Office-to-residential conversions built under permitted development rights allowed for the creation of ‘rabbit hutch homes’ and ‘slums of the future’
By Vicky SprattOctober 1, 2020 inews.co.uk
On Wednesday, the Government made another U-turn. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that all new homes produced through a controversial planning policy known as permitted development rights (PDR) will have to “meet minimum space standards”. You might reasonably think this ought to be a given, but for too long, it has not.
What is the point of having a planning system? Is it solely to facilitate the growth of towns and cities? Or is it to make sure that decent homes are built and ensure the functional social and economic wellbeing of communities? If changes to planning over the last decade – particularly the introduction of PDR – are anything to go by, it’s the former.
Permitted development rights (PDR) allow changes to be made to an existing building – such as an empty office block – without planning permission. The flats resulting from such conversions did not have to meet minimum space standards of 37m² for a one-bedroom, one-person flat or 61m² for a two-bedroom flat.
It was a political experiment in deregulation and cutting red tape which was embraced by the Conservatives as they found themselves under pressure to deliver new homes quickly amid a growing housing crisis which, they decided, was being caused by a supply shortage and not affordability – despite evidence to the contrary. As with so many policies, PDR was cooked up by a think tank. The rightwing ideas generator Policy Exchange published various reports in the early 2010s advocating for its expansion.
According to a new report from the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and the London School of Economics over 100,000 homes have been produced in England in this way. However, quantity does not equal quality and PDR has caused more problems than it has solved. “Slums of the future”, “human warehouses” and “rabbit hutch homes” are just a few of the ways in which office-to-residential conversions created through the controversial planning policy have been described.
In 2019 an investigation into PDR by i found microflats as small as 9m2 and revealed that tiny, poor quality flats in Croydon (a London borough where there are a particularly high number of PDR conversions) had been sold through the Government’s Help to Buy scheme.
PDR has allowed developers to avoid minimum standards for access to light which has meant some conversions, such as Astra House in Harlow, have tiny windows which do not open fully, leading to poor ventilation while others, like Green Dragon House in Croydon, had boilers that did not work for months because they were never intended to service a residential property.
A recent paper assessing the policy from academics at UCL concluded: “a focus on housing numbers is eclipsing problems of housing quality, the type of housing being made available and whether it is in sustainable locations.” On top of that, it points out that because those behind PDR conversions did not have to make the usual contributions to local authorities through Section 106 of the Town and Country Act, the policy has cost local authorities money and meant they have missed out on opportunities to secure affordable housing in PDR developments as well as overseeing the implementation of proper infrastructure that normal planning processes allow for.
The Government’s change of heart comes after they doubled down on PDR in late June as part of their response to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Amid heavy criticism from the likes of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who have long opposed the policy, they announced that from September it would be expanded again to include a wider range of commercial-to-residential conversions as well as the demolition and rebuilding of vacant offices or blocks of flats as housing.
The irony of using a crisis that has emphasised the importance of quality housing, access to green spaces and decent local services to justify a policy that actively impedes these things was lost on few. The lessons of this pandemic are manifold and will be unfolding for some time yet. One of the most immediate has been the renewed focus on home and the importance of having somewhere safe, spacious, light and airy enough to live.
They are often maligned, but U-turns can be good – if a policy is bad politicians should reassess it. However, questions remain over whether this decision goes far enough, suggesting the Government hasn’t quite learned its lesson.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) spokesperson told i: “We have acted to ensure that new homes delivered through PDRs provide for natural light, and now we’re going further, tackling the minority of developers delivering substandard homes by ensuring they meet space standards.”
For the thousands of people who are currently renting or paying mortgages on substandard homes delivered through PDR there is little cause for celebration. When pressed on how it would be enforced the spokesperson confirmed that this would not “apply retrospectively” to existing buildings and said that the intention was to legislate via Statutory Instruments which allow for new laws to be put in place without having to pass an Act of Parliament.
However, for the thousands of people who are currently renting or paying mortgages on substandard homes delivered through PDR there is little cause for celebration.
Fiona Howie, the Town and Country Planning Association’s Chief Executive said: “While we are pleased that the Government has responded to our concerns and committed to minimum space standards for homes delivered through permitted development rights, significantly further steps are required to make sure all new homes meet basic standards and support rather than undermine people’s health, wellbeing and life chances.”
Vicky Spratt is i‘s Housing Correspondent