Published: 11:00, 10 November 2019
| Updated: 11:25, 10 November 2019
Six years ago, in an attempt to boost housing, the Government changed the planning rules so that offices could be converted to homes without the owners first obtaining planning consent.
The move was welcomed by Maidstone council as a means of meeting its own housing supply and provision was made within its Local Plan for a small number of office conversions.
But the extent of the rush to convert was not anticipated.
In 2013/14, seven new homes were created from office conversions. The following year it was 26 and the year after that 93. Last year, 2018/19, 297 new homes were created from office conversions.
The total volume of office floorspace lost as a result of conversions since 2014 is almost 60,000 sq metres, equivalent to 30% of the total office space recorded in the borough in 2014.
Now chief planner Rob Jarman has told councillors that he is worried about the future viability of the town centre.
In a report to the strategic planning and infrastructure committee he admitted: "Officers did not anticipate the rate and quantum of loss of office floor space to residential."
Mr Jarman also said that whereas the office space lost so far had been "low quality" if the trend continued, high quality office space could also go.
He said: "It is clear to me that any vibrant town centre requires a balance of uses including employment. A strong business sector is integral to a successful town centre."
He said there was a risk of "the town becoming a dormitory."
Mr Jarman was successful in persuading the committee to allow the council to place an Article 4 order of 14 key remaining office blocks.
They are County Gate, Medway Bridge House, 23 – 29 Albion Place, Sterling House, Maidstone House, Romney House, Gail House, Kestrel House, Knightrider Chambers, County House, 62 Earl Street, 66 Earl Street, 72 King Street and Clarendon Place.
An Article 4 order takes away permitted development rights - forcing the building's owner to seek planning permission for something they would normally have been able to do.
The order will not rule out office conversions in future - the owners could still apply and be granted permission - but at least the council would be able to take a view, and shape the nature of the development.
It would also make coversion less attractive to owners because of the cost and the uncertainty of going through the planning process.
At present without the conversions going through the planning process, the council is not able to impose a Community Infrastructure Levy on the developers - and so is getting no money towards the provision of the infrastructure needed to support the increased population.
None of the 14 buildings are currently designated in the Council's Local Plan to contribute to its housing target.
However there is one problem. If the council imposed the Article 4 ban immediately, it believes it would be open to claims for compensation from those office-block owners who may already have started preparing for conversion.
To avoid that risk, it is seeking to introduce a non-immediate Article 4 direction - to come into force in 12 months' time.
It's a gamble.
The council recognises that the spectre of an Article 4 order hanging over them might actually force the owners of the 14 blocks to race to conversion while they still can.