Written evidence submitted by London Councils [PDR 021]
London Councils is a cross-party representative body for all 32 London boroughs and the City of London Corporation. Our members have a direct interest in the outcome of this inquiry from their perspective as planning authorities, housing authorities and democratically elected Councils responsible for the well-being of local communities across the capital.
London Councils welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to this committee in respect of a crucial aspect of the planning system.
London Councils has a long-held position of strongly opposing Permitted Development Rights (PDR) which undermine the role of local planning authorities in managing development in their areas. Also, existing PDR schemes have often produced poor quality residential accommodation in unsuitable locations, with no requirement for affordable housing and led to lost employment space.
The government has recently implemented a major expansion of PDR together with substantial Use Class Order changes (effective from September 2020); consulted on Planning White Paper proposals which would embed automatic planning approvals similar to PDR as the cornerstone of a new planning system for England; announced new legislation for the introduction of a highly controversial Use Class E to residential PDR from 1 August 2021 and consulted on changes to Article 4 Directions, which would almost completely nullify their use by Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) in restricting where PDR can be applied in their areas, in order to protect sensitive locations, including conservation areas.
London Councils is extremely concerned about any extension of PDR. Our firm view is that PDR leads to poorer quality housing, unsustainable development, and wide-ranging problems for local communities. Serious concerns about the quality of accommodation delivered through PDR remain. Although the application of national minimum space standards from August 2021 is welcome, it does not yet apply risking further delivery of substandard units. Additionally, there are no conditions on the provision of amenity or location, the lack of which already cause serious problems for vulnerable families in this kind of provision (example: Terminus House in Harlow).
We share the government’s determination to boost housebuilding in the capital, but in our view undermining standards and weakening local planning powers is not the way to achieve this. PDR fundamentally undermines the ability of boroughs to democratically manage development in their areas, meeting local needs and preserving local character, in consultation with local people. The current scale and pace of the government changes in this area, often pre-empting or discounting the outcome of its own consultations and research is deeply troubling.
London Councils considers that rather than reducing borough planning controls via PDR, more planning powers to build out unimplemented planning permissions and greater government investment in affordable housing are required to successfully tackle the housing crisis in London.
These issues and concerns are summarised below in our key messages, followed by detailed responses to the Committee’s call for evidence questions.
Full response to inquiry questions
What role should PDR play in the planning system?
London Councils has a long-held position of being strongly opposed to PDR, as it fundamentally undermines the role of Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) in democratically managing development to meet the needs of their areas, in consultation with local communities.
For example, London Councils and the Mayor jointly wrote to the government on 5 August 2020 to express major concerns following its publication of expanded PDR and Use Class Order changes on 21 July 2020, which were subsequently implemented from September 2020. In our letter, we noted that on the same day the government announced this expansion of PDR, it had also published its own research study which concluded that the residential quality of PDR conversions is significantly worse than that of schemes delivered through planning applications. This research found that only 22 per cent of PDR conversions meet nationally prescribed space standards, 72 per cent are single aspect and just 3.5 per cent have private amenity space. A link to this research is provided below: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/planning/news/2020/jul/government-publishes-ucl-led-research-permitted-development-housing-quality
However the government opted to expand PDR at this stage by allowing upward extensions and the demolition and rebuilding of commercial and residential buildings without the need for planning permission. We expressed serious concerns that these changes will lead to further sub-standard housing in inappropriate locations and substantial amounts of development that delivers no affordable housing, making lower infrastructure contributions. In our letter to the government, we expressed the view that Londoners would struggle to support such development, as they know that to ‘build back better’ we must create sustainable and attractive places where there is high quality housing for everyone – including genuinely affordable housing.
