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Tomorrow's property today

What needs to be done to develop sustainable live/work space in sustainable communities

Today there are over 2 million home-based businesses, and beyond that there are more than a million employees working regularly from home. That adds up to around 12% of the workforce, and it means around 13% of UK homes have at least one person working from home.

However, we don’t design homes for this kind of dual purpose use. With the changing nature of work and the increasing blurring of work/life boundaries (see our recent reviews of Management 2018 and CEO of Me), it seems that is time for a fresh and more 21st Century approach to planning and building the places where we live and work.

To address this need, three UK Regional Development agencies, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Live/Work Network and BT have produced a ground-breaking report, Tomorrow’s Property Today – sustainable live/work accommodation in a low carbon economy.

The need to change old habits of thinking

The main problem with achieving more sustainable communities is that we are planning for tomorrow as if today isn't happening.  Despite the changes in the nature of work, the planning system is based on the separation of different land uses - in particular keeping work and residences apart.

This is a hangover from the Industrial Age, when one might reasonably expect places of employment to be dirty, noisy, smelly and dangerous - in other words, bad neighbours.  Most work uses in the post-industrial age, however, are not like this.

To some extent this is recognised in the current policies for 'mixed-use' development, most commonly found in town centre regeneration projects.  But mixed use in this sense rarely includes mixing uses in the same building.  It's really about adjacent separate uses.  Expectations that building some offices and homes near to each other will reduce car use are mostly wishful thinking.  What it leads to is more complex patterns of cross-commuting and new buildings that do not relate to the changing nature of work.

There is also a certain lack of imagination in projects to make more sustainable property: eco-homes, eco-offices and eco-towns.  Mostly these focus on technical fixes to reduce carbon.  We can build eco-homes and eco-offices, but if at the end of the day we are building more structures than we need to and then we commute between them, it seems like we are not addressing at a structural and behavioural level some of our most environment-unfriendly activities.

Changing uses of property

In the new world of work, the ways property can be used are changing.  Smart offices are used more intensively, so we need fewer offices to serve employees.  Homes can also be used more intensively, when they are also a workplace.  Planning policy, however, rarely recognises this.  In most local development plans, there are designated 'employment areas' which are expected to provide jobs in the area. 

However, traditional kinds of employment in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution provide much lower numbers of jobs, due to greater automation.  In these areas, live/work clusters may well deliver more jobs than traditional employment uses, and contribute far more to the vitality of an area.  Yet this approach is generally resisted by planners, while developers tend to focus on the value they can achieve through purely residential development.

Raising awareness - if you don't know what it is, you can't plan for it

One of the main obstacles to live/work development is the lack of awareness about what it is and how it can be planned for, delivered and regulated.  So Tomorrow's Property Today is to a large extent about raising awareness of the varieties of live/work, and showing how it works in practice.

There is an abundance of case studies from around the UK, and a chapter on live/work in the USA.  Over there, in many areas it is a normal form of development, and planners have a different set of instruments for planning and regulation.

The report also looks at the state of the live/work market, and sets out the conditions to enable it to grow.  It also explore the issues around planning and the latest research into the sustainability of home-based working.

However, one of the critical findings is the almost total policy vacuum in which the new phenomenon of live/work is emerging.  Until recently, there was no national policy with regard to live/work, despite one or two generally encouraging words (with caveats) about homeworking.  This left local authorities, who deal with planning applications for live/work, making up policy on the hoof as applications come in.  Often, an application for live/work will fall foul of either policies to protect residential land or policies to protect employment areas.

Where local authorities have policies about live/work, it is often restrictive and shows little understanding of how home-based businesses work.  Panning conditions imposed can sometimes make it impossible for would-be occupiers to get a mortgage.

Sustainability is also about enterprise

The report also emphasises the importance of enterprise.  Government policy on home-based working - with the 'right to request' flexible working -  tends to focus on employees.  But two-thirds of people who work from home are self-employed and/or small business proprietors.

It is people running businesses from home who are most in need of properly designed workspace at home, and who are most likely to be working from home on a full-time rather than a part-time basis.  This also means that people running small businesses can potentially make a greater contribution to reducing their carbon footprint by working from home, as it is a full-time activity.

The report also makes the point that enterprise is a key ingredient of creating vibrant and viable sustainably communities.  Having people who  work in the community where they live and create wealth there helps to boost the local economy and provide local work opportunities.


The report has a series of recommendations for government, planners and developers.  Key recommendations include:

  • Launch a national exemplar scheme of live/work developments - the development of exemplar clusters in each region of the country

  • Introduce a specific use class for live/work, supported by clear national policy

  • Take a flexible approach to work uses in the work space - rather than having bureaucratic restrictions on the work use, apply a nuisance/hazard/amenity test to prevent un-neighbourly uses

  • Remove VAT from new-build live/work, and exempt all home-based businesses from capital gains tax

  • support the creation of live/work clusters, rather than isolated live/work units, as this has greater viability and sustainability potential, and can bring in added benefits to the existing homeworking/small business communities.

The report and the launch conference show that there is a growing interest in live/work and an openness to look at new ways of doing things.  But there's still a long way to go if we are not to end up with yesterday's property tomorrow.




Report attracts high level support

The launch conference for the report included endorsement from influential figures including:

  • Richard McCarthy, Director General of housing and planning at the Department for Communities and Local Government

  • Treasury adviser Kate Barker, who has led two major reviews for government on housing supply and land use planning

  • Robert Upton, Secretary General of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The report was also funded by South-East England Development Agency, South-West England Regional Development Agency and Advantage West Midlands - 3 government agencies that have started to incorporate live/work into their regional planning.

You can download the report from the Live/Work Network website, or from the link below:

 Tomorrow's Property Today
(pdf, 7.6 Mb)




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