Written evidence submitted by London Borough of Bromley [PDR 051]

 

Introduction

This submission is sent on behalf of the London Borough of Bromley (LBB), in response to the above Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee Inquiry.

Bromley is the largest London Borough by area. It occupies a strategic position in the south east of the Capital and South East England with rail connections to Central London, easy access to the M25 and onwards to the national road network and major South East airports.

Bromley is a distinctive part of London’s suburbs closely connected to London’s economy, and the Borough itself has one of the largest economies south of the Thames. The Borough has a strong local economy; Bromley Town Centre in particular is a significant location for shopping and business services. Bromley’s other town centres shown in are also vital to the Borough’s local economy and act as focal points for cultural and civic activity. The Borough’s smaller centres and shopping parades give a distinctive identity to many localities as well as providing an important source of local employment and access to services.

Uptake of Permitted Development Rights in Bromley in recent years has consistently been significant – recently published research by Planning Resource shows that Bromley determined the most office to residential prior approval applications between January and December 2020[1]. As a result, Bromley has lost large amounts of employment floorspace, which threatens the economic function of the Borough.

Also, there are significant concerns about the quality of new housing created through Permitted Development, as well as the inability to secure contributions to affordable housing, infrastructure and other priorities.

Given our experience of the impact of Permitted Development Rights, LBB is well placed to answer the questions posed by the Committee. LBB’s responses to the Committee’s ‘Call for Evidence’ questions are provided below.


Response to ‘Call for Evidence’ questions

With specific reference to permitted development in respect of large-scale development, commercial-to-residential conversions, and changes of use between different types of commercial and retail premises:

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

PDR have a role to play in the planning system, but this should be specifically focused on smaller scale developments; the role of PDR pre-2011 struck the right balance. In the past decade, PDR have been increasingly utilised to permit development that should be subject to full planning applications and assessed against the development plan. Therefore, PDR has led to widespread undermining of local policies across the country and have caused significant damage to the plan-led system.

PDR should be used where the principle of development is established; in this case, it is more straightforward to then use PDR to set out specific quantitative parameters. However, changes to PDR in the past decade have often included prior approval tests which require a qualitative assessment of issues of principle.

The role of PDR is inextricably linked to the ability of LPAs to put in place article 4 directions (A4Ds). If A4Ds were truly a matter for local consideration, then even wide-ranging PDR would not be as problematic, as LPAs would have the ability to remove PD rights based on local circumstances. However, if there is a high bar for putting in place A4Ds, then this limits the ability of LPAs to introduce them, which means that the local impacts of PDR are more likely to go unchecked. The recent consultation on proposed changes to the NPPF suggests that the justification required for A4Ds will be heightened. Bromley’s response to this consultation is attached at Appendix 1. This includes a suggestion to link A4Ds justification to up-to-date Development Plan policies, e.g. removal of office to residential PD rights would be justified in any relevant designation which aims to prevent loss of office use. Such wording would mean that those LPAs with up-to-date plans could impose Directions to ensure that their plans can continue to be implemented effectively. It would also have the added benefit of acting as an incentive for LPAs to have an up-to-date Local Plan.

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

Although hard to quantify, the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of affordable housing is significant. The Government’s aim with PDR has always been to increase the general quantum of housing delivery, with little regard to other factors. This has undoubtedly affected affordable housing supply, as numerous housing schemes that would have triggered affordable housing requirements have not been required to provide affordable housing as it is not required as part of any prior approval.

PDR conversions can result in units that might be relatively affordable, but this is because they are poor quality and/or small; a cheap, poor quality market unit is not the same as actual affordable housing.

PDR conversions have become synonymous with poor quality, with numerous examples of schemes up and down the country with little or no natural light, tiny living spaces, etc[2]. There is also a pattern of PDR conversions being located in inaccessible and unsustainable locations, such as out of centre industrial parks.

The introduction of minimum space standards for PDR will partially address these issues, but will not fully address issues, as high quality is much more than provision of sufficient space. Without an explicit prior approval category requiring a high standard of residential amenity, which would then allow local design policies to be applied as a material consideration, PDR will continue to result in sub-standard accommodation, compared to developments which come through the full planning application route.

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

Similar to the point raised in relation to affordable housing, the impact is hard to quantify but it will have undoubtedly led to numerous missed opportunities to secure vital infrastructure funding which will affect the ability of LPAs to put in place necessary infrastructure to accommodate and mitigate growth. While CIL technically applies to PDR, in the vast majority of circumstances there will be no CIL liability given the ability to deduct occupied floorspace from the CIL calculation.

PDR can result in residential use in areas where residential use would generally be unsuitable. This serves to undermine defined spatial strategies set out in Local Plans, which focus development in a planned way in more sustainable locations, including locations which correlate with planned infrastructure.