The loss of affordable housing in PDR schemes exacerbates the difficulties faced by London boroughs in securing suitable accommodation for homeless households and rough sleepers, maintaining high numbers of people placed in temporary accommodation at significant cost to the boroughs and contrary to the government’s homelessness objectives. London Councils has regularly received reports that London boroughs, in their increasingly pressurised search for temporary accommodation, have had to resort to using PDR accommodation, on occasions outside London. This negative cycle would be avoided if more affordable housing was delivered.
The government announcement on 21 July 2020, also introduced sweeping changes to the Use Class Order, to the effect that there are no longer protections in place for sports centres, most shops, post offices, health facilities or nurseries. Small convenience stores are only protected if there is not another similar store within a kilometre. At a time when people want to support their high streets and are more reliant on local services, it is vital that communities have the ability to decide how to plan their local area in the way that suits them best. We therefore requested that health centres, nurseries and day centres be removed from Use Class E and included in Use Class F1 alongside other community facilities.
We are also alarmed to note that these changes risk undermining the social and economic function of our high streets, town centres and the commercial heart of cities at the worst possible time. Many local authorities have already introduced Article 4 directions to cover central London and areas like town centres, which prevent conversion of offices to residential use outside the planning system. We therefore strongly recommend that the government use its powers to modify Article 4 Directions to cover the new demolition and rebuild PDR, as this would ensure that important commercial areas are not undermined by inappropriate residential conversions, which could damage our economic recovery. However, rather than strengthening Article 4 Directions, the government has subsequently consulted on proposals which seek to almost completely nullify Article 4 Directions.
We also have serious concerns that borough planning departments will be further under-resourced and urge the government to ensure that the fees attached to prior approvals and lawful development certificates are commensurate with the work involved. Many of the new prior approval processes will be of an equivalent complexity to that of a planning application. Regrettably, the fees attached to PDR prior approvals remain too low and should be equivalent to the fees for a full planning application.
We also note numerous matters of serious consequence that we considered would arise from the PDR and Use Class Order regulations announced on 21 July 2020, for example:
- eviction of residents and business tenants under the new vacancy test
- developers exercising PDR in London’s high streets, which are particularly vulnerable at this time, changing the character of these areas
- ensuring the safety of residents and the provision of accessible dwellings
- the impact on our cultural and creative industries and SMEs as we see more uncontrolled loss of offices and light industrial premises
- the impact of introducing inappropriate residential development in areas with a thriving evening and night-time economy
- the design of our neighbourhoods, which goes beyond matters of appearance and is about creating beautiful, sustainable places that deliver Good Growth
- how new construction supports the circular economy, responds to local air pollution and contributes to meeting the UK’s net zero carbon target
- the impact on supporting sustainable transport and ensuring a green recovery.
These consequences demonstrate the impact of central government introducing sweeping changes to the planning system with no democratic scrutiny or meaningful engagement with the communities they will affect.
What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?
Whilst PDR has produced additional housing in London, this has often been of poor quality and developed in inappropriate locations with no affordable housing component, thereby undermining the prevention and resolution of homelessness in the capital. Investment would be better directed to build out the record high levels of unimplemented planning permissions in London.
Housing in London is increasingly unaffordable for larger numbers of people, and new supply continues to lag far behind demand. On any given night in the capital London’s boroughs accommodate more than 63,000 homeless households whilst a quarter of a million Londoners remain on housing registers with waiting times of up to 25 years.
London Councils is strongly opposed to the government’s expanding use of PDR to increase housing supply. The government would point to the 18,870 residential units produced in London via PDR schemes over the last 5 years, 2015/20. However, this output is substantially outweighed by the shortcomings of PDR:
In the light of these major concerns, London Councils has continued to lobby the government to change direction, or at least agree to boroughs being able to mitigate the negative impacts of PDR by:
London Councils considers that rather than reducing borough planning controls via PDR, more planning powers and greater government investment in affordable housing are required to successfully tackle the housing crisis in London.
What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?
