Written evidence submitted by the Town and Country Planning Association [PDR 024]
1 About the TCPA
1.1 The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) works to challenge, inspire and support people to create healthy, sustainable and resilient places that are fair for everyone. Founded in 1899, our work over the last century has focused on improving both the art and science of planning in the UK and abroad. We do this through a variety of ways including seeking to influence national policy and legislation, undertaking research and developing guidance and running workshops for local authorities and communities. Our strategic priorities are to:
2.1 The TCPA believes that democratic planning has brought enormous benefits to our society, environment and economy. However, the English planning system has undergone continuous and radical reform in the last decade. This has significantly undermined its ability to deliver sustainable development and is too often producing outcomes which too undermine people’s mental and physical health.
2.2 Of all the reform measures implemented since 2010 it is the expansion of permitted development which is at the greatest negative impact on housing quality and wider placemaking. The Raynsford Review concluded that permitted development had positively contributed to the ‘slums of the future’. The evidence of the negative impact of this form of development is absolutely clear, not least in the government's own commissioned research. We are concerned that the rapid expansion of the permitted development regime amounts to a new shadow planning system which prevents positive planning, marginalises the voice of local people, damages the economy of town centres and produces extremely poor housing design outcomes.
2.3 While the poor quality of the outcomes of permitted development have an immediate impact on people’s health and well-being the imposition of this ‘shadow’ planning system through national planning law also has a profound impact on local democratic accountability. This submission makes clear that local councils can only object to permitted development applications in relation to a narrow list of prior approval matters. These matters fall far short of those necessary to safeguard people's basic welfare let alone delivering the Planning White Papers commitments to ‘beauty’ and design. Because much of the development which affects towns and city centres relates to the conversion of existing premises there is now a real question about the purpose of existing local and neighbourhood plans. How are they to be implemented and what is the point of community participation in setting a future vision when the powers to deliver it have been removed.
2.4 It is particularly disappointing that the government has progressed its most recent expansion of permitted developments despite the wide range of organisations that raised concerns about them. There has been unprecedented consensus from all sectors including business, environmental and social housing sectors that expansion of permitted development rights will have a detrimental impact on our town centres, on the provision of affordable homes and on the health and well being of the residents of these housing units.
2.5 We recognise there is a need to reform the planning system to enable the delivery of more homes. However, deregulation will not deliver the high-quality homes that people need. We have set out in a number of documents, most notably Common Ground: a shared vision for planning reform and Planning 2020: Raynsford Review of planning in England, Final report the kind of changes that could be made to the existing system to improve the quality of outcomes and the efficiency and transparency of the system.
3 Responses to the Committee’s questions
3.1 As the committee will be aware, permitted development effectively gives approval in principle of categories of development which then do not require full planning permission. It was originally used for minor developments with little or no impact on the wider community. It was rapidly expanded after 2013 as an emergency measure so that offices and other commercial premises could be converted into residential use with minimal safeguards. Local authorities could consider flood risk and transport issues but could not consider the wider bundle of vital issues on design and location.
3.2 We believe that, as was the case prior to the reforms begun in 2013, PDRs should only be applied when development or change of use does not have any significant impact on people’s health or wellbeing or on the environment. The rights should also only apply to small scale development or changes so that it does not undermine the plan-led system.
3.3 In term of the quantity of new homes being delivered through PDRs, official government statistics [live table 120] show that between 2015-2016 to 2019-2020 around 73,000 new dwellings were delivered. We believe however that it is hard to know exactly what number of new homes have been delivered. For example, for a scheme in Luton Borough Council the original application for prior approval considering the conversion of a 10-storey building from office to residential use set out that 80 housing units would be created at eight flats per floor. However, the updated marketing video for the building, which was published in September 2014, clearly states that 137 “luxury apartments” have been delivered.
3.4 While 12,000 to 19,000 new homes a year via these rights [live tables 120] may not be substantial, it is important to note that the rights have been used extensively in some locations. The Local Government Association (LGA) state that in 2018/19 “more than half (51%) of all new homes in Harlow were office conversions, with 48% in Norwich and 43% in Three Rivers.”
