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Boris’ slums: Why new planning changes are a pox on ‘building beautiful’

With its red-tape bonfire the government is torching its own Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, which recommended the regulation of PDR, not the expansion. Christine Murray reports

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Film still of resident in Terminus House, Harlow
Film still of resident in Terminus House, Harlow

For a government that set “beauty” as a policy objective, it’s been an ugly few weeks.

 

First came revelations that Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, pushed through a planning application for the £1bn Westferry development in London’s Docklands against his own legal and official advice to save the developer paying a £40m Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) in one of the country’s poorest boroughs. The planning win was followed by a donation of £12,000 to the Conservative party by project backer, billionaire Richard Desmond.

 

Now, the government has announced, in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Build Build Build speech, the most dramatic overhaul of planning, including a contentious expansion of Permitted Development rights (PDR). The changes will allow shops to be made into homes without planning permission, as well as two storeys to be added to existing blocks of flats under permitted development, a move that has been derided by industry bodies including the Local Government Association (LGA) and the RIBA.

 

Since 2013, it’s been possible to convert offices into homes without planning permission under PDR in England, a deregulation that’s created “human warehouses”, where young families with children, victims of domestic violence and the homeless are rehoused by councils alongside drug addicts, people suffering from mental health issues and ex-prisoners, often in overcrowded flats with no outdoor space.

 

Perhaps the government failed to read all 190 pages of its own Living with Beauty report – or even to page 30

 

There have been 54,162 new homes converted from offices in England, which represent just 6% of new homes created nationally, but in places such as Harlow, more than half (51%) of new homes were office conversions in 2018/2019, with 48% in Norwich and 43% in Three Rivers, according to research by the LGA.

 

The problems with PDR are well documented. A damning report by RICS in 2018 decries PDR as “a fiscal giveaway from the state to private real estate interests, whilst leaving a legacy of a higher quantum of poor-quality housing than is seen with schemes governed through full planning permission.” RICS’ recommendation was to scrap office-to-residential PDR and force developers to seek permission the old-fashioned way.

 

Even Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to acknowledge the poor legacy of PDR in her speech at the Housing conference in June 2019. “I cannot defend a system in which owners and tenants are forced to accept tiny homes… where the lack of universal standards encourages a race to the bottom.”

 

In an embarrassing u-turn for this government, Johnson’s bonfire of planning “red-tape” has torched the government’s own flagship Living with Beauty report, published just 5 months ago, which explicitly speaks out against unregulated PDR.

 

The output of the much-heralded Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, the purpose of Living with Beauty was to “tackle the challenge of poor-quality design and build of homes and places across the country”.

 

At the launch of Living with Beauty in January, Housing secretary Jenrick was effusive: “It might prove to be the most important report we have seen for many years”

 

The commission was co-chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith, Founding Director of Create Streets. One of the stated aims of the report was that its findings would inform the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and other policy teams.

 

At the launch of Living with Beauty on 30 January at Lambeth’s Garden Museum, Housing secretary Jenrick was effusive in welcoming the report. “It might prove to be the most important report we have seen for many years,” said Jenrick.

 

“Beautiful, high quality homes must become the norm, not the exception,” he added, saying there was evidence that instead of holding housebuilding back, “championing quality would help us go further.”

 

Perhaps the government failed to read all 190 pages of Living with Beauty – or even to page 30, where it describes how “opportunistic developers can abuse permitted development rights to produce accommodation of the lowest quality to house those with no alternative.”

 

“There is no beauty in a child having to use a car park as a play area or being housed in a glorified shipping container next to a flyover, on the argument that it is better than nothing. We believe that all homes – new build or conversions - should meet minimum standards for space, amenity and comfort, as well as the safety of the people that live there.” (p30, Living with Beauty)

 

Living with Beauty describes how “opportunistic developers can abuse permitted development rights to produce accommodation of the lowest quality to house those with no alternative”

 

In the report, the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission’s Policy Proposition 8 is to “require permitted development rights to have standards” and urges government to go further, to prevent the “worst excesses that have come to light”.

 

The proposition suggests minimum room or room sizes be moved into building regulations. “This would prevent some of the worst excesses that have come to light in office to residential conversion,” but also states: “We support this but it is not enough.”

