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Planning Theory & Practice
ISSN: 1464-9357 (Print) 1470-000X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rptp20
Greasing the wheels, or a spanner in the works?
Permitting the adaptive re-use of redundant office
buildings into residential use in England
Kevin Muldoon-Smith & Paul Greenhalgh
To cite this article: Kevin Muldoon-Smith & Paul Greenhalgh (2016) Greasing the
wheels, or a spanner in the works? Permitting the adaptive re-use of redundant office
buildings into residential use in England, Planning Theory & Practice, 17:2, 175-191, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2016.1156144
Published online: 21 Mar 2016.
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PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE, 2016
VOL. 17, NO. 2, 175–191
Greasing the wheels, or a spanner in the works? Permitting the
adaptive re-use of redundant oce buildings into residential use in
Kevin Muldoon-Smith and Paul Greenhalgh
Department of Architecture and the Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Nearly 20 years ago Patsy Healey (1998) argued that cities increasingly needed development industries
and planning regimes with the capacity to construct and refurbish sites and buildings within the con-
text of uid and dynamic changes in the demand for both locations and buildings. This concern still
remains. Rapid urbanisation in the non-Western world, the shrinking cities phenomenon in Western
Europe and North America, and in certain locations the hollowing out of inner city areas and urban
sprawl (and the subsequent re-colonisation of the inner city) reect the relatively xed and inert nature
of the urban built environment and the changeable nature of urban consumer demand.
However, underperforming elements of the urban built environment cannot be consigned to the
redevelopment process. This is because new real estate development each year only accounts for
2% of building supply (Kelly, 2012; Kincaid, 2002).Consequently, how society adapts these existing
resources through changes within and across use, in order to satisfy its appetite for new ways of living,
This paper explores the challenges involved in planning the adaptation of the
urban built environment. It approaches this subject by appraising a recently
introduced national planning policy (the permission to convert oce buildings
into residential use without planning permission) in England. Drawing on
interviews conducted with planning practitioners, it is possible to unravel the
impact of this policy instrument at the coal face of the discipline. The oce-
to-residential conversion policy has removed the long-established process of
local planning discretion in England in favour of a developer led planning policy.
Consequently, there has been a tactical manipulation of additional planning tools,
originally designed for other use, to re-exert inuence at the local level by local
planning authorities. Rather than greasing the wheels of oce-to-residential
conversion, the new policy has thrown a spanner in the works of a unique
local planning process that was originally developed to manage urban change.
The paper concludes by calling for local planners to reformulate their role in
planning urban adaptation by reasserting their role as “market actors” through
the development of city information models, the exploitation of professional
communication networks and the transference of their own tacit knowledge.
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
residential; market actors;
Received 5 August 2014
Accepted 1 February 2016
CONTACT Kevin Muldoon-Smith Kevin.email@example.com
176 K. MULDOONSMITH AND P. GREENHALGH
could dene the cities of the future and must therefore be an important issue for the contemporary
Echoing this point, Sir Richard Rogers (2014) recently argued that the biggest opportunity for new
Browneld development in England may not be the big inner city sites, but rather,
Intelligent retrotting and redevelopment, adapting existing buildings and working outward from high
streets and neighbourhood centres – the places with best access to public transport, shops and other amen-
ities ... Our urban renaissance does not need new towns, but there must be new towns in our existing cities.
The contemporary oce building can be used to illustrate this situation. After decades of stability and
continuity the modern oce building is in transition. Previously dened by function and associated
with desk-bound employees, the notion of the oce is increasingly uncertain. The impetus for this
change is varied but rests primarily with technology, for instance the smart phone, tablet, cloud and
remote working. This is compounded by broader structural changes emanating from globalisation,
economic change and demographic adjustment (Bishop & Williams, 2012; Burkholder, 2012; Hollander,
Pallagst, Schwarz, & Popper, 2009; Oswalt, Overmeyer, & Misselwitz, 2013) which, taken together, have
begun to alter the way modern business and its employees conduct their work.
Illustrating this point and following the opening of the Frank Gehry designed Facebook headquarters
in California, Marc Kushner (2015) heralded the end of the oce, arguing that social media is changing
the way we consume the urban built environment. This statement is not necessarily as hyperbolic as
it may rst appear. Technology is increasingly pervasive. It is therefore credible that in the near future
we could work everywhere and anywhere. Consequently, large oce oor plates and the investment
certainty of the medium- to long-term lease are increasingly redundant in certain locations. In response,
oce landlords and investors are looking to switch their capital into more protable forms of use
through conversion into alternative uses (Harvey, 1978; Remoy, 2010; Smith, 1984; Weber, 2002).
This transition has implications for the modern planning profession, which originally emerged in
order to manage and harness the piecemeal development of the new metropolis. The contemporary
planning profession is faced with a dierent challenge; that of planning and mediating the adaptation
and the subsequent splintering of the existing built environment into new forms of use. Acknowledging
this situation, the aim of this paper is to reect on one response to this issue, the attempt in England
to grease the wheels of oce building conversion into residential accommodation through planning
deregulation and permitted consent.
This lens oers the prospect of reecting on the broader normative concern of how planning theory
and practice can aid adaptive re-use in the urban built environment. The recent permitted development
policy change oers a context for this reection as it signals a turn away from the traditional state-led
process of planning by consent in England towards one that is private developer led. This encounter
exposes tensions in relation to the central concerns of planning adaptation, in particular how planning
can meet the challenges of how society uses land and buildings.
