Build, build, build – that is the message Boris Johnson gave the UK as it emerged from the coronavirus lockdown.
Promising the most radical building reforms since the Second World War, the prime minister vowed the government would make it “easier to build better homes where people want to live”.
Housing campaigners are *seriously* worried about how ministers plan to go about this.
What is the issue?
On Tuesday, the government announced it was pushing forward with plans to free developers of the need to get full planning permission when they demolish unused light industrial or office buildings (for planning nerds, classes B1a, B1b and B1c) and replace them with housing (so long as it has a footprint below 1000 square metres, and isn’t more than 18 metres tall).
That means extending what are known as “permitted development rights” (PDR). Developers are already able to bypass planning permission and use these rights to convert office blocks into housing, but the changes would allow them to go further – physically knock those buildings down and start again.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said the changes would “help transform boarded up, unused buildings safely into high quality homes at the heart of their communities”.
Sounds like a way to tackle the housing crisis, right?
Except for one pretty major problem. Or, actually, several.
Why are campaigners worried about PDRs?
Campaigners – including the Local Government Association (LGA) – have warned that there could be serious repercussions if the government presses ahead with plans to extend PDRs.
Unlike when they apply for planning permission through councils, developers are not required to provide affordable housing when they build housing using PDRs. Which means... they don’t.
In January, the LGA estimated 13,500 affordable homes had been lost because developers were able to covert office buildings into houses through PDRs and bypass council requirements.
Housing charity Shelter has previously branded the the government’s extension of PDRs an “ineffective and unsuitable method of solving the housing crisis”.
Reacting to Tuesday’s news, Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said it was “extremely concerning” that developers had been granted “further leeway to avoid building the affordable homes we desperately need”.
“The current lack of genuinely affordable housing is leaving thousands living on a knife edge unable to keep up with spiralling rents and housing costs,” he said.
LGA spokesperson Councillor David Renard said taking planning powers away from councils by extending PDRs would risk “giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas”.
He warned that, as well as taking away communities’ ability to hold developers to account about affordable homes, it would also mute their voices when it came to the quality of housing, and making sure that developers support key infrastructure such as roads, schools and health services.
On Tuesday, 21 London councils wrote to Jenrick urging him to think again. Jenrick is currently under fire for waving through a massive development in east London that didn’t have enough affordable housing and saving Tory donor Richard Desmond up to £50m in the process. (It is worth noting that the Westferry Printworks would still need planning permission under the new rules.)
They said extending PDRs would “benefit speculative developers at the expense of decent and affordable homes” while also undermining the high street.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has also written to the housing secretary, calling the extension of the PDR policy “truly disgraceful”.
“There is no evidence that the planning system is to blame for the shortage of housing, and plenty to suggest that leaving local communities powerless in the face of developers seeking short-term returns will lead to poor results,” said RIBA president Alan Jones.
What do we already know about the impact of PDRs on housing?
News that ministers were pressing ahead with changes to planning permission came on the same day that a government-commissioned report highlighted a series of problems with homes built using PDR.
Developers can already convert old office blocks into housing without needing full sign-off from the local council.
Investigating the issue, researchers from UCL and the University of Liverpool said that PDR conversions “seem to create worse quality residential environments” compared to those with full planning permission.
This conclusion was in relation to a number of factors linked to the “health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers”, the study said.
The report found that PDR converted housing not only more likely to be very small, with only 22.1% of the homes meeting nationally described space standards, but to be located in business parks or industrial areas.
Researchers also concluded that there was an issue with “adequacy” of natural light in some PDR homes, while many failed to offer space for occupants to do activities such as clothes drying or relaxation.
Councillor Mark Crane, a spokesperson for the District Councils’ Network, said the report showed that rather than taking more powers away from councils, the government needed to stop “tinkering with the planning system”.
“Communities do not have a say over permitted development conversions, and developers are also not required to provide vital local infrastructure and affordable homes,” he said.
“For this reason permitted development should be ended, and the full planning process followed.
What about the environment?
Some councils are worried that a lack of control over planning permission through PDRs could have a serious impact on their attempts to tackle the climate emergency.
Railing against the changes, Liverpool City councillor Laura Robertson-Collins told HuffPost UK earlier this month that councils needed “really stringent planning laws” so they could make sure any new buildings were “up to the absolute highest environmental standards”.
Mark Jones, the environmental lead for Sheffield City Council, said that his main powers as a councillor were over transport and planning permission.
By taking away the council’s authority on what is built where, the government was also taking away its power to deal with climate change, he suggested.
“One of the biggest levers I have as a local councillor other than transport policy is planning policy – where we build those new properties, whether those properties are within an active transport radius of workplaces,” he said.
“So unless the government comes to its senses on this ludicrous approach, we’re going to really really struggle to achieve what we want via the planning system and the transport system.”
Labour’s shadow housing minister Mike Amesbury isn’t happy either.
“Far from building back better, these plans will usher in a new era of slum housing and sound the death knell of the high street,” he said.
“This ‘Developer’s Charter’ will take control away from communities and give building firms the power to build low-quality rabbit-hutch housing, despite the government’s own research telling us that permitted development homes are of a worse standard than those built under planning permission.
“The government should instead be properly resourcing planning authorities, not lining the pockets of their developer mates at communities’ expense.”
A Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “Building the homes the country needs is central to our mission and an important part of our plans to recover from the impact of the coronavirus.
“Last year we delivered more than 241,000 new homes across England – more than at any point in the last 30 years and these new regulations will mean we can make the best use of available space to build many more much needed homes.
“We held a public consultation on these changes in 2018 and like any other project, these homes must meet rigorous building regulations. The changes we are making also continue to improve the quality of homes, including new requirements for natural light and checks to ensure changes are in keeping with the character of the local area.”