Published 30 May 2019

Eastgate House Changes to planning regulations rarely make waves beyond the development community, but four years ago the government introduced a change which has had a profound – and generally positive – effect on our city centres.

The Permitted Development Rights (PDR) Order was designed to make it easier to convert commercial buildings, especially in city centres, into residential development. The aim was to tackle the acute housing shortage, while at the same time providing the added benefit of bringing neglected and/or derelict buildings back into use.

At the time, there was an oversupply of office buildings in particular, and an under-supply of city centre residential development opportunities. Allowing an easy change of use would reduce that imbalance, at the same time accelerating the trend of bringing residential life back into our city centres.

In Norwich, this was largely successful. We saw many tired commercial buildings given new life as homes, and the knock-on effect has been to reduce the excess supply of office space in the city, shoring up rents – which is crucial in order to supply an incentive to refurbish the remaining office stock, and especially to invest in building newer, more fit-for-purpose and energy-efficient, quality office buildings.

So far, so good. But as with any good idea, it has a shelf life – and we are now getting to the end of it.  PDR was never meant as a permanent measure, but rather a solution to a specific problem which existed in 2015. The time has come to acknowledge the good it has done – and move on.

It is all a question of balance. PDR was designed to rebalance supply and demand for commercial, especially office, buildings, and it has done this successfully. If we continue to take further commercial property out of the market, we are in danger of going too far the other way, which is not in anybody’s interests.

Just as the prosperity and the vibrancy of the city relies on people wanting to live there, it also requires space for people to work. Commercial space doesn’t just support employment; those workers use city centre businesses such as sandwich shops, cafes and even hairdressers.

This is why it’s time to lay PDR to rest.  It has done the job it was designed to do, and letting it continue risks creating a different kind of imbalance. What we need now is an initiative to encourage speculative development of Grade A office buildings in the city centre, and that will require an altogether different set of planning, tax and investment incentive initiatives.

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