Written evidence submitted by the District Councils Network [PDR 017]
About the District Councils’ Network
The District Councils’ Network (DCN) is a cross-party member led network of 180 district councils. We are a Special Interest Group of the Local Government Association (LGA) and provide a single voice for district councils within the Local Government Association. District councils in England deliver 86 out of 137 essential local government services to over 22 million people - 40% of the population - and cover 68% of the country by area. District councils have a proven track record of building better lives and stronger economies in the areas that they serve.
What role should permitted development rights (PDR) play in the planning system?
We do not support any further extension to permitted development rights. Any change of use to new residential development should be properly assessed through the planning application process, where infrastructure and affordable housing needs can be fully addressed, and where communities can engage.
Permitted development rights (PDR) avoid the detailed consideration that is required from housing secured through full planning permission, and as shown by the government’s own research, the result has been that PDR homes have been more likely to be poorer quality as a result on the factors that really matter – internal living space, natural light, and access to private amenity space. Full planning permission should be required if we are to achieve quality, long-lasting, sustainable, and healthy communities.
We acknowledge that there is a role to play for retail to convert to residential in some instances, in line with shifting economic trends, but these should not be permitted to bypass the democratic planning system and avoid contributing to local infrastructure requirements.
The extension to the change of use for Class E also threaten to undermine councils’ ability to develop and deliver on the long-term vision of economic stability for local areas, high streets and town centres, potentially undermining government investment. These changes have the potential to turn villages, which have some retail, into dormitory villages, with the end results of undermining local communities, and leading to an increase in car traffic and emissions as people use shops elsewhere, and travel to employment elsewhere. Not only this, but the loss of town and village centre jobs comes at a time when we need to see investment into even small local economies and ideally the regeneration of closed and non-viable premises into something that does work for local communities.
What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?
Homes secured through permitted development rights have been shown to more likely to be poorer quality homes, located in the wrong places without adequate access to green space, public transport or community facilities – issues highlighted by Government’s own research. The research also found that there are noticeable differences in terms of the compliance with the Nationally Described Space Standards (NDSS), with only 52 per cent of prior approval units meeting the standard, and poorer Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) performance than for those new homes developed with planning permission. Substandard and poorer quality homes developed through PDR are more likely to be used to house vulnerable people such as those in temporary accommodation.
The pandemic has shone a light on the links between health & well-being and housing. While this affects anyone living in poor quality housing, Public Health England has identified how existing inequalities have become exposed and exacerbated during the pandemic. It was highlighted in the recent Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on the unequal impacts of COVID-19 on a range of different groups, that overcrowding, which is characteristic of PDR, also disproportionately affects the BAME community, low-income household, older persons, renters and those with disabilities.
What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?
The current Section 106 contributions / levy system does not fully capture the cost of all the infrastructure needs arising from development, with communities having to be supported by Government funding mechanisms. This situation will be further exacerbated by the raft of development that is currently exempt from contributions to infrastructure and affordable housing such as permitted development schemes.
By failing to deliver S106 contributions, permitted development undermines the delivery of much needed affordable housing at a time when we need it more than ever. We would urge Government to act on the conclusions of the government’s own commissioned inquiry in building more social housing’, which concludes that England needs ‘at least 90,000 net additional social rent homes a year, recognising the evidence that shows spending on a long-term social housebuilding programme pays back to the Exchequer over time, and would therefore support further grant funding from central government to deliver. As the committee have written: the cross-subsidy model has reached its limit. Government should explore other opportunities to invest in places, including land value capture.
Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?
No. For example, government has recently consulted on proposals for new permitted development rights to change use from Commercial, Business and Service (Class E) to residential (C3). These proposals do not support the Government’s aspirations outlined in the Planning White Paper. Aspirations that include greater democratic accountability and transparency, tackling climate change, improving biodiversity, protecting our heritage, planning for beautiful and sustainable places through high quality design, and developing the necessary and high-quality infrastructure and affordable homes.
There is a lack of clarity and detail over how permitted development and fast track to beauty consents would operate under the proposals within the White Paper if schemes in conflict with local plans and policies could be allowed through these routes with no local authority scrutiny, and if development in renewal areas would be subject to design codes and guidance.
What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?
The Government’s own research found that PDR undermined the ability of councils to bring about positive changes to their places by limiting their influence to deliver stronger local economies and repurpose town centre assets. It should be noted that the Government continues to support a plan-led system based on robust evidence, yet these PDR changes are undermining the role of District’s to plan future development to shape local communities and will detract from the public’s confidence in planning.
Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?
Whilst a key aim of the Government’s proposals are to support economic recovery following the Covid-19 crisis within urban areas by encouraging new house-building, with the 20 largest urban areas to deliver an additional 35% of housing by facilitating brownfield sites, it is important to note that once a particular Class E Use has been lost it will not return. Housing should not be delivered at the expense of business and local community cohesion.
Therefore, the likelihood is that the essential character of town centres, high streets and other areas providing a diversity of uses which support their vitality and viability could be significantly undermined by these proposals. This will be particularly keenly felt in areas where non housing uses have marginal viability, whilst undermining Government efforts through the Towns Fund and associated financial support such as the Future High Streets Fund. At the very least it may be appropriate to exclude Primary Shopping Areas identified in Local Plans from the proposals to ensure continuous retail frontages are maintained to support economic recovery. We would welcome further engagement with the Government on this important issue.
This is highlighted through a recent KPMG report on post covid town centres. Whilst new residential development will be part of the high street’s future, what customers are looking for tends to be ‘a cluster of shops’. Therefore District Councils need to retain local decision making, setting the vision for the high street, for the wider benefit and vibrancy of the local economy and community:
“Shoppers tend to be attracted to a cluster of shops rather than make a visit to a single, standalone outlet, so as the high street’s retail offering thins, remaining shops may need to regroup to attract shoppers’ attention.”
Further, whilst the amendments to the permitted development rights relating to new residential conversions affecting the new Class E are primarily targeted at town centres they are explicitly not limited in their applicability to town centres. As such, by implication, they equally apply to smaller settlements including villages and the open countryside. Accordingly this could pave the way for smaller scale Class E premises (e.g. village shops above a certain size, local small business offices such as solicitors or accountants, offices / retail units in converted farm buildings) to be converted to residential use without the need for permission. This will contribute to a lessening of the sustainability of smaller and rural communities, and will favour those with access to personal car-based transport.
What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?
We consider that permitted development rights disadvantage communities. In our view, decision making must stay with democratically elected and accountable district councils – districts know their communities and local economies like no other and are best placed to assess and determine the likely impacts of changes
The primary role for local government is to represent their communities, including through the planning process, to ensure a high quality of life for the future. These reforms will be reducing the democratic accountability of new development proposals in local areas by enabling changes of use to occur without being subject to the planning application process which includes local representations to be provided. Furthermore, the delivery of new public sector infrastructure developments through a fast track planning process including the reduction of the consultation period on applications (for residents and statutory agencies alike) from 21 days to 14 days will also reduce the opportunity for engagement.
Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?
If some permitted development rights are to remain under the government’s reforms, then the development created should be subject to the proposed Infrastructure Levy, so that infrastructure needs arising from the development can be addressed and affordable housing secured. Currently ‘existing use’ credits would prevent Levy being raised, so this would need to be reformed.