Building back better! – Owl
Scarcely bigger than a parking space and starved of natural light, they could soon be a feature of your local high street.
Developers are exploiting planning laws to convert empty banks, takeaways and barbers into tiny flats, causing fears Britain’s high streets are becoming modern slum housing.
Relaxed planning laws and the impact of the coronavirus on the high street have led to a flood of applications to convert shops into homes under so-called permitted development rights (PDRs), which until recently had mainly been used for office conversions.
In Southampton’s Shirley Road, the Open Fire Centre store sold electric and gas fires. Now it is six studio flats. The smallest measures 15 square metres (160 sq ft), about half the area needed for a home to be eligible for a mortgage. In five of the flats, the only external light comes via a narrow sidelight next to the door.
Chloe Gray, who lives in one, is desperate to leave. She has nowhere to put a wardrobe and has a single cupboard for food. The 20-year-old, who is on universal credit, said: “I have been here for about a year now but I will be moving out in October as it is just too small. I moved here from home because I needed my independence and this was all I could afford. It really does feel like living in a pod.”
Chloe pays £525 a month including bills to rent the property, which works out at about £33 a square metre, making it more expensive to rent than a house in Islington, north London.
The block was designed by a local firm specialising in redevelopments, Concept Design & Planning, although it does not feature among the projects showcased on its website. The firm boasts of having a “proven track record in gaining planning permission across the south coast”.
Next door to the flats, Robert Webb, 43, has been running a barber’s for 21 years. His parents were among locals who opposed the development, but “everyone’s complaints just got rejected”, he says.
“The flats are tiny,” he added. “I have a friend who lives not far away in the New Forest, and the kennel for his two dogs is bigger than these flats next door.”
Since 2013 PDR has let developers bypass the requirement to apply for planning permission when turning office blocks into flats. This was expanded to include shops, bookmakers and launderettes in 2016, before fast-food outlets were added last year.
Government data suggests 60,399 homes have been created. Developers may not transform the outside appearance but have automatic rights to change how the property is used.
In July Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, announced that PDR would be expanded further to let developers demolish vacant buildings without full planning permission so they can be “quickly repurposed to help revive our high streets and town centres”.
A report published the same month, commissioned by the government and carried out by University College London and Liverpool University, suggested PDR is leading to “slum housing” and poses a risk to the “health and wellbeing of occupiers”.
The Royal Institute of British Architects has branded the decision to extend the policy “disgraceful”.
PDR flats are not bound by the minimum space standard, which says studios have to be at least 37 square metres. The government report surveyed more than 2,800 flats and found three-quarters had windows on just one side; 10 had no windows at all. A link between natural light and mental health is well established.
A two-storey building at 187 Whitehall Road in Bristol housed a barber called Super Tonic for several years. However, plans by a local architecture firm, We Are Not Architects, were approved in June to convert the premises into five small flats. The building is squeezed between a shop and a house, so the only natural light in the rear ground-floor flat will come from two windows facing a narrow alleyway.
Developers must now show that PDR flats have “adequate natural light in all habitable rooms”, yet no minimum window size is given and planning officers are “expected to exercise their planning judgment” when approving homes, leaving the rules open to interpretation.
In Croydon, south London, an application was approved on August 7 to convert a 93 square metre basement owned by a financial services company into three studio flats, with daylight entering only through two light wells above.
Experts say Covid-19 has accelerated the residential takeover of the high street. Jamie Lockerbie, a planning partner at the law firm Pinsent Masons, said: “If you own a retail space and the tenants have gone bust — as many have during the pandemic — then, instead of leaving it empty, many will be persuaded to turn it into flats.”
A survey of five councils found 55 successful applications to convert shops into flats since last September, with the majority — 35 — happening after Britain went into lockdown on March 23. The resulting developments across Bristol, Southampton, Leicester, Birmingham and Croydon will lead to 132 new homes, suggesting that there may be thousands of new high-street flats being constructed across the country.
Andrew Boff, a Conservative London assembly member, said: “The Tory party simply won’t be thanked for building crappy homes.”
Tom Copley, London’s deputy mayor for housing and residential development, added: “The solution to the housing crisis is not to create new slums out of old offices and shops, but the delivery of high-quality, well-planned, affordable homes. If lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic should teach us anything about housing, it is the importance of minimum space standards, both internal and external.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government dismissed the findings as “misleading and unfounded”, adding that PDRs “make an important contribution to building the homes our country needs and are crucial to helping our economy recover from the pandemic by supporting our high streets to adapt”.