International property consultant Knight Frank's senior research analyst Anna Ward is reporting this week that the UK has reconfigured a number of commercial property to save lives, and has demonstrated it is possible to swiftly create new temporary uses for real estate.
China built two new hospitals in Wuhan in under two weeks in its efforts to mitigate the impact of coronavirus, on top of other moves to convert existing buildings into makeshift hospitals.
In the UK, the government has converted the likes of business centres, warehouses, hotels, sports stadiums and even the car park at Chessington World of Adventures into medical facilities.
The most high-profile and significant example is the ExCel conference centre in Newham, east London.
Other temporary medical facilities announced so far include hospitals at the NEC in Birmingham, Manchester Central Conference Centre and the Principality Stadium, the national stadium of Wales.
Although the UK has not gone as far as Wuhan in terms of building brand-new facilities, it has swiftly freed up thousands of new hospital beds by temporarily changing the use of buildings enabled by planning legislation.
Chris Benham, planning partner at Knight Frank, comments, "Governments and indeed societies are having to quickly adapt to fight against Covid-19. Many of the changes we are facing as a nation are both immediate and will have long-lasting effects. Focusing on real estate, we have seen mass closure of premises and spaces whether in public or private ownership, and sadly many will not re-open. The loss of footfall and income will be too much for many organisations to bear, but there are opportunities for those that own property."
Such opportunities are wide-ranging and can allow landlords to put vacant units to good use to support the government's efforts to minimise the spread of coronavirus, and to assist with the economic recovery in due course.
Benham explains, "In the short term, and in direct response to the pandemic, there are opportunities to seek the temporary change of use of underutilised properties such as hotels, care homes and purpose-built student accommodation to medical facilities, significantly growing our capacity to treat people. These changes can be achieved through the submission of planning applications. There are also a range of Permitted Development Rights that enable either permanent or temporary changes of use of commercial properties which will be very useful to property owners in the longer term."
For instance, in the hotel sector, Best Western has said it is prepared to turn its empty hotels into makeshift hospitals. The hotel group has more than 250 hotels across the country.
"Whilst planning permission would need to be granted for such a change of use, it is difficult to see planning authorities refusing, particularly on a temporary basis, where they would want to support the national effort fighting Covid-19," says Benham. "Indeed depending upon how urgent the change of use is, and whether it has the backing of the national and local government, it would be possible to commence the conversion works and seek a retrospective planning permission as we have seen with the change of the ExCel Centre and other high profile facilities to field hospitals."
The rise of temporary use measures could have an influence on the planning system going forward, as the Government prepares to consult on current practices and ways to enhance them.
Benham further comments, "In recent years the Government has introduced a range of measures in an attempt to simplify and speed up the planning process, provide more flexibility to property owners, and increase housing supply and economic activity. The Government is due to consult on a White Paper focused on planning reform in the coming months and we expect to see further measures introduced that will get us building again, and to kick start the economy."