The empirical material in this paper is based on 10 in-depth interviews conducted during 2014 and
2015 with planning practitioners operating at the coal face of local English planning in the public sector.
In doing so the paper contributes to the work of Inch (2010), Mace (2013) and particularly Cliord and
Tewdwr-Jones (2013) in relation to giving a voice to the professional planner which has been “curiously
absent” (p. 2) from planning policy for at least the last 20 years. Indeed, Cliord and Tewdwr-Jones (2013)
recently set out the need for understanding the experience and reaction of professional planners by
examining their propensity to collaborate and resist continual planning policy change.
The researcher made use of the elite/expert practitioner approach outlined by McGuinness,
Greenhalgh, and Pugalis (2015).The reason for this approach was inuenced by the observations of
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 177
Temenos and McCann (2013) who argued that this method can help with understanding the unwritten
practices and the tacit understandings built up by practitioners over a number of years. In this way
the method is a compliment to the latter-day institutional perspective set out by Guy and Henneberry
(2000), Adams and Tiesdell (2010) and Henneberry and Parris (2013) which describes an institution as
“a way of thought or action of some prevalence, which is embedded in the habits of a group or the
customs of people” (Hamilton,1932, p. 84).Therefore, following this approach helps to centre the permit-
ted development rights (PDR) policy in the textures, conventions and local ways of planning practice.
Yet, the elite/expert approach is not without detractors, and Harvey (2011) and McGuinness et al.
(2015) themselves indicate that the term elite/expert in this methodological context is ambiguous and
under researched. In this research, elite/expert is attributed to the status of the individual in the plan-
ning profession. It does not necessarily refer to their organisational seniority, professional credential
or years of service, but rather the planner’s front-line position and proximity to the permitted develop-
ment policy process. The denition is intentionally narrow as the purpose was to target interviewees
who had rst-hand knowledge of the new policy procedure. A semi-structured interview format was
used, designed around the ndings from an initial literature review that indicated a research decit in
relation to the impact of the recent PDR policy change, its receipt by planning practitioners, and how
it may be enhanced in the future. The same knowledge deciencies underpin the central research
questions which structure this paper.
Upon request, practitioner identities and local authority locations have been redacted in order to
protect their identity (only general location information is revealed). This approach stimulated frank
discussion in relation to the impact of the PDR policy which might not have been possible otherwise.
However, it is possible to say that the composition of interviews is sucient to compare geographic
variation, for instance between central London and the rest of England, and in order to get a feel of
how planning practitioners have responded to the PDR changes in England. Where possible, all eorts
have been made to situate the raw practitioner perspective within the text. This realises the opportu-
nity for a rich description of events as they are actually unfolding and gives the respective planners an
opportunity to speak for themselves and respond to the PDR policy (something that following sections
of this paper suggest has not hitherto been possible).
Such an evaluation should provide a sound basis for policymakers when they evaluate ideas for
planning building adaptation. For those planners involved in the day-to-day management of building
transformation, the paper provides an approach to understanding the wider signicance of building
adaptation which the researchers hope will contribute to more knowledgeable and eective plan-
ning practice in relation to building change. Expanding knowledge in this area will help planning
practitioners in mature urban areas deal with the challenges of adapting an ageing urban landscape.
However, it is hoped that this approach will also help those planning practitioners dealing with the
demands of accelerating urbanisation in the non-Western world, which requires an understanding of
the urban development processes and how to manage them. The paper addresses this situation with
three underlying research questions:
(1) How has the government’s permittance of conversion of oce buildings into residential use without
planning permission landed in England? The paper explores how the government’s policy is
bound up within its neo-liberal political agenda, resulting in a “thin” policy instrument which
neglects the “thick” texture of contingent market relations.
(2) By what means, and to what eect, have planning practitioners interacted with the government’s
planning policy? The paper shows that planning practitioners recognise the need for building
178 K. MULDOONSMITH AND P. GREENHALGH
adaptability in the face of increasingly volatile urban preferences but have been dislocated
from the government’s planning policy.
(3) How might planning theorists and practitioners develop more eective urban built environment
adaptation planning strategies? The paper concludes that planners must reassert themselves
as “market actors” (Adams & Tiesdell, 2010) in the oce-to-residential adaptation process,
and identies three opportunities in relation to this aim: the development of city information
models, the exploitation of professional communication networks and the transference of
planners’ own tacit knowledge.
The nal section of the paper summarises the answers to the three research questions and contem-
plates their implications for planning theory and practice. The underlying argument is that planning
building adaptation will perform best if it is centred in, rather than dislocated from, locally textured
property markets and their associated local planning structures.
In order to provide an analytical context for the paper, the next section considers the two contrasting
modes of planning practice suggested in the permitted development policy change. First, the tradi-
tional model of state-led development control and its basis in local authority planning consent, and
second, the latter-day emphasis on deregulated development control and the veracity of the market.
The original glory of English planning consent
Broadly speaking, in England there are two perspectives in relation to planning urban built environment
adaptation. The rst is the discretionary basis of planning consent and development control, which can
trace its evolution back to the 1700s (Booth, 2003). The second is the developer-led model, which can
trace its evolution to latter-day neo-liberalism. In no way does this paper set out to detail a history of
development planning in England; moreover, stating only two positions is obviously a simplication
of the historically contested and richly textured planning tradition in England. However, the authors
do contend that this approach, alongside the recent permitted development policy change, is a useful
heuristic tool for the subject at hand – that of understanding how planning can facilitate the adaptation
of the urban built environment.
