New homes in London: Centre Point and Shell Centre lead the way as offices become homes - but has the great conversion gone too far?

The desperate need for new homes is fuelling the rush to convert offices to flats throughout the capital. But has the pendulum swung too far?
Office-to-residential conversions, including landmark buildings such as Centre Point and the Shell Centre, have become a major source of housing in London.

This profound property change started as a trickle two years ago, following relaxation of planning rules. But now it has become a flood. Already, more than 7,600 new homes have been created under the relaxed rules and thousands more are in the pipeline due to the policy gathering momentum.

Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) were introduced in May 2013, allowing developers in many London districts to undertake conversion projects without planning permission being required. 

IMAGE GALLERY: SEARCH FOR THE LATEST OFFICE CONVERSION HOMES



Conceived as a well-meaning attempt to boost the number of new homes, the office-to-residential-conversion (OTRC) trend is so hot that it is encompassing vacant office blocks built only a decade ago, as well as centuries-old buildings said to have become outdated for commercial use. 

Six councils are opposed to PDR
While developers claim that conversions are bringing much-needed new homes at no extra cost to the taxpayer, a growing number of councils say the pendulum has swung too far and that the conversion stampede is killing local jobs and commerce, and leading to “unbalanced” communities, already hastened by soaring property prices.

Six of the hardest-hit London boroughs — Camden, Islington, Lambeth, Richmond, Sutton and Tower Hamlets — mounted a High Court challenge to the laws, but lost. 

They had argued that the policy is a reckless free-for-all, with no control over the quality or size of the new flats being built and no requirement for on-site affordable housing. Permitted development rights also neuter conservation societies and other local groups who want a say in the shape and character of their neighbourhoods.

For developers, conversions are financially compelling as the buildings can be worth up to three times more as residential. But although profitable for builders, converted blocks with no balconies or gardens are not usually suitable for families to live in.

Yet they may suit young singles and couples, especially well-designed new flats carved from redundant office buildings that are a blot on the landscape — even more so where the blocks provide amenities for residents.

One such project is a conversion of London’s “ugliest tower” — a brutalist 16-storey block in Archway, north London, formerly used as social security offices.

Islington council has accused developer Essential Living of cramming in too many flats, but the re-clad tower’s transformation into 118 apartments for private rent is under way. Renamed Vantage Point, the building will have a number of shared spaces for residents, including a club room, winter gardens and a roof terrace. Completion is due next year. 

Conversion fever
Shell Centre on the South Bank will soon have 877 new homes. Controversially, the scheme involves demolition of Fifties blocks built in the aftermath of the Festival of Britain. One York Square, the first phase, has apartments from £540,000. Call 020 7001 3600.

Centre Point, the Sixties tower on Charing Cross Road, is being converted into 82 luxury flats, launching in 2017. South Bank Tower in Southwark, a former publishing headquarters, is being split into 193 flats with five-star residents’ facilities. Prices from £2,265,000. Call 020 3267 1048.

Re-clad in Danish charcoal-fired bricks and beautiful bronzed balustrading, 55 Victoria Street, a re-modelled Sixties office block, has large lateral flats and a lush roof garden. Prices from £3.57 million. Call 020 7487 1698.

Chapter Street, in Westminster, has 31 flats designed in the Art Deco style of the original building. It backs on to Vincent Square, a 13-acre green space with playing fields owned by Westminster School. Prices from £950,000. Call Barratt on 0844 8114321.

Changing spaces: Croydon
On the other side of London, Croydon has seen more conversion of office space than any other part of the UK. The town centre has a large stock of concrete office blocks dating back to the Sixties, many no longer fit for purpose, and these are the focus of large-scale regeneration.

Rather than simply converting old offices into homes, the council says it wants to encourage mixed-use developments — buildings that combine high-quality flats, offices and shops — to prevent sterile dormitory housing and to ensure that new neighbourhoods have variety and vitality.
 
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From £306,000: apartments in four connected blocks at Morello Quarter in Croydon have plenty of facilities. Call 020 3305 5057 

“The reason why the ambitious Sixties plan failed was because Croydon had almost no homes in its core centre — it emptied out at the end of the working day and became a no-go zone,” says advertising executive James Naylor, a local resident and blogger who has set up Croydon Citizen, a not-for-profit community magazine.



“In 2013, central Croydon’s office vacancy rates were worse than Detroit’s. An astonishing 52 per cent of available space was empty — millions of square feet, including 35 entirely vacant buildings. Today, there is less than 500,000sq ft of vacant office space, a spectacular turnaround that has to be welcomed.”

But Naylor thinks that permitted development rights can compromise quality, and more planning controls are needed. “The purpose of planning permission is to make sure that standards are high and developments fit aesthetically into their context,” he says. “In Croydon, it’s not just clapped-out old buildings that are getting converted. Perfectly serviceable, recently built or refurbished ones are being gobbled up for residential development.”

One developer, AA Homes, has acquired Metro Point, a sleek steel-and-glass office block built in 2004. Naylor says elsewhere in Croydon tenants are being turfed out by developers who want to get vacant possession of a building so they can convert it into homes. And cheaper office space for start-up companies is disappearing. “The danger is that Croydon will end up repeating the mistake of the Sixties — this time in reverse,” he added.

The forthcoming Westfield shopping centre and the new Ruskin Square office complex will help keep a balance in the town centre. 

But more than 20 conversion projects are under way, including Nestle’s former headquarters, which is being re-modelled into a 288-home tower. Being one of the best-connected outer London areas, with 27 trains an hour to the centre (London Bridge and Victoria in 15 minutes) and a through-the-night Gatwick service from Victoria, developers believe there will be a huge demand for reasonably priced flats with so-called “lifestyle extras” — concierge, secure parking, gym, private cinema and bars. Morello Quarter, with 290 apartments in four connected buildings, ticks these boxes. Prices from £306,000. Call Redrow Homes on 020 3305 5057.

Crescent House, Clapham, is a former HQ of the Post Office Workers’ Union. The crescent-shaped building dates back to the Thirties and has an imposing manor house-style entrance plus a carriage driveway and rear gardens. Galliard is creating 36 apartments, priced from £499,000. Call 020 7620 1500. Bedford House in Covent Garden dates back to 1870. Built in the Queen Anne style, it is being transformed into five apartments priced from £1.1 million. Call Douglas & Gordon on 020 7036 4000.
 
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From £3.57 million: stylish flats and a roof garden are being built at 55 Victoria Street, a re-modelled Sixities office block. Call  020 7487 1698 

What comes next?
Some areas have been granted an exemption from the relaxed planning laws in order to protect London’s trades and businesses.

Developers still need planning consent to convert buildings in the “central activities zone” that covers the City of London, the West End, Westminster and some City-fringe areas such as Shoreditch. Parts of the Isle of Dogs, including Canary Wharf, and the whole of Kensington & Chelsea borough are also exempt. 

In the case of old buildings, with lack of flexibility of design, they can also be prohibitively costly to convert, according to Marnix Elsenaar, at law firm Addleshaw Goddard. But developers continue to steer conversions through the planning system, with or without council support. Where councils do object, developers can appeal to the Secretary of State.

The Government is to review permitted development rules before next May. Housing minister Brandon Lewis says: “I do fully appreciate the benefits we’ve seen from it, providing thousands of homes in London particularly.”

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