Office redevelopment boom a set back for Welwyn Hatfield’s employment needs
PUBLISHED: 10:14 16 February 2019
Building developments over which Welwyn Hatfield Council has no control may prevent the established economic needs of the borough from being met in coming years.
Developers capitalising on a government law have been snapping up unused offices in Welwyn Garden City and across the borough to convert to residential use, but the resultant loss of office space has exceeded previous council estimates.
This is leading to a projected shortfall of about 30 per cent against the target set in the council’s Draft Local Plan for the 2013 to 2032 period, which, five years in, is still yet to be signed off.
While these developments may be creating much-needed homes from empty offices, the council has accepted it may not be able to meet its target for jobs as a result.
The problem is schemes to convert office buildings to a residential use have permitted development rights, which essentially means they do not require planning permission.
The permitted development rights for office-to-dwelling conversions were temporarily introduced by the government in May 2013 and made permanent in 2016.
A new council report states: “Permitted development rights are set down in law, and grant a blanket nationwide planning permission for certain types of development.
“This has the effect of meaning that some types of development which are contrary to existing policies in the district plan are now able to take place, with only minimal involvement for the council.”
Along with underused sites, this has led to some “prime” office space in Welwyn Hatfield being lost, such as the former Xerox headquarters in WGC - a four-hectare office campus located in the centre of an employment area, which is being developed into hundreds of apartments.
Between May 2013 and the end of the 2017-18 year, the council was notified of 62 of these schemes.
According to the council: “At least 31 of these are known to be coming forward, of which 15 have already been completed, and will result in the total loss of at least 9.6ha of employment land and at least 49,000m2 of office floorspace.
“This is having a particularly notable effect around the western edge of WGC Employment Area.”
Broadwater Road is subject to several such developments: Mercury House and the former Roche offices are being converted, the site of former Highways House has been proposed for a care home and planning applications for two more addresses are pending, including a plan to turn the no.29 building into 72 flats.
The ongoing loss of employment space, which is largely the result of these office-to-residential schemes, are greater than projected in the draft local plan.
This then impacts the borough’s established employment needs for the plan period.
There has been net loss of 33,890m2 of office space in the borough over the past five financial years to 2017-18, half of which (17,252m2) was lost in 2016-17.
Gains for other uses have reduced the total net loss of employment floorspace from 2013-14 to 2017-18 to 13,235m2.
The development of an industrial tradepark at Bessemer Road in WGC contributed to the gains.
It is now estimated an additional 30,770m2 will be lost through further office-to-residential schemes notified to the council.
“The additional losses being encountered may ultimately have an impact on the extent to which the borough’s employment needs for the plan period to 2032 can be met,” the council report stated.
Among the future planning applications that have been submitted to council is a proposal to redevelop the Norton Building in Bridge Road East, WGC into residential use.
The Draft Local Plan, which accounted for the 37,000m2 of losses known at the time it was published plus projected windfall losses, set a target of delivering 116,400m2 of employment space over the period to 2032.
The forecast supply is now 81,512m2 - an undersupply of almost 35,000m2, or about 30 per cent.
“The overall undersupply of employment floorspace has been acknowledged by the council during the examination of the Local Plan and the extent to which economic needs can be met are being explored.”
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