Sins of permission

Originally published on July 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Your own independent evaluation shows that the existing regime of permitted development rights (PDR) delivers poor quality homes that raise serious concerns about ‘the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers’.

Your own consultation showed that an overwhelming majority of consultees opposed major extensions of it.

You’ve previously declared your commitment to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s ‘fast track to beauty’ without apparently heeding its report warning that PDR has ‘inadvertently permissioned future slums’.

So naturally enough housing secretary Robert Jenrick has decided to go ahead and allow upwards extensions and demolition and replacement of existing buildings via a PDR system that allows minimal scrutiny by local communities.

Statutory instruments laid before parliament on Monday lay out the rules for upwards extensions and demolition and replacement of existing buildings.

Broadly speaking, though there are some exemptions, the first applies to houses and detached blocks of flats built between July 1948 and October 2018 and allows up to two extra storeys to be added to those of at least two storeys.

The second applies to purpose-built blocks of flats, offices and industrial premises built before 1990 that have been vacant for six months, are no higher than 18m and have a footprint no larger than 1,000 sq m. A replacement building can be up to two storeys higher than the original up to a maximum height of 18m.

These are major extensions of the deregulated regime that produced the poor-quality homes in converted offices revealed in the evaluation by academics from University College London and the University of Liverpool.

After sitting on it for six months, the government timed its publication for Tuesday morning at the same time as the Russia Report.

The researchers found ‘homes’ as small as 10 sq m which, as HCLG committee chair Clive Betts told Boris Johnson on Wednesday at prime minister’s questions, are smaller than a prime ministerial limousine, and some with no windows. Only 3 per cent had access to any kind of private outdoor space.

The government will at least insist on adequate natural light in the new wave of PDR homes but it remains to be seen how that will be enforced and there is nothing to address the other quality issues.

When Clive Betts pressed him directly about space standards, the prime minister blustered about his previous record:

‘I was proud as Mayor of London to change the London plan to ensure that we went for Parker Morris plus 10% for our space standards. We will ensure that we not only build back better and more beautifully, but that we give people the space they need to live and grow in the homes that we will build.’

He totally ignored the fact that as prime minister he is presiding over ‘homes’ shrunk to Parker Morris minus 66 per cent.

Meanwhile, because PDR projects are outside the normal planning system unless they require approval for additional works, developments using them are not liable for Section 106 contributions to affordable housing or Community Infrastructure Levy.

And it’s not hard to see many other issues arising from this new regime.

Won’t upwards extensions of existing private blocks simply enrich freeholders by billions while scuppering the changes of leasehold reform – and what about fire safety in the extended blocks?

Why would any local developer worth its salt bring forward a conventional development liable for planning gain when it can build a contribution-free permitted development?

Why would the owner of a High Street store bother to protect jobs and struggle through post-lockdown recession when it could simply sell off the site for homes?

Why would the owner of, say, a vacant printworks in London docklands bother with a planning fight about 21 or 35 per cent affordable housing when he could in theory do a permitted development with none (provided the existing  building is smaller than 1,000 sq m and meets the requirements of use class B1)?

What about a potential war in the suburbs over upwards extensions of houses that could make neighbour disputes over garden grabbing look like vicarage tea parties.

And one further major issue – just speculation on my part – arises when you consider what sort of blocks of flats are most likely to have been built between 1948 and 1990.

The deregulated regime for demolition and replacement could lead to a new wave of council estate ‘regeneration’ if developers and compliant local authorities can find a way to claim that blocks have been vacant for six months.

This time without any requirement for affordable housing and without any pesky planning requirements on resident ballots.

The extension of PDR may yet turn out to be an interim measure ahead of the wider shake-up of the planning system expected later this month.

But even that will take time and if the government continues with the approach of two parallel planning systems for our town centres it risks undermining both the ‘fast track to beauty’ it endorses and the housing-led regeneration of the high street that is rightly advocated by think tanks.

If it does not trust local authorities to do the job – as seems to be the thrust behind PDR – then let it make the case for a new wave of development corporations or zoning or both.

Whatever the merits of those ideas, we should be thinking about a strategy for the best post-coronavirus future for our town centres and the best way of delivering homes as part of it, not just unleashing a free-for-all.


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