In recent months, there have been a number of policy announcements intended to improve the quality and sustainability of new homes and the rights of tenants and homeowners. They include the adoption of the Hackitt recommendations, a new Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, and proposals for both a New Homes Ombudsman and a low-carbon Future Homes Standard.
However, another policy is contrary to all of this: permitted development rights (PDRs), which allow the creation of homes by conversion of office, retail, or light industrial spaces without the need for planning permission. PDRs were initially intended for minor developments, such as house extensions, but now include substantial projects. There is mounting evidence that this leads to recurrent issues including:
- Poor internal standards, leading to serious concerns about daylight, views, and ventilation. Dwellings are often deep, small and mostly enclosed, usually without external space, with poor acoustics and with hardly any, or even no, windows
- Poor consideration of access and safety, including fire compartmentation and escape routes
- No consideration of whether the site is appropriate for homes. For example, business parks and industrial estates without access to public transport, local shops, schools, and green space
- No consideration of the impact on the local community, and loss of S106 contribution.
These issues represent a shocking failure to provide basic housing quality, let alone the additional carbon and sustainability standards often applied through the planning process. Some are, in theory, addressed through Building Regulations, but PDRs remove an opportunity for the local authority to identify issues early. CIBSE has already raised concerns1 that this could be a significant loophole in the gateway process proposed as part of Building a Safer Future.
The following claims are usually put forward in support of PDRs:
- By providing a much simplified process, PDRs help address housing needs. There is indeed evidence that, to some extent, PDRs have increased housing supply by 40,000 to 70,000 dwellings over six years (roughly one in 10 new homes). However, it is estimated that only about half are truly additional, while the others would have been created anyway under a planning application.
- By reducing development costs, PDRs help provide more affordable housing: in fact, PDRs remove the ability of local authorities to request affordable housing, with a net loss estimated to thousands of affordable dwellings. In addition, the data suggests that removing planning restrictions has increased the value of properties eligible for conversion, therefore increasing overall development costs.
- PDRs reduce the workload of planning authorities. CIBSE is very aware of the problem, and has repeatedly advocated for better local authority resources. However, the argument for PDRs is somewhat flawed: when schemes do go through a planning application, a fee is raised to contribute to planning resources. Furthermore, this is looking at the problem from the wrong end – the solution to inadequate planning resources is not to allow poor quality development, but to improve these resources.
As a result, strong concerns have been voiced from a wide range of organisations, including researchers at RICS and The Bartlett UCL, the RTPI, and the architectural practice Levitt Bernstein, which initiated a petition calling for a review.
Government must listen to these calls and urgently review the effects of the policy
These concerns are not, per se, about the adaptation of non-domestic buildings to create dwellings – such conversions are part of the natural evolution of our built environment, they respond to changing needs, and they help retain embodied carbon and valuable historic fabric. The issue is when this happens outside the checks, balances and added value of the planning process. We should not build a legacy of dwellings that pose serious risks to the health and safety of residents and jeopardise our carbon and sustainability objectives.
- Do you have experience of working on PDR schemes? Send your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or JGodefroy@cibse.org
- Thank you to Julia Park from Levitt Bernstein for her advice on this article.
- CIBSE Response to Consultation on Proposals for reform of the Building Safety Regulatory System, July 2019.
- Response to Public Health England consultation on draft guidelines on indoor air quality in homes.
- Response to Environmental Audit Committee inquiry on net zero carbon government.
- Response to consultation on Homes Ombudsman.
- Position paper on our recommendations for the next Part L steps, leading to zero carbon buildings in operation by 2030.
- Dr Julie Godefroy is technical manager at CIBSE