Policy Exchange is a think tank that is occasionally brilliant but sometimes bonkers. Who can forget their Cities Unlimited report from two years ago which advocated abandoning northern cities. It achieved the remarkable feat of uniting David Cameron and John Prescott in condemnation. Between them they described it as “barmy”, “the most insulting and ignorant policy I've ever heard” ,“Insane and complete rubbish”
But their latest report "More Homes Fewer Empty Buildings" for me falls into the brilliant category. In fact it is one of those ideas that is so simple you wonder why nobody has come up with it before. Allow people to convert empty commercial space into homes without the need for planning permission. At the moment changing the use of a building into a home requires "change of use" planning permission. Not only is applying for this a bit of a bureaucratic obstacle course, the chance of success is low. Council planning departments are keen to protect employment spaces. A reasonable an important function you might think. But they make no distinction between operating sites that are actually employing people and vacant ones that employ nobody and have little prospect of ever employing anybody again. The truth is the planning system cannot protect employment, that is a function of the economy, it tries to do so by protecting sites, but it is poor proxy that has knock on effects causing redundant offices and rows of boarded up shops. As the report points out, even in the most economically active part of the UK, the South East of England, commercial vacancy rates are running at 17%. The same part of the country that demand and need for housing outstrips supply most dramatically.
As the report says "We have a significant housing shortage at the same time that a large number of commercial properties are vacant or partly so. Not only is this a prime cause of urban blight, but the shortage of housing, combined with the current low rate of new house building, places a huge and potentially unsustainable burden on young people an family life."
The answer is elegantly simple. Commercial buildings that have been empty for more than a year should be allowed to convert into housing without change of use planning permission.