DEVELOPERS in Winchester have turned vacant offices into flats on more than 100 occasions in the last five years, but the city council is standing by the need for workspaces.

Winchester City Council is proposing to build office space as part of its Central Winchester Regeneration scheme, also known as Silver Hill, however new figures reveal that a number of empty workplaces are being bought by developers.

Data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has highlighted there were 116 office-to-residential conversions in Winchester in the five years to 2019-20.

Of those, 35 took place last year, while 2015-16 saw the highest number carried out over the period – 41.

Cllr Kelsie Learney, cabinet member for housing and asset management, said: “The way people work, the demand for employment spaces and patterns of work and home life is evolving and the Covid-19 pandemic has been a force for rapid change. We are responding directly to these changes and looking to fill the gaps that exist in workspace provision across the district.

“In Central Winchester we are working closely with the city’s two universities to create spaces that attract entrepreneurial graduates and start-ups. The proposed workspaces within the Central Winchester Regeneration site are creative, flexible, and designed to inspire enterprise and help new companies grow. They include areas where people can choose how much space they need alongside flexible short-term leases that will open up opportunities for individuals and companies in the city that do not currently exist.

“Creating spaces where people want to work and where new businesses can help and support each other by sharing skills, ideas and resources is a crucial element of the proposals for the Central Winchester Regeneration area to support the future prosperity of the city and district.”

The council had also envisaged a major office development at Station Approach to broaden the city’s economy, but its plan for 150,000 square feet of space was derailed by a legal action from the City of Winchester Trust. An earlier planning application was rejected.

Office to flat conversions are often carried out through the use of permitted development rights, allowing certain conversions to be carried out without full planning permission.

It allows developers to turn office buildings into homes without submitting a full planning application, as long as they meet recently introduced requirements such as having enough space and natural light.

It also means the typical requirement to provide a proportion of affordable housing cannot be enforced.

Across England, 65,000 such conversions have been carried out under the scheme in the last five years.

But David Renard, the LGA’s housing spokesman, said “serious concerns” remain over the high number of homes which continue to be created from former office buildings.

He added: “Permitted development rules are resulting in the alarming potential loss of thousands of desperately-needed affordable homes.

“Planning is not a barrier to house-building, with councils approving nine in 10 planning applications. It is vital that councils and local communities have a voice in the planning process.”

In Winchester, former offices accounted for just 4% of the 2,978 net additional homes created in the area in the last five years – the total of all new builds, conversions and changes of use minus any demolitions.