 

“The government should evolve a mechanism whereby meaningful local standards of design and placemaking can efficiently apply to permitted development rights. This is not possible at present under the current legal arrangement. It should be.”

 

In response to the announcement, Boys Smith, chair of the commission, told The Developer, “The government’s proposals on extending permitted development could be a very important step in the right direction. Of course the devil is in the detail. For them to work, building regulations will need to include minimum home sizes and the changes will need to be accompanied by clear and simple mechanisms for local councils to set provably locally-popular form based codes within their local plans.”

Boys Smith says he is in favour of more predictable planning outcomes, not deregulation: “If we’re to build enough homes we need to move from an unpredictable planning system ‘bespoke’ in all circumstances to one of more predictability for most smaller developments. That’s the only way we can become less ludicrously reliant on a small number of volume housebuilders. That’s about clearer, more predictable regulation which is not quite the same thing as no regulation.”

 

Johnson has not introduced regulations or space standards. Instead, Project Speed doubles down on unregulated PDR: no new building regulations, no local codes of design and local plan enforcement, and the silencing of local plans and local voices, another recommendation of Building Better, Building Beautiful. Under permitted development, there is no community consultation. The one notable exception is the new requirement for all habitable rooms in residential conversions to have daylight.

 

Victoria Hills, CEO of the Royal Town Planning Institute, in an interview with The Developer, described PDR as taking away “an opportunity for the community to be involved in a process of placemaking… you dislocate the community from what’s going on in their local area.”

 

In terms of local governance, councils can’t stop office-to-residential conversions unless a project is in a designated Article 4 area. To use an Article 4 power, a council must first seek permission from the Secretary of State and the area must be one of high employment, such as a business district, which means councils can’t use it to protect standalone business units, such as out-of-town industrial complexes, no matter how unsuitable they are for housing.

 

Julia Park, head of Housing Research at Levitt Bernstein architects, has researched office-to-residential conversions created under PDR. “It’s very disappointing to hear that they are ploughing ahead with additional PDRs, before even publishing the [government-commissioned] independent report,” Park says.

 

“The only positive news,” she adds, “is the fact that under the new rules, all ‘habitable’ rooms in the flats must have windows – but they fall short of minimum space standards, ventilation, insulation requirements, or access to an outside space, even if shared – all of which can contribute to overcrowding, overheating and health issues.

 

“There are many more basic attributes that need to be in place if these conversions are going to yield good homes, including adequate indoor and outdoor space, and a robust response to climate change.

 

“The idea of making a new PDR for upward extensions wasn’t supported at consultation either – further proof that they’re not listening”

 

“With so many experts making a link between poor or cramped housing, and the prevalence of Covid-19, it feels like entirely the wrong approach,” Park says, responding to the government’s claim that the planning changes are being driven through in response to the Coronavirus crisis and its fallout.

 

“The idea of making a new PDR for upward extensions wasn’t supported at consultation either – further proof that they’re not listening.”

 

But the government’s new daylight requirement proves they are not deaf to existing criticisms – but this awareness of the perils PDR belies a worrying lack of concern about space standards.

 

As Park noted in her report on permitted development, the government’s own Nationally Described Space Standard requires a minimum internal floor area of 37m2 for a single-person studio or apartment; A significant number of office-to-residential conversions are one-third that size – just 13m2. One in Purley is just 8.3 m2 – “the size of a child’s bedroom”.

 

Park writes: “Living in a space the size of a typical hotel bedroom will inevitably put strain on even a single person, but we know that a growing number of PDR conversions are occupied by couples; others by families.”

 

Downloading plans of office-to-residential conversions in Colchester, Hana Loftus, Director of Hat Projects discovered a progressive reduction in flat sizes. “One developer who wasn’t satisfied with getting PD for 21m2 flats went back in and reduced them to 17m2.” Loftus counted approximately 600 homes built, with no Section 106 or CIL contributions.

