Written evidence submitted by the Local Government Association [PDR 023]

 

 

 


 

  1. About the Local Government Association (LGA)

 

1.1.               The Local Government Association (LGA) is the national voice of local government. We are a politically led, cross-party membership organisation, representing councils from England and Wales. 

 

1.2.               Our role is to support, promote and improve local government, and raise national awareness of the work of councils. Our ultimate ambition is to support councils to deliver local solutions to national problems.

 

  1. Summary

 

2.1.               Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of Government is understandably focused on the economic recovery of local areas around the country. Whilst the focus on economic growth is understandable, the Government’s recent decision to extend permitted development rights (PDR) may lead to unintended and irreversible consequences, undermining an area’s decisions and long-term strategy for growth, as agreed through their Local Plan.

 

2.2.               Extending PDR does not support the Government’s aspirations outlined in the Planning White Paper. Those aspirations, which are shared by councils, include greater democratic accountability and transparency, tackling climate change, improving biodiversity, protecting our heritage, planning for beautiful and sustainable places, and developing the necessary and high-quality infrastructure and affordable homes we need.

 

2.3.               We are also concerned that the Government has continued to extend PDR when they have not yet responded to submissions to the Planning White Paper consultation.

 

2.4.               Only a locally-led planning system in which councils and the communities they represent have a say over the way places develop will ensure the delivery of high-quality affordable homes with the necessary infrastructure to create sustainable, resilient places for current and future generations.

 

2.5.               Councils play an important role in building and creating communities by supporting local involvement in designing and planning great places for current and future generations. This is not just about the number of homes, but where they are built and the social and economic infrastructure that supports them.

 

2.6.               PDR is an ad hoc, disconnected approach that undermines councils’ and their communities’ strategic long-term decisions, and ability to make decisions that reflect local need and preserve and enhance the unique and distinctive character of their area. The Government’s recent decision to extend PDR for conversion from any commercial use to residential, and for public service infrastructure, is a hasty response, lacking evidence and without any Impact Assessments having been conducted.

 

2.7.               The Government’s own research has highlighted how conversions to residential through change of use PDR can fail to meet adequate design standards, avoid contributing to local areas and create worse living environments. Conversions to residential affects vulnerable people disproportionately and can exacerbate existing inequalities, resulting in people being placed in accommodation that falls short of the Nationally Described Space Standard (NDSS), with little or no access to green space, often in remote locations in the city with poor access to public transport. We welcome the Government’s announcement that all new homes in England delivered through PDR will be required to meet space standards, which is yet to be implemented. However, this will not address the legacy of existing housing delivered through PDR that does not meet the NDSS.

 

2.8.               The Government’s decision to extend PDR also means that councils will lose out on more Section 106 contributions for affordable housing at a time when these are most needed. Communities have already potentially lost 16,200 affordable homes through office to residential conversions.

 

2.9.               As leaders of place, councils have already been working hard to repurpose their high streets and town centres and respond to longer-term trends in how they are used. They recognise that the pace of change and intervention will need to quicken as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Councils want to do what they can to adapt but are held back by lack of resources and planning limitations that arise as a result of the increasing scope of PDR and the continuing complexity of the compulsory purchase order process.

 

  1. What role should permitted development rights (PDR) play in the planning system?

 

3.1.               The LGA does not support PDR because it significantly impacts communities without genuine public engagement or the level of transparency proposed in the Government’s Planning White Paper. PDR is an ad hoc, disconnected approach that undermines councils’ and their communities’ ability to make locally-led planning decisions that reflect local need. We have repeatedly called for the Government to scrap PDR.

 

3.2.               We have also made it clear that PDR undermines the policies in the National Planning Policy Framework and the intention of the draft National Model Design Code to create sustainable, well-designed places. PDR can fail to meet adequate design standards, avoid contributing to local areas, and create worse living environments.

