A big increase in the number of offices and shops converted into flats is behind a surge in England’s housing stock, official figures show.
There were 189,650 dwellings added to the housing stock in England between April 2015 and March 2016, up 11% on the year before, according to Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) figures.
Traditional new-build properties rose by 8,860 units to 163,940. But the most marked increase was in “change of use”, with 30,600 new units compared with 20,650 the year before. Of these, 12,824 were offices converted into flats.
Landmark office towers in the centre of London, such as the controversial Centre Point building, have been the highest-profile blocks to switch to residential. But many drab 1960s offices in suburban locations have also been revamped into studios and apartments.
There have been more conversions of office space in Croydon, south London, than in any other part of the UK, with many of its concrete 60s office blocks no longer fit for modern commercial use. Just four years ago, around half the office space in Croydon was empty – a worse ratio than downturn Detroit – but the area has since seen a frenzy of office conversion activity.
The boom is partly down to new “permitted development rights,” which allow developers to proceed without conventional planning permission, though critics say the result is that many units fail to meet minimum space standards.
The total number of new builds also remains far short of the 200,000 units a year the government has pledged to meet its “million homes by 2020” target. The number of new builds fell sharply during the financial crisis, while the annual “new net additions” to the housing stock is still running at 15% below the 2007-08 peak.
Sir Michael Lyons, a former BBC chairman whose Lyons commission has called for a big increase in housebuilding, said: “It’s good to see that housebuilding figures are up, but converting office buildings can’t go on forever, you do actually have to build new homes. It’s definitely 250,000-plus [new homes] we need, but we haven’t built more than 200,000 a year for more than 30 years.”
The housing and planning minister, Gavin Barwell, said the DCLG figures showed “Britain is building again … We promised to turbo-charge housebuilding so more people can have the security of their own home, and that is exactly what we are doing with the biggest increase in the number of new homes in many years.”
The biggest rise in housebuilding in England has been around Cherwell in north Oxfordshire, Dartford in Kent and Tower Hamlets in London, said the DCLG. But in Sefton (Merseyside), Bexley (London) and Cannock Chase (Staffordshire) the number of homes went into reverse, with demolitions outnumbering new builds.
An independent report commissioned by the shadow secretary of state for housing, John Healey, and led by Pete Redfern, the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey, calls for a new independent housing commission to “take a non-partisan approach to long-term housing decisions”.
The Redfern review notes that home ownership has fallen from 70.9% in 2003 to 63.6% today overall, and that among 25- to 34-year-olds it has slumped from 58.6% to 36.7%.
It blames a mix of high house prices, tougher lending restrictions and a relative fall in the income of first-time buyers for the squeeze on home ownership. It calls for an increase in housebuilding but says that even if building hits 300,000 a year, it would only reduce prices by 0.6% “given recent rates of household formation”.
Healey said: “The shrinking opportunity for young people on ordinary incomes to own a home is at the centre of the growing gulf between housing haves and housing have-nots.”