 world, it seems likely that there will be an appetite for new build and conversions to create bespoke live/work accommodation.  Demand for the best buildings in the best locations which meet new post COVID-19 priorities for access to open space and flexible working from home, will, I believe, represent an area of growing demand. 

Opportunities for providing purpose-built home/office units could be in the form of:

  • individual dwellings or estates with office accommodation provided as an intrinsic feature within the fabric of the home, or

  • a purpose-built structure provided within private or communal residential garden space, or

  • an extension to an existing residential building, or

  • apartments with communal office space, in addition to perhaps the more usual offer of a gym.

Helpfully, PDRs provide some opportunities for the erection of incidental buildings in private garden areas and for home extensions (subject to proposals meeting the specific exceptions, limitations and conditions set by national legislation or site-specific planning conditions).  As early as summer 2020, there may also be PDR opportunities for residential blocks to be extended upwards by two-storeys.

However, in many cases, there will be a need for submission of a planning application to secure the most viable, versatile, and valuable development opportunities.

Development of properties which offer more outside green space

The increased demand for access to private and communal open space for physical and mental well-being has been brought into sharp focus by the current pandemic. Many in towns and cities are living or working in small apartments often without direct access to outdoor space. 

It seems likely therefore, that post COVID-19, the demand for properties with private and communal garden spaces will increase the opportunity to ensure new development proposals adapt and incorporate this new trend into design proposals.

We hope you find this blog helpful. To arrange a virtual meeting with a specialist planner or architect to discuss your situation, please get in touch via our phone number, website contact or email.

By Helen Winkler, TPP

(Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst)


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