11 May 2021

The relentless expansion of permitted development rights - creating more homes but at what cost?

Since I started my role at the Chartered Institute of Housing just over a year ago, I have found myself writing several consultation responses where permitted development rights (PDR) have been a major concern. The government’s push towards PDR expansion to increase housing numbers has become clear, as has my growing alarm as I learn more about the conditions some have been forced to live in through conversions of entirely unsuitable buildings to residential properties. Since the MHCLG’s own funded research in 2020 concluded that such conversions create “worse quality residential environments,” the government has brought forward legislation to ensure that homes delivered under PDR must meet the nationally described space standards and provide for adequate natural light. However, natural light and standards for space are something we would all expect from our homes as a basic minimum and not standards for quality. 

The growing rights of permitted development

After submitting CIH's response to the recent HCLG inquiry to examine the government’s approach to PDR, I looked back through the extension of PDR in relation to residential conversions over recent years. The direction of travel is obvious.

In 2013, a significant extension of PDR was introduced, initially temporarily, giving rights to convert offices to residential spaces. The policy intention stated by the then secretary of state was to boost the supply of housing and to help regeneration by putting vacant or under-utilised office space to productive use. Declared a success by government in 2015, in 2016 this PDR was made permanent.

A total of 72,980 new dwellings were added to the housing stock through PDRs over the five years between 2015-16 and 2019-20 (House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, 12 February 2021).  Since 2013, PDR for conversion to residential has been being extended step-by-step. By 2019, the rights allowing a change of use to residential of up to 150 sqm of shops, financial and professional services, betting offices, pay day loan shops, launderettes, and hot food take-aways, were all permitted.

In July 2020, the new class E was introduced into the Use Classes Order. Perhaps the ‘E’ was for ‘everything,’ as this amalgamated commercial, business and service use classes, including former use classes of A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional), A3 (restaurants and cafes) as well as parts of D1 (non-residential institutions) and D2 (assembly and leisure). So, as of September 2020, planning permission is no longer needed to switch between these uses. It is also worth noting that at this time, Class ZA came into force allowing the demolition of vacant office buildings (built before 1990 and vacant for six months) and their replacement with flats or a single detached dwelling houses (subject to prior approval, conditions, and limitations) through PDR without the need for planning permission.

A step too far?

In December 2020, MHCLG asked for consultation responses on supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure which detailed a new PDR to enable the conversion from class E to residential use.  This would go much further than other rights, proposing that all kinds of business premises (including even creches, restaurants and indoor sports facilities), of any size (including light industrial units), in any location (not just town centres or on high streets), be able to be converted to residential through PDR.  Unsurprisingly, and rightly so, this proved controversial. 

Along with many others, we submitted our response urging government to reconsider.  We maintained that these proposals would impact directly on local planning authorities’ (LPAs) abilities to actually ‘plan’ in order to meet their specific local needs. Land use planning would be effectively side stepped, creating lack of control for LPAs to ensure the delivery of the right homes in the right places, and the opportunity for communities to have their say would be severely curtailed. We highlighted that the proposals risked delivering more poor-quality, poorly located homes, questioning how the proposals fitted government’s own focus on design and beauty set out in the Planning for the future white paper, and how disabled and older residents might live well in these conversion. We stressed that without the mechanism for developer contributions, many homes would be created in areas without the necessary infrastructure and facilities to support them, and with no requirement for at least a proportion of those homes to be affordable. Developer contributions, play an incredibly important role to ensure that development impacts are appropriately mitigated and that the right infrastructure is in place to support it. Section 106 (s106) is currently a major mechanism for delivering new affordable homes, particularly much needed homes for rent.

As the consultation closed at the end of January, another consultation was launched with significant implications too. This was amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and national model design code.  In this consultation, there were proposals for a significant tightening up around the use of Article 4 Directions, limiting them to the smallest geographical areas possible.  Article 4 Directions are a tool for LPAs to help them to manage and resist uses where the blanket use of PDR would otherwise cause harm. LPAs’ ability to use Article 4 Directions is already limited and the proposed changes would seriously curtail this further, meaning they would effectively be powerless to stop town centres from shifting to predominantly residential uses. On 31 March, before the government’s response to the December consultation had been published, and just days after the March consultation had closed, the government announced new measures to allow the PDR to allow conversion from Class E to residential use from the 1 August 2021.  There are some new limitations which did not feature in the consultation version as a result of the outcry to the initial proposals. Notably, the Class E building must have been vacant for at least three months and must have been in Use Class E for two years before the application. There is also a space limit of 1,500sqm which is significant as it removes lots of larger office building from the mix. However, there are no new inclusions around beauty or design which seems at odds with the government’s declarations of its aspirations for planning more widely.

Examining the government’s approach to PDR

On 23 March 2021, HCLGC launched an inquiry to examine the government’s approach to PDR. Our submitted evidence maintains that the extension of PDR over recent years and further future extension is inappropriate. The continued trajectory of deregulation in this area has impacts on housing quality and design; residents’ health and wellbeing; the provision of sufficient physical and social infrastructure; housing delivery of all tenures; the future of our high streets; democratic engagement; and LPAs’ abilities to ‘plan’ to meet the needs of their communities.

Yes, we need more homes, but successfully tackling our housing crisis is not only about numbers; it is also about delivering the right homes in the right places as part of communities in which residents want to live and can afford.  To me (and I know many others too) it feels like this drive to deregulate is entirely to wrong direction of travel given the critical role for our homes and neighbourhoods in supporting our health and wellbeing, as the current pandemic has demonstrated so clearly.

Written by Hannah Keilloh

Hannah Keilloh is a policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing. She leads on all policy work surrounding planning. Hannah is member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.