WEST Berkshire Council will struggle to attract business to the area if office space continues to be converted into residential units, according to a recent report.
The warning comes in a document commissioned by the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and West Berkshire Council itself, which looks at the future business needs of West Berkshire over the next 20 years.
The report was released just as the local authority gave the go-ahead for 60,000sq ft of office space at Overbridge Square in Newbury to be converted to flats under permitted development rights (PDR).
In 2012, West Berkshire contained around 13,390,304sq ft of B class floor space, around a third of which was used as offices.
Speaking about the introduction of PDR in 2013, the authors of the report, Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, state: “Whilst initially the quality of the office space lost was relatively poor (ie generally obsolete space), more recently the stock that has been lost is reported to have been better quality, and there is a risk that the continued loss of good quality space from the town’s office portfolio will reduce the town’s ability to retain and attract office occupiers in future.
“In this respect, West Berkshire Council will need to carefully monitor any future losses to consider whether measures should be put in place to protect this space or plan for additional provision.”
PDR allow a developer to change the use of a building from business to residential without having to submit a planning application. However, ‘prior approval’ must be obtained from the planning authority first.
According to the report, there were 29 prior approval applications for a change of use from office to residential granted between April 2013 and March 2015.
If these developments are carried out, it would result in the loss of approximately 165,979sq ft of existing office space.
Before March 2015 the largest office space that had been granted PDR was 15,284sq ft in Newbury – now dwarfed by the 60,000sq ft of office space set to be lost at Overbridge Square.
Between March 2015 and March 2016, however, there has been a further 21 prior approval applications granted by West Berkshire Council although data on the amount of office space set to be lost in these developments is not available.
The report is also critical of the quality of office space in West Berkshire, saying it is “generally older and of poorer quality than that available elsewhere in the Thames Valley/M4 corridor” which it says makes it harder to attract “higher-value occupiers”.
It is also pointed out that the upcoming relocation of pharmaceutical giant Bayer from its UK headquarters in Strawberry Hill, Newbury, to modern premises at Green Park, Reading, is an example of a firm moving out of West Berkshire owing to a lack of suitable modern premises of the scale and with the environmental credentials required by a multinational occupier.
The relocation of Bayer is, however, expected to bring around 140,000sq ft of office floor space on to the market, although this is likely to require redevelopment to make it attractive to the town’s office market.
Despite the large amount of office space set to be vacated, the report concludes: “It will be necessary for West Berkshire Council to carefully monitor future losses of office floor space to determine whether further provision will be necessary over and above the requirements set out.”
The study aims to help the local authority plan for future economic growth and ultimately recommends a gross area of 4,086,787sq ft of industry land should be made available over the next 20 years in West Berkshire.
West Berkshire Council spokeswoman Peta Stoddart-Crompton said: “The report will be considered as part of the evidence base for the new Local Plan that the council will be starting work on next year.”