 

3.3.               We do not support restricting the use of Article 4 directions to remove national PDR as this will remove a local planning authority’s ability to make local decisions based on local need. Councils need the powers, tools and resources to be able to shape vibrant places for their local communities with a mixed offer including retail, culture, and sport and leisure provision. Councils use Article 4 directions for a range of reasons, including tackling issues relating to the change of use of dwellings to Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO).

 

3.4.               In a survey of councils conducted by the LGA in 2018, 97 per cent of councils that responded thought that the elements of the Permitted Development Order (PDO) which allowed change of use to residential should be changed, with nearly half (45 per cent) responding that they should be abolished. Nearly all (92 per cent) of the respondents were moderately or very concerned about the quality/design of housing resulting from PDOs, and 89 per cent were moderately or very concerned about the appropriateness of the location of housing resulting from PDOs.

 

3.5.               The Government’s recent decision to allow conversion, from 1 August 2021, of anything in the Commercial, Business and Service Use Class E to Residential Use Class C3 does not support the Government’s aspirations outlined in the Planning White Paper. Whilst the Government believes that allowing a change of use from commercial to residential will alleviate empty shops on high streets and in town centres, this is a hasty response which lacks evidence, and may lead to more poor-quality housing in units never intended nor designed for human habitation.

 

3.6.               We also have concerns about the Government’s recent decision to fast-track extensions to public service buildings. By allowing these major developments to be fast-tracked they may delay other existing plans, placing an additional burden on councils. When applied to schools, for example, the right may prevent local planning authorities, in some cases together with the Department for Education, from ensuring that expansion of schools occurs in the right places and where there is a projected future need for additional, or expansion of, schools. Councils will likely require additional resources to fast-track these applications, which will put significant pressure on councils with already stretched resources.

 

  1. What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?

 

4.1.               PDR schemes have far more frequently been located primarily in commercial and/or industrial areas than those with planning permission. The Government’s own research found that vulnerable people are being placed in accommodation that falls short of the Nationally Described Space Standard (NDSS), often in remote locations in the city with poor access to public transport. The research also found that there are noticeable differences in terms of the compliance with NDSS, with only 52 per cent of prior approval units meeting the standard, and poorer Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) performance than accommodation 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.

 

4.2.               We have urged the Government to consider that not all retail space or industrial buildings will be an appropriate size to reconfigure into homes or have the necessary configuration for homes, such as access to daylight and internal and outdoor space. Councils should have the ability to determine, together with their communities, whether a building can increase in size and if so, by how much. Quality housing located in the right area is especially important in the wake of COVID-19 as we are likely to continue to spend more time at home as many employers consider ways to make home working more permanent.

 

4.3.               The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted stark inequalities within our society. This is especially so in health outcomes due in part to poor quality housing such as that developed through PDR, due to poor ventilation, a lack of space standards, and a lack of access to services and green space. There is a significant body of evidence that points to the negative impact that overcrowding and poor-quality housing has on people, and that our housing is an important determinant of our health. While this can affect anyone living in poor quality housing, Public Health England has identified how existing inequalities affecting those from Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, for example, have become exposed and exacerbated during the pandemic. The recent Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on the unequal impacts of COVID-19 on a range of different groups highlighted that overcrowding, which is characteristic of PDR, also disproportionately affects the BAME community, low-income households, older persons, renters and those with disabilities.

 

4.4.               Access to green and open space is particularly important for those living in housing without private green space. The Grimsey Review: COVID-19 Supplement for Town Centres advised that the quality and quantity of amenity space must accompany residential growth in town centres, and that “green space has never been more valued and should be an essential part of any town centre and design brief”. The London Green Spaces Commission points out that this is particularly important given the increasing role parks and green space will play for urban areas in tackling complex challenges and their multiplicity of positive impacts on economic, environmental, social and health outcomes.

