Written evidence submitted by South East Strategic Leaders [PDR 060]

 

 

South East Strategic Leaders (SESL)

 

  1. SESL members work together to champion common issues and drive public service excellence.  SESL is committed to nurturing the UK’s economic ‘engine room’ and promoting public service excellence.  We represent the unique voice of upper tier authorities in the wider South East, supporting its members to create the conditions in which individuals, communities and businesses thrive.

 

  1. As a partnership, SESL includes all the Berkshire Unitary Councils, Buckinghamshire, Central Bedfordshire, Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey and Swindon.  We draw on experience, knowledge and examples from some of the most innovative and high performing county and unitary councils.  Together, SESL speaks for more than 9 million people.

 

  1. SESL members have responsibilities to residents and businesses, as planning authorities, providers of infrastructure, facilitators of growth and builders of place.  The planning system plays a key role in delivering and supporting these and must consider all elements of places if councils are to deliver truly sustainable communities as we look to level-up the country.

 

  1. The continued and expanded use of PDR undermines the democratically led planning system and prevents councils from securing the provision of infrastructure, affordable housing, facilities and services.

 

  1. SESL members understand the desire to provide homes but do not believe that using permitted development rights is the correct way to achieve this. At a time of economic uncertainty, and when a significant amount of time and investment has been spent on shaping towns, delivering housing through permitted development is a blunt tool with significant negative consequences on towns, cities, economies and communities.

 

 

Summary of SESL’s evidence – officer comments on behalf of members due to the upcoming local elections

 

  1. Permitted Development Rights (PDR) should support the direction, spirit and intention of local planning policy without the cost and administration of having to obtain planning permission.  As such, PDR should be a way of allowing development that would not have the potential for detrimental impacts on their neighbours (whether business, residential or other) and intended users.  The PDR system is not a solution to the housing crisis. 

 

  1. The conversion of buildings to residential use could be seen as an obvious way of increasing housing supply as well as a solution to some of the challenges posed by vacant town centre sites and properties.  However, achieving this through PDR takes no account of the suitability of locations for housing or of the need to provide funding for infrastructure, services to support the increased population, or affordable housing. 

 

  1. PDR have removed the ability of planning authorities to secure planning requirements for affordable homes and wider place-making standards.  This has implications for both the quality and quantity of new housing.

 

  1. Communities and councils have no way to ensure that developers using PDR meet high quality standards, provide any affordable homes as part of the development, or ensure that supporting infrastructure is in place.

 

  1. The use and extension of PDR to provide housing does not support the Government’s aspirations as outlined by the Planning White Paper.  PDR will not help achieve the aspirations for greater democratic accountability and transparency, planning for beautiful and sustainable places, and developing the high-quality infrastructure and affordable homes that communities and households need.

 

f.              Councils need control over the loss of economic premises and floorspace in order to safeguard these in the interests of sustaining local economies.  However, the use of PDR could lead to: the loss of existing uses; fragmentation of retail, leisure and commercial offers; and detrimental impacts on the diversity and vitality of local, town and employment centres.

 

g.            Cumulatively, the use of PDR could have significant impacts upon the supply of land for economic development and scale and variety of jobs available.  In addition, the loss of such uses could undermine the viability of other services and facilities.

 

  1. Although high street retail and some commercial centres may be in decline, people will always need a place to gather, meet, socialise, be entertained, and access essential services in a convenient central location.  The loss of floorspace in these locations through PDR could undermine the viability and vitality of local centres.

 

i.               The use of PDR renders communities and local authorities powerless to intervene in shaping places.  Local residents deserve a planning process that upholds local democracy.  However, the use and extension of PDR has given developers greater freedom, and planning authorities and local communities less control.

 

  1. Converting commercial buildings into residential use is not necessarily a bad thing.  Done to a high standard and properly planned, empty building can be transformed into good quality, much-needed homes.  The problem is the route that the Government is taking to achieving new housing through PDR – it creates damaging outcomes and sidelines communities.

