Written evidence submitted by the Kensington Society [PDR 085]

 

The Kensington Society is a civic society, founded in 1953, covering two-thirds of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is located at the edge of Central London.

Our objects are:

to preserve and improve the amenities of Kensington for the public benefit by ..promoting good architecture and planning in its development, and by protecting, preserving and improving its buildings, open spaces and other features of beauty or historic interest.

Local context: the extreme end of the spectrum

The Society is concerned that, in an area where land values are extremely high, especially due to the pressures from the Prime Central London housing market, the planning system is the only safety net for maintaining inclusive, balanced and mixed communities and a balance between housing and other uses essential in meeting the day-to-day needs of our local communities (NRPF paragraph 92). The social objective of the NPPF (para 8(b)) is to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by promoting accessible services and open spaces that reflect current and future needs and support communities’ health, social and cultural well-being.”

Background:

The Society has been heavily engaged in the production and review of successive development plans since the mid-1970s and has been at the forefront of proposing policy changes to meet the extreme development pressures that the Borough faces.

As a result of these extreme development pressures and the resulting high values for housing, if left entirely to the market everything would change use to housing. As a result, successive development plans have contained policies designed to protect other uses from being “cleansed” out of our local communities, starting with shops.

Following large-scale losses of education, health, care homes and offices between 2000 and 2010, a large number of “social and community uses”, the 2010 Local Plan introduced policies to protect:

 

The policy requires a sequential test to change of use before lower-value social and community uses can be converted to high-value uses such as housing.

NB: This was a forerunner of NPPF policy paras 91 and 92 for safeguarding highly-valued uses, especially in local centres

 

 

 

 

In short, if this were left to the market just about every non-residential use would have been vulnerable to being lost to housing.

In 2013, public houses were also given protection, recognising their role as “social and community uses”, further reinforced by designating those under threat as Assets of Community Value.

Loss of housing

There have always been policies to avoid the loss of housing to other uses, such as the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1973 to prevent housing changing to tourist accommodation. However, this Act was repealed in Deregulation Act 2015, which has effectively facilitated housing being lost to tourist accommodation on a large scale, such as through AirBnB, and it has proven almost impossible to control short-term lettings.

 

Permitted Development Rights

Permitted development rights are a national grant of planning permission which allow certain building works and changes of use to be carried out without having to make a planning application. (National Planning Guidance)

 

Permitted development rights are a national grant of planning permission which allow certain building works and changes of use to be carried out without having to make a planning application.

 

Permitted development rights can be removed by the local planning authority by means of an Article 4 Direction.  

 

 

Use of Article 4 Directions

Before 2013, in Kensington and Chelsea Article 4 Directions were used almost exclusively to remove rights to undertake works to buildings and land in conservation areas, such as the treatment of the façade, fenestration of buildings, front boundaries and paving over forecourts. The effect of this was that such proposals would require planning consent and would be assessed in terms of the policies in the development plan.

The number of Article 4 Directions for conservation areas confirmed in RBKC were:

Since 2013, new permitted development rights have been created by the Government, many related to change of use and, to bring these back within planning control, Article 4 Directions were sought and subsequently approved to exempt:

 

 

As a result, these Article 4 Directions have been used to bring change of use within planning control and to be able to manage the degree and pace of change, whilst maintaining:

These aims are totally consistent with national policy as expressed in the NPPF, particularly with regard to both ensuring the vitality of town centres (Section 8) and to supporting strong local communities (Section 9).

 

Looking Ahead

The Government proposes:

 

 

 

Main impacts are likely to be:

 

NB: those underlined are in the E Use Class.

NB: Those underlined are in the E Use Class.

Impact on town centres

In terms of the Government’s claims that these changes would “support the economic future of our high streets and town centres”, the possibility of change of use of many of these uses is likely, at the very least, to be a significant “disruptor” in higher-order town centres, especially is it could lead to the stripping out of many of the offices on upper floors.

The introduction of the E Use Class provided for greater flexibility, especially for “shopfront” uses, occupying the ground floor and basements, in the town centre frontages. Change of use at ground-floor in main town centres is not likely to have a large takeup.

Impact on local neighbourhood centres

Our real concern, however, is for the future of local neighbourhood centres. These centres are the focus of local communities and are critical to maintaining a supply of the range of shops and services which meet the needs of the local community, as recognised in the NPPF (paragraph 92 (c), which says:

To provide the social, recreational and cultural facilities and services the community needs, planning policies and decisions should:

c)  guard against the unnecessary loss of valued facilities and services, particularly where this would reduce the community’s ability to meet its day-to-day needs”

Summary

Kensington faces extreme market pressures. This is reflected in its Local Plan policies to protect a wide swathe of non-residential from these pressures, ranging from shops, through a range of social and community uses, offices, light industrial uses, cultural uses, hotels and pubs.

The borough managed to achieve a borough-wide exemption for the offices to housing PDR in 2013 and subsequently introduced Article 4 Directions for certain light industrial uses and launderettes.

We are extremely concerned about the prospect of the offices to housing PDR finishing on 31 July 2022. Unless a new Article 4 Direction is approved, the stock of offices, especially those occupied by small firms, could be significantly reduced.

