In the end how a society chooses to house those in greatest need is a test of basic care and morality. That is a test the Government has failed.
In 2015, the Government changed the rules so that developers could convert offices to homes without planning permission, as part of ‘permitted development’. What did this mean in practice? Developers could create “homes” with no natural light, play space, walkable shops or consideration of climate change – indeed anything that makes life worth living.
Watford tried to refuse a development of offices converted into “homes” with no natural light and didn’t win. Because as the Inspector put it when the developer appealed, nothing in the rules allowed Watford to refuse. Eventually the Government had to concede on the issue of natural light, as this quickly became a real scandal with research proving the poor quality of these homes (see also here). It seems that some developers do race to the bottom if there are no minimum requirements.
Not content with promoting office conversions to residential – despite intense criticism – on 1 September 2020 the Government brought in new permitted development rights which give even more rights to developers. Developers can now demolish and rebuild offices to create new homes. Rights : Community : Action is challenging these latest rules in the courts.
But the problems of the earlier permitted development rights of conversion are still there. Developers can build homes of any size through these rights as there are no minimum space standards. To get a mortgage to buy a house, properties need to be 30 square metres. But to rent is another story – last weekend’s investigation in the Observer had people describe the experience of renting in one of these conversions as being like ‘living in an open prison’. And it’s the most vulnerable in our society who will end up living in these places. What kind of society are we, where we think this is acceptable just to increase the profits of developers?
Today the Government announced that it would make minimum space standards apply to homes created through permitted development rights. It’s the day of the debate in the Commons on the new laws, and two weeks before our legal case is heard in court. Without this challenge, and all the people who have spoken out about the ‘slums’ being created through developers being allowed free rein, it’s unlikely the Government would have made this concession. The legislation that is actually proposed will be key to understanding whether this is hot air, or a real safeguard for the people who will live in these places.
Huge problems still remain. Permitted development rights change the very nature of the existing planning system by removing local democratic control over an unknown amount of development and by removing the ‘section 106’ contributions of affordable housing to the local authority. Every local authority in England is affected.
A location that’s in a car park on the edge of town, far from schools, doctor’s surgeries and the high street, with no pavements or walking and cycling links, might be acceptable for a day at the office. But it is not the best place for people to live when they need to be close to these services. This is the implication for these new rights given to developers – local authorities and communities no longer decide where the best place for these homes are, as they have lost this right.
Nor are there ways to apply policy on climate change mitigation or health impacts in the new rules. That’s because they are not listed in the conditions for prior approval – the process by which a developer demolishing an office and building new homes has to get the local authority’s go ahead. So the local authority cannot refuse the development because it’s not the right place to put homes, or because they’re just going to add to the climate change problem, or because they aren’t right in terms of being healthy places to live.
There is a different way to build the homes we need for the people who need them most in England.