In England, the traditional system of planning consent and development control is based upon the
central principles of elasticity, exibility and discretion, principles which set the English tradition of
planning consent apart from its zone-based European and North American counterparts (Booth, 2003,
2009). The Town and Country Planning Act, passed in 1947, enshrined the nationalisation of future
development, dividing the current quiet enjoyment of land from its future use. Henceforth, anyone
carrying out development in England, so dened1, would need planning consent before doing so.
The intention was that each planning application would pass through detailed scrutiny and take into
account local land use strategy. However, any application for development would also be considered “on
its own merits” and would take into account other “material” considerations. Therefore, local authorities
had considerable discretionary control over development within their own administrative boundaries
in order to promote and protect the public interest by working through all of the implications of a
In 1948 the rst General Development and Planning Use Class Orders were also brought into use
and have since been subsequently amended in order to reect the changing requirements of society
and contemporary characteristics of economic development. Specically, the Planning Use Classes
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 179
Order places uses of land and buildings into various categories known as “Use Classes.” This order is
periodically amended (most recently in 1987), but the general convention is that planning permission
is needed to change from one class of use to another. The intention behind the Use Classes Order was
to provide a degree of separation between generic types of building in order to identify change in use
but also to provide a degree of exibility within a given category where certain changes would not be
considered material and would therefore not require planning consent.
While the intention behind the General Development Order (the most recent of which came into
eect in April 2015) was to give certain types of development planning permission within the order
itself, the objective was also to avoid the planning system becoming congested through trivial and
minor development issues (Booth, 2003). In other words, certain types of development were given
national planning consent, independently from the local authority discretionary procedure, in order
to aid the overall eciency of local planning.
Unlike systems of land use zoning seen in Western Europe and North America, the intention was
to have a system of planning that was agile enough to react to changing circumstances and loca-
tion-specic circumstances which deviated from the principles of local land use strategy. This process
is conversant with the ndings of Beauregard (2005) who conducted a rare appraisal of oce-to-res-
idential conversion in New York. He established that the shaping of oce-to-residential adaptation is
reliant upon the functional interdependence of property sectors, actors and local amenities and that
such development is fundamentally local in formulation. To aid his analysis Beauregard (2005) made
a distinction between the “thin” conceptualisations of market logic, based on a remote relationship
between property supply and occupier demand, and the “thickness” of local real estate markets. He
argued that, “what we need is a ‘thick’ rather than ‘thin’ understanding of functional interdependence
in property markets, one in which the specics – the contexts – are made explicit” (Beauregard, 2005, p.
2432). However, this in-built exibility, so valued by planners in England, has not always been received
favourably by developers, who accuse it of arbitrary decision-making and ineciency (Booth, 2009;
Haar, 1984).Indeed, Booth (2003) contends that since at least the 1960s the English system of devel-
opment control has somewhat lost sight of its original glory and has been beset by an emphasis on
managerial eciency and technocratic target setting.
The invisible hand
Associated with this critique, the second perspective is associated with the emergence of neo-liberal-
ism which advocates the invisible hand of the market as the central conduit for urban adaptation with
developer-led transformation to the fore (see Allmendinger, 2011; Allmendinger & Haughton, 2010;
Lord &Tewdwr-Jones, 2012 and Cliord & Tewdwr-Jones 2013 for thorough accounts of the contested
reality of neo-liberalism and planning). This approach can trace its lineage to the neo-liberal tendencies
of English government in the 1980s which was exemplied through the newly emerging Enterprise
Zones and accompanying Simplied Planning Zones (Booth, 2003).
The arguments of Peck and Tickell (2002) in relation to “roll-back” and “roll-out” neo-liberalism are
useful in this context. They describe a situation where on one hand the state gives up and concedes
responsibility and accountability for welfare provision to the market, while on the other, it actively
creates and strengthens growth-orientated forms of governance and regulation. Similarly, this paper
denes the impact of neo-liberalism on planning as the stripping back of state intervention and the
legitimisation of market-based ideology in planning practice. In general there is less concern for devel-
opment externalities and the potential impact of development on the social cohesion of cities. In this
180 K. MULDOONSMITH AND P. GREENHALGH
respect, the deregulation of planning in England can be linked into the broader concern of how society
is governed; since the turn of the twenty-rst Century this co-dependence has become increasingly
turbulent and beset by regular reform (Cliord & Tewdwr-Jones, 2013).
In England, in a similar way to other nation states, planning as an activity has long been formulated,
regulated and implemented at dierent geographical scales and by dierent governance actors. As
a result it often takes one step forward, towards new ways of working, and then two steps back to
more recognisable forms of governance (Tewdwr-Jones, 2012). Indeed, during the late 1990s and
2000s (coterminous with the New Labour administration) there was a relative period of planning
renaissance associated with the emergence of spatial planning. Inuenced by European schools of
planning thought, land use planning was re-invented as a exible tool for strategic planning (Cliord
& Tewdwr-Jones, 2013). Cognisant of some of the original intentions of development control, place
making, collaborative vision, local distinctiveness and the input of, and output for, the community and
local stakeholders gained emphasis.
However, the advent of the Coalition Government in 2010 and the Conservative Government in
2015 brought forward a new form of austere neo-liberalism following the publication of the Localism
Act in 2011 and the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012. In doing so, central government has
concentrated on the rolling back of collectivist state-led planning(1300 pages of planning guidance
have been reduced to 65 pages since 2010) and the roll-out of market mechanisms, such as the per-
mitted development right rule change, designed to create developer-friendly growth opportunities.