PDR has had a negative impact on LPAs in London by undermining Local Plans; requiring the assessment of PDR applications which are often as complex as full applications but with reduced fees; creating new homes but with no infrastructure or developer contributions, placing increased pressure on local services, and with the loss of employment.
In addition to the concerns expressed above, these PDR regulations are complex and difficult for planning authorities to administer. PDR upward extensions must be assessed in relation to the proposed height and number of new storeys, the roof pitch and materials, the age of the existing building and a range of factors, such as external appearance, within the prior approval process. London Councils is concerned that planning fees do not cover the work required which, for many of these processes, will be equivalent in complexity to a normal planning application. The current situation exacerbates the under-resourcing of planning departments at a critical time.
London Councils continues to call for a review of planning fees and updated powers for boroughs to reduce the harmful impacts of PDR, for example via strengthened Article 4 directions, prior approval criteria, planning guidance and design codes to limit the areas within a borough where the new PDR regulations apply and to improve the quality of accommodation, services and infrastructure provided.
Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?
In many respects, PDR is the precursor to the Planning White Paper reforms which seek to further deregulate the planning system centralising control nationally and introducing automatic planning approvals similar to PDR across large parts of London in the proposed ‘growth’ and ‘renewal’ areas, provided prescribed standards are met. London Councils is strongly opposed to these and many other aspects of the Planning White Paper.
The Planning White Paper proposes radical reforms to town planning in England (replacing the existing system introduced in 1947). The replacement planning system proposed in the White Paper involves greater centralisation at a national level and reduces the role of councils. The reforms seek to streamline the planning system, mainly to attempt to increase housing delivery via new nationally defined targets. The proposed changes are transformative, moving away from Councils determining individual planning applications to a ‘zoning’ style system where planning approvals are automatic in ‘growth’ and ‘renewal’ areas, provided development complies with standards set within prescribed, more restricted Local Plans and associated design codes.
The proposal to move to zoning arrangements, with more availability of automatic planning approvals in ‘growth’ and ‘renewal’ areas and fewer opportunities for local oversight, makes it much harder for councils to manage development in their areas, for example making sure the right sort of homes are built to the right standard in the right places. This would multiply and exacerbate the problems LPAs have experienced with the expansion of PDR, including the proliferation of lower quality development in unsuitable locations, posing additional challenges for future residents and local communities.
As the White Paper proposals centralize control nationally, with a predominantly ‘one size fits all’ approach, they would not only undermine the role of LPAs, but also limit resident engagement, particularly in the consideration of individual development proposals. Also, the three prescribed ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protected’ zones would be very difficult to apply in a complex urban setting like London, where there is potential for adjoining streets or even buildings to be differently zoned.
The White Paper justifies the proposed reforms by attributing lack of housing delivery to the planning system. The government has similarly put forward this justification for the expansion of PDR. However, we consider that the obstacle to housing delivery is not the planning system, but failure to build out unimplemented planning permissions and lack of government funding for affordable housing.
The White Paper also omits changes which would improve the current system, notably providing councils with powers to ensure unimplemented permissions are built out. London’s planning system is not the barrier to development portrayed in the White Paper. In fact, the 2018/19 pipeline of permitted homes in London is 305,289, the highest ever recorded. If all these permitted homes were actually built, they would deliver over half of London’s new 10-year housing target. According to figures from the Home Builders Federation, 69,300 new homes were granted planning permission in London in the year to September 2019, which is higher than the annual target of 52,000 homes in the published London Plan 2021.
It is widely recognised that a lack of planning permissions is not the brake on housing delivery. Indeed, the Letwin Review explained the challenges of delivery after planning permission is granted and outlined recommendations for diversifying the housing sector and completing more homes. The White Paper’s contention that reducing local planning powers would lead to a substantial increase in housebuilding is not supported by evidence. In our response to the Planning White Paper consultation, we encouraged the government to revisit the Letwin Review, re-analyse the reasons for insufficient housing delivery and reflect on whether the scale and nature of the White Paper reforms are warranted. We strongly contend that this need for fresh analysis to challenge the government’s current approach, is equally relevant to the expansion of PDR.