 

  1. Only a locally-led planning system in which councils and the communities they represent have a say over the way places develop will ensure the delivery of high-quality affordable homes with the necessary infrastructure to create sustainable, resilient places for current and future generations.

SESL’s evidence – officer comments on behalf of members due to the upcoming local elections

 

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?

 

  1. PDR should be limited to developments that are small in scale and meet local needs.  Developments through PDR should have little risk of detriment to users and the local environment, but have the potential to enhance the performance, appearance or use of a development.

 

  1. PDR should support the direction, spirit and intention of local planning policy without the cost and administration of having to obtain planning permission.  As such, PDR should be a way of allowing development that would not have the potential for detrimental impacts on their neighbours (business, residential or other) or their intended users.

 

  1. Examples might include changes of use within the same use category as the new use is likely to have the same scale of activity and impacts as the former use.

 

  1. The PDR system is not a solution to the housing crisis.  More effective measures and better outcomes can be achieved through: enhanced grant funding for social housing, greater freedoms for local authorities on how to use housing funds, and a strong plan-led system; incentives/powers to encourage/force developers to deliver the homes that have planning permission.

 

 

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

 

  1. The conversion of buildings to residential uses could be seen as an obvious way of increasing housing supply as well as a solution to some of the challenges posed by vacant town centre sites and properties.  However, such development takes no account of the suitability of locations for housing or of the need to provide funding for infrastructure, services to support the increased population, or affordable housing. 

 

  1. Communities and councils have no way to ensure developers using PDR meet high quality standards, provide any affordable homes as part of the development, or ensure that supporting infrastructure, such as roads, schools and health services, is in place.

 

  1. PDR have, however, removed the ability of planning authorities to secure planning requirements on affordable homes or wider place-making standards, as highlighted in the Raynsford Review of Planning.  This has implications for both the quality and quantity of new housing.
  2. On quantity and quality, the RIBA President Alan Jones has said: ‘Permitted Development Rights damage the ability of local authorities to provide more affordable housing, as well as leading to poor-quality and potentially dangerous homes.”

 

Quantity

 

  1. Analysis for Shelter and the LGA has highlighted the effects of development through PDR on affordable housing in England.  Over the period 2015/16 to 2017/18 developers embraced the PDR model.  In total, more than 54,000 homes have been created through PDR between 2015 and 2019, amounting to 6 per cent of all new homes created nationally.  In urban authorities between 2015/16 and 2017/18 over 36,000 dwellings were delivered through PDR, making up 1 out of every 10 properties.

 

  1. In some parts of the country, office conversions carried out under PDR amount to almost half of new housing.  Examples where high proportions of new homes were delivered through PDR in the year to 1 April, 2019 included: Harlow - 51 per cent; Three Rivers (Hertfordshire) - 43 per cent; Spelthorne (Surrey) - 39 per cent; and Slough - 35 per cent.

 

  1. The expansion of PDR makes it substantially more difficult to secure affordable housing through the planning system.  The research for the LGA showed that potentially 13,500 affordable homes were lost in the four years up to 1 April, 2019, through PDR conversions and the accompanying lack of Section 106 (S106) agreements.

 

  1. Across just five study authorities, the inability to apply S106 agreements to permitted developments led to a potential loss of income of £10.8 million and 1,667 affordable housing units.

 

  1. In areas where conversions carried out under PDR constitute a significant proportion of all new housing the councils disproportionately miss out on the opportunity to impose S106 agreements to secure developer contributions to infrastructure and facilities.  These agreements can also require a certain percentage of the new homes, often around 25 per cent but local requirements vary, to be affordable. 

 

  1. The Government has expanded the PDR system to include the redevelopment of commercial buildings into housing, including where the original buildings are demolished and completely replaced.  The impact is a greater potential source of conversions, forming a larger component of local housing supply with no planning authority influence or control.

 

Quality

 

  1. A key part of the recovery from COVID-19 will be the delivery of quality, affordable homes and the supporting infrastructure to create sustainable, resilient places.

 

  1. The research showed that between 2015/16 and 2017/18, housing delivered through PDR was not subject to scrutiny or S106 agreements.  Key issues such as quality, space standards and developer contributions towards the provision of infrastructure, facilities and services could not be considered or negotiated.  This pattern continues.