Those who support this approach contend that the planning process can suppress necessary devel-
opment by increasing costs or ultimately withholding planning permission (Booth, 2003). Even though
this position was countered some time ago by authors including Glasson and Booth (1992) and Booth
(1996), this sentiment was reected by the Planning Minister during the initial permitted development
announcement in 2013:
These changes are an important step in improving the planning system and making sure it is in the best
possible shape to swiftly adapt to changes and opportunities that can provide a big boost to the economy
... We are determined to make sure perfectly good underused properties are converted for homes and uses
that will benet our communities. (Nick Boles, quoted in the Architects Journal, 24 January 2013).
So, two opposing perspectives of planning adaptation are apparent in England; the rst position sees
the planning system as inecient and an obstacle to developer-led change in the urban built environ-
ment. The second is centred in the original glory of the traditional English development control system
which was originally designed to respond to changing circumstances and the need for adaptation.
The following section uses the permitted development policy to probe this debate, rst of all setting
out the permitted development rule changes in greater detail before bringing to bear the frank views
of planning practitioners in order to understand the impact of the permitted development policy, how
the policy has been resisted and how adaptation in the urban built environment can be better planned.
Permitting the conversion of oce-to-residential use in England
In April 2013 the Coalition Government in England introduced conditional permitted development
rights for the conversion of existing oce buildings into residential use (part of the Town and Country
Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2013), for an initial period
of 3 years between May 2013 and May 2016. In this case, permitted development rights (PDR) are used
to allow certain building works and changes of use between oce and residential use, to be carried
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 181
out without formal planning application. In the Autumn of 2015 the new Conservative Government
announced that this policy would be extended indenitely and extended to allow the demolition of
existing buildings and replacement with new build residential use in certain circumstances. Announcing
the extension, the Minister for Housing and Planning argued that
Today’s measures will mean we can tap into the potential of underused buildings to oer new homes for rst-
time buyers and families long into the future, breathing new life into neighbourhoods and at the same time
protecting our precious green belt (Brandon Lewis, quoted in a government press release, 13 October 2015).
The relaxation, according to the Coalition Government was driven by the political and economic desire
to recycle and adapt redundant oce buildings, as well as quickly and cheaply promoting new home
delivery in response to the perennial housing shortage in England.
There are restrictions in place in relation to listed buildings, conservation areas, and areas of out-
standing natural beauty or world heritage sites. The rights can also be withdrawn subject to Article 4
direction. Article 4 directions, which are commonly used in historic conservation, are not a prohibition
on development. Rather, they serve to restrict permitted development rights by bringing previously
“taken for granted” building changes into the local consent procedure.
More than 2250 notications for oce-to-residential change of use were submitted to planning
departments in the rst six months alone, signicantly more than the government estimate of 140
applications p.a. (Wild, 2014). More than half of local planning authorities in England attempted to gain
some form of exemption from the rule changes (Geoghegan, 2013), while two judicial reviews where
thrown out at the High Court (Royal Court of Justice, 2013). Other local authorities have explored the
application of Article 4 directions to regain control of the conversion process. At the time of writing 33
areas in 17 local authority locations have temporary exemptions in place, including the City of London,
London’s Central Activities Zone, Manchester city centre and parts of Stevenage, Ashford, Sevenoaks
and east Hampshire. These locations have until 2019 to formally agree Article 4 exemptions.
Unanimity in opinion, in relation to the impact of this policy has been dicult to establish. Anecdotal
evidence suggests that reaction to the policy has ranged from congratulation, to outrage, fear, pessi-
mism and confusion, in both public and private sectors (Geoghegan, 2013; Wild, 2014). In some respects
this reaction is not surprising; the stated intention of the policy is to convert redundant oce properties
into much needed housing. Yet, there is no provision in the policy for distinguishing between redundant
oce properties and oce properties that still have a future in their present use classication. Despite
the rhetoric of the policy announcement the provision has generally been applied to respective oce
markets without restriction.
In response to this situation the following section seeks to unpick the policy rhetoric and move
beyond anecdotal reaction by bringing to the fore the experiences of planning practitioners who are
working with the PDR policy on a daily basis.
How has the government’s permission of conversion of oce buildings into residential use
without planning permission landed in England?
This section reects on the rst research question, namely; how has the government’s permitted devel-
opment policy landed in England? The principle ndings from practitioners is that the PDR policy signals
a signicant departure from the original intention of permitted development rights in England which
were conceived in order to remove relatively minor planning applications from the planning consent
system in order to allow local planning authorities to concentrate on more signicant development
182 K. MULDOONSMITH AND P. GREENHALGH
applications. This change in emphasis sits within the debate regarding the territorial frame within which
planning resides and the inuence of government ideology (Tewdwr-Jones, 2012).
This is because the original intention of PDR after the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was to
grease the wheels of the local planning consent process and was, in principle, an example of the cen-
tral and local planning state working in relative unison to protect and preserve national development
rights for the public good. In contrast, the new oce-to-residential PDR policy is not engaged with
minor physical works; rather, it has been used as a tool to incentivise developers to engage with two
major urban issues in England, the surfeit of underused oce properties in certain locations and the
concurrent dearth of available housing supply.