 

4.5.               PDR has removed the ability of local planning authorities to secure planning requirements on affordable homes or wider place-making standards, as highlighted in the Raynsford Review of Planning. This means that communities have no way to ensure developers meet high quality standards, provide any affordable homes as part of the development or ensure supporting infrastructure such as roads, schools and health services are in place. Communities across the country have already potentially lost 16,200 affordable homes through office to residential conversions. Last year (2019/20) more than half of all new homes in Trafford (56 per cent) were office conversions with 40.9 per cent in Crawley, and Luton, Walsall and Harlow nearly 40 per cent. On top of this, in their 2020 review, The Chartered Institute of Housing found that housing affordability has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic across both the private and social housing sectors.

 

4.6.               The inability to secure affordable housing and other Section 106 contributions towards, for example, local transport and public realm improvements is also a significant missed opportunity. PDR undermines the delivery of much needed affordable housing at a time when we need it more than ever. Instead, building 100,000 new social homes would help the COVID-19 economic recovery and result in a nearly £15 billion boost to the economy. Councils should be able to determine the mix of affordable homes tenures that best meet local needs.

 

4.7.               Over a million homes allocated in Local Plans are already waiting to be taken up by the development industry. These sites do not yet have planning permission but have been formally identified as suitable for housing by local councils and are sustainable locations that have been tested at the examination of the plan. This amounts to an additional 4.4 years’ worth of housing supply on top of the five years of housing land supply many councils can demonstrate. Including an allowance for dwellings from windfalls, this increases to 6.8 years’ worth of housing supply for England.

 

4.8.               The LGA is concerned that PDR is contributing to the number of unsafe homes in England. This concern is based on the work and experience of our own Joint Inspection Team and on anecdotal evidence from members, and conversations with Local Authority Building Control, including during our participation in the Joint Regulators Group advising the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on the new building safety regime.

 

4.9.               The Government amended the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (GDPO) on PDR at the end of last year. This amendment requires developers to demonstrate that a building over 18 metres in height has a safe cladding system before seeking prior approval to add storeys to it. Whilst a welcome revision, it does not apply to buildings that are under 18 metres, despite the fact that the Government has advised that Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding is not safe on buildings of any height and despite the fact a building under 18 metres may exceed that height when so extended. We would like to see these deficiencies addressed. Moreover, it is important to note that the shortcomings of office conversions are not, in our experience, confined to cladding issues. Internal compartmentation is often not compliant, and this issue is not covered by the amendment.

 

4.10.          We also set out our concerns regarding Gateway One and its conflict with the Planning White Paper in our evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Building Safety Bill. Secondary legislation and other measures will also be required for the Bill to achieve its policy objectives. We are particularly concerned that this has already been undermined by the recent extension to PDR. The explanatory note states that under PDR, a building will bypass Gateway One and go straight to Gateway Two when the regulator approves the start of construction work based on a study of the detailed plan.

 

4.11.          The HCLG Committee’s conclusion and recommendations stated their concern that the Government’s proposed extension of PDR would allow many building projects to bypass Gateway One and thereby weaken the whole regulatory framework for the design and construction of higher-risk buildings. The LGA has urged the Government that if it does proceed with its PDR proposals, it must find a way of retaining the benefits of Gateway One.

 

4.12.          Gateway One will only apply to buildings within the scope of the regime for high-risk buildings proposed in the Bill. We are therefore concerned that PDR has a negative effect on buildings outside this group, such as shop conversions to flats and office conversions under 18 metres. The LGA’s Fire Services Management Committee set out these concerns in a letter to the Minister last August to which we have not yet received a reply.

 

  1. What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?

 

5.1.               PDR removes local planning authorities’ ability to make the appropriate long-term decisions for their infrastructure and services. PDR impacts on the immediate and surrounding areas with no consideration for local needs, which would otherwise be considered through the existing planning application process. The Government’s recent decision to extend PDR will impact on existing infrastructure that supports and provides services to communities as well as the timing for delivery of other planned infrastructure. Additional impacts such as parking and transport access will need to be considered as these changes could impact on the wider transport network. Any plans for expansion should be required to have been identified in a council’s Local Plan so that councils and communities can identify where there may be impacts on the wider community and their response.

