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Will Lewis, director of OBI Property, on ‘How the UK‘s cities are growing up’…

Take a look around when you next walk through town – do you know what most of the buildings are used for? Whatever the use, it might be changing.

It’s not often you hear property consultants offer praise to the government for… well, anything really, but in some UK cities the relaxation of planning rules has led to a rapid change in what city centre buildings are used for, affecting commercial and residential property markets, and the quality of where we work, rest and play.

Permitted Development Rights allows the owner of a building to make significant changes to the make-up and uses of a building without going through the rigmarole and expense of the planning process. When it was introduced by the coalition government, most of the coverage centred on not having to mess about applying to the council to improve your own home (within reason), which is always a vote-winner with Middle England. But since then, it’s started to impact on city centres.

Take Bristol, where a whole slice of the city characterised by towering 1960s and 1970s-built office blocks has gone over to residential – property owners accepting the narrow floor plates aren’t where business occupiers want to be, and deciding that flats will bring them a better return. Over 300,000 sq ft of space went this way in 2013, and the same will happen this year. In Leeds, a couple of major deals in recent months have seen those with residential aspirations get their hands on buildings in the historic office quarter. There’s been some tinkering around the city fringes in Birmingham too.

So what does all this mean? Well, it seems to be a win-win; the office markets get rid of unwanted stock, concentrating matters on what’s left and potentially developing new space; while cities that have struggled to create the mixed-use, life-beyond-6pm city living vibe find it happening almost by accident – shops, bars and restaurants close by the changed buildings will benefit too.

Cities with a lot going on are the places where talented 20-somethings and those with creative drive want to be, and the more integrated and less zoned those cities are, the better for everyone – it’s a lot safer (and frankly, a lot more interesting) when there aren’t big chunks of a city with no lights on. And isn’t it better and more sustainable to re-purpose a building that isn’t wanted into something that is? In this way the proactive re-use of old offices can be said to be waging just one part of the War for Talent.

Think of it as a market correction, a kind of short-term outlet village of offices. It won’t go on forever, because cities still need their better offices, and will need more in the future. And it’s not as if this is going on everywhere – Manchester, where some key landlords have assiduously updated their office holdings over the years, keeping them well occupied by giving companies and people what they want – hasn’t required a large-scale correction.

So, look around as you walk through town. That building you always go past – is it an office or apartments? If the city’s functioning well, it shouldn’t really matter.


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