Should unused offices be made into affordable housing?

New housing

In 2019, around 27% of the UK’s working population conducted their roles from home. Due to lockdown laws, this rose to 37% the following year, when Covid made an appearance.

This doesn’t strike us as a huge rise, especially given that this figure has dropped back to 30% following the lifting of restrictions in 2021. Still, this represents almost a third of working people.

Teams Exclusively working remotely may not be part of every company’s plan for its employees, going forward, with many considering a hybrid approach instead, with some time working remotely and some days working from the shared workplace/office.

Empty desks

Companies no longer need as much room or desk space if only half their workforce is in the building at any one time—savvy CEOs have realised the cost savings they would enjoy if they downsized their premises or moved to a less central location. The knock-on effect of this has resulted in some commercial premises standing empty.

Once businesses make the move to hybrid or remote working it’s unlikely that they’d want to go back to how things were at a later date. Technology allows people to work whenever, wherever, and forward-thinking companies have adopted fluidity and flexibility as part of their working culture. Hot desking and hiring meeting rooms/conference spaces only when they’re needed has seen some companies do away with their permanent bases altogether. As a result, commercial estate agents have, in some areas, been unable to fill prime city centre locations, as the demand just isn’t there anymore.

It’s not as if the retail and hospitality sectors want these empty properties either—the high street has died a death now that ecommerce has soared even further, and pubs, hotels and restaurants are struggling to get people into the locations they already own.

Huge corporations don’t need small, boxy office space for their operations. The giants of today’s marketplaces, such as Amazon, want huge warehouses in remote places that have good access links, and they run their office/admin operations from these.

So, what’s the answer for these empty office buildings?

In 2013, the government could already see the writing on the wall. It changed the law concerning permitted development rights, which allowed developers to turn unused office space into housing without the need for formal planning permission. Instead, they were simply required to secure approval from the relevant local authority. A further amendment to permitted development rights was made last year, to redefine the use of the many empty shops within town centres. These have also been ‘de-categorised’ and can be repurposed into housing with much less red tape than before.

Those of us who remember their local high street as a bustling mecca of traders, customers and sightseers may feel this is the final nail in the coffin for local independent shops. However nostalgic people may feel, though, it must be said that there have been numerous initiatives employed to revive the public’s interest in shopping locally and making more of the independent retail outlets on their nearest high street—efforts that have, mostly, been to no avail. At the same time, there’s growing demand for more housing (particularly affordable and social housing). The reason for this is our growing population that’s living longer than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and the rising number of one-person households. It makes sense on many levels to turn empty office space into apartments or family homes; after all, the required utilities will already be there, as will parking and road access.

With less red tape to endure, it’s perhaps easier to convert unused office buildings into apartments than building them from scratch on an untouched pitch…