 

5.2.               The recent decision to fast-track applications for some major infrastructure development is particularly concerning, notwithstanding the current exceptional and immediate need for temporary extensions to hospitals and medical facilities. Councils and communities are best placed to make decisions for their local areas through the existing planning process. This allows them to take into consideration existing and planned development, as well as their infrastructure needs.

 

5.3.               As we said in our response to the Government’s consultation, we do not support the extension, erection or alteration of school, college, university, hospital, and for the first time prison, buildings by up to 25 per cent of the existing footprint of the cumulative buildings on the site, or 250 square metres, whichever is greater, without planning permission. We also said that we did not support allowing the existing height restriction on new buildings to be increased from five metres to six metres. The Government will now allow the aforementioned size extensions to occur through PDR. Councils should have the ability to determine together with their communities whether an increase in the size of development is required, and if so, by how much.

 

5.4.               This new right will also prevent local planning authorities, in some cases together with the Department for Education, from ensuring that expansion of schools occurs in the right places and where there is a projected future need for additional, or expansion of, schools. We support the proposal for the right to provide protections for nearby residents in that it restricts development close to the boundary and, in the case of schools, safeguards playing fields.

 

5.5.               In addition, councils are currently restricted from opening new maintained schools and should therefore be able to consider expansion. This should be done through the existing planning process to ensure that expansions take place where they are most needed and in agreement with their local community. We urged the Government to give councils back the responsibility for making decisions about opening new schools, where that is the local preference. More broadly, the Government should replace the existing highly fragmented school capital funding system with a single local funding pot, bringing together existing programmes to create additional places, as well as rebuild, maintain and repair schools.

 

5.6.               The Government has suggested that local authorities would benefit from a reduced volume of planning applications. On the contrary, by allowing these major developments to be fast-tracked they may delay other existing plans, placing an additional burden on councils. Councils will likely require additional resources to fast-track these applications, which will put significant pressure on councils with already stretched resources.

 

5.7.               Planning fees already do not cover the true cost of processing planning applications, and taxpayers currently subsidise the cost at a rate of nearly £180 million a year. This is most apparent with smaller applications, and planning departments need greater resourcing. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18 there was a 37.9 per cent fall in net current expenditure on planning functions and planning departments. This significantly reduces their capacity to ensure the delivery of new housing through the planning process and enable the new supply of housing and appropriate infrastructure. Council planning departments could become self-financing through allowing councils to set planning fees locally.

 

  1. Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?

 

6.1.               The Government’s current approach to PDR, including the recent decision to allow conversion, from 1 August 2021, of anything in the Commercial, Business and Service Use Class E to Residential Use Class C3, and to allow a fast-track to extend public service buildings, does not support the Government’s aspirations outlined in the Planning White Paper.

 

6.2.               The aspirations in the Planning White Paper, which are shared by councils, include greater democratic accountability and transparency, tackling climate change, improving biodiversity, protecting our heritage, planning for beautiful and sustainable places, and developing the necessary and high-quality infrastructure and affordable homes we need. However, with its primary focus on housebuilding and speed, the proposals within the White Paper itself contradict its stated aspirations. The White Paper gives little consideration to the many roles local planning authorities undertake together with their communities to facilitate, create, revitalise, and make great places. There is also no detail about how planning for other local priorities, for example employment or infrastructure provision, will align with housing delivery. 

 

6.3.               The Government believes that the conversion of commercial to residential through PDR will help alleviate empty shops and stimulate economic growth on high streets and in town centres. However, this is a hasty response that will undermine councils’ ability to manage effective repurposing of their town centre assets and will lead to more poor-quality housing in units never intended nor designed for human habitation. This is especially important because people are likely to continue to spend more time at home as employers consider ways to make home working more permanent, increasing the need for a safe, healthy homes as people live, work and play, all from home.

 

  1. What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?

 

7.1.               PDR can lead to unintended and irreversible consequences, undermining an area’s decision-making and long-term strategy for growth, as agreed through their Local Plan. The Government’s own research has highlighted how conversions to residential through change of use PDR can fail to meet adequate design standards, avoid contributing to local areas and create worse living environments. The research also found that PDR undermined the ability of councils to bring about positive changes in their areas because it limited their influence to repurpose town centre assets. Councils and their communities have already been left with a long-term legacy of negative impacts resulting from some of the 19 amendments to the General Permitted Development Order since 2015. 