What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?
PDR fundamentally undermines the ability of LPAs to plan development in their areas via the Local Plan and local planning guidance, formulated in consultation with residents, and providing the framework for decision making on normal planning applications by democratically elected Councillors, taking into account the views of local communities.
Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?
PDR may support some businesses and aspects of economic growth where these derive from the PDR process itself, in particular land owners who benefit from the windfall increase in value provided by changes of use under PDR and developers who are able to profit from the sale or rent of the PDR homes created without the normal planning obligations. However, importantly, businesses closed or displaced by PDR will be adversely affected, employees will be at risk of redundancy, existing local services may be lost and the local economy negatively impacted. Therefore, increases in land values and profits are essentially being derived at the expense of existing businesses and local communities.
What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?
PDR excludes residents from the planning process by sidestepping the Local Plan, which local residents will have been involved in creating, and avoiding the normal planning application process in which residents are consulted and their views taken into account in decision-making.
London Councils considers that PDR should be curtailed and, in future, all applications for development should be dealt with under the normal planning application process. In respect of any ongoing PDR arrangements, these should be mitigated by stronger Article 4 Directions, stricter limitations on the size and type of buildings where PDR can be applied and more robust prior approval criteria developed in consultation with LPAs.
Other Matters – new Use Class E to residential PDR
The inquiry terms of reference do not refer to recent government legislative proposals for a Use Class E to residential PDR, which raise serious additional concerns over their negative impact on the economic future, character and heritage of cherished town centres and high streets throughout London, including those in conservation areas.
On 3 December 2020, the government published a consultation which included proposals for a new Use Class E to residential PDR – this consultation closed on 28 January 2021. In our response to this consultation, we expressed a range of major concerns about the sweeping changes proposed and their impact on boroughs and local communities.
On 31 March 2021, the government announced that it is introducing legislation for England to bring forward the new Use Class E to residential PDR from 1 August 2021, with some amendments from the consultation proposals.
The proposed changes further extend existing permitted development rights, allowing restaurants, indoor sports centres, and creches to change to residential use for the first time. In our consultation response, we were very concerned to note that by subsuming the existing office to residential PDR within the proposed Use Class E to residential PDR, this could result in office to residential conversions being permitted in a wider range of buildings and locations than is currently allowed – for example, in conservation areas.
The proposed Use Class E to residential PDR has significant implications for local authorities, which include dealing with an expanded number and range of PDR prior approval cases, which are often as complex as dealing with a full planning application, but without the equivalent level of fees. In our consultation response, we pointed out that additional training and guidance would need to be put in place. We noted that the proposed fees are insufficient and called for PDR fees which match those for a full planning application.
Although the government announcement widened the prior approval criteria which is welcome, including – in conservation areas only – consideration of the impact of the loss of ground floor Commercial, Business and Service use, we still consider that the proposed prior approval criteria are too narrow and should be further extended in consultation with LPAs.
The announcement also introduced a size limit of 1,500 square metres of floorspace being able to change use, which again is welcome. However, we consider that the size limit should be restricted further to reduce the impact of the PDR.
We also remain concerned by the proposal to allow the PDR in conservation areas - unlike existing PDR arrangements – which is likely to be detrimental to important and much-cherished conservation areas across the capital.
We note the vacancy requirement referred to in the government’s announcement on 31 March 2021, however we are not convinced that this will protect existing businesses and services from being closed or displaced by landlords and land owners seeking to capitalise on this PDR, causing disruption and negative impacts on local economies and communities.
