New research report, published by RICS, highlights benefits, implications, and losses for public authorities and communities by extending permitted development rights (PDR).
With housing delivery high on the political agenda, reforming the efficiency of the planning system has been attractive to policymakers, with significant extensions of permitted development rights in 2005, 2010, 2013 and 2015.
However, building conversions are proceeding without full formal planning in England, impacting planning control.
Five Local Authorities with high rates of permitted development schemes were examined from Camden, Croydon, Leeds, Leicester and Reading. Site visits to 568 buildings found an inconsistency in the quality of developments, with only 30% of units delivering through permitted development meeting national space standards.
While examples of extremely high-quality housing conversions had been found, there were also examples that had no amenity space, low quality design and were poor locations for residential amenity.
The research indicated that office-to-residential under permitted development had produced a higher number of poor quality housing than those governed through full planning permission. In Glasgow, where the conversions require full planning permission, the report found higher quality residential schemes maintained with better space standards.
The potential impact on local publicly-funded infrastructure was also assessed. As the schemes were not making Section 106 contributions, local authorities were subject to further losses of £4.1 million due to reduced planning fees and a potential loss of £10.8 million (as well as 1,667 affordable housing units).
Developers and agents from the 30 stakeholders cited many policy benefits including delivering more housing units, regeneration of town and city centres, and quicker implementation.
“The idea of reusing vacant office space as housing is a good one. The way this is currently governed as ‘permitted development’ in England is, however, highly problematic,” said Dr Ben Clifford, Senior Lecturer, UCL Bartlett School of Planning. “Whilst we saw some high quality conversions of office buildings to residential use during our detailed case study research, we also saw many other examples of very poor quality housing.
“These issues included problems over external design, location, residential amenity and the size of the housing units leading to strong concerns about the quality of life for residents.
“Furthermore, there were examples of adverse impacts for local businesses from the conversion of occupied office space to housing, and none of these conversions were contributing properly towards local affordable housing need, the costs of public infrastructure associated with the additional housing units, or the costs of local authority monitoring of these schemes. We believe there is a need for a better regulatory approach to the change of use of office space to housing.”
What were the concerns?
With the benefits of speed and efficiency, brought concerns including:
- Removing opportunity for local authorities to weigh up costs/benefits of a specific development and refuse permission if necessary;
- The impact on the quality of housing and evidence of the reduction of affordable housing contributions in the case of office-to-residential conversions;
- Rural residential developments not being sustainable due to added road traffic – in the past local authorities could block agricultural-residential conversions;
- Impacts that are not immediately apparent e.g. PD rights diminishing ability of local government to promote long-term economic development through planning adequate office space.
The report, commissioned by RICS and written by teams from UCL and the University of Sheffield makes a number of recommendations, including:
- Amending CIL regulations so that all development creating new residential units are liable;
- Government reregulation, or introducing safeguards to the prior approvals process. For example, adding minimum space standards;
- Developers giving careful consideration to the wider implications of their schemes on communities and people’s everyday quality of life.
“Planning regulation was reduced by the recent significant extension in permitted development rights,” said John Henneberry, Professor of Property Development in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning, the University of Sheffield. “The expectation was that developers large and small would exploit this additional freedom to produce more dwellings. This occurred. Tens of thousands of dwellings were realised through the exercise of permitted development rights since they were expanded in 2013/14.
“While the issues raised by large office to residential conversions have been the subject of much continuing debate, the other outcomes of this deregulation have not received such attention.
“Yet the number of dwellings resulting from small scale conversions of offices and other non-residential buildings to housing, and of agricultural buildings to housing, have both individually exceeded those resulting from large scale office to residential developments. This highlights the need to learn more about the impacts of these diffuse, incremental changes.”