Planning law change could help revive towns and cities, says commercial property expert

Paul White, agency director at Garness Jones

Changes to planning laws which come into force next month allowing landlords to convert commercial and retail buildings into living spaces could help breathe new life back into town and city centres, a Hull-based property specialist says.

Paul White, agency director at Hull-based commercial property specialists Garness Jones, says the relaxation in planning regulations comes at ‘the perfect time’ in the wake of the impact of coronavirus on the High Street.

With towns and cities struggling to attract people back through retail alone, Mr White believes big change is needed.

And he says that could now happen as from September 1 the Government is extending permitted development rights, allowing changes of use of premises from commercial and retail to accommodation without the need for full planning permission.

“These changes are being introduced with the aim of transforming boarded up, unused buildings in towns and cities into high-quality homes. That is something which can be achieved and is already being planned in Hull when you look at plans for the redevelopment of key areas such as Whitefriargate,” said Mr White.

“The reality is that it is going to be a huge struggle for the retail sector alone in many towns and cities to attract people, and landlords are unlikely to be in a position where there is a queue of retailers wanting to open up new stores given all we have been through.

“We have to find alternative ways of getting more people in our town and city centres, and by increasing the city and town centre living spaces we will see the retail, cafes, restaurants and leisure operators thrive.

“I feel this law change is being introduced at the perfect time and I hope it encourages landlords, and city and town planners, to take a different approach.

“Residential developments in Hull city centre have been in huge demand for some time and we have seen this evidenced at the Fruit Market, the Glass House development in Queens Gardens, Tivoli House in Paragon Street and in the King William House development.

“I truly believe that for our cities to thrive again we need to see living spaces next door to offices and close to cafes, restaurants and retail. It has to go that way.”

Office working ‘still integral to business success and important for interaction’

Despite the huge increase in the number of people now working from home following the Covid-19 lockdown, Garness Jones say it is not expecting to see a surge in landlords choosing to convert offices space to residential use, which has been allowed without planning permission since 2013.

Mr White says he expects offices to change in their layout and feel, providing a more relaxed and informal work base.

“I think the office still has an integral part to play in the work environment,” he said.

“The office is where companies are able to really invest time in their staff and train and develop them, in a way that can’t be replicated remotely.

“People can also bounce ideas off one another in offices and pick up on other conversations to really add value. Businesses that move to a completely remote way of working could miss out on opportunities. I think we’ll see offices change in the way they are designed, with more break-out areas where people can find their own space. They will become more informal in their feel and flow.

“There certainly has been no rush to sell off office space. Many businesses are gradually seeing more people return to the office and still assessing how they can find the best balance between home and office working.

“At Garness Jones we are having a six-month trial where people are mixing days in the office with some working from home. We’ve become more flexible in terms of working hours, which in our work has helped many people in their roles to work at more appropriate times around serving their clients.

“However, we’ve had a number of people who have been very happy to return to the office and enjoy that human interaction again. That is very important, especially for workers who perhaps live alone. People can’t become isolated and being part of a happy, busy office can be good for mental health.”