Written evidence submitted by Tunbridge Wells Council [PDR 054]
What role should permitted development rights play in the planning system?
It is considered that PDR does have a role to play within the planning system; however this particular PDR being introduced is not considered to be appropriate. Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has serious concerns with regard to the introduction of this new PDR in August of this year.
What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?
As planning permission would not be required, there would be no scope to secure affordable housing through conversions to residential by this route. There has been under provision of affordable housing relative to the policy position in Tunbridge Wells borough through the loss of office space to residential via current Permitted Development Rights, as well as sites justifying a lower provision of affordable housing than the policy requirements through developers on viability grounds. The introduction of this permitted development right would further reduce the ability to secure such affordable housing, at a time when the emerging Local Plan is specifically seeking to boost the amount delivered. The same will apply in many different locations across the country, and the reduced ability to deliver mixed and balanced communities in town centre locations.
The delivery of increased affordable housing is a critical issue, particularly in areas of the South East where high house prices compound affordability issues. The proposals anticipate that affordable housing would be delivered through the new Infrastructure Levy. TWBC expressed its comments on the Infrastructure Levy in response to the consultation on the White Paper in autumn 2021.
In these comments, TWBC set out that whilst it considers that the Levy could have a role to play in the delivery of affordable housing, the clear preference is for on site provision of affordable housing. Given the generally high land costs in town centres it would potentially be more problematic to deliver affordable housing in these locations through the Levy, meaning that it is located elsewhere. This again would reduce the ability to deliver mixed and balanced communities in town centre locations.
Additionally, it is considered that the new PDR will not secure appropriate design quality, in terms of internal and external design elements. There are also no provisions related to the sizes, types and tenures of housing. There is also a missed opportunity to improve the overall built environment and general sense of place under their limited scope of considerations.
What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?
The proposals are not supported by a sufficient mechanism to secure appropriate provision for, or to, the infrastructure that is required. TWBC is significantly concerned about the proposed new Infrastructure Levy, particularly in relation to affordable housing - see also above.
An increase in housing provision within town centres without the necessary ability to secure contributions for community infrastructure (such as education and health provision) will place an increased burden on existing establishments, many of which are (in Tunbridge Wells) are already subject to considerable pressure.
Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?
The vision in the White Paper is broad and multi-faceted. However, it is not yet known how much, and in what form the future changes to the planning system will take. Experience has shown that different elements will not be taken forward, and others will, but in a different form.
It is therefore, in TWBC’s view, not appropriate to seek to link the increased deregulation of the planning system through PDR to the vision of the Planning White Paper without a much fuller, clearer and certain picture of the final form of the vision, and how it will be delivered.
What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?
The new PDR undermines the importance of local circumstances, approach and local policy and the role of the Council and local stakeholders, demonstrated in Tunbridge Wells as TWBC, Royal Tunbridge Wells Together – the Business Improvement District delivery company for Royal Tunbridge Wells and the Royal Tunbridge Wells Town Forum. Many town centres are managed by local authorities and BID’s which are successful at the local level by applying local circumstances and initiatives to promote centres and the uses within them.
It is therefore considered that the proposals will undermine adopted and emerging Local Plans, particularly in relation to policies to support the vitality and viability of high streets and town and local centres. TWBC have set out clear policies within the Pre-Submission Local Plan (currently out to Regulation 19 consultation) which sets out a commitment for the production of a Town Centre Area Local Plan for Royal Tunbridge Wells to set the framework and guide development within the centre over the Plan period. It is intended that it will set out a holistic approach to future development within the town which will consider the important role of both commercial and residential uses. Additionally, TWBC is leading on extensive masterplanning work for Paddock Wood including the role and future of the Town Centre and the mix of uses to support the growth proposed in this area. The Paddock Wood Town Council Neighbourhood Plan will also be playing an important role in this.
This local approach is, and will be, based on an extensive evidence base and engagement with local stakeholders to inform a vision for the future of the key centres within the borough. The new PDR undermines this approach and other local policy provision in relation to affordable housing and also quality and sustainability of design.
Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?
No, It is considered that this has the potential to have significant impacts on the range of commercial buildings – the loss of larger buildings (still below the threshold set out) which currently house large retail and other commercial uses as well as smaller units providing a different and complementary offer. A range of property sizes provides the market with an appropriate mix and range of buildings to suit all occupiers and it is considered that the PDR would have a detrimental impact on this and the commercial success and attractiveness of centres and wider areas.
TWBC absolutely recognises that there may be scope for increased residential development in town centres through changes to the retail and office markets – accelerated by the societal and economic changes brought about the pandemic - and this is evidenced through the inclusion of a housing figure in the emerging Local Plan within the main town centres. However, it is important this is provided in the areas of the town centres which will not disrupt the main and most prominent frontages, and the PDR will undoubtedly increase the risk of residential conversions fragmenting or fracturing such frontages. Rather, the consideration of planning applications (rather than PDR) would allow these key locations to be protected, whilst still allowing increased residential development in other, perhaps more marginal or less important, areas of the town centre.
What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?
Town centres and high streets are at the heart of communities and are essential for economic and social post pandemic recovery. The proposals will undermine the opportunity for town centres and high streets to continue to be thriving, successful locations for local business, culture, and community activities. The PDR could result in disconnected and fragmented high streets, impacting negatively on the overall sense of place and its ability to attract people to visit, work and live in such centres. This may have further economic and social implications. The current system, whereby proposals for conversion of premises are subject to consideration through the full planning application process, when allied to suitable and up-to-date policies, still provides the flexibility to allow those premises within town centres which are no longer required for retail or other uses to change, but does so through a controlled, evidenced based manner and with public input and consultation. This is evidenced within Tunbridge Wells Borough where a number of schemes have come forward and been permitted for residential development in the town centres as part of residential and mixed use town centre schemes. The new PDR removes the opportunity for the public to be involved and consulted on such proposals.
Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?
TWBC have no specific comments to make on possible reform of PDR.
TWBC believe that the right should not apply in Conversation Areas, and be treated in the same way as other exempt areas such as AONB, National Parks and other areas specified in the consultation. It is considered that the protection of Conservation Areas will be undermined by this policy. The conversion of commercial buildings to residential may detract from the attractiveness of the individual building and its contribution to the Conservation Area. This could result in a range of detrimental effects, including the attractiveness of centres to visitors, having an impact on tourism and the local economy. Given the current difficulties facing town centres, having an attractive environment which is different to other areas to draw people to a centre such as Royal Tunbridge Wells is of fundamental importance, probably more so now than ever.
TWBC does however welcome the exemption of Listed Buildings from the PDR in protecting historic buildings from possible inappropriate conversions.
Additionally Local Planning Authority resources will be impacted by the additional workload which will result from the prior approval applications. The proposed fees are insufficient and should match the fees for a full planning application. TWBC has also commissioned borough-wide retail and leisure studies (at considerable cost and time), which have been used to inform the evidence base for the policies included within its Pre-Submission Local Plan.