 

  1. Research published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government into the quality standard of homes delivered through change of use PDR found that only 22.1 per cent of dwelling units created through permitted development would meet the nationally described space standards (NDSS), compared to 73.4 per cent of units created through full planning permission.

 

  1. The research concluded that permitted development conversions seemed to create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, wellbeing and quality of life of occupiers.

 

  1. The research for the Government found that PDR schemes have tended to be located primarily in commercial and/or industrial areas, far more than those with planning permission.  The research also highlighted that PDR schemes had often been in relatively remote locations with poor access to public transport leading to increased dependence on private motor vehicles

 

  1. Some of these sites offered extremely poor residential environments and amenities.  Such locations would also be unsuitable for residential uses due to the nature of nearby activities such as noisy operations, high levels of traffic, deliveries and HGV movements.

 

  1. The research also found that PDR conversions had poorer Energy Performance Certificate performance than for those developed with planning permission.

 

  1. The research also showed that permitted development leads to a poor residential experience with only 3.5 per cent of them having access to private amenity space, and just 15.9 per cent having access to communal amenity space.  The research noted that private or communal amenity space is increasingly recognised as a feature of good residential design; it is sought by the Government’s recent design initiatives.  The recent experiences under pandemic lock-downs have also highlighted the value of residential amenity space.

 

  1. Providing housing through PDR has led to a series of problems, as highlighted by the TCPA’s Raynsford Review and Planning for Affordable Housing.  These problems include:

 

 

  1. The impact of PDR has been uncontrolled, poor-quality residential units lacking in basic infrastructure requirements, including energy efficiency measures, with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors finding that extending PDR has allowed extremely poor-quality housing to be developed in comparison with schemes that required planning permission.

 

 

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

 

  1. The impact of PDR is that councils lose out on S106 contributions for affordable housing, infrastructure and services at a time when they are most needed.

 

26.       PDR schemes bring in no S106 money and councils lose business rates while, at the same time, facing a potentially higher social services load as a consequence of people living in substandard accommodation.

 

  1. Changes of use to residential should provide for any additional requirements or changes in infrastructure needed to support those homes and their residents.  This includes immediate infrastructure, such as waste, water and power, as well as social infrastructure including schools, libraries, medical facilities and open space.

 

  1. PDR have removed the ability of local planning authorities to secure planning requirements on these and wider place-making standards, as highlighted in the Raynsford Review of Planning.  This means that communities have no way to ensure developers meet high quality standards, provide affordable homes as part of the development, or ensure supporting infrastructure, such as roads, schools and health services, is in place.

 

  1. This means that people not only end up living in unsuitable accommodation, in the wrong place, in poor environments but there is no contribution from developers to provide social infrastructure for those people, including families and children.

 

30.       The report for the Government noted that most PDR schemes avoid making any planning contributions at all.  They are not liable for S106 planning obligations and often are able to avoid Community Infrastructure Levy payments as they do not create additional floorspace having been at least partially occupied prior to the change of use.  However, additional residential units create additional pressure on local infrastructure – particularly social infrastructure.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

  1. The White Paper proposed a fundamental review of the planning system.  The focus of the proposals appeared to be on housebuilding and land-use planning, to the exclusion of the many roles planning undertakes to create places.

 

  1. The use and extension of PDR to provide housing does not support the Government’s aspirations as outlined by the Planning White Paper.  Those aspirations include greater democratic accountability and transparency, tackling climate change, improving biodiversity, protecting heritage, planning for beautiful and sustainable places, and developing the high-quality infrastructure and affordable homes that communities and households need. 
     
  2. The Government’s own research highlighted how conversions through PDR can fail to meet adequate design standards, avoid contributing to local areas, and create worse living environments.

 

  1. Reflecting on the lack of consistency between the increased use of PDR and the Government’s White Paper, Ben Derbyshire (Chair of HTA Design and the Immediate Past President of the RIBA) said “For all the good intentions of initiatives like the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and the consultation on the Future Homes Standard, what is actually going on [in places with high concentrations of office-to-residential developments] is an absolute dive for the bottom, in terms of the standards of housing which is being provided.  It’s a complete contradiction in terms.”

 

 

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

 

35.       A key part of the recovery from COVID-19 will be the delivery of quality and affordable homes and the supporting infrastructure to create sustainable, resilient places.

 

36.       Councils and communities are best placed to make decisions for their local areas through the existing planning process.  This allows them to take into consideration existing and planned development, as well as their infrastructure needs.  Nationally prescribed PDR disempower communities and local councils.  The approach inhibits local government’s ability to make decisions on behalf of their communities based on their local knowledge and evidence.

 

  1. Allowing the conversion of commercial premises to housing through PDR denies local communities and planning authorities a say over the development and shape of their neighbourhoods.  Councils should be able to determine the mix of affordable homes tenures that best meet local needs.

 

38.       The lack of control over the sizes of units to which PDR would apply could undermine the ability of councils to plan and maintain a balance between employment and housing.  It could also prevent councils from achieving the necessary mix of residential types and sizes to meet local needs.

 

39.       Councils need control over the loss of economic premises and floorspace in order to safeguard these in the interests of sustaining and enhancing the local economy.  There are particular concerns about the impact on smaller and lower value units that provide accommodation for a range of users and job opportunities.

 

40.       As leaders of place, councils have already been working hard to repurpose their high streets and town centres and respond to longer-term trends in how they are used.  Councils recognise that the pace of change and intervention will need to quicken as a result of the pandemic.  They want to do what they can to adapt but are held back by lack of resources and planning constraints such as PDR.

 

41.       It is not possible to easily justify why the provision of housing on an unallocated existing and used office building through PDR does not need careful consideration through a full planning process with a S106 agreement and conditions, whereas the development of homes on a site allocated in a local plan does.  Both have implications for:

 

  1.                                  Whilst some uses remain outside PDR because of their unique characteristics or community value these could, over time, fall victim to changes of use in nearby buildings.  For example, occupants of newly converted residential accommodation might, over time, become unhappy with traditional town centre and high street activities – such as pubs, restaurants or theatres – as neighbours.

 

  1. New residents of town centres, high streets and commercial centres could put pressure on activities that might have late opening hours, noise, deliveries and traffic, seeking changes to their operations with potentially negative impacts on viability and vitality.

 

  1. The loss of revenue from business rates paid by occupiers prior to PDR conversion will create additional challenges for councils already trying to recover economically from the pandemic.

 

 

 

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

 

  1. Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, councils and the Government are focused on the economic recovery of local areas.  Since the pandemic began, communities have been spending more time in their own neighbourhoods and at home and understand their local needs now better than ever.  Councils want to make and shape great places, and have clear, strong ambitions for their local recovery and long-term prosperity.

 

  1. As needs and priorities change, councils also need the tools and resources to be able to shape vibrant places for their local communities with a mixed offer including retail, culture, sport and leisure provision. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors found that PDR has led to the loss of business activity and its contribution to local economies and community vitality.

 

  1. The use of PDR does not require buildings to have been vacant prior to development.  This could lead to the loss of existing uses, fragmentation of the retail, leisure and commercial offers, and detrimental impacts on the diversity and vitality of local, town and employment centres.  This could also undermine the National Planning Policy Framework which requires local planning authorities, through Local Plans, to meet the needs for economic development and to plan for the future of town centres.  Cumulatively, the proposals could have significant impacts upon the supply of land for economic development and scale and variety of jobs available.

 

  1. In the absence of a size limit on PDR, substantial retail, employment or other floorspace floorspace could be converted to residential, with significant impacts upon town and employment centres and their economic prospects.  The loss of such uses and floorspace could have detrimental effects on the vitality and viability of such areas.  In addition, the loss of such uses could undermine the viability of other services and facilities.

 

  1. Extending PDR and increasing the size of conversions could result in the loss of clustering of similar or complementary commercial activities, and the use of shared support services.  This, in turn, could be detrimental to the viability of economic activities and job creation.

 

  1. The TCPA’s Raynsford Review identified that PDR conversions result in a loss of economic investment in places due to a shortage of employment space.

 

High streets and town centres

 

  1. High streets, town centres and commercial quarters have experienced (and will continue to experience) the effects of the pandemic differently.  Only a locally-led planning process with the appropriate amount of time for public consultation will ensure that all residents are able to have a say in the way that their area is developed.

 

  1. The use and expansion of PDR undermines councils’ plans for high street recovery.  Instead, genuine public engagement through the planning process ensures that communities and councils agree and understand about how, where and what type of change and development will meet their needs.  Councils and communities need greater influence and control over development, rather than less – which is the case through PDR.

 

  1. The risks associated with allowing PDR could make the retail sector more fragile.  Once units are converted to residential use, it is unlikely that they will ever return to high street or town centre uses.  Inactive frontages and a lack of flexibility for future change of use may lead to negative knock-on effects or unintended consequences such as the departure of other retail or complementary uses, removing the active street frontages and mix of uses that make high streets and town centres vibrant.

 

  1. Although high street retail and some commercial centres may be in decline, people will always need a place to gather, meet, socialise, be entertained, and access essential services in a convenient central location.  The loss of floorspace in these locations through PDR could undermine the viability and vitality of local centres.

 

  1. Some uses need central locations or clustering to be viable.  These include a diverse mix of pubs, coffee shops, hairdressers, some shops, cafes, restaurants, key-cutters and other uses and services that cannot be done on-line and which people enjoy doing in person and with others.  The potential loss of these could result in reduced footfall and fragmentation of the wider offer including retail, services and leisure.  It could be particularly damaging to the night-time economy, both due to the loss of restaurants, cafes and leisure facilities and the potential adverse effects on new residents.

 

  1. It would result in a loss of ability for other stakeholders to participate in the decision-making process.  This is important as the use of a property for residential purposes might conflict with the use of nearby buildings for commercial purposes, for example, those that require night access or just-in-time deliveries.  It is also likely to result in residential development in commercial areas being located away from essential facilities for residential areas such as shops, schools, open spaces or health care.

 

  1. There are alternative ways that councils can revitalise high streets and town centres.  Culture-led regeneration can be an effective way of supporting sustainable growth in town centres and has been used effectively by many local authorities.  Culture and leisure buildings and organisations can act as anchor institutions, driving footfall to high streets and supporting the visitor and night-time economies.  Culture and the creative industries can also be used as a focus for development and economic growth.  The loss of buildings through PDR conversions would prevent this.

 

  1. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee concluded from their inquiry on High Streets and Town Centres 2030 that planning is crucial to high street and town centre transformation and the Government should, therefore, ensure that planning powers are fit-for-purpose. The Committee asserted that PDR risks undermining the strategic vision that a community has developed for its high street or town centre and preferred an approach whereby Local Plans identify where housing should be situated.

 

 

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

 

  1. Councils are committed to ensuring new homes are built and communities have quality places to live.  It is vital that these are delivered through a locally-led planning system with public participation at its heart which gives communities the power to ensure new developments are of a high standard, built in the right places, and include affordable homes.

 

  1. Any loss of local control over developments is a concern.  It deprives communities of the ability to define the area they live in and risks giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local communities.

 

61.       The use of PDR renders communities and local authorities powerless to intervene in shaping places.  The retention, and expansion, of PDR raises concerns about the role of councillors and communities in the planning system.  It also raises concerns about a reduction in democracy.

 

  1. The provision of new high-quality housing needs to be balanced with employment, services and infrastructure, maintaining the important role and integrity of high streets and town centres, as they are the heart and soul of communities.  Over time, town centres will inevitably change, contract and consolidate, but this is best done in a planned and managed way.   It is, therefore, vital that local communities, authorities and their partners identify and protect high streets and commercial centres that are vulnerable to impacts and need to be supported.

 

  1. Local residents deserve a planning process that upholds local democracy.  However, the use and extension of PDR has given developers greater freedom, and planning authorities and local communities less control.

 

 

Should the Government reform PDR? If so, how?

 

  1. Councils want to be able to create great communities and support local involvement in designing, planning and creating great places for current and future generations.  To meet these challenges the planning system needs to be transparent, fit for purpose, and accessible to all.

 

  1. Commercial buildings being converted into residential use is not necessarily a bad thing.  Done to a good standard and properly planned, empty office spaces can be transformed into good quality, much-needed homes.  The problem is the route that the Government is taking to achieving new housing through PDR – it creates damaging outcomes and sidelines communities.
  2. Only a locally-led planning system in which councils and the communities they represent have a say over the way places develop will ensure the delivery of high-quality affordable homes with the necessary infrastructure to create sustainable, resilient places for current and future generations.

 

  1. It is not clear why PDR schemes should not be subject to the conditions and S106 planning obligations applicable to schemes that come forward by way of traditional planning applications.  Conversions through PDR should, at least, be subject to affordable housing requirements, contributions to schools and other social infrastructure.  In this way, there would be an even playing field for those developers delivering housing through planning applications and policy requirements.

 

  1. Alternatively, as a route to housing delivery PDR could be scrapped, or significantly reduced in scale and scope, so that local authorities and communities can properly provide for, and meet, their housing needs.

 

 

In addition, written submissions may touch on any other matter relevant to the government’s approach towards these kinds of permitted development.

 

  1. The use of land and buildings, and the impacts of development on local areas and communities, should be locally led through the planning system.  This is particularly important as we rebuild and recover from COVID-19.  Any loss of local control over developments is a concern as it would deprive communities of the ability to define the area they live in and risk giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local communities.

 

  1. Planning is not a barrier to housebuilding.  Councils approve nine in 10 planning applications.  Analysis for the LGA showed that (as at March, 2020) there were more than a million homes with planning permission but not yet built.  It is the housing delivery system that is broken, not the planning system.

 

  1. It is vital that councils and local communities have a voice in the planning process and can oversee all local developments.

 

Other pressures and restrictions on the supply of affordable housing

 

  1. MHCLG has released an update on plans to abolish requirements for housebuilders to deliver affordable housing on sites of up to 50 homes. The Ministry says that having “considered the consultation feedback and the situation in the housing market”, on balance it does not “consider this measure to be necessary at this stage”. Plans to scrap the requirement, known as the “small sites cap”, had been criticised as likely to impact the delivery of affordable housing. It has been estimated that retaining the current arrangement will lead to 6,000 more affordable homes being built each year than would have been the case if the Government had gone ahead with the proposed change. However, the retention of the threshold will not solve all the problems in securing affordable housing.  As noted by Tom Fyans (Deputy Chief Executive of CPRE) the announcement “only makes sure the situation doesn't get significantly worse - more action must be taken to provide adequate numbers of genuinely affordable homes”.

 

  1. The development of new housing, including that through the conversion of buildings in other uses, should be subject to the planning application process, local consultation and the appropriate application of conditions and S106 agreements.  In this way, councils and communities can avoid the development of inadequate housing in poor environments through PDR.

 

  1. In seeking to advance the delivery of new homes and the Government is pressing on with its plans to secure First Homes through developer contributions.  First-time buyers will be able to purchase a property through the First Homes scheme which will provide discounts of at least 30% on new-build properties when compared to market pricesOne route to the delivery of First Homes will be through develop contributions.  The Government will set out planning policy to ensure that a minimum of 25% of all affordable housing units secured through developer contributions under S106 should be First Homes.

 

  1. If private developers are to fund the discounts of at least 30% without additional expenditure or reduced profit, the ability of local authorities to provide other forms of affordable housing will be severely diminished; the developer contribution will be diverted instead into First Homes.  The S106 funds for additional school capacity, environmental improvements and road safety measures, as well other forms of affordable homes will be lost.

 

  1. The increased scope for housing through PDR and the diversion of S106 contributions into First Homes will make it more difficult to provide homes for people on lower incomes, provide high quality residential environments and provide infrastructure, services and facilities to support households and communities.

 

 

April 2021