Written evidence submitted by London Borough of Islington [PDR 055]

 

The evidence below is submitted by the London Borough of Islington (LBI) who have significant concerns with regard to Permitted Development Rights, their impacts on the ability to plan locally for sustainable development and achieve economic, social and environmental objectives.

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

Permitted Development Rights (PDR) have a role to play for small scale development that is not likely to be controversial, have negative local or wider than local impacts. They should not be used in a widespread way which compromises the ability of a Local Authority to properly plan for the future development of an area and that would undermine a plan-led approach to development. The introduction of several permitted development rights since 2013 (office to residential, retail to residential and light industrial to residential) resulted in significant impacts on Islington’s ability to properly plan for local development needs and plan for sustainable development. Of particular concern is the further recent and significant expansion of PDR introduced in 2020 and 2021. This includes significant further PDR in relation to upwards extensions on buildings, the demolition of rebuilding of particular buildings as well as the proposed introduction of a significantly expanded PDR from Class E to residential; the latter in particular will fatally undermine the development plan-led system and ability of local council’s to plan for future housing needs and post Covid-19 economic recovery.

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

PDR means that policies about the making the most efficient use of land, the quality and quantity of development cannot be considered. There are currently a record number of planning permissions for homes in London – over 300,000. It has been demonstrated that through plan-led development you can deliver a greater amount of housing through the redevelopment and intensification of sites.  In complex high-density mixed-use areas it is not possible to do this through PDR which serves to undermine the efficient use of brownfield land in sustainable locations.

The delivery of housing numbers should not come at any cost. The need for new housing needs to be balanced with the requirement for other uses, providing good quality housing as well as the meeting housing needs, including the need for affordable housing.

Islington has an acute need for affordable housing and a very limited supply capacity to provide it. Housing affordability is a key priority in Islington with the cost of renting and purchasing housing being significantly above the national average and out of reach of the majority of residents. The majority of housing need in Islington is for affordable housing. It is therefore essential that affordable housing is maximised where schemes do come forward, and that these schemes make the best use of land to meet this identified need. Importantly, in a borough like Islington high levels of affordable housing can viably be delivered without hindering housing growth.

The significantly expanded PDR regime will lead to a major reduction in the delivery of affordable housing – both through not being applicable through the prior approval process and through the failure to intensify the use of sites to provide more housing. In addition, it greatly magnifies disparities between developers/landowners who go through the planning process and those who utilise PDR effectively creating a two tier planning system – this could in turn disincentivise landowners/developers from exploring opportunities for the development of sites through the planning process further decreasing opportunities for growth, development and affordable housing.

The current Plan-led system enables the land value uplift arising through the grant of a planning permission to be quantified by reference to a ‘bottom line’ in the form of an existing use value (the lawful planning use prior to redevelopment) and the total value of a completed development proposal. Where existing use values are low and development values are high, there exists a disposition for increased land value capture. In this way, the Plan-led system enables Local Planning Authorities, through the viability testing process, to capture a proportion of the land value to meet Development Plan requirements including the provision of affordable housing. PDR affords developers and landowners the ability to rely upon the PDR as a fall-back option within financial viability assessments, and incorporate the PDR inflated land values within their viability appraisals to reduce affordable housing. The significant lost opportunity to deliver affordable housing runs counter to the NPPF where boroughs are required to plan for and meet their housing needs.

The council’s policies on design and housing standards require that new residential units provide a good level of amenity. Whilst prior approval differ for each PDR they do not generally ensure other key aspects of quality of design are considered – for example, vibration, pollution (e.g. air and light), fumes, overlooking or privacy. Other key aspects of housing quality such as the requirements for accessible, adaptable and wheelchair user dwellings as well as the provision of outdoor amenity space and natural ventilation (both of which have been shown to be vitally important to health in the Covid 19 pandemic) are ignored.

Further, schemes which come through the PDR route are also not subject to the policies and standards aimed at tackling climate change by reducing carbon emissions. Given the extreme extent of this deregulation, a large number of schemes is likely to come forward through this route, which would directly and significantly undermine the government’s own ambitions on achieving zero carbon.

Experience of previous PDR in the borough has shown that the vast majority (around two thirds) of the units that get provided are studio/1-bed units. This means that a range of unit sizes to meet the identified local housing needs will not be provided resulting in a lower amount of larger homes, including family homes.