 

In an interview for a documentary film commissioned by The Developer, Terminus House resident Melanie Smith shows filmmaker Simon Mercer around the studio flat where she lives with her two children. The size of a double bedroom, the flat contains two single beds, a daybed and a bathroom. Smith describes the noise that keeps them up all night, the blood splatters found outside their door, and the drug use and violence they fear.

 

The 2018 report by RICS found just 30% of the flats converted from offices they studied met national space standards, most had no access to private or communal gardens or urban space – of all office-to-residential conversions in Leeds, just 1% had any outdoor amenity space.

 

Other developments are stuck the middle of industrial estates, like the notorious Templefields, and have become isolated hubs of poverty and crime. Without the mechanism for planning, these large housing developments aren’t checked over by police or fire experts. Some do not appear to have passed building control.

 

1 Wellstones was given the go-ahead at appeal, despite six of the 15 flats having no daylight
1 Wellstones was given the go-ahead at appeal, despite six of the 15 flats having no daylight
Despite the council’s efforts to prevent Wellstones, the inspector found no legitimate grounds for refusal
Despite the council’s efforts to prevent Wellstones, the inspector found no legitimate grounds for refusal

 

Watford is home to an office-to-residential conversion that gained national attention – and is even pictured in the Living with Beauty report – where the council tried to block an industrial unit being converted into 15 flats where 6 units would have no windows at all. The borough council opposed the development but their decision was overruled by a government inspector.

 

In response to the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Mayor of Watford, Peter Taylor said, “I am pleased that the government have listened to us and have banned windowless flats. It is a scandal that anyone could approve accommodation that doesn’t even have a window. These tiny rooms were simply not fit for human habitation.

 

The size of a double bedroom, the flat contains a bathroom and two single beds and a daybed in the kitchen for Smith and her two children

 

“However, I am worried about these new rights for developers to build upwards in our town without permission, which will take more powers away from councils and hand them to developers. The government has also failed to say anything about the size of the rooms which people could be living in.

 

“We all know the consequences of families living in overcrowded and cramped accommodation. I want everyone in our town to have the right to live in a decent, good quality home and it simply isn’t good enough that we still don’t have the powers to reject housing that is not fit for human habitation.”

 

For Taylor, the lack of a minimum space standard is the most glaring omission, but there is also the problem of a recognised CIL loophole – where developers avoid the infrastructure levy by keeping office tenants in place while construction is underway – as such, there’s a complete lack of council contributions towards fees, affordable housing, public spaces, transport or school places.

 

The conflict between Johnson’s Project Speed and the government’s Building Better Building Beautiful report is not lost on the RIBA: “The government’s own advisory panel referred to the homes created by this policy as ‘slums’” said a statement from RIBA president Alan Jones, reacting to Johnson’s announcement.

 

“It is hard to reconcile the commitment to quality with expanding a policy that has delivered low-quality, unsustainable and overcrowded homes across England.”

 

“We all know the consequences of families living in overcrowded and cramped accommodation... it simply isn’t good enough that we still don’t have the powers to reject housing that is not fit for human habitation”

 

As for Johnson’s announcement that shops-to-homes will now also fall under permitted development, Living with Beauty warned of that “danger” too:

 

“Given the systemic under-supply of homes in some parts of the country, there is a danger that an unregulated implementation of the current policy will see all shops converted into homes.”

 

Instead Living with Beauty calls for “resilient high streets” with an emphasis on supporting independent shops, community shops and flexibility for micro-businesses. It also suggests “single outlet shops” could be zero rated, encouraging independent stores.

 

Unfortunately, the expansion of PDR is likely to make independent shops less viable and drive up rents, as landlords realise – in all locations – that they can increase profitability by converting shops into multiple studio flats.

 

Nicola Read, an architecture lecturer, tweeted, “Conversion of high street shops to crap housing outside of planning is not the solution. [This] creates poorly designed, unsustainable places to live, further undermines the high street as a social space and leaves local government further out of pocket.”

 

“Given the systemic under-supply of homes in some parts of the country, there is a danger that an unregulated implementation of the current policy will see all shops converted into homes” – Living with Beauty

 

If local authorities are victims of PDR, there is some evidence that they are also enablers. A major interlinked issue is the use of poor-quality PDR homes by local councils for rehousing vulnerable people.

