Relaxation of planning laws ‘will prioritise speed over quality and yet not give business predictability it wants’

Architects have reacted with alarm to changes announced in the government’s Housing & Planning Bill.

They branded as “dangerous” the abolition of the requirement for planning consent on brownfield sites and office-to-resi conversions.

And they warned that any concern for quality appeared to have been ditched in favour of speeding up development. The much-heralded bill was finally published yesterday afternoon.

“I hope Richard Rogers is OK to put his Urban Task Force hat on again. It looks to me like we are going backwards fast,” said Sally Lewis, director of housing and regeneration specialist Stitch.

“Quality relies heavily not just on the housing but also on the environments being created – streets, activity, public spaces, amenity,” she said. “This new bill only addresses speed of delivery: short-sighted political gain at the cost of long-term quality.

“Permanent permitted development rights for office-to-resi and automatic planning permission for brownfield sites are dangerous moves that take away design criteria in the very places that need it most. It’s as dire as bringing back right to buy and dismissing the need for affordable rent homes.”

Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein who spent seven months advising the DCLG on its housing standards review, said the office-to-residential free-for-all had resulted in “terrible” homes including flats of 14sq m. 

“Bypassing all standards except basic building regulations is short-sighted and desperate, but under the bill, brownfield sites and starter homes seem set to get the same free pass,” she said.

“The NPPF has numerous references to the importance of good design – but nothing about this bill suggests it matters at all.”

She also took issue with the new “starter homes” proposals which councils will be required to support instead of “affordable” housing and other planning obligations.

“There’s nothing wrong with supporting home ownership, unless it comes at the expense of those who will never be able to buy their own home,” said Park. “Allowing starter homes to count as the affordable housing element will do just that.”

Darryl Chen, partner and leader of the urban design studio at Hawkins Brown, warned that removing the obligation for developers to build social rented housing could lead to the hollowing-out of London.

“What makes London distinctive as a global capital – its mixed communities – is at risk with this shifting around of tenure,” he said.

“It would be a great shame if we became like Paris or Manhattan, where a portion of society is excluded from whole areas of the city.”

He also argued that further deregulation of planning would be counter-productive.

“Business wants predictability, not another raft of changes which local authorities will have to scrabble around to implement,” he said.

“They want planning authorities to be able to deliver what they are statutorily required to deliver with the resources they should have. That’s what’s missing. If the planning system has been set up to fail because they’re under-resourced and everything changes every couple of years, what do you expect?”

James Rayner, head of masterplanning at Broadway Malyan, who broadly welcomed the changes, questioned how they could possibly deliver the government’s promised million new homes by 2020.

“It’s a drop in the ocean,” he said. “There’s no strategic thinking in there in terms of housing provision. That’s what’s missing to give it some real teeth, and that’s what puts us at odds with probably every other European government.

“We seem to be able to cross boundaries with infrastructure so it’s surprising we can’t do it with housing. Instead we’ve left it up to the smallest management component in our whole democratic set-up which is probably the least able to deal with it on a strategic basis.”

Rayner also welcomed the presumption in favour of planning on brownfield sites and was confident design quality would not be compromised because of existing “checks and balances”.

But he doubted the relaxation would do much to speed up development as planning was rarely the obstacle.

“If they were really serious they would have something to actually bring on brownfield homes,” he said, “like a mechanism for claiming back future value to help pay upfront for decontaminating land or demolishing existing buildings.”

His colleague Jeff Nottage warned there was a “real danger that local authorities will either rush to get their local plans ready for 2017 and end up with plans that are unsound and poorly evidenced”.

Mixed reactions

Ben Derbyshire, managing partner at HTA, and Riette Oosthuizen, the practice’s head of planning.

:: The deadline for local plans by 2017 is a positive move; there are some English councils who still have not done this following the 2004 Compulsory Purchase Act.

:: The requirement for local planning authorities to identify land for people who want to build their own homes is also very positive and highly encouraging. We are working with custom build providers who have been very frustrated that many councils do not regard self-builders as being a legitimate aspect of demand that is their obligation to fulfil.

:: The starter home target which will effectively replace social rented homes is worrying, especially as starter homes selling for 20% less than the market rate may still not be very affordable to many people. The whole issue of “affordable housing” needs to be revisited. The current definitions of social rented and shared ownership are not appropriate any more.

:: The making permanent of office-to-resi conversions would worry many local authorities, in particular – aside from the loss of office floorspace – they produce sub-standard housing.

:: There are many questions about the “automatic permission on brownfield sites”. In some places reference is made to local development orders (LDOs) which are different from a zoning system. We are supportive of LDOs and have posited that they could be a positive mechanism, not widely used, especially for housing.

:: A lot of brownfield sites are not developed for a reason – they are expensive to develop. It is a shame that this move reinforces the artificial importance of green belt. We all know that not all green belt land is of equal standard and some selective portions would make sense to develop.

The Housing & Planning Bill 2015

:: Threatens to force local plans on councils which fail to adopt their own strategies for delivering homes by 2017.

:: Introduces automatic planning permission in principle on brownfield sites in an effort to encourage housebuilding in cities “while protecting the green belt”, a move likened to US zoning.

:: Makes permanent the temporary rule introduced in 2013 allowing office-to-resi conversions without planning. Places such as the City of London which are currently exempt from the rule will have until May 2019 to make a further request to continue determining change of use applications.

:: Places a duty on councils to help allocate land to people who want to build their own homes.

:: Places a duty on councils to guarantee the delivery of “starter homes” on all reasonably sized new development sites, and to promote the scheme to local first-time buyers. Local authorities will be able to bid for a share of £10 million to help them prepare brownfield sites.

:: Forces councils to sell off “high-value” vacant housing. The extension of right-to-buy to housing association tenants was to be included in the bill until the National Housing Federation agreed to implement it on a voluntary basis.

:: Establishes a database of rogue landlords and provisions to ban them from letting property.