On the 30th June, Boris Johnson announced his new initiative to boost development, kick-start the construction industry, and meet housing demand.
Under the catchy headline Build, Build, Build, Boris pledged billions of pounds to improve infrastructure – roads, hospitals, schools, and affordable housing. This was accompanied by a proposed expansion of Permitted Development rights to help speed up development.
As 10 Downing Street claimed in their subsequent press release, these were some of the ‘most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War, making it easier to build better homes where people want to live’. But despite the government’s intentions to ‘build back better, build back greener, build back faster’, are the proposed changes to Permitted Development rights the right way to achieve this goal, or will circumvent the existing planning system merely sacrifice quality for a quick fix?
Changes to Permitted Development Rights
With fresh estimates putting the number of new homes needed in England up to 345,000 per year, the necessity to stimulate development has never been felt so keenly.
But with the government only committing to producing 180,000 new homes with the £12bn affordable housing scheme, the need for private developers to make up the difference is crucial. The drive for speedy development has given rise to Permitted Development rights, a process that allows developers and private homeowners to bypass some of the traditional planning route.
For years, politicians have highlighted planning ‘red tape’ as being a hindrance to effective housing delivery, labelling it as outdated and slow. To those who are not familiar, PD rights allow private homeowners and developers to make certain pre-approved building modifications, such as adding home extensions up to a specified size.
The aim is to prevent local planning authorities from getting clogged up with minor applications that consume time and resources to little overall benefit. In theory, this should add up to a more streamlined, quicker planning process.
Not only making things simpler for private homeowners but these Permitted Development rights are also designed in part to make new development easier for potential developers. This involves elements such as the conversion of old office buildings into residential units.
Under Class O Permitted Development, office blocks can be converted into residential units without the need to apply for planning permission from the council. The intended result will be speedier housing delivery, better utilisation of brownfield sites (rather than pushing out into greenbelt areas), and the repurposing of otherwise redundant buildings.
As part of the Build, Build, Build initiative, Boris announced the intention to expand these PD rights to allow for a wider range of commercial buildings to be repurposed for residential use without planning permission. These ‘new regulations will give greater freedom for buildings and land in our town centres to change use without planning permission and create new homes from the regeneration of vacant and redundant buildings’.
In a post-Lockdown world, where remote working has become the norm and most companies have adapted to accommodate working from home, the future of the British industry seems to be moving away from traditional office spaces. There is a diminishing need for expensive inner-city office space, which could result in a rising number of vacant office blocks.
These expanded PD rights will open up the avenue for rapid conversion, bringing residential development into city centres with greater ease than traditional planning routes, meeting a more immediate need.
Not only this but in theory it will rejuvenate city centres, giving a boost to dying high streets. Bypassing the arduous process of achieving planning consent is undoubtedly going to speed the rate at which developers are able to build, but it presents a different series of potential pitfalls.
Potential pitfalls of Build, Build, Build initiative
This fast-track process allows for certain elements of traditional development proposals to fall by the wayside. Prior approvals, set in place to allow councils to look into proposed PD developments, go some way to ensure that local authorities are able to intervene.
As James Ellis, Associate Director at Rural Solutions, points out, many of the potential interventions are based around design, making sure that any development is in keeping with the aesthetic of its surroundings, but beyond this, the local authority will be unable to enforce their policies regulating development. Take, for example, any limitations surrounding the minimum or maximum size of dwellings within a residential development.
In an appeal in Hounslow (ref 2228951), the local planning authority argued that the proposed residential units were too small to be classified as dwelling houses. They were between 18sqm and 22sqm, comprised of a foldaway bed, kitchenette, shower, and toilet.
To put that in context, the average size of a living room in a house in the UK is currently 19.75sqm. There is no floor space limit in respect of the size of an office building that can be converted, and unlike many development plans, there are no maximum or minimum limits for the number or size of individual dwellings that can be created.
Especially given the horror many people faced during Lockdown, trapped inside small homes with little or no access to outside space, is it wise to facilitate the potential development of thousands more minuscule flats. Without attempting to control the rising house costs, are we facing a future of small flats, built to a less regulated standard, with expensive price tags?
Research funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (page 69.) found that, ‘overall, only 22.1% of dwelling units created through PD would meet the NDSS [Nationally Described Space Standard], compared to 73.4% of units created through full planning permission. In many cases, the planning permission units were only slightly below the suggested standard, whereas the PD units were significantly below’. Even if, as James Ellis suggests, higher supply drives down housing prices, is this merely going to widen the class housing divide, forcing those with a lower income into yet smaller, more cramped conditions?
Making residential development into a numbers game
Arguably making development quicker and easier through Permitted Development will allow councils to more easily meet housing targets, providing much sought-after homes.
However, ‘It shouldn’t just be about putting up residential units’, argues Jeremy Hinds of Savills, ‘it needs to be about building better places’. That means better roads, better schools, and better streets. Making residential development into a numbers game, Jeremy continues, runs the risk of creating places that don’t add value to people’s lives overall.
Building vast swathes of housing without the accompanying amenities, particularly in conversions of commercial spaces such as out-of-centre business parks, does not create communities.
If you don’t concentrate on well-constructed, sustainable and long-lasting builds, all you are offering is a short-term solution that merely delays the problem, resulting in further development needed in 30, 40, and 50 years. I would argue that attempting to circumvent elements of the planning system is a quick fix that doesn’t address the overarching need to properly fund and resource our planning departments.
To create a mutually beneficial relationship between Local Planning Authorities and developers, we need to provide the planning officers with the resources they need to assist in producing positive development and establishing lasting homes and communities. Build, Build, Build says all the right things, but the theory doesn’t seem to align with the practical. We should be working to improve our existing planning system, not attempting to bypass it.