 

Harlow’s Conservative MP Robert Halfron has accused London councils as having “socially cleansed” their boroughs by decanting tenants to his constituency to live in some of the worst office-to-residential conversions. The BBC gathered evidence that councils are keeping landlords in business with public money, and “discharging” vulnerable tenants into their homes.

 

Comparison of a two-person studio in Newbury House compared to the space standard equivalent
Comparison of a two-person studio in Newbury House compared to the space standard equivalent

 

A BBC investigation found councils from across London were referring young families and domestic abuse victims into properties run by Caridon, including Terminus House (234 studio flats), and Templefields (172 flats), where a weeks-old corpse was found in February 2020.

 

During their investigation of Templefields, an undercover BBC reporter discovered several tenants had died by suicide at the property, recorded evidence of violence on site, and wrote that security staff had lost “control” of the building, which saw 600 calls to police in 3 years.

 

In response to the death of its tenant, Caridon told the BBC it was “a supplier of accommodation to tenants referred by local authorities” and “not mandated to provide support for vulnerable tenants with health issues.”

 

A BBC investigation found councils from across London were referring young families and domestic abuse victims into properties including Terminus House and Templefields

 

Templefields, a former police station, is located in an industrial estate with little surrounding infrastructure to support homes and livelihoods. Harlow Council told the BBC it had started removing its tenants from the property in February, while Sara Bedford, Liberal Democrat leader of the Three Rivers, apologised for sending people, and in particular children, to live there.

 

At the time of writing, Bedford admits that there is still one tenant housed in a Caridon property, “Unfortunately the need to house those in insecure or unsuitable accommodation during the C19 pandemic has slowed our ability to permanently rehouse,” she responded via Twitter.

 

Caridon’s website features testimonials from clients including Brent Council, Havering Council, Lewisham Council, Barking & Dagenham, Age UK Croydon, YMCA East Surrey and Streets2Homes.

 

“These properties were used in the discharge of our homelessness duty,” writes Antony James-Orekoge, Regeneration and Housing Register Manager for Havering Council.

 

“I would recommend them to any applicant over the age of 35 or even couples with no dependents and lone parents with a child under 2,” writes Simone Bousefield, who is listed as Relationship Manager and Support Community Solutions for Barking & Dagenham. Bousefield appears in the BBC documentary on housing need, “No Place to Call Home”.

 

In the documentary film on PDR, Mercer meets a representative from Caridon on site, who describes how the lack of social housing combined with PDR provided an opportunity for builders and developers, and how they are “regenerating” disused properties.

 

In view of climate change, the reuse of existing structures and their adaptation to fresh purpose wherever possible is widely accepted by industry leaders as a good thing, the problem is the lack of adequate standards and enforcement.

 

Sadie Morgan, founder of the Quality of Life Foundation, says, “We all know what people need to enjoy a good quality of life; homes with adequate space, good levels of natural light and ventilation, that are both secure and warm. The extension of permitted development rights without sufficient regulation will fail to deliver on even these basics. Instead, we will be left with substandard housing that creates more overcrowding and perpetuates inequality and deprivation – all factors that overshadow the communities most affected by Covid.

 

“Worse still,” Morgan adds, “by removing the commitment to affordable homes and allowing developers to exploit space on our high streets that might otherwise be used for the community, PDR could further blight the fabric of our towns and cities for generations to come.”

 

In its introduction, Living with Beauty calls on developments to be “regenerative not parasitic.” But ‘parasitic’ is the mot juste for office-to-residential PDR.

 

The 2018 RICS report found “direct evidence of the profitability of conversions for developers and landowners, but little evidence to the contribution to the additional public infrastructure required to support the quantity of additional housing seen in the case study authorities.” The policy has led to an estimated loss of 13,540 affordable homes, according to the LGA.

 

The prime minister’s premise for expanding PDR under Project Speed is that planning slows down housebuilding. However according to the LGA, councils approve 9 out of 10 planning applications for homes.

 

As for the 1 in 10, with homes like these, who says rejection is a bad thing?

 

Watch the film: Harlow homes: How PDR destroys local communities and builds Britain’s worst housing

 

 


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