One of the messages coming out of the 2019 Conservative Party conference has been that proposals are being considered for modifications to the Permitted Development rights to convert offices to residential use, aimed at improving the quality of the accommodation being provided.
This is an interesting move clearly aimed at spiking the guns of the opposition parties who have been criticising the current Permitted Development Rights ("PD rights") which allow conversions of offices to residential units without planning permission with no binding standards for size of rooms. The result has been a large number of tiny “micro-flats” which many see as unacceptably small. However people have been buying these flats, particularly in areas of high prices where there is little alternative at the sort of prices which first time buyers can afford. Others have been snapped up in University towns for use as buy to lets for occupation by students.
The Labour Party have already announced proposals to scrap the office to residential PD rights if they form the next Government.
The original change in the law to allow office to residential conversions to take place without planning permission was introduced as an emergency measure to help stimulate the market after the financial crisis, when the housing market was struggling to recover. It has certainly contributed substantially to the new housing numbers coming through the system, helped rebuild the construction sector at a time when projects were few and far between and, incidentally, removed from the commercial market hundreds of old office blocks which were well past their sell-by date and unlikely ever to be used as offices again without major investment.
Many Councils oppose these PD rights because it allows housing development to take place without the developers making affordable housing provision and also in many cases without making financial contributions to other infrastructure. The total revenue lost to councils has in some cases been huge and Councils have no say over the selection of which offices should be converted or the impact of development on local infrastructure. Councils point to poor transport infrastructure, lack of community facilities and losses to town centre commercial and economic viability caused by the disappearance of offices. Councils do have one weapon in their armoury to seek to regulate these office to residential conversions in the form of Article 4 Directions, which cancel out PD rights either in relation to specific properties or neighbourhoods. Examples of this occur in Oxford, Bracknell and Basingstoke. Other Councils have not taken action, despite vociferously complaining about these PD rights.
Developers who have suffered planning delays and micro-management by Council planning departments have naturally breathed a sigh of relief that they have been able to carry on their business without such impediments. They point out that if the new homes built by them using Permitted Development rights were so unattractive they would not have been able to sell them. The evidence demonstrates that they have met a market need.
However it is the concerns over poor quality housing (both in terms of quality of workmanship, size of rooms and adequacy of facilities) that have been a constant issue from the earliest days. Amongst the many decent quality or even impressive conversions, there have been some shocking examples which tend to give the others a bad name. As the original need for relaxed planning rules to stimulate the housing market during the recession has receded, the case for greater oversight increases. Movement to impose some minimum standards can only help avoid the worst examples of poor design and provide accommodation that will remain attractive for the long term and not evolve into rented housing of last resort for people with nowhere else to go.
As usual with conference policy announcements, there is little detail to examine. This is promised later in the Autumn.
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