By removing the traditional principle of local planning consent enshrined in the 1947 Town and
Country Planning Act, the PDR policy has by-passed local contingency in favour of a developer-led
model of adaptation. Illustrating this situation a planner in the Midlands reects that
PDR changes are a classic example of centrally dened and politically motivated planning policy that has
unleashed a restorm of conicts between dierent scales of urban planning governance and government
... central government might as well have detonated a nuclear bomb.
Overall, interviewees gave a sense of disconnection from the oce building adaptation deliberation
at the local level. One planning practitioner in East Anglia captured this sentiment, indicating that
We are increasingly faced with a perspective where the market knows and grows best and is expected to
work things out for itself.
Yet, there was a very real sense from interviewees that the policy rationale is not borne out on the
ground. Instead of isolating underperforming oce properties, the PDR policy is applied to all types of
oce property (regardless of relative performance) and locations. Nor does it consider spatial variation
or the contingent characteristics of local real estate markets – what Beauregard (2005, p. 2432) describes
in his appraisal of oce-to-residential conversion in New York as the “textured nature” and “thickness”
of actual real estate locations. Rather, the neo-liberal policy is an example of what the same author
considers to be a “thin” conception of real estate action based on neo-classical presumptions of supply
and demand and market logic. In this context, adaptation has been detached from the “thick” approach
associated with the English tradition of planning consent and development control, in particular the
emphasis on local texture, interconnection and socially constructed real estate markets embedded in
the principles of “other material consideration” and the assessment of planning applications on “their
The impact of this situation can be considered thus, in London (and in a minority of prime locations
in the regional centres such as Bristol) where oce supply is low, the PDR policy has not been received
positively due to the potential loss of valuable oce space. Yet, elsewhere in England, where secondary
oce supply exists in abundance with no obvious future in its present class of use, the PDR policy has
been received more favourably.
Two planners in opposing locations give an impression of this situation. First a planning ocer in
central London alluded to the non-discriminatory nature of the PDR policy:
PDR legislation is seen as extremely damaging due to the signicant loss of oce space which will occur;
there is no guarantee that oce stock converted will be vacant or poor quality, as the legislation also
applies to Grade A occupied oce space. Aordable housing cannot be secured nor can other developer
contributions; this in turn increases the protability of conversions.
However, this perspective in central London does not reect the views of planners elsewhere in England.
Indeed, the head of planning, at a local authority in the west of England stated that
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 183
Rental values in this city simply do not justify building maintenance and improvement and certainly not
conversion into alternative use ... this leaves cities in our position at an extreme disadvantage.
This is supported by recent research in Leeds and Manchester (Cook, 2013), which indicates that the
uplift in capital value of a converted residential property would not be sucient to cover the cost of
conversion from oce to residential use. This indicates a more complex reality than that set out in
the original PDR announcement which, at least rhetorically, set out to stimulate the conversion of
underused oce buildings. There is a real indication from interviewees that the original policy intention
has not been met, those vacant oce properties coming forward for conversion in London are not
necessarily redundant, while the policy is largely ineectual in those areas that would most benet
from it – those areas with concentrations of redundant oce properties. This is because the major
barrier to adaptation in these locations is suboptimal economic conditions rather than obstructive
planning processes (Bryson, 1997).
A planning ocer in East Anglia suggested an improvement upon this situation:
Where “adaptive re-use” is appropriate, is where there is evidence at a strategic level that existing use is no
longer suitable. This means that adaptive re-use can be properly planned. Piecemeal adaptive re-use will
not help to meet strategic priorities in the same way, and may lead to more conict and issues in the long
run, e.g. due to lack of appropriate infrastructure.
Yet, the accustomed conduit that English planners have used to link new development into strategic
land and property formulation, planning consent, has been removed through the PDR process.
Echoing Peck and Tickell (2002) there is an apparent irony here, the English government has dereg-
ulated planning in order to give a more prominent role to the market, yet central government has had
to adopt greater centralising powers in order to impose this agenda. Indeed, by removing the power
to mediate building adaptation from the tier of government closest to its production, the PDR policy
contradicts contemporary notions of localism, collaborative democracy and accountability. Although
not the central concern of this paper, the PDR policy also signals a break from the contemporary
concern with spatial planning and the recent prominence given to collaborative vision, place making,
local distinctiveness, and the broader concerns of the local community and stakeholders. A planning
practitioner in South Yorkshire gave a sense of this situation:
There is a clear confusion between the stated government policy of localism which you could associate with
local governance and place making, and the reality of what is going on. The result is that the PDR policy
has pretty much removed local planning authorities and local areas from the building re-use equation
By what means, and to what eect, have planning practitioners interacted with the government's planning
This section reects on the second research question – namely, how have planning practitioners
made sense of and interacted with the PDR policy? Interviewees indicate that the permitted develop-
ment change has resulted in a process of tactical manoeuvring on the part of developers and planners
which, in certain circumstances, has led to an adversarial and pessimistic situation. A planner in central
London gave an impression of this situation:
The PDR policy is a one-size-ts-all mess which leaves no room for location-specic market conditions, nor
the scope to mediate these issues. The result is that planning authorities are using retrograde tactics to
shelter from potential changes ... what else can we do?
One of the most damaging results of this policy, according to the same planner, is that
There is anecdotal evidence of deliberate neglect of buildings in order to ease the path to conversion to
another use, particularly residential use ... elsewhere this has been compounded by the use of articially
inated rents in order to grease the wheels of conversion.