3.5 In response to a number of organisations, including the TCPA, raising concerns about the quality of some of the homes being delivered through PDRs, the government commissioned University College London and the University of Liverpool to undertake an independent review. The research was finally published in July 2020 and concluded (on page 10) that such conversions:
“create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors vital to the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers.”
3.6 The report recognised that the situation was slightly more nuanced than some previous reports had suggested, but still stated:
“Regarding amenity space, just 3.5% of the PD units we analysed benefitted from access to private amenity space, compared to 23.1% of the planning permission units. It is the combination of very small internal space standards, a poor mix of unit types, lack of access to private amenity space / outdoor space, and inadequate natural light which can provide such a poor residential experience in some permitted development units.”
3.7 The location of the converted homes can also be extremely poor. The government commissioned work stated that:
“There was…a notable tendency that PD schemes were more likely to be located in primarily commercial areas (like business parks) and primarily industrial areas than planning permission schemes (7.9% of PD schemes compared to 1.0% of planning permission schemes; about eight times more). Our site visits found that some of these locations offered extremely poor residential amenity.”
3.8 While the TCPA recognises the need for more homes we do not believe deregulating the planning system to deliver homes through PDRs is the appropriate way to do it. A crucial part of delivering new homes needs to be delivering more, genuinely affordable ones. And homes delivered via PDRs are undermining that objective. In January 2020, the Local Government Association estimated that local authorities have potentially “lost out on more than 13,500 desperately needed affordable homes” over four years.
3.9 In the context of planning for fire safety the TCPA is concerned that PDR may bypass the Gateway Point 1 test recommended in paragraph 2.27 of the Hackitt Review which is designed to ensure that higher risk buildings are accessible to fire and rescue services and where other new development might imped accessibility to existing higher risk buildings. For the avoidance of doubt, fire service accessibility should be a prior approval matter.
3.10 The implication of the nationally determined rights is that local authorities now have very little control over many aspects of change in their area, particularly in town centres. That will make it very difficult to implement a range of other policy priorities around regeneration, creating healthy, walkable, compact neighbourhoods (such as ’20 minute neighbourhoods’ – please see our response to question e, where we set out more on this) and seeking to tackle climate change.
3.11 For some local authorities this loss of control will raise questions about the purpose and scope of a local plan. Local authorities will have control over the land they own and their own investment decisions but otherwise the majority of key development decisions in town centres are now out of their hands as so many buildings will be able to be used for different purposes, including residential uses, once the latest rights come into force in August 2021. We are concerned, for example, that local authorities have been left without the levers to respond to a rapid increase in low quality private rented accommodation in town centres, which creates multiple demands on social infrastructure. We address this issue further in our response to question e below.
3.12 Local planning authorities do have the power to set Article 4 directions, which enables them to take back some control and create exemptions to PDR. The policy bar for approval is already, however, set quite high and the process takes time. We believe these are a crucial tool for local authorities to be able to apply if and when nationally designated rights are undermining their locally led plans for regeneration and place-making. We are, therefore, concerned about the proposals the government recently consulted on in the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
3.13 Paragraph 53 of draft NPPF makes significant changes to the application of Article 4. The new proposed policy test sets the bar for the application of such orders too high by using language such as ‘wholly unacceptable’, or where impacts are of ‘national significance’. As a result, the policy change would further strip away effective powers from local government over the control of their own communities.
3.14 In our response to the consultation, we have urged the government to amend the wording to reflect legislation for Article 4 directions as outlined in Schedule 3 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. The order allows a local authority to introduce an Article 4 direction where it considers that the development to which it relates would be prejudicial to the proper planning or amenities of their area. Given the Government’s desire for brevity in national policy, and that this legal definition is precise, it is unclear why any policy is necessary in the NPPF.
3.15 PDRs are also having a critical impact on developer contributions, which within the current system are central to funding the provision of infrastructure and services. As noted in our response to question b, this includes much needed affordable housing.
