New planning loophole could see huge blocks of flats with no social homes

New planning loophole could see huge blocks of flats with no social homes

The government has recently changed the law so that soon, you will be able to demolish and rebuild big blocks of flats and offices denser and taller without going through the full planning process.

In doing so, a whole new loophole has been opened for developers to avoid building affordable homes when they build new blocks of up to 60 or 70 flats.

Given the huge shortage of social housing across the country, it’s a move in the wrong direction. If the government wants to help out small builders and deliver for those who’ve struggled in poor housing during the pandemic, then it should be investing in building new social homes instead.

Demolishing and rebuilding as permitted development

The new social housing loophole has been created by an extension to so-called ‘permitted development rights‘. The technical details can be hard to visualise. So before we go there, let’s focus on what the they mean in practice.

Soon you will be able to demolish housing and offices and rebuild them on the same footprint as denser and taller blocks of flats without making a full planning application. Those blocks of flats could be huge by most standards; as tall as six storeys, containing up to 60 or 70 flats.

So, what are the technicalities that get us to that conclusion?

From September, there will be a new permitted development right to demolish any freestanding building used for:

  • Housing, offices, R&D, and light industry
  • With a footprint of 1000m2 and a height of less than 18m
  • With certain caveats, like the building has to have been empty for six months, it only applies to buildings built before 1990, and not inside conservation areas, AONBs, etc

And once you’ve demolished, you will be able to rebuild it as housing.

When you rebuild on the same footprint you can increase the height of the building by up to two storeys, up to a height of 18 meters. At three meters a storey, that’s up to six storeys.

Concerns about quality

There are lots of reasons that people will worry about permitted demolition and rebuild.

In the detached suburbs, for example, it will mean that neighbours can move out, wait a few months, knock down their house and rebuild it as a small block of flats without a full planning process. There will be concerns about a loss of heritage and beauty.

There are also major, legitimate concerns about the quality of the new homes that will get built.

It is, frankly, breath-taking that on the same day that permitted development rights were extended, the government published its own damning analysis of the quality of new homes delivered through previous permitted development. It found that homes built through permitted development were more than three times more likely to fall short of national space standards.

But the biggest reason to worry about is that it creates a new loophole that developers can use to avoid building new social homes.

New social housing loophole

One of the main ways new affordable housing gets built on new private developments is by attaching ‘affordable housing obligations’ through the planning process. These obligations (sometimes called ‘Section 106 obligations’) allow councils to require that some of the homes on new developments are affordable housing.

Since affordable housing budgets were cut and other policies changed, these Section 106 obligations are now the main way that most new social rented homes get built. In fact, in the most recent year’s stats, ten times as many social rent homes were built through Section 106 as were built with money from government grants.

But you can’t attach an affordable housing obligation to a permitted development. They don’t go through the full planning process, so there is no chance of making affordable housing an obligation on the planning permission. 

Time for a different plan

The country’s shortage of social homes has been laid bare in the pandemic, so it makes no sense cutting away at the main tool we use to deliver new ones. And when the evidence shows permitted development can lead to crummy, pokey homes, it’s potty to double down on them.

Everyone knows that when you realise you’re heading in the wrong direction, it’s time to stop walking and pick another path.

What should it be?

It doesn’t take a genius to see the way to tackle both a national social housing shortage and a drop in demand for market homes. Investing in new social housing would deliver both.

The time to do it is now.