FEARS that Newbury is fast becoming a ‘dormitory town’ have resurfaced after plans to convert more than 50,000 sq ft of office space into flats on Newbury Business Park were given the green light last week.
The development will see three office blocks in the business park, located in London Road, converted into 129 one-bed flats under permitted development rights (PDR).
PDR allows a developer to convert office space into residential without a planning application being required and some are now calling on West Berkshire Council to take action.
Within the last six months, developers have been given the go-ahead to convert almost 130,000 sq ft of Newbury office space into residential units.
Serious concerns have now been raised over the ongoing PDR conversions and what this means for the town’s ability to attract businesses and create jobs for residents.
Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats on West Berkshire Council, Alan Macro, said: “There’s a valid concern that we are losing a lot of potential jobs for people in Newbury and the idea of people having to then travel further afield will put stress on them and the transport system.”
Introduced in 2013, PDR allows a developer to change the use of a building from business to residential without having to submit a planning application, however, the local planning authority must first determine if “prior approval” is needed.
In November 2016, proposals to convert 60,000 sq ft of offices in Overbridge Square Business Park were also allowed to proceed under PDR.
Mr Macro has now called on West Berkshire Council to introduce regulations to limit the scope of PDR in the form of an ‘article 4 direction’.
He said: “One of the big concerns I have about this is that the grounds for objection or refusing prior approval notices are very limited in most cases.
“I think we are at the stage where the council really ought to look at taking the powers to refuse these developments.
“Each one will be looked at on its own merits but West Berkshire Council really ought to get these powers and in cases such as this refuse them.
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“We are in great danger of losing a lot of office space and a lot of jobs and we really need to have this in our armoury to protect them.”
This year has also seen one of the town’s biggest employers, Bayer, relocate its UK headquarters – and 470 employees – from Newbury to Green Park in Reading, further adding to fears over Newbury’s future dormitory town status.
Earlier this month, West Berkshire Council’s chief executive, Nick Carter, admitted that Newbury couldn’t compete with Green Park.
He added that attempts had been made to relocate Bayer within the town, but claimed the pharmaceutical and life sciences giant always had an eye on a site closer to London.
Discussing about the possibility of other employers also relocating, Mr Carter said: “At the end of the day companies will form their own view about where they want to be.
“I still think Newbury, West Berkshire, is a very attractive place for companies and perhaps a slightly more attractive place to live than perhaps to locate.”
Speaking to the Newbury Weekly News yesterday (Wednesday) Richard Deal, director of Newbury-based chartered surveyor Deal Varney, raised further fears over the town’s ability to attract new business.
Mr Deal said that with developments such as Crossrail in Reading due to be completed by 2020, businesses would look to relocate closer to London before considering Newbury as a destination.
He added: “There have been a couple of new lettings on Newbury Business Park for businesses that are expanding – moving within Newbury – but expanding.
“The trouble is we have almost run out of office space, so quite what can be done I’m not too sure.
“At the end of the day if a business wants to move away it will move.
“If it’s worth double for residential than business then what are developers going to do?”
Asked if he believes the loss of existing businesses coupled with the loss of office space through PDR would see Newbury become a dormitory town, he said: “There’s good industrial business here, there’s a good retail market so it’s not the whole commercial world going down the plughole but there are serious concerns about the office market.
“So it’s not the end of the world, but it is going that way.”
Speaking earlier this month, West Berkshire Council spokesman Martin Dunscombe said: “West Berkshire already has a number of article 4 directions in place and officers are considering the issues surrounding its use on office conversions, the implications for West Berkshire and what evidence the council can produce to justify their introduction.”