 

7.2.               The Government’s recent decision to extend PDR to conservation areas does not support local authorities and communities’ ability to shape, preserve, and enhance the unique and distinctive character of their areas. We responded to the proposals that the right should not apply to any of the 10,000 conservation areas in England. This would not allow for consideration of the cumulative impact of decisions that will irreversibly disturb the existing fabric of a conservation area. Councils should not need to use their already limited resources to make an Article 4 direction to protect conservation areas from permitted development rights. Local communities must continue to have a say in how their local conservation areas are managed, and this is best done through the existing planning process.

 

7.3.               Conservation areas vary greatly and the special character of these areas does not come only from the quality of their buildings but through a holistic set of uses, including form and function. Historic environments can also play an integral role in a place’s identity and civic pride as well as its success, contributing to a wider economic and social strategy as agreed through a council’s Local Plan. In their report Living with Beauty, the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission advised against allowing permissions such as PDR to be available in conservation areas and for listed buildings. A number of the Government’s recommendations for Pillar Two – Planning for beautiful and sustainable places in the recent Planning White Paper are based on the Commission’s findings.

 

  1. Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?

 

8.1.               The Government has provided no evidence that PDR will achieve their intended goal to support business and stimulate a sustainable economic recovery and/or growth. We have cautioned against hasty responses to the decrease in footfall and activity in high streets and town centres that lack evidence in terms of their social, economic, and environmental success.

 

8.2.               PDR could undermine councils’ existing high street recovery plans, including the 72 recipients of the Government’s recent £830 million Future High Streets fund. Instead, genuine public engagement will ensure that a community has an agreed understanding about how, where, and what type of increased capacity will meet their needs. Councils and communities will have even less opportunity to have a say should the Planning White Paper proposals go ahead, with shorter consultation timeframes and proposals to fast-track certain developments.

 

8.3.               As needs and priorities change, councils also need the tools and resources to be able to shape vibrant places for their local communities with a mixed offer including retail, culture, sport and leisure provision. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) found that previous conversion of office to residential use has led to the loss of business activity and its contribution to local economies and community vitality. The HCLG Committee concluded from their inquiry on High Streets and Town Centres 2030 that planning is crucial to high street and town centre transformation and the Government should therefore ensure that planning powers are fit-for-purpose. The Committee made it clear that PDR risks undermining the strategic vision that a community has developed for its high street or town centre, and preferred an approach whereby Local Plans identify where housing should be situated.

 

8.4.               We have urged the Government to undertake Impact Assessments for business, local planning authorities, communities and those with a protected characteristic. However, the Government has taken their recent PDR proposals forward prior to undertaking Impact Assessments and with no evidence to support their approach.

 

8.5.               The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact on local economies and the full effects are yet to be felt. A year since the pandemic began, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) found in March 2021 that the UK had been hit particularly hard, and GDP fell 9.9 per cent in 2020, the largest decline in the G7. The OBR economic and fiscal outlook also draws out at a macro level the differential economic shocks to sectors, with sectors most reliant on face-to-face interactions - hospitality, transport, and entertainment - experiencing the worst impacts.

 

8.6.               Every local economy is different, and councils are already starting to plan for local recoveries that best suit their places and communities, and this work is at risk of being undermined by PDR. Some councils will want to focus on the hospitality industry, others on high street support, or new opportunities in the green economy, or ensuring that recovery tackles inequalities that the pandemic has brought to the surface. The capacity of councils to support local economic recovery is also going to vary around the country.

 

8.7.               High streets and town centres are complex, dynamic and mixed, depending on their local context. In their early analysis of planning for post-pandemic high street recovery, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) found that the term ‘high street’ covers a vast range of places affected by different (and often unique) circumstances. These places have experienced (and will continue to experience) the effects of the pandemic differently. For example, whilst larger high streets have been affected by a reduced footfall, increased home working has provided opportunities for smaller high streets.

