Council blamed over failure to stop office conversions

Refuge House in River Walk, Enfield Town
Offices at Refuge House in River Walk, Enfield Town, are being converted into 76 studio flats – some smaller than minimum space standards

Criticism from campaign group as more office space is lost, reports James Cracknell

Office buildings are still being converted into blocks of flats under ‘permitted development’ rules despite Enfield Council previously pledging to ban such schemes.

A slew of new applications for office-to-residential conversions have been made in the past few months as property developers seek to take advantage of existing rules allowing them to create “rabbit hutch” flats without meeting minimum space standards – before this loophole is due to close in April.

The permitted development rules introduced by government in 2013 allow owners of offices to convert their buildings into new homes without submitting a full planning application. It has led, in some cases, to new homes that fail to meet the usual minimum standards for size and natural light.

Council leader Nesil Caliskan previously announced her intention to use an ‘Article 4 direction’ to remove permitted development rights for office-to-residential conversion – and the council had been set to consult on such a move last year. But because of other changes to ‘use class’ planning law, the council claims it is “no longer viable”.

Several office conversions have been proposed since Cllr Caliskan made her original commitment in September 2019, including at Blackhorse Tower in Cockfosters, where 200 homes were authorised last November under permitted development rights. Other schemes in the pipeline include Ross House in Windmill Hill, where 24 flats are proposed, and Southgate Office Village, where 74 homes are now planned.

Matt Burn, from campaign group Better Homes for Enfield, told the Dispatch: “In April the rules are changing so they will need to meet minimum space standards. It means it will become less lucrative for developers, so now they are rushing to get their schemes in before the deadline – that’s what happened at Blackhorse Tower.”

Pressure began to mount on the council to introduce an Article 4 direction in early 2019 when plans were unveiled to convert Refuge House, a five-storey office building just 150 metres away from Enfield Civic Centre, into 76 studio flats. After a protracted battle with the council, work began last year, with the smallest flat there just 22 square metres – well below the national space standard of 37sqm. At Blackhorse Tower, the smallest flat will be 31sqm.

“These schemes are about as bad as planning gets,” said Matt. “They are cramming people in. It’s been going on for years. The council had a report done in February 2017 which said there was a big problem – it warned office space was shrinking because of permitted development and that an Article 4 was needed – but the council didn’t do anything.”

Many London councils have introduced Article 4 directions restricting office-to-residential conversions, including Barnet in 2019, and Better Homes for Enfield itself launched a petition two years ago calling on Enfield to make the same move.

Matt points out that the amount of office space lost to residential conversions in recent years is comparable to what the council is proposing to create at Meridian Water. He added: “There’s been a lot of can-kicking going on. If the council had just got on with it, Refuge House wouldn’t be being turned into tiny micro-flats.”

The council has issued a statement on why its Article 4 direction had stalled. It said: “In Enfield, this [permitted development] has resulted in the loss of office space and inconsistent standards of accommodation.

“We commissioned research on the threat to the local area and started work to prepare a new Article 4 direction. Government changes to planning legislation which came into force from August 2020 mean the intended Article 4 is no longer viable.

“We are now investigating alternative options for this important issue for Enfield’s communities.”

The owners of Refuge House and Blackhorse Tower did not respond to requests for comment.