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

Pillar two of the Planning White Paper focuses on planning for beautiful and sustainable places. Paragraph 3.1 elaborates further on the Government’s aspirations: “we want to ensure that we have a system in place that enables the creation of beautiful places that will stand the test of time, protects and enhances our precious environment, and supports our efforts to combat climate change and bring greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.”

The document then goes on to propose several measures to support the creation of frameworks for quality, noting that “it is important for the planning system to set clear expectations for the form of development which we expect to see in different locations. It should do so in ways which reflect local character and community preferences, and the types of buildings and places that have stood the test of time; but it should also address modern lifestyles, facilitate modern methods of construction (and its associated benefits for efficiency, build quality and the environment) and the need to create places that are both durable and sustainable.”

It is very hard to see how PDR can fit within this proposed system. The Planning White Paper proposals would rely on a strong local plan-led approach to embed the concept of beauty in Local Plans, design codes, etc. PDR, as it currently stands, would completely undermine this carefully prepared local design principles and guidance, due to the light-touch prior approval process which does not allow detailed consideration of design and other issues.

PDR is also at odds with much of what is proposed in the National Model Design Code (NMDC) document, recently published as a guide to inform the production of local design codes. The NMDC, at paragraph 8, states that “design codes can provide greater certainty for communities about the design of development and bring conversations about design to the start of the planning process, rather than the end.” Given the extent of PDR and the proposed tightening of the justification for A4Ds, it is not clear how this ‘greater certainty’ can be provided, as any design code will be circumvented.

The NMDC emphasises the importance of a mix of uses that support everyday activities, to encourage the development of sustainable places. The introduction of the Use Class E undermines the ability to effectively plan for a mix of such uses, but at the very least it still results in the retention of a commercial function which is vitally important for areas such as Town Centres and office clusters. PDR, particularly the Class E to residential PD rights, threatens to devastate commercial areas.

If PDR remains as part of the overhaul of the planning system, it will essentially result in a two-tier system, with mechanisms to secure high quality design and other benefits relating to non-PDR development only. To date, the Government have just seemed to ignore the significant impacts of PDR on the creation of high quality, beautiful places, but surely if the proposals outlined in the Planning for the Future document are to be meaningfully implemented, this would need to be addressed. PDR conversions can have a deleterious impact on streetscape, character, etc, issues which are fundamental to achieving good design and beautiful places; therefore, if there is genuine aim to allow LPAs to put in place local policies and guidance to achieve good design and beautiful places, the impacts of PDR cannot continue to be ignored.

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

As noted in the response to previous questions, planning for developing and shaping local communities is the remit of Local Plans. If the Local Plan continues to be undermined by PDR, then so too will the ability of LPAs to deliver the plan vision and objectives.

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

The argument put forward by Government regarding supporting businesses and economic growth is somewhat patchy and one-dimensional, and rests largely on assertions. In particular, the argument that more residential uses (developed through PDR) in commercial areas such as Town Centres will increase footfall and patronage of local businesses has never been fully substantiated. While in theory this could be correct, the opposite could be true. PDR could lead to large-scale numbers of conversions which could undermine the commercial function of areas such as Town Centres, effectively turning them into dormitories with token services. In such a scenario, it is hard to see how PDR could be seen as supporting business and economic growth.

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

Local Plans are developed through consultation with local communities and other stakeholders. If the Local Plan can be consistently undermined by PDR, then naturally this would suggest that there will be an impact on local communities. As applications for prior approval are assessed only with reference specific categories, this potentially affects the ability of local communities to effectively convey their concerns, if such concerns did not relate a specific category.

Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?

The expansion of PDR in the last decade has significantly undermined the entire planning system. The Government should undertake a full-scale review of the impacts of PD rights to date, pausing the introduction of Class E to residential PD rights until such a review is complete. This review should assess whether PD rights are the best holistic option for delivering high quality housing and ensuring that economic growth can continue to be successfully delivered. It should encompass the entirety of the GPDO, including a review of householder Part 1 PD rights and other Part 3 PD rights including C3 to C4 (residential to HMO) PD rights. A full-scale review would avoid the constant drip-feed of PDR amendments in future. The way that MHCLG have brought forward new PD rights in recent years is lamentable and has led to numerous instances of LPAs having to implement rash proposals in short timeframes, which has unsurprisingly led to a number of negative impacts and unforeseen consequences. Some actual strategic thought about the GPDO as a whole would remove the need for constant tinkering.

Post-COVID, it seems evident that there will be high demand for high quality living spaces with private amenity space, to futureproof homes so they can accommodate new ways of working where necessary. In the face of this, the Government’s expansion of PDR, with the likely result of creating further poor-quality units, seems to be a perverse response.