184 K. MULDOONSMITH AND P. GREENHALGH
This is something that is corroborated by a recent Financial Times article that reported the repeated
forced eviction of businesses and charity organisations in secondary oce accommodation (Allen,
2014). The same planner indicates that this situation is driven by
the vast disparity between oce and residential land values, especially in the secondary oce accommo-
dation market, which results in huge pressure for residential conversions. In fact, changes into residential
use are likely to be viable in 99.9% of cases in London regardless of building condition.
Interviewees suggest that this situation is further exacerbated by the absence of developer contribu-
tions (aordable housing requirements and Section 106 allocations) in the PDR process, which is being
used as leverage by developers in their negotiation with local planning departments. The suggestion
is that by signalling the intent to convert through the prior approval process, developers can use this
as a negotiating chip to drive harder bargains in relation to potential new development. A planning
manager in North Yorkshire argues that
Property developers have our heads on the block; we are increasingly presented with a fait accompli where
we have a choice to concede diminished developer contributions on a cleared site or no developer contri-
butions on an existing building.
Further illustrating this situation a planning practitioner in the Midlands observed the following.
The impression is that permitted development right rule changes aren’t a panacea for poor oces and
housing shortage. The rate of prior approval
for change in use may have increased but this is not necessarily
reected in the quantity of actual change in use projects.
The consequence is that planning practitioners are deploying tactics of their own, in order to exert
inuence over the building re-use process, either formerly through Article 4 directions, or through
a rearguard action of conscious resistance (Cliord & Tewdwr-Jones, 2013). However, as a planner in
central London indicates, these eorts are not without risk.
Even though Article 4 directions do give power to local authorities they must still be signed o by the
Secretary of State. There is a risk that any proposed Article 4 directions could be thrown out with little
So, instead of the historical collaboration between central government and local planning authorities
in relation to the control of development, there is now, in certain locations, discord between the two
tiers of planning policy where local planners are actively resisting central planning policy in order to
protect their local interest.
How might planning theorists and practitioners develop more eective building adaptation
This nal section takes forward the ndings from the rst two research questions and considers how
adaptive re-use might be better planned. Rhetorically, the PDR policy is a bold attempt at tackling two
urban problems, a surfeit of redundant oce property and a dearth of residential property. Through
the act of rolling back the requirement for planning consent from local authorities, the government
in England has attempted to “grease the wheels” of oce-to-residential conversion. Yet ndings sug-
gest that the roll-out of this developer-friendly policy is not an eective means of planning oce-to-
residential adaptation in all locations because it neglects external conditions, spatial variegation, and
can result in an adversarial relationship between developer and local planner and between local planner
and the central state. It is this disjunction that has largely thrown a spanner in the works of the PDR policy.
This is because the capacity to resolve conicts and develop a sense of unity in any urban area is often dif-
cult, and in turn, crucial in delivering successful urban change. Unfortunately, as Tewdwr-Jones (2012)
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 185
attests, the planning roll-back in England since 2010 has made the governing of places as they are
aected by external forces and policy directives, much more dicult to deal with, just at the time when
local mediation is most needed.
So this begs the question, how might adaptive re-use be better planned in neo-liberal times? How
might oce-to-residential conversion be connected to area-based strategic planning priorities and
how might the adversarial relationship between planner and developer be reversed? The work of
Adams and Tiesdell (2010), and latterly Heurkens, Adams, and Hobma (2015) in relation to planners
as “market actors”, provides a good starting point in thinking about how local planners can inuence
the adaptation process in collaboration with the market. Now that the tools of the planning consent
process are no longer available to them, this paper calls for local planners to reformulate their role in
adaptation by reasserting their role in urban development in three key areas; through the develop-
ment of city information models, the exploitation of professional communication networks, and the
transference of their own tacit knowledge.
This responds to research participants who describe a sense of powerlessness in relation to planning
adaptation. Illustrating this situation, a planner in the North West of England contended
I would love to work meaningfully with building re-use, but there isn’t any planning rationale for doing so.
The planning system doesn’t have the tools to deal with the situation, it doesn’t even have the vocabulary
... quite literally since the reduced National Planning Policy Framework came into play.
Evoking this observation, Adams and Tiesdell (2010) have argued that planners do not necessarily
see themselves as market actors even though they traditionally play an important role in, “shaping,
regulating and stimulating market activity” (Adams & Tiesdell, 2010, p. 198).
City information modelling
Adams and Tiesdell (2010) argue that planners have been traditionally weak in obtaining and exploiting
information in relation to land and property markets. This is a missed opportunity, as information is
the underlying ingredient in economic decision-making (Maclennan & O’Sullivan, 2012). This is not to
say that greater access to information will lead planning into a new data-led ascendency, but rather
that any developer considering a building adaptation is likely to welcome additional information to
aid their appraisal of development viability.
Although useful and regularly published, this paper does not contend that local planners should
equip themselves with second-hand information from national oce and residential agencies. Rather,
it argues that local planning authorities should exploit the information they already have access to,
or frustratingly have at their ngertips already. Through the development of city information models
local planners can play a hands-on role in evidencing and aiding adaptation by providing information
in relation to potential occupier demand, local infrastructure provision, and current land and property
availability. This would go some way toward developing a “thick” planning intelligence tool which could
be used in collaboration with the development industry.
