Budget to help offices become homes
Next week's Budget is expected to contain measures to cut through planning red tape to make it easier for empty office blocks to be converted into homes.
With commercial vacancies running at 7% to 9%, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles believes that 250,000 new homes could be delivered by converting all the long-term office space currently on the market.
The Government will propose scrapping the requirement for planning approval to convert a commercial property for residential use, potentially saving almost £140 million in bureaucratic costs over the next 10 years, the Press Association understands.
Just 129,000 new homes were built last year - the lowest level in any peacetime year since 1923. And only 2.8% of these homes came from office conversions.
It is thought that turning office blocks into flats could attract first-time buyers back into the housing market by providing an affordable first rung on the property ladder.
The streamlining of planning rules can be implemented by secondary legislation, and it is hoped the change will be in place by the end of this year.
A Whitehall source said: "Many towns and cities have office blocks, warehouse and business parks needlessly lying empty, while house-building has fallen to the lowest in peacetime history because the planning system has tied developers up in knots of red tape.
"By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning, we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump-start housing supply and help get the economy back on track."
Chief executive of the British Property Federation Liz Peace said: "We think this is a very positive, pro-growth signal to send to the property-owning community.
"Whilst clearly we would not want to see property that might still be capable of sustaining jobs taken out of commercial use, there are many places where business will never come back and it makes huge sense to look at alternative uses, particularly residential where there is a massive need for new sources of supply."