If Permitted development is the answer, then government is asking the wrong question

If Permitted development is the answer, then government is asking the wrong question

Yesterday, the government released a new report into the poor quality, and – in many cases – downright ugly housing converted from offices thanks to the introduction of Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) in 2013. It found that permitted development resulted in poorer quality homes and areas than the usual planning process. 

Today, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, has firmly responded to these findings by… introducing more permitted development.  

We were astounded. 

This is a far cry from the prime minister’s promise to Build Back Better. And a far cry from the good quality, affordable social homes that this country so desperately needs if we are to end the housing emergency and tackle homelessness. 

What changes are the government introducing?

The government has tabled new regulations that will allow: 

  • shops, cafes, gyms and other high street buildings to be converted between uses without applying to do so
  • buildings such as blocks of flats, offices and homes to extend upwards by two stories to create new homes. 
  • most worryingly, it will allow the demolition of existing buildings to be replaced with new residential buildings – all without going through the planning process. 

This move to expand a system that has delivered appalling housing outcomes since it was expanded the first time back in 2013 flies in the face of rhetoric we’ve seen from government in recent months around improving the quality of development. Such as that seen in the final report of it’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission published in January.  

Permitted Development: what’s the problem? 

Shelter has written extensively about the issues surrounding PDR and the need to end this ill thought through policy.  

And we aren’t alone in this: local government, architects, housing campaigners and parliamentarians in all parties have all raised issues with this process. These include: 

  • PDR being exempt from providing affordable housing contributions, leading to the loss of tens of thousands of affordable homes since 2013 
  • lack of control over where homes are placed. With examples of PDR blocks being found in industrial estates that lack public transport and local services 
  • lack of design controls and lack of adherence to space standards, with some flats of 16m2 and smaller being delivered, and even windowless apartments being built
  • the use of shoddy conversions as temporary accommodation to house vulnerable families, such as in the case of Terminus House in Harlow. 

On top of all this, it remains wholly unclear why the government is so attracted to the expansion of PDR, given its inability to deliver on its stated commitments. For example: 

  • the government has committed to ending homelessness – and during the pandemic has taken huge steps on starting this by ending rough sleeping. Yet there is no solution to homelessness that doesn’t involve homes people can afford, and PDR is exempt from making a contribution to exactly this type of housing. 
  • the government wants to provide employment opportunities, yet the very nature of PDR is to incentivise the conversion of much needed employment space into residential.  

The government knows these issues with PDR exist. The review of the quality of homes delivered via PDR published yesterday even included this stark passage: 

…we would conclude that permitted development conversions do seem 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 future occupiers.

What this is saying is that as we emerge from a pandemic that has required millions to rely on home for safety and security, the government proposes to expand a policy that has led to worse outcomes on health, wellbeing and quality of life. 

Given this, we are left asking: if PDR is the answer, then what is the question? Well that one is simple. The question, is how do we boost housing supply quickly?

It is undeniable that since 2013, PDR has played a major role in increasing the numbers of net additional dwellings in England. On the surface that seems good. After all, in a housing crisis don’t we need more homes? 

The problem is that what we build and where we build it must be a consideration when we are increasing housing numbers. Millions of low quality, cramped and poorly designed homes aren’t what people want, and they aren’t what people need. The government – frankly – is focusing on fundamentally the wrong question. 

Asking the right questions 

As we look to ‘Build Back Better’, asking the right questions is going to be key – after all, that’s how we get to the right solutions. For Shelter, the questions the government should be focused on are: 

  1. How do we tackle housing inequality that has seen millions isolating in inappropriate conditions? 
  2. How do we ensure that the heroes who kept our country moving in recent months can all have access to a safe, secure and affordable home? 
  3. How do we ensure that new homes are well designed, energy efficient and popular? 
  4. How do we end the scourge of homelessness once and for all? No stop gaps, no temporary solutions. 
  5. How do we keep the economy moving and protect jobs in these uncertain times? 

Fortunately, we do have a solution: build social housing. 

Places like Goldsmith Street in Norwich show us what social housing can be: beautiful, well-designed and environmentally friendly. They show us what we can achieve when we set our ambitions high and commit the resource needed to realise it. 

So, for government the next steps should be clear. Stop the expansion of PDR and instead focus on increasing the delivery of the social homes we need. To do that, what we need to see is a new commitment – one that will see the Affordable Homes Programme repurposed as a two-year ‘Rescue and Recovery’ package that can get homes delivered now. 

Please sign our petition urging politicians to prioritise social housing and build the homes we so urgently need.