3.16 A study of the impacts of extended PDRs across five local authorities published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors back in 2018 estimated that those local authorities lost a combined total of £10.8 million in Section 106 funds over a four-year period due to PDRs, while as many as 1,667 affordable homes were lost. These local authorities lost a further £4.1 million in reduced application fees. The study’s authors described office-to-residential PD as a “fiscal giveaway from the state to the private sector real estate interests”.
3.17 To give a more specific example, in our report, No Place for Place-Making, we highlight the case study of Delta Point in Croydon. The council received a prior notification to convert a former office building into 404 residential. Despite being a very dense development, no amenity space was provided, and only 100 units met national space standards. The developer did not have to pay any contributions towards local infrastructure and services, meaning that the council missed out on as much as £1,858,400 (£4,600 per unit). When a council is faced with losing contributions from numerous dense schemes such as this through PDRs, their ability to fund the provision of important local infrastructure is inevitably severely diminished.
3.18 The Planning White Paper states that it and the reforms that will follow are “an attempt to rediscover the original mission and purpose of those who sought to improve our homes and streets in late Victorian and early 20th century Britain.” It also recognises that “Planning matters” and that the current system is not “fairly using the talents and passions of public sector planners who often feel over-worked and under-appreciated, trapped between the urgent need for more homes, an insufficiently competitive market and a policy framework which makes it almost impossible for them to insist upon beautiful and sustainable new homes and places.”
3.19 This emphasis on rediscovering the mission and purpose of planning in relation to improving outcomes for people and communities, and empowering planners to prevent the development of unsustainable, poorly designed new homes and places. But we believe it is totally undermined by the government’s actions in relation to PDR.
3.20 If the government is serious about promoting beautiful, well designed places, giving communities a more meaningful voice in the planning system, revitalising high streets and rebuilding trust, it must abolish the majority of PDRs that exist at the moment. Or, at the very least, implement minimum standards to ensure the quality of new homes developed through these rights are supporting people’s mental and physical health, rather than undermining it [see our response to question h for more detail on this].
3.21 As we have set out in our response to question c, we believe PDR undermine the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities. To explain that in a little more detail, as committee members will be aware, within the PD regime, while there is a ‘prior approval’ process, which means that in theory development can be prevented by the local authority, only those matters prescribed in secondary legislation can be considered in the decision. And different rights have different matters prescribed so, for example, local authorities can take ‘design’ into consideration for a scheme that will demolish and rebuild a property, but no consideration of design can be given for conversions from Class E uses to residential. Attempts to refuse PDR applications based on clear negative impacts have failed at appeal where these impacts do not relate to a prescribed prior approval matter. In no cases do these matters include the full provision of the democratically accountable development plan. This is a radical departure from the notion of ‘material considerations’ we've been used to applying and results in an extreme narrowing of the issues upon which decisions can be based. For example, the local plan is not the basis of decision making for prior approval applications.
3.22 The lockdowns in response to the COVID pandemic have highlighted the importance of the ‘liveability’ of neighbourhoods, with people spending more time locally, working at home if possible, using public green space, cycling and walking instead of using cars and connecting with neighbours. Drawing on national and internal place-making experience, we published a guide for council planners recently, focused on the idea of '20 minute neighbourhoods' - sometimes called by other names, such as '15 minute cities'. Creating complete, compact communities should be clearly in line with the aspirations set out in the Planning White Paper. But PDR risks creating more city or town centre homes, at the expense of other much needed facilities. Local authorities, due to PDR, currently do not have a tools to shape places so they are more likely to meet the needs of local communities.
3.23 No, we do not agree with the argument that PDR support business and economic growth. We know that a range of businesses are concerned about the latest proposals to expand PDRs to allow the conversion of E Use Class to residential. Back in February we were one of 27 organisations, including British Property Federation, the Institute of Place Management and British BIDs, to raise these concerns in a letter to the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick. The letter stated:
“We welcome Government recognition that our town centres must change, but an all-embracing permitted development right that allows most commercial buildings to be converted to housing risks putting the long-term health of our town centres at risk for the sake of a short-term stimulus.