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

As set out above PDR has a significant and detrimental impact on the ability to secure affordable housing – both through on-site provision as well as financial contributions. In Islington’s context a significant proportion[1] of new homes comes from small sites on which affordable housing contributions would be payable through the planning application process. Small sites in turn make a significant contribution towards affordable housing delivery in the borough through the planning application process. The borough has received small sites affordable housing contributions amounting to £12.4 million since 2014 part funding the completion of 282 Council new build social rented units[2]. The greatly expanded PDR will not only significantly reduce the contributions for small sites but, because it applies to larger scale developments too[3] this will also impact on on-site affordable housing delivery on larger sites of which there are a limited number in the borough - representing a significant lost opportunity.

Islington have operated a net zero carbon policy for a number of years. This requires developments coming through the planning application process to maximise carbon reductions on-site (over and above building regulations) before making a payment in lieu contribution or carbon emissions that cannot be offset. This is an important part of the policy as it encourages developers to reduce on-site emissions and the monies collected can then be used in local carbon reduction projects. The borough has raised £11m of funding to deliver carbon reduction projects, including energy efficiency measures on existing homes. Again the increased use of PDR means that not only are homes delivering less on-site carbon reductions they are also not contributing to offset the remaining emissions.

Finally, and importantly, the large increase in PDR makes it more challenging to plan for the infrastructure to support housing growth. The requirements for supporting infrastructure for development, particularly major developments (over 10 units) are considered as part of the plan-led application process, however the ad-hoc increase of housing through the prior approval process means that it will not be possible to forward plan infrastructure required to support new PDR housing. The inability to collect S106 contributions will mean large developments will not contribute towards the local infrastructure requirements for an area (for example a school or health facility). This will create an infrastructure funding gap and is likely to constrain growth rather than encourage it.

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

No.

The significant expansion of PDR, and in particular the introduction of Class E to residential legislated to be introduced this summer, would fatally undermine the plan-led system (reflected in both the current NPPF and the Planning White Paper) and, in doing so, the ability to plan for and deliver sustainable development.

The Planning White Paper places increased importance on the role of Local Plans in providing certainty for development in Local Areas through the categorisation of land into ‘zones’ for growth, renewal and protection. PDR, particularly in its recently expanded form, is completely at odds with this since it will not be possible to control significant aspects of development within the different categories of land. For example, how can you protect areas from development if PDR applies? In areas of growth the introduction of PDR will undermine the ability to intensify land to achieve growth as well as plan for economic growth.

The limited number of considerations set out under the prior approval allow limited consideration of design, reducing opportunities for development to improve the quality of the built environment through external alterations or redevelopment to enable ‘building for beauty’ as advocated in the Planning White Paper and National Design Guide. The Planning White Paper promotes the use of design codes however the use of such codes cannot be applied to PDR.

Through reducing affordable housing delivery PDR runs counter to the government’s stated White Paper objective of capturing a greater proportion of the land value uplift that occurs through the grant of planning permission and being more ambitious in utilising planning gain to deliver affordable housing.

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

PDR leads to a democratic deficit and undermines the plan-led system for local authorities to create and implement Local Plans which respond to locally identified needs. PDR has significant detrimental impacts in relation to planning for key local economic, social and environmental objectives.

Change of use to residential, upwards extensions and demolition and rebuild should not be able to take place through permitted development due to the significant impacts they are can have on an area including but not limited to:

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

No.

Market needs and identified development needs vary locally. The significantly expanded PDR, included the proposed Class E to residential PDR amount to a significant national one size fits all approach to development which cannot be dynamic or respond to the needs of different areas. It does not provide flexibility in terms of recognising the different economic characteristics of areas and what can best help to support their economic future.

PDR which allows the change of use of commercial premises to residential restricts the ability of councils to plan for economic recovery in the short term as well as meet medium to long term identified economic needs. It undermines economic development and regeneration plans to curate a post Covid economic recovery to support businesses and sectors.