 

8.8.               The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet fully understood, yet there has already been change in how people use their local areas. This looks set to endure as homeworking and living more locally are likely continue. Councils want to make and shape great places, and have clear, strong ambitions for their local recovery. However, PDR will limit councils’ flexibility in developing alternative uses of former retail space on the high street with a potential negative impact on the variety of offer in town centres.

 

8.9.               There are a number of risks associated with permitting widespread PDR now that could make the retail sector more fragile. Once units are converted to residential use, it is unlikely that they will ever return to high street or town centre uses. Inactive frontages and a lack of flexibility for future change of use may lead to negative knock-on effects or unintended consequences such as the departure of other retail or complementary uses, removing the active street frontages and mix of uses that make high streets and town centres vibrant. The loss of revenue from business rates will create additional challenges for councils already trying to recover economically from the pandemic.

 

8.10.          There are a range of alternative ways that councils can revitalise high streets and town centres. Culture-led regeneration can effectively support sustainable growth in town centres and has been used effectively by many local authorities, as we explored in our 2019 report on culture and economic growth and acknowledged in the Government’s approach to the Towns Fund. Culture and leisure buildings and organisations can act as anchor institutions, driving footfall to high streets and supporting the visitor and night-time economies. Culture and the creative industries can also be used as a focus for development. An increasing number of councils have made use of empty commercial units on high streets to establish meanwhile use or ‘pop-up’ cultural attractions and creative workspaces, which have the advantage of making temporary use of a unit, and allowing its return to retail or other functions when required. The LGA recently published good practice guidance for councils to address revitalising their town and city centre in the wake of COVID-19, including Dealing with Empty Shops, the Revitalising Town Centres toolkit for councils, and a Local Economic Recovery Planning: Playbook for Action.

 

8.11.          Community demand increasingly focuses on experience, requiring high streets to compete based on the experiences they offer their visitors. Cultural and leisure activities, including sports, are at the heart of how high streets can do this. The High Street Action Zones have made a particular impact by integrating local heritage into this offer, and any changes must not negatively impact on the work that has been done through these Zones, or work which could be done in the future.

 

8.12.          We know that increased residential presence on high streets has caused tensions with some existing premises, particularly music venues, leading to the welcome inclusion of the ‘Agent of Change’ principle in planning guidance. However, this example demonstrates that there can be unforeseen consequences from permitted development and that developing solutions can be a slow process during which many businesses end up closing – it took four years from the issue being raised to Agent of Change being included in guidance, and longer for it to be embedded in practice.  

 

8.13.          The LGA has also raised concern about the impact the proposed measures may have on sport, physical activity and indoor leisure. Gyms, swimming pools and sports and leisure facilities have been placed under great pressure during the pandemic due to loss of income and high maintenance costs during closures, as well as having fallen between the gaps of many of the packages of support available to other businesses and organisations. The recent Government announcement of a £100m package of support for leisure centres is welcome, however, the sector requires much more support if it is to survive and contribute to recovery.

 

  1. What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?

 

9.1.               PDR entirely removes the involvement of local communities in the planning process. In addition, as drafted, the Planning White Paper proposals will lead to a loss of local democracy, with councillors and communities being cut out of the process and a reduced ability to have a say on individual planning applications. There is a high risk that communities will not easily engage in the new way proposed in the White Paper. Local planning authorities may not have the resources to carry out the meaningful community engagement critical to achieving good planning outcomes with this new approach.

 

9.2.               Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, councils and the Government are understandably focused on the economic recovery of local areas. Since the pandemic began, communities have been spending more time in their own neighbourhoods and at home and understand their local needs now better than ever. Councils want to make and shape great places, and have clear, strong ambitions for their local recovery and long-term prosperity.

 

  1. Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?

 

10.1.          The LGA recommends that the Government reforms the system by scrapping existing and future national PDR in all forms.

 

 

April 2021