Putting ground floor housing in a random and uncontrolled manner within high streets does not draw footfall, does not support new businesses, reduces the potential for business growth and will undermine the viability of existing retail, cultural and commercial activities on the high street and remove convenience stores from local neighbourhoods. This will create a vicious circle whereby the reduced viability of the remaining commercial uses in turn threatens their existence and incentivises their conversion to residential.”
3.24 One of the most dramatic implications of the continued expansion of PDR is the shift in public participation and accountability. Ministers continue to argue that through this system, because decisions are made locally, they are still democratic. That argument is misplaced for a number of reasons.
3.25 Firstly, the rules that apply to PDR decisions are set centrally and not subject to any local control or community participation. The policy aspirations of a local community contained within a local plan or a neighbourhood plan do not have a clear legal weight in determining permitted development decisions. As we note in response to question e, local authorities can consider some issues as part of the prior approval process. However, the scope of the nationally described rules excludes many issues that local politicians and people might care about including, for example, human health or delivering zero carbon development.
3.26 For most PDR public consultation and neighbourhood notification rules do not apply in the same way as they do for planning applications. And decisions are also not subject to determination of a planning committee in the same way as a normal planning applications. This is of course part of the appeal of these rights for some people. But it is clear therefore that local communities are predominantly if not totally excluded from this element of the planning process. And it undermines the delivery of local plans, neighbourhoods plans and their policies, which local communities rightly find hugely frustrating and disempowering and further erodes trust in the planning system.
3.27 As set out in our response to question a, we are clear that Government should ensure PDR only applies to forms of very minor development. It should, therefore, revoke the PDR created since 2013 that allow buildings to be converted into residential use without proposals being properly considered through the planning system.
3.28 However if PDR is to remain a key part of the English planning system then the TCPA believes the following planning considerations are the basic minimum that need to be applied in the prior approval process for all of the PDR:
3.29 Drawing on these important themes, we ask the Committee to consider advocating for a new Healthy Homes Bill, which would require all new homes and neighbourhoods to be of decent quality, and effectively outlaw those which undermine residents’ health and wellbeing. This would apply top new homes developed via PDR but also to those receiving planning permission.
3.30 The Bill, which we have developed collaboratively over the last 18 months, sets out a suite of ‘healthy homes principles’, along with a powerful new duty on the Secretary of State to ensure people’s health is a core priority for policy and regulation. The principles define at a high level what constitutes a safe and healthy home. They concern basic and common-sense needs such as access to green space and natural light, accessibility, safety from crime and a walkable streetscape. Overall, the principles would provide a much-needed new single unified approach to the regulation of the built environment, and ensure that the starting point for all forms of relevant regulation and policy would always be the health, safety, and the wellbeing of people.
 Final report of the Raynsford Review - TCPA_Raynsford.qxd
 Published in July 2020 - Research into the quality standard of homes delivered through change of use permitted development rights (publishing.service.gov.uk)
 See for example this letter from 27 organisations - BPF - Industry bodies warn Secretary of State: uncontrolled conversions to residential will damage high streets
 Common Ground - Download.ashx (tcpa.org.uk)
 Final report of the Raynsford Review - TCPA_Raynsford.qxd
 Wesley House, 19 Chapel Street, Luton, LU1 2SE - YouTube
 LGA - Over 13,500 affordable homes lost through office conversions | Local Government Association
 Research into the quality standard of homes delivered through change of use permitted development rights (publishing.service.gov.uk)
 LGA - Over 13,500 affordable homes lost through office conversions | Local Government Association
 Supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure: government response - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
 Draft NPPF for consultation (publishing.service.gov.uk)
 HHA_PDRs_hyp.qxd (tcpa.org.uk)
 See for example the decision in Watford, which is set out as a case study in box 1 on pages 12 and 13 of the report at RR+1_RGB_B_Final.qxd (tcpa.org.uk)
 20MN_Main.qxd (tcpa.org.uk)
 BPF - Industry bodies warn Secretary of State: uncontrolled conversions to residential will damage high streets
 See for example - https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/housing-minister-hits-back-at-critics-of-planning-reforms-with-myth-busting-speech-67797
 More information including a suggested Bill can be found at: Campaign: The Healthy Homes Act | Town and Country Planning Association (tcpa.org.uk)