For instance, the National Summary Valuation data-set which is published every 5 years (last pub-
lished in 2010 and currently delayed until 2017) by the Valuation Oce Agency, holds an accurate
picture of all commercial oce properties in England. Further, national non-domestic rate returns,
collected by all local authorities for tax purposes, hold an accurate account of commercial oce vacan-
cies. Furthermore, most local authorities have an Internet-based commercial property search facility
which can be used to approximate where potential occupiers wish to locate.
186 K. MULDOONSMITH AND P. GREENHALGH
Although relatively unstructured, these data sets alone could be rened and combined in order to
approximate the supply of, and potential demand for, commercial oces at the local level. Furthermore,
the same information could be complemented by the National Land Use Database (NLUD) and the
Energy Performance Certicate (EPC) register to substantiate the national PDR policy which places a
rhetorical emphasis on the conversion of underperforming oce properties but does not provide a
rationale for dening this situation. Indeed, the 2013 policy announcement used information published
in 2005 (the last time the English government published information in relation to oce vacancy),
before the peak of the last property cycle and the most recent recession, to support its intentions.
Adams and Tiesdell (2010) have already noted the gradual turn towards implementation agents in
the voluntary and private sectors for carrying out projects that would have previously been led by
the public sector. This has resulted in the need for planners to actively engage with these external
agents and their professional networks if they want to inuence development. The PDR policy has
accelerated this tendency because the private sector is now expected to lead the conversion of oces
into residential use.
This means that if planners want to take part in the oce-to-residential adaptation process, to
link physical development into spatial policy they must join these external networks and prove their
individual worth. Encouragingly, this approach could help break down the occasionally negative
relationship between planner and developer exhibited in previous sections of this paper and could
promote positive outcomes. This is because planners have internal (with other parts of the public
sector) and external (with private commercial real estate markets) professional networks of their own
which can be brought to bear on the oce-to-residential adaptation process. For instance, due to their
strategic role, planners typically have strong internal links with economic development professionals
and nancial grant bodies. In areas where oce-to-residential adaptation is dicult to justify in the
economic sense, primarily outside of central London, access to grant funding can make the dierence
in successful project completion.
Complementing this situation, local planners have typically also established relationships with
nearby landlords and business space providers. Earlier sections of this paper have noted the forced
evictions of business tenants in certain locations by landlords to make way for more lucrative con-
version into alternative use. Reactively, planners could use their external connections to manage the
fallout of this situation and help nd new locations for these businesses. Proactively, they could also
work with developers as they negotiate and serve formal notice on tenants, to nd alternative suitable
Rarely are oce buildings entirely vacant. It is more often the case that oce buildings will be par-
tially vacant as landlords seek to avoid empty property taxation through the awarding of advantageous
but temporary methods of conveyance to occupiers. Now that the PDR policy has been made perma-
nent, it is likely that this situation will continue and it is therefore important that planners intensify and
exploit their professional networks in order to mitigate the impact of existing business displacement.
The previous two points have focused on how planners can exploit external information and profes-
sional network resources. In contrast, this nal point focuses on how planners can exploit the resources
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 187
they hold. Although local planners have been largely removed from the oce-to-residential con-
version process in England, they have still developed over time an abundance of tacit knowledge in
relation to buildings and locations within their local authority domain. This hidden knowledge, or to
use Beauregard’s (2004) terminology, “thick” understanding, can be brought fruitfully to bear on the
oce-to-residential process. This tacit knowledge includes contacts, ownership history, neighbour
problems, infrastructure issues and general development knowledge. Just by knowing the local com-
munity and “how things work”, provides planners with a useful avenue for mediating any conicts or
disruptions to development.
Michael Polanyi (1958) rst introduced the concept of tacit knowledge, and best described it in his
1966 Tacit Dimension with his contention that “we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966, p.
4). Echoing the observation by Adams and Tiesdell (2010) that planners do not always know their own
aectivity, what Polanyi (1966) was getting at was that people, and in this case planners, are occasion-
ally not aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be of value to others. In the same work he
argues that this type of knowledge is not easily verbalised or learned from text books, instead it must
be exchanged through every-day personal contact and trust.
To a certain extent this embodied knowledge is best captured when it is revealed in a network or
community of practice (Schmidt & Hunter, 1993).Yet, this transmission can only take place if planners
reformulate themselves as “market actors.” In this case the community of practice is the development
market “out there” which planners must engage with to inuence the oce-to-residential conversion
In this nal section we have indicated the potential for, and value of local planners re-engaging with
the oce-to-residential adaptation process. Findings suggest that outside of Central London, economi-
cally viable adaptation is very dicult to justify because of sub-optimal economic characteristics. Hence,
developers in these locations need all the help they can get to bring oce-to-residential adaptation
schemes forward. For instance, the use of city information modelling, the exploitation of professional
networks and the transference of tacit knowledge can be used to think through the implications of
development in order to reduce cost, to access grant opportunities in order to ll gaps in economic
viability, and nally, to understand local constraints in order to reduce the development programme.
Taken together these strategies indicate how planners can still be a useful aid in adaptation rather
than development obstruction.
At the turn of the millennium Kincaid (2002, p. 18) hoped that in the near future, “The frequent adaptive
re-use of buildings would be the norm rather than the exception.”
The ndings in this paper demonstrate that this well-intentioned aspiration is not a straightforward
planning activity, nor is it one that can be met through deregulation alone. Indeed, rather than greas-
ing the wheels of oce-to-residential use adaptation, in certain locations, the PDR policy has put a
spanner in the works of this same process. By removing the need for planning consent, it is no longer
possible for planners to formally link new development into spatial objectives, while the more general
link between public ownership and future development rights has been eroded.
