Covid-19 has had a major impact on the way we work, with many of us swapping desks in city centres with our dining tables for the best part of two years, leaving office buildings often vacant. Despite restrictions now being lifted, including the requirement to work from home where possible, we are still seeing a slow return to the office due to a shift in working patterns as a result of the pandemic. This is where ‘office adaptation’ or the office ‘face lift’ comes in. The change to the supply and demand balance means office adaptation is sometimes a neat solution to make existing offices, particularly the older stock, more attractive for tenants, their employees and clients, as the demand for A-grade office space continues to grow. The aim of office adaptation is to revive and redevelop existing offices and we think it will play a key role in enticing people back to the office in a post-pandemic world.

This blog post looks at some of the key policies relating to offices in the London Plan, and what they might mean for how we work in the future.

Current State of Play

The new London Plan (2021) envisages an increase of almost 620,000 office jobs and a demand for between 4.7 – 6.1 million sqm of office floorspace over a 25-year period (2016 – 2041) in London. The Plan accommodates for a slight shift in the level of office space demand across London, although it still anticipates the highest demand within the CAZ and Northern Isle of Dogs (NIOD) areas. The Plan also expects areas outside these zones to continue to see growth in office floor space. The redevelopment, renewal and re-provision of office space is supported by Policy E1 (Offices) in the London Plan to cater for the projected increase in demand for office space across London. Although, it is important to highlight the evidence base that underpins the London Plan was undertaken pre-pandemic. What growth will actually now look like remains uncertain. We do know, from our own experiences, and media stories is many businesses, large and small are adopting new, often ‘hybrid’ type working arrangements, with a multitude of office workers likely to continue to work from home at least part of the week.

Sustainability and Low / Zero-Carbon Enhancements

Health and well-being has become an even bigger issue for people following the pandemic, with a key focus on sustainability. Many office occupiers are looking for energy efficient offices rather than ‘gas guzzling’ or drafty offices.

Chapter 9 of the London Plan outlines several policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality – highly relevant in London, and indeed globally. Although the majority of these policies only apply to major development, with the key objective for these to become net-zero.

There has also been a clear shift in the London Plan towards the re-use of materials and for proposals to capture and acknowledge their embodied carbon. This shift indicates the adaptation and re-use of buildings may, in the future, be increasingly supported over new builds or demolition / re-build.

On Your Bike!

Access to sustainable transport is a key focus for office adaptation with many office workers now choosing to travel to work via bicycle. Not surprisingly, the demand for car parking has decreased, while the provision of cycle parking and facilities such as showers / changing facilities have increased.

The minimum short-stay cycle parking facilities for office development has not changed – one space per 500 sqm for the first 5,000 sqm of floorspace. Long-stay cycle parking has increased slightly within inner/central London to one space per 75 sqm. The rest of London is required to provide one long-stay cycle space per 150 sqm.

Car-free development is promoted within the CAZ and inner London for offices. The requirement for electric vehicle charging points has increased within the new London Plan. Historically, the London Plan required 20% of all spaces to have an electric vehicle charging point with an additional 10% passive provision for electric vehicles in the future; however, there is now a requirement for all operational parking to provide electric vehicle charging points or other Ultra-Low Emission vehicles.

Flexibility of Work Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how office space needs to be flexible and adaptable to respond to changing demands including work styles and technological advances. The London Plan also highlights the need for flexibility and adaptable office spaces triggered by SMEs (micro, small and medium-sized enterprises). SMEs are businesses with fewer than 250 employees and a turnover of less than £25.9 million. Policy E1 (Offices) in the London Plan seeks to support the requirement for offices to improve the quality, flexibility and adaptability of office spaces for businesses of all sizes.

Socialising and Being Green: Barriers to Office Adaptation

The introduction of facilities such as cafes and gyms within offices to create an attractive hub for employees to socialise is important to attract workers back. Often the introduction of these facilities do not require a change of use application if they are ancillary to the development. Whether the facilities are open to the public or for the sole use of the office is an important factor in whether planning is required. Policy E2 (Providing Suitable Business Space) in the London Plan seeks to protect office floorspace unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable prospect for the site being used for business purposes. From experience, and where planning is required, early engagement with the Local Planning Authority is key to the success of introducing these additional facilities.

Urban greening such as green walls and planting is known to improve the physical and mental health of employees and is increasingly becoming an attractive addition to office facades and terraces. Policy G5 (Urban Greening) in the London Plan requires major development proposals to contribute to the greening of London and supports the inclusion of high-quality landscaping and green roofs. However, from experience, Local Planning Authorities are sometimes hesitant in permitting green walls as they are ‘living’, so are constantly changing and can fail if poorly designed or maintained. The key to the success in the introduction of green walls is the careful specification of plants proposed, as well as the submission of a maintenance and management plan.

Other policies which may need to be considered prevent the deliverability of office adaptation include: Policy D12 (Fire Safety) which requires development to demonstrate that it has been designed to the highest standard of fire safety and Policy HC1 (Heritage Conservation and Growth) which requires development to demonstrate that it does not have an adverse impact on heritage assets and their settings.

What’s Our Verdict?

It is yet unclear how the aspirations of the London Plan for increased office space and new office jobs in London will play out. The pandemic has clearly changed the way we live and work, likely permanently, and it seems there may be less need for more office floorspace going forward, but perhaps a greater demand for more attractive and high specification office floorspace with mediocre office space being left behind.

In that context, it is increasingly important that existing office space is attractive to occupiers and meets the changing needs of the London workforce. The London Plan is well positioned to deliver office adaptation that can make existing office buildings really ‘stand out from the crowd’ and maximise their prospects of longevity in an ever-changing working world. Our view is that, in the main, the key policies of the London Plan support the adaptation of existing offices to provide the type of facilities and environment that people will be increasingly looking for in the places they work. This isn’t to say that there aren’t planning barriers to office adaptation. From our experience careful design and early consultation with the Local Planning Authority from the outset of a project is key to the success of these projects.

Authored by

Georgia Goff, Senior Planner