Slums for today and tomorrow

The government’s decision to go ahead with further relaxation of planning rules defies logic and will create a new generation of slums.

I touched on this in my blog in June when I wrote about this government’s obsession with planning red tape. I also suggested that, post-pandemic, there would be opportunities to turn offices into homes, but “not through the disastrous policy of Permitted Development Rights, which has created so many sub-standard homes”.

Now the government has issued new statutory instruments and amendments to the planning rules allowing wider use of Permitted Development Rights (i.e. development without the need for formal planning permission). All of this is part of their aim to streamline the planning system to churn out new homes. The problem is that it seems to contradict entirely their aim of building beautiful homes.

The first change will allow homeowners to add two storeys to houses and detached blocks of flats (one storey for single-storey houses) without the need for planning permission. (Trebles all round for flat freeholders, especially in London). There are some exemptions: they must  have been built between 1948 and 2018, the roof pitch and materials on the new extension must match existing, there must be no side windows, and the new roof must be no more than 3.5 metres higher than adjacent properties.

The second change will also allow purpose-built blocks of offices, flats or business premises to be demolished and replaced with a single purpose-built detached block of flats, or a purpose-built detached house up to two-storeys high, again without the need for planning permission. The existing building must be no more than 1,000 square metres or built after 1990 and must have been vacant for six months. Rooms must also have natural light (but can be single aspect).

This comes on top of existing Permitted Development Rights that allow offices to be converted to residential and shops to be converted to residential (up to 150 square metres) – all without permission.

 

All of this is despite the government’s own consultation showing opposition to relaxing the rules, and its own independent academic study which concluded that Permitted Development Rights were turning out unsuitable properties. For example, the study found that:

  • Permitted development schemes were about eight times “more likely to be located in primarily commercial areas (like business parks) and primarily industrial areas than planning permission schemes” and “Our site visits found that some of these locations offered extremely poor residential amenity”. To be clear, this means families with children being stuck in “homes” far from shops andschools, and having to negotiate busy and dangerous roads to get anywhere
  • Almost three quarters of the “dwelling units” created under Permitted Development Rights only had single aspect windows, compared to 30% created under normal planning permissions. This means homes, for example, that have only a north-facing aspect with no sun, ever.
  • “Ten units” had no windows at all, compared to none in schemes where planning permission had been required.

The study found that PDR appeared to create worse quality residential environments than those created under formal planning permission.

And yet the government is intent upon further relaxation of planning rules – housing minister Christopher Pincher says he wants to extend PDR for converting offices into residential.

In the report I wrote for the Intergenerational Foundation in January, I highlighted some of the appalling tiny “homes” that were being created through PDR. The smallest I found was eight square metres. This was trumped last week when Twitter discovered a seven square metre conversion in Colville Road W11 – a tiny room with a sink unit, a shower, a WC and a bed. Advertised as “great for a London bolt hole” it is yours for just £200,000, although it requires full modernisation. Places like this will become more commonplace under PDR.

When he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson railed against “Hobbit homes” and called for decent space standards, but now he seems prepared to go along with The Chosen One (D. Cummings esq) in slashing “planning red tape” to create thousands of sub-standard homes. It is very disturbing. We will all pay for this in the long term in the form of worse physical and mental health and the potential for fires and other accidents.

PDR is also an assault on local democracy, taking decisions away from councillors who make decisions in line with national policy. It highlights an obsession within government that planning is somehow to blame for our failure to build enough homes. It is not.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network in July 2020)

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