An Expert’s View

    Richard Ellard

    Richard Ellard, partner in commercial property at Tunbridge Wells law firm Thomson Snell & Passmore LLP, looks at the changing face of the southeast.

    The United Kingdom technically came out of recession in the third quarter of 2013 and the recovery has, thankfully, been sustained since then.

    The government has used various means to sustain and even stimulate the recovery including changes in planning rules.

    It is clear that a number of legislative changes have given rise to opportunities to those in the property industry which have led to fundamental, long term changes to our built environment.

    This government has been very keen to promote house-building. Brandon Lewis told the BBC in September 2015 that the government is looking to ensure that 1,000,000 new homes are built before 2020. This equates to 200,000 new houses per year which seems a lot but is still 50,000 short of the 250,000 target the Federation of Master Builders considers necessary to keep up with demand.

    Changes to rules relating to permitted development rights have had a significant impact on towns across the southeast. In 2013, the government introduced rules which permitted a change from office to residential use without the need for full planning consent in some circumstances. This right, initially for a three-year period, was extended this year.

    Taken off

    The application of the rules can be quite technical but it is clear the office to residential development market has taken off. There are many examples of office space that has either been converted to residential use or has approval for such conversion in most towns in Kent.

    In Tunbridge Wells some of the office buildings in Lonsdale Gardens have prior approval and can be changed from office to residential use.

    The offices above the new Cook retail outlet, on the corner of Monson Road and Newton Road, have also been converted to flats, having been previously used as offices.

    Daryl Barber, of Bracketts Chartered Surveyors, said the trend is likely to continue as permitted development rights have been extended.

    Alex Butler, partner at the national firm of surveyors Allsops LLP said: “A huge number of offices have been converted to residential accommodation under this legislation. These changes have stimulated the property market and created thousands of new homes which is what the government wanted. The extension to the regime is likely to further boost interest in the sector and desirable locations such as Tunbridge Wells will be attractive to investors. An obvious consequence of this development is that there may be a lack of office space in years to come unless new office schemes are started.”

    Perhaps as more town centre office space is used for residential purposes, the face of the high street will change. There is certainly evidence that retailers are responding to changing shopping habits.

    Other changes in legislation which are intended to boost businesses and stimulate the economy include the changes to the planning regime which enable property owners to make changes to properties in order to install ‘click and collect’ facilities. The aim is to boost the high street by encouraging shoppers to visit shops and perhaps make additional purchases.

    Whether retailers have the space to install click and collect facilities is another matter and indeed it is arguable that small retailers in areas like The Pantiles or Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells are unlikely to see this as a major advantage. Perhaps some of the larger retailers on out-of-town industrial estates will have the space to accommodate these facilities and, more importantly, the money to make the changes.

    It is clear that the face of the high street is changing as retailers adapt to new consumer habits and the changing economic landscape. Tunbridge Wells has seen a Sainsbury’s Local, Metro Bank and a Poundland store open recently illustrating the focus on convenience and value. The high street of the future also has room for offerings at the luxury end of the spectrum such as Jamie’s Trattoria or Neal’s Yard in Tunbridge Wells.

    Farm buildings

    Also very relevant to Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding areas are the changes to the planning rules relating to farm buildings. It is now possible in certain circumstances to change the use of redundant farm buildings to a residential use. However, the relevant rules mean this change is more challenging to secure and there are restraints in terms of the number and size of dwellings. Also, the local authority has to be satisfied that the change to residential use is not ‘impractical or undesirable’. The sensitivity surrounding rural sites means this change is more contentious and it has not therefore resulted in a huge amount of activity.