Written evidence submitted by the Chartered Institute of Housing [PDR 033]
CIH welcomes this inquiry into the impact that the expansion of the Permitted Development Rights (PDR) system has had and will have, should it continue to go forward as planned. It is right that this is the subject of scrutiny given the quality of homes which have been created through the system and those which may be created in the future, and the detrimental effects on residents living in poor quality not fit-for-purpose homes created through PDR. The lack of developer contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure is also of grave concern to CIH and we believe that the further expansion of PDR also has serious implications for local planning authorities’ (LPAs) role in placemaking and planning control, and their ability to plan to meet the needs of their local area. We appreciate the opportunity to provide evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee (HCLG) through this inquiry and would welcome being part of the conversation as matters progress. Successfully tackling our housing crisis will not only be about numbers. It will also be about delivering the right homes in the right places as part of communities in which residents want to live and can afford. There is a critical role for our homes to support health and wellbeing, as reports on the impact of poor quality and overcrowded housing during the current pandemic and lockdown has clearly shown (see for example: NHC’s report Lockdown, Rundown, Breakdown and evidence collated by the Health Foundation).
What role should PDR play in the planning system?
There may be a limited legitimate role for PDR to play in the system in minor scale developments which do not require the level of scrutiny and safeguarding the planning process provides. However, the extension of PDR over recent years and further future extension allowing the conversion of commercial buildings to new dwellings is an inappropriate application of PDR. The continued trajectory of deregulation in this area has impacts on housing quality and design; residents’ health and wellbeing; the provision of sufficient physical and social infrastructure; housing delivery of all tenures; economic growth, the future of our high streets; democratic engagement; and LPAs’ abilities to actually ‘plan’ to meet the needs of their communities.
What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?
Whilst expanded use of PDR may provide a route to providing a greater quantity of new homes, we firmly believe that PDR does not and will not deliver the quality homes we need. MHCLG funded research in 2020 concluded that such conversions create “worse quality residential environments”. Whilst we acknowledge and welcome that since the publication of this research the government has brought forward legislation to ensure that homes delivered under PDR must meet the nationally described space standards and provide for adequate natural light, these are basic minimums and not standards for quality. The further expansion of PDR risks the creation of many more poor quality, inadequate homes which undermine people’s health and wellbeing in the quest for increased numbers. The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) estimates that over 100,000 new homes have been delivered since extension of PDR in 2013, with no control over the quality, or contribution to delivery of affordable housing, or infrastructure needed for real place making (TCPA, No place for placemaking). This is at a time when we need an estimated 90,000 new homes per year at social rent levels, within the overall ambition for over 300,000 new homes a year. Guardian investigations have highlighted how the substandard homes created by permitted development do not meet the sometimes specialist needs of the people who live in them including families who are homeless. The proposed changes risk more people being forced to live in this way. In addition, we must seriously question how disabled and older residents might live well in these conversions. This reinforces more than ever the need for all new homes to be built to higher accessibility standards as a default (as called for by the Housing Made for Everyone coalition of which CIH is a funder member) and a Healthy Homes Act that would establish a framework to require all new homes to be of decent quality.
In terms of affordable and social housing, PDR does not enable local authorities to ensure adequate contributions are made to deliver much needed low-cost housing. Section 106 (s106) is currently a major mechanism for delivering new affordable homes, particularly homes for rent. In 2018 – 2019 nearly half (49 per cent) of all affordable homes delivered were funded through s106 (nil grant) agreements. Sixty-six per cent of new affordable homes in 2018 – 2019 were for rent, including social, affordable and intermediate rent (National Statistics, Statistical Release, November 2019). Research by Crisis and the National Housing Federation also shows that we need 145,000 new affordable homes a year to meet need, including 90,000 at social rents. It is vital that we do not lose valuable opportunities to provide the homes we need so badly. Research by Shelter in 2018 estimates that that urban authorities have missed out on over 10,000 affordable homes between 2015-16 and 2017-18 alone. A crucial part of delivering new homes needs to be delivering more, genuinely affordable ones, and homes delivered via PDRs are undermining that.
What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?
PDR does not enable local authorities to ensure adequate contributions are made to deliver the necessary infrastructure to deliver good places to live. Developer contributions play an incredibly important role in helping to ensure that the impacts of development are appropriately mitigated and that the right infrastructure is in place to support it. A study of the impacts of extended PDRs across five local authorities published by Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in 2018 estimated that those local authorities lost a combined total of £10.8 million in s106 funds over a four-year period due to PDRs. 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”. There is a real risk that ongoing and additional extensions to the use of PDR will result in many homes being created in areas without the necessary infrastructure and facilities to support them.
Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?
CIH believes that there is a direct contradiction between government’s ambitions and vision set out in the Planning White Paper, and the quality and residential amenity of homes which are and will potentially be created by increased use of PDR. The White Paper states that planning “should be a powerful tool for creating visions of how places can be, engaging communities in that process and fostering high quality development…” and that planning “should generate net gains for the quality of our built and natural environments”. The White Paper recognises that “planning matters” however this is undermined by the government’s actions in relation to PDR. Deregulation in this manner removes powers from LPAs, side-steps engagement with communities and allows the development of homes without the necessary checks and balances to ensure design, quality, and “beauty”.
What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?
PDR impacts directly on LPAs’ abilities to ‘plan’ to meet their specific local needs, including needs for new affordable homes and homes to higher accessibility standards, to meet current and future demographic trends. PDR effectively sidesteps land use planning and the plan making process, as well as LPAs’ abilities to ensure the necessary community infrastructure through development contributions.
LPAs are best placed, through consultation with the communities they represent, to plan and set out shared, strategic visions for their high streets and town centres. Unregulated piecemeal conversion of commercial units to residential through PDR risks undermining this.
The curtailment of the use of Article 4 Directions will exacerbate this further. Article 4 Directions are an important tool for LPAs to help them to manage uses where the blanket use of PDR would otherwise cause harm. The Building Better Building Beautiful (BBBB) Commission “Living with Beauty” report says:
“given the systemic under-supply of homes in some parts of the country, there is a danger that an unregulated implementation of the current policy will see all shops converted to homes. This might be very hard to manage, with consequences for ground floor design and location of bin stores. This can lead to a ‘disastrous impact on the beauty and character of local high streets and contribute further to their decline.’ To prevent this we, recommend the protection through what are known as Article 4 Directions of the ‘core’ of high streets and the very strict use of design codes through which change of use is facilitated”
With this in mind, we would urge government to think again both about the proposals for limiting LPAs’ use of Article 4 Directions and expanded PDRs allowing conversion to residential from the new Use Class E.
Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?
We are undoubtedly in a period of great change for businesses, high streets, and town centres. There is certainly a strong case to be made for flexibility and it is right that government supports business and economic growth. However, we do not consider that expanding PDR is the way to tackle the issue of struggling high streets and support business and economic growth. There is a role for residential uses in high streets and town centres in certain locations, and we agree that a mix of uses in the right location can encourage footfall, create vibrancy, and a positive environment to live in. However, we are concerned that where town centre uses have been hit by the pandemic but have the potential to be viable again in the future with the right support, they could instead be changed to residential thus preventing future opportunities for businesses in these locations, and irreversibly changing and damaging our high streets with “dead” residential frontages. When our high streets are in such a precarious situation, we need more planning, support, and innovative solutions for them, rather than deregulation in this manner.
The coalition of industry bodies comprising 27 leaders from across the property, retail, leisure, hospitality and planning sectors including British Property Federation, the Institute of Place Management and British BIDs issued a joint letter to the Rt. Hon. Robert Jenrick MP Secretary of State in February 2021. The letter stated:
“...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.”
It is our understanding that government created the new Use Class E to boost town centre fortunes, to help them recover and thrive after the Covid-19 pandemic by enabling premises to switch easily to leisure, culture and community uses which would encourage footfall. However, by creating the new residential PDR and then disabling local authorities from ring-fencing valuable alternative town centre uses (through Article 4 Directions), the government seems to be severely limiting its own ability to deliver this aspiration.
What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?
There is a significant impact on the ability for local communities to be involved in the planning process through the extension of PDR. 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. LPAs can consider some issues as part of the prior approval process. However, many issues that local communities might care about including, for example, human health or delivering zero carbon development, cannot be incorporated. 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 application. Therefore, local communities are predominantly excluded from this element of the planning process.
Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?
As set out in our earlier responses to previous government consultations, CIH believes 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.
However, if PDR is to remain a key part of the English planning system, then in line with TCPA’s recommendations, we believe the following planning considerations are the basic minimum that need to be applied in the prior approval process:
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 to new homes developed via PDR but also to those receiving planning permission. The Bill, which has been 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 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.
The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards. Our goal is simple – to provide housing professionals and their organisations with the advice, support, and knowledge they need to be brilliant. CIH is a registered charity and not-for-profit organisation. This means that the money we make is put back into the organisation and funds the activities we carry out to support the housing sector. We have a diverse membership of people who work in both the public and private sectors, in 20 countries on five continents across the world.
Further information is available at: www.cih.org