Meanwhile the latest bumper PDR, allowing change of use of almost all E Use Class uses from 1 August, will effectively sweep away most of the protective policies. This could have implications for town centres, mainly for the potential loss of offices. However, the main impact could be on local centres, which if key shops and services are lost could accelerate their decline. These centres currently provide a focus for local communities. Their decline would be highly damaging to people’s access to shops and services which meet their day-to-day needs.

 

 

 

 

 

Questions posed by the Select Committee

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:

  1. What role should permitted development rights (PDRs) play in the planning system?

The traditional role of PDRs has been to allow property owners to undertake physical works their property without the need for planning consent, including various types of extensions. From time to time these PDRs have been increased, such as increasing the dimensions of these extensions that benefit from PDRs.

The use of PDRs to allow various types and scales of physical extensions has grown in the last ten years, to include larger ground-floor extensions, such as conservatories, and roof extensions. The most recent additions have included upward extensions of up to two storeys. The feature of these PDRs has been that they do not apply in conservation areas, in order to retain control over such developments. Three quarters of Kensington and Chelsea is in conservation areas.   

The proposal to make change of use to residential a PDR in 2013 and now the much more extensive right for a wide range of commercial and business uses is inappropriate. It was sufficient for the NPPF previously to encourage change of use by local planning authorities needing to justify their retention. Now the change of use has been imposed by the Government granting permission for change of use through granting permitted development rights

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

Fortunately, we have not yet had any experience of major offices being converted to housing, due to the exemption/Article 4 Direction granted in 2013. To date there has been a steady loss of light industrial uses to housing, but not through PDRs.

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

Kensington and Chelsea has not yet experienced change of use due to PDRs on a scale where this is an issue. We are aware that elsewhere these conversions have been of poor quality. We would not expect that here.

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

No – a plan-led planning system would seek to promote the “right development in the right place” – or so we are told. The deregulatory effect of PDRs undermines the achievement of some of the main aims of the NPPF, especially in relation to those promoting town centres, local centres and the location of development.

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

This is our greatest concern. PDRs undermine the ability of local authorities to:

Ultimately these PDRs could:

 

 

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

No – the possibility of removing almost all types economic activity from town centres and wide range of other activities, contrary the Government’s declared policy of encouraging, indeed concentrating, a wide range of “main town centre uses” in town centres, is likely to undermine the vitality and viability of these centres.

The NPPF (para 85(a)) proposes that planning policies should promote the long-term vitality and viability of town centres, and for local centres, to both plan positively for the provision and use of community facilities, including shops, and other local services (para 92(a)) and to guard against the unnecessary loss of valued facilities and services, particularly where this would reduce the community’s ability to meet its day-to-day needs (para 92(d)).

Impact on town centres   

The proposed PDRs affect not only ground-floor (and basement) “shopfront” uses, but also the upper floors in town centres where these are often used as and are one of the main sources of supply of offices for small businesses. A change of use from the E Use Class uses to housing would:

The suggestion that additional housing units created by change of use of business uses to housing will revitalise town centres is disingenuous. Town centres and even local centres are supported by a large catchment population. Only if the scale of development encouraged by these PDRs were substantial would it have any noticeable positive impact on businesses or economic growth. Adding just a few extra housing units will have no positive economic impact on businesses or on economic growth generally nor on vitality and viability of town centres.

Loss of social and community uses

The main problem with PDRs is that they are a nationally-imposed change of policy regardless of whether it is appropriate at the local level. In the case of Kensington, these changes could not only be disruptive, but could bring about irreversible change from vibrant, mixed-use place where local communities can still (sometimes only just) enable communities to find the day-to-day needs within easy walking distance. Encouraging developers who specialise in stripping out “low value social and community uses” in favour of high-value housing, would rapidly hollow out neighbourhoods into dormitory suburbs with few such uses. We are able to say that based on our experience before policies to protect such uses were introduced.

Between 2000 and 2010, we had already experienced large-scale, irreversible losses of social and community uses to high-value private housing.       

 

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

The current Local Plan policies to protect town and local centres, employment, cultural uses, but particularly “social and community uses”, have strong public support. The loss of education uses, health facilities, care homes and pubs resulted in major campaigns to secure their protection. The loss of these facilities to high-value housing was a major catalyst for policy change.

 

The introduction of PDRs, starting with offices to housing mobilised strong support from both businesses and residents, and, after a very strong campaign, secured a borough-wide exemption. Further Article 4 Directions followed for light industrial uses and launderettes, both vulnerable to PDRs supporting change of use. Launderettes may sound a strange victim, but because of the high cost of rented housing and the significant share of social housing, there are a lot of residents who could not accommodate and/or could not afford a washing machine. There is still a strong need for launderettes in Kensington, but left to the market they would soon disappear.

 

Overall Assessment

 

Until now, Kensington and Chelsea has benefitted from an exemption from a PDR to change offices to housing, but this could end on 31 July 2022 if the Article 4 Direction were not renewed. This could result in a significant loss of offices in a small firms local economy which is already a tight market.

 

The new PDR to change all E Use Class uses could have serious implications for the future of local neighbourhood centres and for walkable neighbourhoods.

 

Most of all, however, these changes would make it impossible for local authorities, in partnership with businesses and the local community, to develop and implement any strategy or action plan to revitalise their town centres.

 

The Society is extremely concerned that:

 

 

 

May 2021