Despite some limited changes to the proposed Use Class E to residential PDR, our major concerns about the impact of the proposed PDR on town centres and high streets in London remain as reflected in our consultation response. We still contend that this PDR will fundamentally undermine the ability of boroughs to strategically plan the future of town centres and high streets in response to the pandemic. It risks a disruptive free-for-all, with short-term financial considerations deciding the future use of vacant high street buildings, damaging the fabric and coherence of our town centres. It would undermine boroughs’ adopted and emerging Local Plans and further reduce the ability of boroughs to democratically manage development in their areas, in consultation with local residents. We contend that Article 4 Directions should apply to the new PDR and anticipate this would be widely used by boroughs.
The proposed PDR has potentially very serious implications for London, both for the central London economy and the economies of town centres and high streets across the capital. It may lead to some increased housing delivery, but with no affordable housing or contributions to infrastructure. A further loss of affordable housing would mean that homelessness in London would be more difficult to prevent and resolve, leading to increasing numbers of homeless households placed in temporary accommodation and increased difficulties for boroughs in procuring such accommodation, resulting in pressure to procure often unsuitable PDR housing for this purpose, in a negative cycle.
Also, the requirement that new PDR homes would be subject to national space standards does not become effective until 1 August 2021, unnecessarily risking more poor standard development in the interim period, with serious unacceptable consequences for residents, including overcrowding and negative health and educational outcomes. In addition, the proposed PDR does not require amenity space for the homes created nor the provision of infrastructure to support them, causing major problems for both occupiers and local communities, as happens with existing PDR schemes.
Finally, we are concerned that the loss of high street and town centre businesses would result in a significant loss of Business Rates and other income for boroughs, putting local services at risk. We call on the government to assess the loss of income boroughs would face and commit to meeting any shortfalls centrally.
For these reasons, we continue to call on the government to fundamentally rethink these proposals, particularly as they affect the capital, in consultation with London government.
Other Matters – new proposed restrictions on Article 4 Directions
The inquiry terms of reference do not refer to recent government consultation proposals to severely restrict boroughs’ use of Article 4 Directions to limit where PDR can apply in their areas, which if adopted would lead to negative impacts in sensitive locations across the capital.
The recent government consultation on National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) changes and National Model Design Code, included a proposal to change paragraph 53 of the NPPF which deals with Article 4 Directions. In the consultation document, the government suggests that the purpose of its proposed changes to the NPPF Article 4 provisions is to ensure that permitted development rights (allowing changes to residential) are targeted, fully justified and restricted to the smallest geographical area possible. However, as set out in our consultation response, we are extremely concerned that the government is seeking to almost completely nullify Article 4 Directions by the changes it is proposing. These proposed changes will further undermine LPAs and continue the government’s national centralisation of planning powers.
In our response to the government’s Use Class E to residential PDR consultation (see above), we noted our concern that the proposed PDR would apply in conservation areas, thus increasing the need for boroughs to be able to potentially protect such areas using Article 4 Directions. Against this background, we are very concerned to note that the government has proposed these severe restrictions on Article 4 Directions, even before it had responded to the outcome of its Use Class E to residential PDR consultation.
It is clear that the original intention of paragraph 53 was to provide a balance between national PDR policies and allowing for local priorities to be addressed. In relation to the specific paragraph 53 wording changes being proposed by the government, our consultation response included the following comments:
(a) Neither of the optional wording additions offered by the government are acceptable, as they both seek to set an unreasonably high bar, which would almost completely nullify the provision. Additionally, the first option proposes a test of ‘wholly unacceptable adverse impacts’ which is subjective, and the second option proposes an alternative test of protecting ‘an interest of national significance’, which is not defined.
(b) A further proposed change would completely exclude consideration of local amenity and the well-being of a local area, even where PDR schemes involve the demolition of local facilities, which is unacceptable.
(c) A final proposed wording change, to limit Article 4 Directions in all cases to the smallest geographical area possible, seeks to minimise local discretion and yet further marginalise the use of the Article 4 provision by boroughs.
Consequently, as our consultation response made clear, it is our strong view that the original paragraph 53 wording should be retained.