The government has said it is ‘reviewing ways to ensure that all types of development are of a high standard’ in the wake of a report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) which concluded that office-to-residential permitted development rules have allowed the development of ‘extremely poor-quality housing’.

The report, Extending Permitted Development Rights in England, says that permitted development (PD) right changes in recent years have meant that “many more types of building conversion can now proceed without having to go through the full formal planning procedure in England”.

It says that concerns about the impacts of these changes to planning control prompted RICS to carry out research into the results. As part of the study, researchers visited 568 buildings “either converted or proposed for conversion from office to residential use”.

The study found that the quality of these schemes “varied enormously”. Although it revealed some “high-quality developments”, it found that PD changes had also “allowed extremely poor-quality housing to be developed”.

The research found that office-to-residential conversions under PD rights have also “produced a higher amount of poor-quality housing than schemes governed through full planning permission”.

The report concludes that office-to-residential PD “has been a fiscal giveaway from the state to private real estate owners and developers”. It says evidence from Leeds and Leicester indicated that “many completed schemes are being marketed primarily to students and so are not really contributing towards meeting local housing need”.

The report adds that evidence from the London Borough of Camden and Reading “indicated a poor mix of residential provision among PD schemes compared to local needs”.

“The case studies suggest that the housing that is being delivered comes at a cost both financially and socially for sustainable community creation”, the report says.

The report recommends that office-to-residential change of use “should not be counted as permitted development in England”. It says that the policy “should be revisited”, or, if government is not willing to do this, “it might instead consider introducing more safeguards to the prior approvals process”.

These could include “adding a requirement that the office space is actually demonstrated to be vacant before approval can be granted for conversion” and adding minimum space standards which would apply to PD schemes, the report suggests.

The report also recommends that government amend the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) Regulations “so that all development creating new residential units are liable for a contribution towards local infrastructure need, regardless of previous use or vacancy of the building”.

Abdul Choudhury, RICS policy manager said: “Permitted development rights have potential to ease the UK housing crisis and speed up delivery of developments by reducing regulatory burdens.

“However, regulatory safeguards are necessary to mitigate negative aspects of development and to uphold minimum standards. By bypassing regulations, the policy may create more problems than it solves.

“Particularly with office or agricultural to residential, government needs to balance the competing priorities of housing, infrastructure and need for commercial spaces. In some areas, over-conversion has produced a shortage of office units, which has pushed up their cost. Central government policies can dilute local planning authority powers, which seems contradictory to the localism agenda government has championed in the past.

Choudhury concluded: “Government needs to re-examine the policy and ask itself how useful are different iterations of permitted development to local communities as a whole, rather than blindly focusing on numbers.”

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “For too long, we have not built enough properties and permitted development rights are an important tool to boost housing supply.

“But just because there are fewer planning restrictions on a development does not mean that it should not be high quality. We are reviewing ways to ensure that all types of development are of a high standard and add to and enhance the local area.”

Source: Michael Donnelly, Planning Resource, 30 April 2018

Local Comment:  A former housing association office in Clifton Road was recently converted into a substandard flat.  It failed to meet the Nationally Described Minimum Space Standard.  Although this flat required full planning permission because it is in the Clifton Park Conservation Area, it illustrates exactly the sort of problem that the RICS and the government are now concerned about.  The rush to build more and more homes as quickly as possible should not lead to compromising living conditions for people – everyone deserves a decent home. – Philip Barton