The continued expansion of Permitted Development over recent years has raised significant concerns across the housing sector. Since 2015 we’ve seen 19 reforms to loosen the shadow planning system, which has - in far too many cases - led to the speedy development of sub-standard housing fundamentally unfit for future generations.
In 2020, as a result of fierce lobbying, the government introduced a requirement for minimum space standards in Permitted Development conversions: a welcome move to prevent the development of shoebox homes. But space is not the only issue. As a policy, Permitted Development is fundamentally at odds with government ambitions to rejuvenate and futureproof our high streets and deliver the high quality, sustainable homes people need.
We therefore welcome the HCLG Committee inquiry that seeks to assess the true impact of this planning system loophole. Shaped by the thoughts and experiences of our expert members, our written response highlights some of the policy’s most concerning flaws and recommends an urgent reversal of recent changes.
Permitted Development is not the right vehicle to reform the planning system
The extension of Permitted Development will not create attractive high streets. Instead, it will prevent positive long term planning, sideline community engagement, damage the economy of high streets and, above all else, produce sub-standard housing that has a negative impact on people and the environment.
Permitted Development is at odds with the National Model Design Code
The proposed National Model Design Code clearly highlights the significance of sustainable development and the need to come together to 'activate' places. Put simply, new Permitted Development Rights are at complete odds with this ambition to create comfortable neighbourhoods and homes.
Permitted Development continues to deliver poor quality homes
Many shops are simply not suitable for residential conversion because of their location or configuration. It’s therefore vital that these buildings undergo full planning scrutiny before conversion can be granted. It’s particularly important given the government’s suggestion that high streets could help provide urgent housing for disabled and older people.
It’s absurd to think that, under Permitted Development, schemes only need to comply with the Building Regulations. These address limited technical issues such fire safety, energy efficiency, ventilation, soundproofing and, since 2020, the provision of space and ‘adequate’ light.
Permitted Development enables developers to avoid contributions to local infrastructure through s106 and CIL charges
The policy also enables developers to avoid contributions to local infrastructure through s106 and CIL charges. In 2018 a report by RICS estimated that five local authorities lost out on £10.8 million in income and 1,667 new affordable homes as a result. In 2020, the Local Government Association estimated that local authorities may have "lost out on more than 13,500 desperately needed affordable homes" over four years. Allowing developers to bypass this crucial planning system function essentially provides a government subsidy for property owners and encourages developers to make savings by taking advantage of this loophole.
Permitted Development undermines local authorities
The policy can lead to unintended and irreversible consequences by undermining a local authority’s decision-making and long-term strategy for growth, as agreed through their Local Plan. Even the government’s own research has highlighted how conversions fail to meet adequate design standards and hinder the ability of councils to bring about positive changes in their hard hit high streets and town centres.
While Permitted Development may accelerate housebuilding in the short term, the policy will have a detrimental effect on local areas in the future. Flooding our high streets with housing conversions will only exacerbate the ingrained inequalities within places that have been exposed through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of expanding this planning system loophole, the government should instead help local authorities bring new housing forward. By investing in infrastructure, aiding land assembly, and promoting models of long term stewardship, the government can develop housing we desperately need.
We’re strongly supportive of bringing vacant buildings back into use, but the result cannot be poor quality homes. To "build back better" we need a holistic approach that energises and protects our high streets and creates the genuinely affordable, high quality, sustainable homes people need.