Published: 00:01, 09 December 2017
These days, Blair Gulland enjoys a different view from the building where his law firm has been based since the end of the Second World War.
“I look out of my office window now and I see bedrooms opposite me, which for the last 50 years have been offices,” said Mr Gulland, chairman of Gullands Solicitors in Mill Street, Maidstone.
“There’s been a transformation. Office buildings can no longer be used because they are now residential. The council is concerned about it.”
Mr Gulland’s experience is becoming more common, as developers are allowed to turn offices into homes with fewer restrictions thanks to government rule changes designed to help solve the housing crisis, known as permitted development rights, which came into force in April 2015.
Since then, property experts have reported a shortage in space available to businesses in the county.
“There’s a complete lack of stock,” said Mark Coxon, a director at Caxtons Chartered Surveyors in Gravesend, which compiled the Kent Property Market Report, released on November 2.
“Two or three years ago there were plenty of offices and rental levels were coming down.
“Suddenly, with permitted development rights, they have all been purchased by developers to build flats and now there is a lack of offices within Maidstone.”
“Suddenly, with permitted development rights, commercial premises have all been purchased by developers to build flats and now there is a lack of offices within Maidstone...” - Mark Coxon, Caxtons
The effect of this is costing jobs in the county.
On November 7, pension provider AJ Bell revealed it will relocate about 100 roles in Tunbridge Wells to its headquarters in Manchester because the owner of the building where it was based, Calverley House, had decided to redevelop the site into flats.
Office space is not being built elsewhere, according to Paul Wookey, chief executive of Locate in Kent, which tries to attract businesses to the county.
He said: “We are not seeing any new speculative development coming in, with the exception of the ones in Ashford by Quinn Estates and some schemes from Gallagher Group.
“We aren’t seeing the replacement of the space that is being lost through permitted development rights.
"Until that can be resolved we will always have this imbalance of increasing demand but a dwindling supply.”
The problem may yet get worse after the latest permitted development rights came into force in October, allowing owners to change light industrial units to residential use without planning permission.
Nick Fenton, chairman of Kent Developers Group, which represents more than a dozen housebuilders in the county, said: “There’s real demand for commercial space and for housing.
“We just need to be producing more on the commercial side to get more jobs into Kent.
“Permitted development rights serve a purpose and I think it will continue for a little while. We need to be producing good-quality, purpose-built office space.
“The simple answer is to produce more office space and try to address that shortfall.”
The shortage of office space has had its advantages for those who own commercial space.
The Kent Property Market Report, launched at a breakfast at the Great Danes Hotel in Hollingbourne attended by more than 230 industry professionals, revealed some startling income growth for landlords.
The average prime rent for owners of industrial space increased 9.4% in the county last year thanks to increased demand and shorter supply.
Meanwhile, prime office rents in Kent's main towns were 11.2% ahead of their peak before the financial crisis - up 6.9% on last year - particularly in Maidstone, Sevenoaks, Dartford and Tunbridge Wells.
This shows no sign of slowing as the report claimed demand for housing in the county continues to grow at a faster rate than London.