Appendix 1 – LBB response to National Planning Policy Framework and National Model Design Code: consultation proposals, question 3 (regarding changes to the justification required for Article 4 Directions) - https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/national-planning-policy-framework-and-national-model-design-code-consultation-proposals/national-planning-policy-framework-and-national-model-design-code-consultation-proposals

 

Q3. Do you agree with the changes proposed in Chapter 4? Which option relating to change of use to residential do you prefer and why?

 

We strongly object to the proposed amendments relating to the use of Article 4 Directions. LPAs should have complete freedom to impose Directions, therefore the wording should be relaxed not strengthened.

It is striking that the proposed changes to the NPPF relating to Article 4 Direction justification are proposed in the same consultation as the National Model Design Code (NMDC), which focuses on delivering high quality design. There are various PD rights which seem to jar with much of what is proposed in the NMDC, due to the light-touch prior approval process which does not allow detailed consideration of design and other issues. The NMDC, at paragraph 8, states that “design codes can provide greater certainty for communities about the design of development and bring conversations about design to the start of the planning process, rather than the end.” Without the ability to easily introduce Article 4 Directions to remove PD rights, it is not clear how this ‘greater certainty’ can be provided, as any design code will be circumvented. The proposed amendments could very easily lead to the perverse outcome of worsening design quality at a time when the Government’s own rhetoric suggests that design and beauty is at the very top of their agenda.

The NMDC emphasises the importance of a mix of uses that support everyday activities, to encourage the development of sustainable places. The introduction of the Use Class E undermines the ability to effectively plan for a mix of such uses, but at the very least it still results in the retention of a commercial function which is vitally important for areas such as Town Centres and office clusters. The mooted Class E to residential PD rights threatens to devastate commercial areas if it is introduced as proposed. It is vital the LPAs retain the ability to introduce easily introduce Article 4 Directions based on local circumstances, to provide continued protection to vitally important commercial areas and ensure continuation of a diverse mix of uses that support everyday activities, as per the aims of the NMDC. It is worth mentioning that in times of economic recession, those areas with a mix of uses will weather the storm better than those in a single use.

LPAs spend considerable time and resource preparing and adopting Local Plans, only to see the introduction of PD rights which ride roughshod over key policies. We consider that LPAs should have broad discretion to introduce Directions. The current procedure for immediate and non-immediate Directions, particularly the compensation liability, ensures a fair balance in any consideration as it means that landowners who have PD rights removed will either have sufficient notification of the introduction of a Direction (and could bring forward an application prior to this) or could apply for compensation where PD rights are immediately withdrawn.

The proposed Class E to residential PD rights is clearly seen as a key strand to help realise the Government’s housing delivery ambitions, and the proposed tightening of Article 4 Direction justification is presumably a pre-emptive attempt to avoid wholesale removal of these new PD rights once they are in force. PD rights are synonymous with poor quality housing; if the Government manage to realise their housing targets through delivery of thousands upon thousands of poor-quality homes, this would be a pyhrric victory. This is completely contrary to the concept of ‘Lifetime Homes’ and the high-quality housing that needs to be delivered.

LPAs have a range of policies in their Local Plans to ensure delivery of high-quality housing; these policies are assessed holistically when preparing Local Plans, to ensure that they can be delivered while also ensuring that housing targets and other aims are met. If this turns out not to be the case, the Housing Delivery Test penalises LPAs for failing to meet housing targets, ultimately through imposition of the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. LPAs should be free to continue to implement their policies, with knowledge that there are risks that may render policies out-of-date if targets are not met.

We would support explicit wording in the NPPF that links Article 4 Direction justification to up-to-date Development Plan policies, e.g. removal of office to residential PD rights would be justified in any relevant designation which aims to prevent loss of office use. Such wording would mean that those LPAs with up-to-date plans could impose Directions to ensure that their plans can continue to be implemented effectively. It would also have the added benefit of acting as an incentive for LPAs to have an up-to-date Local Plan.

It may also be pertinent to allow Directions to be imposed in other (exceptional) circumstances, which could be where it is essential to avoid wholly unacceptable adverse impacts (as per the wording proposed in the consultation).

Notwithstanding our strong objections noted above, the first option would be our preferred wording, limiting Directions “to situations where this is essential to avoid wholly unacceptable adverse impacts.” While this places option far too high a bar on new Directions, it is preferable to the second option which would tie justification to interests of national significance; this would clearly make justification for Directions all but impossible across most of the country, making it a de facto ban.

 

 

April 2021


[1] https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1714155/authorities-approved-office-to-resi-pd-conversions-2020-highest-refusal-rates

[2] Numerous examples shown in the following articles: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jul/24/our-slum-future-the-planning-shakeup-set-to-blight-british-housing; https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/mar/02/will-these-be-the-worst-new-rabbit-hutch-flats-in-britain; https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/aug/25/flats-block-converting-offices-living-space