Extending permitted development flies in the face of all expert advice and reveals this government’s warped priorities, says Richard Steer
Just when you thought that the headlines for Robert Jenrick could not get any worse than those he achieved for his perceived “dodgy” deal with developer Richard Desmond, the secretary of state decided to sneak through new expanded permitted development (PD) rights as a distracted Parliament was entering its summer recess.
Planners, architects, surveyors and chartered construction professionals have all strongly condemned the government’s decision to press ahead with the new rules, which include a right for developers to demolish vacant office and industrial premises and rebuild them as homes. The new PD rights were branded “disgraceful” by the Royal Institute of British Architects, while the Royal Town Planning Institute described them as a “serious error”. Rarely has such a united cacophony of protest emanated from those operating in our sector.
Why such an outcry? Well, it comes as no surprise if you look at an independent report commissioned by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government into the quality of homes produced under existing PD rights. It found that only one in five PD units met the government’s nationally described minimum space standards, compared with three-quarters of units delivered with planning approval.
In addition, nearly three-quarters of PD homes were single aspect, compared with less than a third of conversions delivered through full planning. The research, which looked at 240 PD schemes, found 10 homes with no windows at all.
Now, this may be music to the ears of less scrupulous developers, but for the many others who care about the quality of our living accommodation, the extension of PD rights seems both short-sighted and counter-productive.
Cynics might argue that one reason for the undue haste is the government sees its housing target being eviscerated
At a time when we have seen many families confined to their flats and houses during lockdown, and a reported rise in mental illness as a result, how can it be right to create new laws specifically designed to allow developers to skirt many of the standards created by government itself, as well as almost all local planning guidance? Particularly when evidence based on its own research illustrates that this approach has already produced so much poor quality housing.
The argument from Jenrick is that the government has addressed concerns over quality by making sure all new and existing PD rights have an obligation to ensure “adequate” natural light in homes produced. I would note, however, that this is not enshrined in statute and there is still no obligation to meet minimum space standards or provide any outdoor space, no local authority control over the location of units, and no way of ensuring that schemes contribute to community infrastructure with provisions such as affordable housing.
Why was there not more discussion? Especially when you consider that, during a previous consultation, fewer than 30% of respondents supported the idea of a new PD right for demolition and rebuild. At that time, in 2018, the government said that it would continue to look at the idea but would only introduce it following additional consultation. Instead, those who are best qualified to advise on the extension of PD rights appear to have been cut out of the loop.
The government argues that to stimulate regeneration of our towns and cities and deliver additional homes more easily as part of its response to the covid-19 pandemic, these rights are being brought forward “at pace” and without further consultation on the detail. Apparently, the changes were designed to deliver much-needed new homes and revitalise town centres across England
Cynics might argue whether one reason for the undue haste is because the government sees its target of the creation of 300,000 new homes per year being eviscerated, with so much of the industry having been laid off during the pandemic. Also, new housing means new income from enhanced property taxes and I note there is no provision for social housing under the new PD rights, which means greater profits for those shoehorning tiny flats into disused shops.
There is nothing wrong with a government wanting to “build, build, build”, but not at any cost and without any consideration of the outcome. The irony was not lost that, on the same day an independent report criticised the impact of the current PD rights, the government decided to ignore its own recommendations and double down on an already failing policy.
Perhaps the secretary of state has become inured to featuring in headlines for all the wrong reasons – or maybe offering a free pass to those who might build sub-standard accommodation is of secondary importance to a government safe in the knowledge that it has at least four years before the next election.
Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide