Written evidence submitted by the Chartered Planners in Academic Practice Group[i] [PDR 072]
The MHCLG Committee Inquiry seeks answers to eight questions with specific reference to what is allowed through the permitted development (hereafter referred to as PD) in respect of large-scale development, commercial-to-residential conversions and changes of use between different types of commercial and retail premises. The answers to these questions are given below. There is however a common thread in answering these questions. Namely, the original purpose of permitted development rights (PDR) was to allow small-scale developments (e.g. householder applications) where there are no material policy implications. More recently (as with the more recent changes enabling conversions of office to residential use) PD has been used to enable much more substantial changes without reference to local policy background and detailed scrutiny. Any further change to PDR should not allow development to go ahead without scrutiny where it could have significant impact, for example, on the environment or local service provision.
Development needs to be well-designed, well integrated with supporting infrastructure and not have deleterious impacts on surrounding developments and wider neighbourhoods. The planning system already allows development to ensure that there are not undue delays in desirable development where it has no material impact – referred to as permitted development rights. The scope of PDR should not be a means for approving significant change without regard for their local impacts that could arise, for example, large-scale conversion of commercial developments to residential uses.
PDR therefore has a key role to play in support of our plan-led system but not as not a separate policy instrument. Adopted local plans therefore should be supported by, and not circumvented by permitted development rights. The use of PDR should not allow development to go ahead without scrutiny where it could result in significant impacts, for example, on the environment or local service provision. The current proposed extensions to PDR are however changing the purpose of permitted development rights from its original one of simplifying the approval process for developments which have no material policy implications to one where it is also an instrument of policy detached from the plan-led system.
It is accepted that PDR regulations need to be kept under review, in particular to respond to technological and business processes, as was the case with previous changes in PDR on telecommunications or the nature of light industry. However, the current case for more development to be permitted was not well evidenced in the recent MHCLG consultation into its proposed extension of PDR.
The proposals state that they are seeking to increase flexibility and certainty in the system for developers, and to be source of major increases in housing numbers. However, the proposed changes would add an unpredictable element that will hinder investment and more coordinated approaches to place-making. In addition, no evaluation has made on the consequential erosion of the reduced ability of communities and LPAs to be involved in how their communities are impacted, contrary to the aims of the Planning White paper to reconnect communities to the planning processes and allow residents to be more engaged over what happens in their areas.
In contrast, most local authorities are successfully promoting residential conversion in town/city centres, with coordination provided through their local plans and by professional planners’ skills. Our concern is that the scale of permitted development proposed could not only erode the public’s confidence in the planning system but also perversely undermine some of the government’s housing policy and town centre regeneration objectives (see answers to later questions).
The proposed changes to PDR are specifically geared to allowing large-scale housing development, for example, through the use of former commercial premises or sites without the benefit of a planning consent. In this context it is also important to recognise that the cumulative impact of developments allowed through PD is already significant. It accounted for one third of net additional dwellings produced in England between 2001 and 2011. It is however debatable whether this will increase the scale of housing provision overall during the period of the local plan much further through small scale schemes.
It is however likely to reduce the opportunities to require the provision of affordable and social housing through planning obligations through S106 (i.e. as part of scheme or via commuted payments). Between 2015 and 2020 54,000 new homes were converted from offices under PD and assuming local authorities would have required 20 percent of these to be affordable this mean a loss of nearly 11,000 affordable homes. The proposed extension of PD is likely to lead to more losses of potential affordable homes contributed by developers.
In terms of quality, by definition such developments will not be subject to proper scrutiny in terms of their suitability for residential use – e.g. their location, types, scale, or height, especially to meet the needs of households with young children, or in terms of their cumulative impacts on communities on such matters as local services and open space needs.
The changes in PDR do not reflect the fact that the footplates, design and layout of large-scale commercial and retail floorspaces by their nature do not, by their nature, serve the needs of decent homes, for example, in terms daylight, ventilation and space standards, nor that they were built for with a much shorter life span in mind than residential properties. These changes may well create added pressure and reliance on building regulations. They also raise the prospect that these areas will need to be retrofitted in the future, with green spaces, parking and facilities, contrary to the principles set out in the Planning White Paper.
There is therefore concern that the latest changes are not consistent with the government’s priority to increase quality of housing development, whereby all new developments meet local standards of beauty, quality and design. The proposal to extend PDR will reduce the ability of the planning system to effectively monitor and manage these significant elements of urban residential development.
This concern is supported by recent research which showed that more crowding and less open space, both in town centres and other areas where this so called ‘soft densification’ has already occurred as a result of the incremental impact of higher levels of PD. Research has also shown that this has tended to happen in poorer neighbourhoods more than in others and has reduced access to key facilities needs such as open space. There is also concern about the differential impact on rural communities where there is the potential to lose the loss of employment opportunities, e.g. in old agricultural buildings, through residential conversions. Thus, there are equalities impact issues for particularly vulnerable urban and rural communities.
Despite the apparent objectives to secure the conversion of large offices and other commercial uses to residential units, small schemes involving PD for B1/C3 change of use have accounted for three times as many additional dwellings as large schemes. The proposed changes in PDR risk increasing the scope for such development. Incremental residential development, because it is more informal, gradual and fragmented than large-scale development, and needs to be monitored and controlled.
It is therefore concluded that the proposals of their nature will therefore increase general uncertainty, whether in terms of the quality of urban areas, on property values or for disadvantaged groups.
Question 3: What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?
Any extension of PDR means removing the ability to examine the positive and negative ‘externalities’ of permitted new development. It therefore means that any deleterious side effects, for example: on transport, parking, school places and infrastructure cannot be assessed. As a result, action to mitigate impacts, or indeed opportunities to enhance new development (e.g. green open space, biodiversity net gain), which are currently met through developer contributions and other undertakings via S106 on such development, will no longer be possible. This is difficult to reconcile with the Prime Minister’s desire that the planning system should ensure that all pay a fair share of the costs of infrastructure and the affordable housing existing communities require
Depending on local planning policy some will be liable for a CIL charge. This may mean more will need to be wholly funded by local authorities unless the PD is within a Business Improvement District (BID) or covered by the new town centre funding arrangements. BIDs are very concerned about the proposals and wonder whether they will have the ‘flexibility with certainty’ to respond to their members ideas to regenerate and create vibrant town centres through commercial decisions.
Planning is key to fostering positive externalities including enhancing the benefits to owners of new developments. Extending prior approval to cover more of what is proposed as PD might be a way of handling this. We strongly agree that it should not apply in National Parks and AONBs or in Conservation Areas. Another sensible approach would be to deal with this via permission in principle so that local planning authorities retain the power to decide where the principle of use change should apply and following which technical approval can be granted.
It is also recognised that the changes will result in a loss of income to local planning authorities even though the demand on their services is not likely to be reduced because of the uncertainty and new procedures that are being created. It will be important that the new regime is accompanied by a realistic fee structure to address this and reflect the demands from prior approvals.
Question 4: Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?
The White Paper (WP) seeks to strengthen the planning system. Besides the general goals of tackling climate change and protecting architectural heritage, it includes the following goals set out in the WP, which are all impacted by the proposed changes in PDR:
New well-designed and sustainable housing developments and the regeneration of town centres are supported by the public but removing decisions on what takes place, and where and when, from public engagement and scrutiny will weaken public support for the development that is so urgently needed. The changes in PDR therefore risk undermining support for planning and support for the government’s housing, town centre regeneration and levelling-up agendas.
Given that the government has consulted on, and is reflecting on responses to its consultation, for a more radical planning reform agenda we are also concerned that the short-term widening of permitted development is in conflict with its wider planning reforms to simplify, speed up and enhance public and developer confidence in planning policies and their implementation. The proposed extensions of permitted development will effectively disenfranchise local people from
democratic decision making and from having a say in locally important major developments.
However, blame for any large adverse effects arising which result from the decisions of central
government will fall on local government.
One opportunity for ensuring that checks and balances are not lost from the system might lie in linking the proposed changes in PDR to the ‘zonal system being proposed in the White Paper. Whilst there are reservations about the zoning approach devolving PDR to LPAs via their zoning schemes would enable what is permitted via zones to be place-specific, including design codes, and integrated into building regulations and policies. Indeed, if the WP vision of ‘zones’ goes ahead there would be no necessary need for PD to be nationally determined but to become part of the locally determined zoning policies and plans.
Question 5: What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?
The answer to this question is in the main reflected in the earlier answers to Questions 1-4. Permitted development has a role to play but we are not convinced that the planning system has unduly delayed desirable development. Hence the case for more development to be permitted by exception is not well evidenced. Furthermore, development needs to be well-designed, well integrated into supporting infrastructure and not have deleterious impacts on surrounding developments and their wider neighbourhoods – in short to help create vibrant places. This is the key role of our system of adopted local plans and development management and permitted development should support such a system rather than override it. Any extension of PD will mean local authorities will lose their ability to plan development, integrate it with the necessary infrastructure and do so in consultation with local communities. It will also mean local authorities will lose the opportunity to negotiate with developers to make S106 contributions to mitigate the costs of new PD in ways that also mean local people can benefit. To meet these requirement will require additional local public spending and if not vital needs may go unmet with pressure on existing facilities for example overcrowding in schools.
A key example of this is on our high streets. The recent changes that give permitted development
rights to all properties within the newly created Part E of the Use Classes order have been largely
justified as a measure that will revive high streets. Whist it may result in more residential units directly on those streets, it will also take away the one (albeit imperfect) mechanism that local authorities have to ‘curate’ the mix of retail, leisure and service activities on those streets. In other words, the ability to plan high streets is being diminished in stark opposition to all the advice that the government have received from the many enquiries that have focused on the future of our high streets that universally call for greater vision to proactively shape these critical local environments.
Question 6: Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?
The assertion that the extension of PDR will support business and economic growth is not evidenced. There are particular impacts that need to be taken into account, which will arise from the creation of residential hope values on all business premises, namely:
First, new business start-ups (small firms, digital and creative talent) which are critical to the economic recovery plan already find it difficult to access suitable premises, and are less able to compete in the property sector for suitable cheap and agile spaces in urban areas, compared with higher valued activities (e.g. residential property in the south of England). In this respect, there is concern that the proposed changes may reduce the supply of space for new commercial businesses if PD leads to the conversion of existing small scale and low rent commercial premises into new expensive residential apartments.
Secondly, the changes could, in particular, prevent new ‘start ups’ from getting a foothold in less expensive premises; this, for example, would not support the government’s urban policy. Rather, it
would by preventing new companies from getting established and taking on local residents asemployees and close-off a great means to help regenerate town centres generally. Similarly, theatres, music venues etc which are not included in Class E, need small scale, flexible workspaces, practice rooms, studios etc to encourage cultural production. As an industry that has been so hard hit by Covid, the proposed changes to PDR will threaten the viability of spaces for nurturing creativity in city centres. This strikes us as another potential hindrance to rebuilding the sector which is also a key part of a vibrant town/city centre.
Finally, a related consequence of the proposed extension of PDR is that property owners will have less certainty that the surrounding physical environment will not change to the detriment of (the value of) their property arising from new less conforming/good neighbour developments. Additionally, the coherence and ‘attractiveness’ of town centres will be affected by the fragmenting of retail frontages. This increased uncertainty will risk depressing the value of all property (it is logical that higher risks must be compensated by higher returns [yields], reducing capital values). For building owners, the reduction in the capital/book values of their property will affect their ability to raise corporate finance. It reduces the scope for asset-backed borrowing and therefore increases the cost of money. This is especially important as many firms fund themselves by borrowing against these assets.
Question 7: What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?
The answer to this question is also reflected in the earlier answers to Questions 1-4. The concern is that this will make government’s desire for more neighbourhood planning and plans more difficult to achieve if this means neighbourhoods could lose ‘control’ of new development, contrary to the government’s stated aims.
Question 8: Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?
It is understood that the Government has committed itself to reforming PDR. The Government has consistently stressed the importance of local policy, the role of LPAs and the involvement of local communities. In this context it is important to identify ways of enabling compensatory adjustments to be made where a local case can be established that there is a risk to wider national or local policies. It is suggested that three courses of action are possible and worthy of further consideration:
 It is possible that there will be an immediate short-term impact whilst there is market uncertainty.
 Refer White Paper
[i] Contributors to this response
Professor Mark Baker, MRTPI, University of Manchester; Professor Matthew Carmona FAcSS MRTPI, UCL; Professor Tony Crook CBE FAcSS FRTPI, The University of Sheffield; Professor Nick Gallent FAcSS FRTPI, UCL; Hon Professor Vincent Goodstadt FAcSS MRTPI (and former RTPI President), The University of Manchester; Professor John Henneberry, FAcSS FRTPI MRICS , The University of Sheffield; Hon Professor Janice Morphet, FAcSS FRTPI, UCL; Hon Professor Kevin Murray FAcSS FRTPI (and former RTPI President), The University of Glasgow; Professor Gavin Parker, FAcSS FRTPI, University of Reading; Professor Malcom Tait, MRTPI, The University of Sheffield; Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones FAcSS FRTPI, UCL; Professor Christine Whitehead, OBE FAcSS HonRTPI ARICS, LSE; and Professor Cecilia Wong, FAcSS FRTPI, The University of Manchester