Plans to ease the conversion of empty office blocks into new homes have received a 'lukewarm' reception from local authorities across the West Midlands, according to a survey.

Just six out of the 13 councils covering the region have agreed to government proposals to introduce new “permitted development rights”, designed to allow developers to by-pass the planning system, according to commercial property firm CBRE.

The move was designed to tackle the housing shortage, as well as bringing redundant office stock back into use.

The proposals were announced by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in January and local authorities were given until February 22 to make applications for exemptions.

Following the consultation exercise, Coventry, Wolverhampton, North Warwickshire, Bromsgrove, Stratford and Solihull have all embraced the plans.

Wolverhampton is out of step with neighbouring Black Country authorities Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall, who are seeking total exemption from the rules.

Birmingham, Redditch, Warwick and Cherwell are all staging a ‘partial’ revolt, requesting exemption for parts of their respective patches. Many developers had welcomed the relaxation of the planning rules.

Among the attractions of office conversions is the potential reduction in development costs – it is typically £60 to £75 per sq ft for a conversion, compared to £90 up to £125 plus for new build.

Adrian Willet, a director in the development team at the Birmingham office of CBRE, said developers keen to exploit the booming private rental market will be disappointed by the scattergun approach across the region.

“The proposed planning relaxation is significant in that it negates the need for Section 106 obligations, and offers a fast-track solution to housing delivery,” he said.

“With no need to make additional financial contributions or include affordable housing, schemes which didn’t previously stack up financially become viable.”

Mr Willet has already seen one scheme he has been advising on fall by the wayside as a result of that local authority’s request for exemption.

He said: “My fear for many of these sites is that they will continue to be blighted as a result of local authorities prevaricating.

‘‘Their owners will be stuck with redundant stock and saddled with paying business rates on empty space.

“There are already many constraints on office-to-residential conversions.

“These include division of internal floorspace, parking, location and technical issues, all or any of which can rule out conversion. Price is also a factor – office landlords generally expect significantly higher values than residential developers are prepared to pay, although there is a reality on value emerging among the more enlightened landlords.

“In addition to these market checks on conversions, buildings which require any material external changes will continue to need planning permission.

“With these safeguards already in place, it’s a pity that some local authorities couldn’t have been more welcoming of the proposals, especially as we have seen renewed interest in redundant office buildings as a result of this well intentioned initiative.”

In Birmingham, the city council has applied for exemption in the central business district, the new enterprise zone, most of the Jewellery Quarter, areas in Bournville, the Tyseley enterprise zone and Longbridge technology park.

Eleanor Deeley, associate director in the development team at CBRE, said: “Birmingham has identified parts of the city they want to protect, leaving others where the permitted development rights can apply.

“Whilst there may not be total agreement on the areas they have applied the exemption to, at least there is scope for delivery of some empty, redundant office buildings in areas such as Edgbaston, Sutton Coldfield and locations on the fringe of the central business district.

“I’m particularly surprised by the protectionist stance taken by the Black Country authorities of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall.

“Arguably, they should embrace the provisions as they could bring much needed vitality back into their town centres.

“The more enlightened authorities seem to be the shire authorities, including Bromsgrove, Solihull and Warwick, along with metropolitan authorities Coventry and Wolverhampton, who have either accepted total relaxation or only sought partial exemption.”