Islington has a four successful town centres which have high levels of footfall and low levels of vacancy. Within the context of a post Covid recovery it is important that high streets can plan for changing retail needs as well as a range of other services that can complement this. Uncontrolled switching of high street units into housing threatens the vitality of our town centres. It will damage the concentration of uses and the benefits this can have. The cumulative impact of losses of commercial premises can undermine the Unique Selling Point (USP) of town centres and high streets. An unstructured and ad-hoc response through national PDR will not help to support longer term economic improvement and could result in high streets becoming too diluted to be viable shopping, leisure, employment and service destinations. For high streets to evolve to be successful there needs to be placemaking and plans which are bespoke to each area based on evidence – the proposals will remove ability of the public and private sector to do this, whether through the planning process or through wider economic regeneration and development initiatives.

Beyond Islington’s town centres there is likely to be a significant loss of commercial floorspace, including office space within the Central Activities Zone (CAZ) and other Central London employment clusters. The CAZ is considered to be one of the world’s most attractive business locations and accommodates a range of unique economic clusters and a significant agglomeration of offices. The south of Islington falls within the CAZ and 70% of the Borough’s jobs are located here. Maintaining and nurturing the CAZ’s economic function is crucial to ensuring the ongoing success of Islington’s economy and its ability to sustain existing and future jobs. Central London has the highest residential property prices in the country. Change of use to residential PDR here will lead to the loss of office space and pose a real risk to office capacity in London’s nationally significant office locations. It will also be very damaging to the last remaining protected industrial locations in Inner London which play a hugely important role in servicing the Central London economy.

PDR which allow change of use to residential has a particularly acute impact in Inner London where high residential values result in the loss of occupied and viable commercial premises. Experience of earlier office to residential PDR in the borough has shown that there will be significant losses of viable commercial premises. Their introduction saw the loss of over 40,000m2 of office space. Research in the London Office Policy Review (2017) highlighted that 55 per cent of permitted development applications granted prior approval affected buildings that were occupied. The new Class E to residential PDR will have specific negative impacts on small businesses as they are less able to compete with more valuable residential uses, directly resulting in evictions and vacancies, reducing the economic benefits of agglomeration, leading to their displacement out of the borough. PDR does not provide the opportunity for businesses to adapt or grow, instead introducing residential uses which curtail future flexibility. Reductions in commercial floorspace are also likely to have a broader impact on rent costs, as scarcity increases pressures on remaining floorspace, increasing rents and forcing businesses to relocate.

The revisions to the proposed Class E to residential PDR following consultation will do little to reduce the impacts overall:

The focus on housing delivery should not come at the expense of economic development. There needs to be a balanced approach. This can and should be achieved as part of a plan-led process.

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

A one size fits all approach to PDR restricts local authorities’ ability to plan for retail, business and service needs and is inconsistent with a plan-led approach. The significantly expanded PDR regime has led to a democratic deficit as local authorities will not be able to implement many elements of the current Local Plans and where Local Plans are emerging they will be rendered un-implementable leading to further delays in the plan making process. Given all of the resources put into producing a Local Plan, the extent of PDR increasingly sends signals to local communities that involvement in Local Plans will not be worthwhile and lead to disenfranchisement from the wider planning system.

The ability for local communities to consider and respond to proposals which effect their local areas is severely curtailed because of the limited prior approval criteria. The expansion of PDR has introduced a significant level of complexity into the system, with different factors that can be considered for different PDR as well as making many local policies un-implementable. This runs contrary to the principles of the Planning White Paper around engaging the public in the planning process, making it easier to understand and greater transparency.

Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?

Yes.

As a minimum the recent expansion of PDR from 2020 and 2021 with regards to upwards extensions, demolition and rebuild and class E to residential should be scrapped. National PDR should be reduced so that it only applies to small scale development e.g. small extensions. For anything more significant this should be done locally in a way that can respond to local issues and be consistent with local planning objectives. Mechanisms could be explored to support localised approaches to streamline the planning process – for example the use of Local Development Orders can help to do this.

Change of use should not be part of PDR, particularly given the significant recent reforms to the Use Classes Order which provides significant flexibility for premises within Class E use. Because circumstances vary across the country a one size fits all approach to such issues works to the detriment of successful places whilst not providing the required tailored interventions to effectively support those places that have regeneration ambitions.

All existing article 4 directions which have already be introduced in response to previous change of use PDR and been through the process should stand in perpetuity because they have already been justified.

 

April 2021


[1] Approximately one third based on analysis of permissions between 2012/13 and 2017/18.

[2] Between 2012-2019

[3] For example demolition and rebuild of buildings of up to 1000m2 and the change from class E to residential up to 1500m2.

[4] Source: Federation of small business.