Despite its latter-day association with managerialism and ineciency (Booth 2003, 2009), the orig-
inal glory of the development control system in England was based upon a local recognition of future
change and the need for urban locations and planning regimes to adapt in relation to this complex
requirement. Yet, by removing the requirement of planning consent based upon individual merits and
188 K. MULDOONSMITH AND P. GREENHALGH
other material considerations, the paper contends that an inherent sense of agility and alacrity has
been lost from English planning that has in turn made oce-to-residential adaptation problematic.
Supporting this argument, ndings in relation to the rst research question suggest that the rhe-
torically bold oce-to-residential conversion policy has been dislocated from the traditional approach
to local planning consent. Crucially, the PDR policy does not account for spatial variability and local
socio-market conditions, and has ignored the interdependence between individual building change
projects and wider locational circumstance.
The second research question deals with the ways that planning practitioners have interacted with
the government’s adaptation policy. Findings suggest that planning practitioners recognise the need
for building adaptation in the face of changing occupier preference but feel detached and therefore
disengaged from the government’s planning policy. As a result, there has been a tactical manipulation
of previously unrelated planning tools, originally designed for other use, to exert inuence.
In response to the third question, the paper calls for local planners to re-engage with the urban built
environment adaptation process through the development of city information models, the exploitation
of professional communication networks, and crucially, the transference of planners’ own tacit knowl-
edge. Here, the academic community has an important role to play in the coming years in relation to
raising the issue of urban adaptation and its mediation to the same level as spatial governance and
the more recent engagement with state market relations. In England, this will have particular impact
as the traditional tools of development control have been eroded and planners must now nd new
ways of inuencing the physical production of adaptation.
However, in order to begin to understand planning the adaptive re-use of the urban built environ-
ment, it is necessary to qualify the empirical research in this paper. This is for three reasons. First, the
wide urban context of the English case study reveals the need for some cautionary words in relation
to the context and content of the ndings and conclusions in this paper. The empirical approach
has necessarily been one of broad review rather than detailed analysis, due to the case study size.
Consequently, we must be careful of over generalisation and simplication. Each location in England
contains a variety of comparable but highly specic real estate markets which are contingent and
socially produced in each context. Indeed, we must also be distrustful of simple binary oppositions
between one location and the next, for instance between central London and the rest of England. It is
too simplistic to suggest that one location will be receptive towards the PDR policy and one will not.
Rather, it is more accurate to attest that each location will be criss-crossed with pockets of urban
development that lend themselves either more or less towards adaptation, dependent on the under-
lying market conditions, the relative mix of supply and demand, and the respective view points of
relevant interests. Similarly, in taking such a wide view of planning, particularly in relation to market and
planning consent approaches to adaptation, some of the ner details of both approaches have been
dealt with in cursory fashion. This paper has only provided general descriptions of both approaches and
drawn broad conclusions; a great deal more research will be needed to fully understand the specic
nature of the planning requirements for adaptive re-use in each of the locations appraised in this paper.
Second, by focusing on England the paper is Anglo-centric in its planning formulation, which will
most certainly add a degree of bias to the judgements contained within. In addition, the account of
the PDR policy and the general view of contemporary planning in England since the inauguration of
the 2010 Coalition Government is clearly pessimistic. However, in adopting this position we do not
discount the countless examples of positive planning practice encountered during this research.
Third, without doubt, there are a multitude of factors involved in oce building obsolescence and
the consequent need to adapt buildings for alternative re-use, and only one of these is the relative
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 189
planning system. Planning is only one part of a complex web of actors, interests and relations, particu-
larly developers but also investors, occupiers and members of the community who are either directly
or indirectly involved in the production and reproduction of the built environment. This paper has
only focused on one quality of the contemporary adaptation process, namely the PDR policy directive
in England, and entirely from the perspective of the public planning practitioner. Clearly, additional
research into the complex relations between the dierent interests involved in adaptation, particularly
at the individual development scale, will enrich this line of enquiry.
Yet, despite these caveats, we consider that the material within provides a range of interviewee per-
spectives through which a picture of the PDR policy begins to emerge in England. This initial empirical
basis creates some scope for planning practitioners to exert some leverage over the national PDR policy
directive and the application of this to the wider intellectual debate in relation to planning adaptive
re-use. Above all, the message is clear: we misunderstand contemporary urbanisation if we believe
that redundant and obsolete buildings will simply be replaced with new development in order to
meet the future requirements of urban consumers. But perhaps the greatest challenge is working out
how planning can t into and manage what Italo Calvino (1972, p. 139) terms the endless catalogue
of forms: “Until every shape has found its city; new cities will continue to be born. When the forms
exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.”
1. The carrying out of building, engineering, mining, and other operations in, on, over or under land, or the
making of a material change in the use of any buildings or land.
2. Previous to the permitted development right legislation the prior approval process was a little known
simplied development consent process. Developers seeking to use the permitted development powers
need to apply to local authorities to see if prior approval is needed. As such it is a signal of intent rather
than indication of physical development.
There was no funding used in this research and no potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Kevin Muldoon-Smith is a Researcher and Associate Lecturer at Northumbria University. His eld of expertise is
the analysis of urban change and his research exists at the crossroads of public policy, real estate, and adaptation.
Paul Greenhalgh is a Reader in real estate economics at Northumbria University. His eld of expertise is the anal-
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