St Albans businesses struggling to find office space threaten to leave the city

PUBLISHED: 12:00 31 October 2016

Abbot House.

Abbot House.

Danny Loo Photography 2016

Businesses are threatening to move from St Albans city centre because they are fed up with the struggle to find office space, as a result of their widespread conversion to homes.

St Albans district council has been told it should try harder to find ways to protect office space, or risk the area being judged as ‘closed for business’.

OPAL, which has its corporate headquarters at 45 Grosvenor Road, a three storey office building, recently objected to a proposed change of use from offices to residential, to create 83 apartments.

A representative of OPAL, an administration software and solutions business, pointed out that the company had moved from the Ziggurat building - because it is currently being converted into homes - just 18 months ago, and she was “dismayed that the only multi-company offices left in St Albans is now under threat”.

She warned that should the conversion go ahead, St Albans would be considered ‘closed for business’.

Her fears were echoed by OPAL’s chief executive, who told the council in his objection, “the reduction in office space in St Albans as buildings are re-zoned has put significant pressure on commercial rents.

“The economic benefit of local people working in good local jobs will be lost as St Albans becomes a dormitory town of London, putting the already strained transport at breaking point.”

Another firm in Grosvenor Road warned: “If the current conversion rates across the city continue, there must be a mass exodus of commercial enterprise, as there is nowhere for us to go.”

In the end, there was a reprieve for the occupants as the council refused the conversion earlier this month, on the grounds that there was insufficient mitigation against the risks of flooding to people and property within the site.

Criticism of the local authority has also come from St Albans Civic Society, which has objected to the proposed conversion of Abbot House, in Everard Close, to 77 units – currently under public consultation.

The watchdog group warned against “the loss of these excellent purpose-built modern offices, when the stock of offices in the city is continuing to dwindle, and when no new offices are being built.

“This high quality office space, strategically located next to a railway station and bus route is just the sort of employment space which St Albans cannot afford to lose.”

Figures released by the council show that, in the wake of changes to the Government’s planning rules in 2013, which basically allow uncontrolled office-to-residential conversions under ‘permitted development rights’, hundreds of potential jobs have been lost.

Up to April last year, 18,000 square metres of employment space in the district, about nine per cent of the total, was approved for conversion into hundreds of houses or flats – the equivalent space for about 900 jobs.

The Civic Society reminded the council of the long-term impact of its failure to introduce an Article 4 Direction to remove permitted development rights from sites such as Abbot House in St Albans.

Neighbouring Watford, “which competes with St Albans to attract the same office tenants has had the wisdom to introduce the direction to safeguard its central business area,” the society said.

Such a direction provides additional planning control in a particular location, and works by removing permitted development rights over certain alterations.

That means planning permission would be required for development which would otherwise, under the Government’s changed rules, be automatically permitted.

An investigation by this paper has shown that aside from an Article 4 Direction, another possible measure to protect office space could be introduced through the Local Plan.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced in June that he planned to amend the London Plan to give stronger protection for small businesses and start-up workspace, as while the capital needs new homes, “this does not need to be at the expense of space we need for businesses”.

St Albans council’s head of planning, Tracy Harvey, said that when the Government introduced the new planning rules, the authority applied for an exemption to protect the area’s status as an important office location and the local economy, but ‘that was refused’.

She said the possibility of an Article 4 Direction was now being dealt with through the council’s draft Detailed Local Plan, which is due to go out soon for consultation before it can be adopted.

It suggests implementing a policy to protect office space in set locations in the district.

WATFORD PROTECTS OFFICE SPACE

When the Government relaxed planning rules to ease the way for offices to be transformed into homes several years ago, Watford borough council reacted immediately, to protect its business sector.

Mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, told the Herts Advertiser: “As soon as we heard about the permitted development rights, we knew that it was a short-sighted policy, and a knee-jerk reaction to get lots of housing built.”

As a result, St Albans’ neighbours have put in place a number of Article 4 Directions at Clarendon Road/Station Road (employment area), various locations in nine conservation areas, locally listed buildings, and a handful of other roads.

The directions mean council planning permission for a change of use from offices to residential is required, because of the removal of permitted development rights in those particular locations.

Dorothy said that businesses with ‘top notch’ office space requirements needed to have a variety of buildings to choose from, and it was important that such ‘Grade A office space’ was available, to draw and keep firms operating from Watford.

She added: “Our argument is that it is up to council to make a decision on conversions, rather than have blanket rights for permitted development. It is a very short-sighted free-for-all. We had to go to the Secretary of State and put our case a couple of years ago, as it was so important, and we succeeded.

“We would urge St Albans district council to take action, and we are happy to share our information with our neighbours.”

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