The Up Right

In his speech to the Conservative party conference on 1 October 2018, James Brokenshire announced that the Government will consult “in due course” on “introducing a new permitted development right to allow property owners to extend certain buildings upwards, while maintaining the character of residential and conservation areas and safeguarding people’s privacy“.

Not that one again?!

My second ever blog post, on 15 June 2016, Permitted Development: What Next? summarised the February 2016 consultation paper jointly published by DCLG and the previous Mayor of London, which sought views on proposals “to increase housing supply in the capital by allowing a limited number of additional storeys to be built up to the roofline of an adjoining building through permitted development rights, local development orders or development plan policies”. The paper set out in some detail the criteria and prior approval requirements which would apply.

Nothing then happened, perhaps due to the change in Mayor and the ministerial changes that followed the June 2016 referendum, or perhaps it was always going to be a difficult piece of legislation to draft in a way that arrived at a mechanism that would be simpler for developers than a traditional planning application but which secured necessary amenity protections.

My 17 March 2018 blog post Permitted Development: À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu reported on the conflict between on the one hand a ministerial policy statement on 5 February 2018 which appeared to make it clear that the initiative (now across England, not just London) would be dealt with by policy, within the NPPF and then on the other hand Sajid Javid’s speech launching the draft revised NPPF on 5 March 2018 which had this passage:

And there are also other areas in which we’re ready to go further to take the delivery of housing up a gear.

Including a new permitted development right for building upwards to provide new homes”.

Paragraph 118 (e) of the new NPPF does specifically address upwards extensions: Planning policies and decisions should “support opportunities to use the airspace above existing residential and commercial premises for new homes. In particular, they should allow upward extensions where the development would be consistent with the prevailing height and form of neighbouring properties and the overall street scene, is well- designed (including complying with any local design policies and standards), and can maintain safe access and egress for occupiers.”

In the light of the Javid speech, the Brokenshire announcement was not a big surprise but I do wonder how the permitted development will be drafted so as to avoid the obvious issues that arise and why that NPPF statement isn’t considered to be sufficient.

The RTPI’s response to the announcement on 2 October 2018 was surely right, in which its chief executive, Victoria Hills, said:

Densification of built-up areas can bring about much needed housing supply, but quality is as important as numbers. Blanket height extensions come with issues that have potentially serious impact on streetscape and people’s access to light. National policy can provide a favourable steer, but local communities should be able to set standards which enable higher buildings to make a positive contribution to housing supply.”

There is no indication as to when the consultation will take place. For instance, is the Chancellor’s 29 October Autumn budget statement too soon?

It is interesting that Brokenshire did not take the opportunity at the party conference also to reheat the Autumn 2017 budget policy paper announcement that “the government will consult on introducing… a permitted development right to allow commercial buildings to be demolished and replaced with homes“.

In the meantime, the existing office to residential permitted development right continues to be controversial.

Earlier this year, the RICS published a research paper, Extending permitted development rights in England: the implications for public authorities and communities (1 May 2018)

The study estimated that “between 86,665 and 95,045 dwellings (depending on how student accommodation is classified) might potentially have been created under the extended PD rights between 2010 and 2017. The bulk of these additional dwellings arises from small-scale (less than 10 units created) conversions from commercial uses (including offices) to residential use and from agricultural buildings use to residential use.

These small schemes have been broadly distributed (largely in locations with relatively low property values) through cities and towns without any marked regional patterning. The large-scale conversions of office and other commercial uses to residential use that are a key matter of concern to policy makers are less important with regard to the overall number of dwellings delivered and are overwhelmingly concentrated near the cores of major urban areas. These large scale office conversions (excluding student accommodation) are concentrated in the South East. The scale of PD occurring entirely within the industrial and commercial use classes is relatively modest.

Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) compared the direct costs and benefits to local authorities of extended PD rights with the outcomes of an identical development that had obtained formal planning permission. The key findings were that:

The largest estimated financial impact is the loss in affordable housing contributions. This amounted to about £42.5m.

The benefits arising from savings in staffing costs within planning departments (£14m) are not enough to offset the loss of fees (£22m).

Overall, this part of the analysis estimates that the direct financial impact of the extension of PD rights is a net loss to all the Local Authorities across England of around £50m.”

The research indicates that office to residential conversions under PD have also produced a higher amount of poor quality housing than schemes governed through full planning permission.”

But the mechanism still has its cheer leaders. Conservative MP Nick Herbert wrote a piece in the Standard, Permitted development is key to race to build homes on 8 October criticising the London Mayor for encouraging, in the draft London Plan, boroughs to use article 4 directions to remove the permitted development right.

Then a penny dropped. Nick Herbert is chairman of a think tank, called The Project for Modern Democracy. Who should be the research director for the “Planning Change” strand of the think tank’s work but Alex Morton? As set out on the Project for Modern Democracy’s website:

“Alex was Special Adviser to then Prime Minister (David Cameron) for two and a half years, focused on housing, planning, and local government. He also drafted the Conservative 2015 Manifesto on those areas. Prior to working in No.10, he led on housing and planning at the Policy Exchange think tank.”

He was lobbying for a permitted development right to convert offices to residential as long ago as 2011 in a Policy Exchange paper, More Homes: Fewer Empty Buildings.

Morton has now published a short paper, A backwards step on Permitted Development (26 September 2018) on which the Nick Herbert article was based. The piece seeks to rebut criticisms of the office to residential permitted development right, particularly that it has led to shortages of business space, lower affordable housing and “unsuitable homes“. Read it for yourself but I found it a pretty weak analysis. I also found it strangely inconsistent with a comment piece he had written in the Independent in 2013, which contained passages like this:

Finally, there are unnecessary and unhelpful side-shows like the extensions debacle last week, which stripped immediate neighbours of their powers to object to major changes next door, and which even most supporters of planning liberalisation felt went too far.

I wonder what the Project for Modern Democracy thinks about the proposed Up Right?

Simon Ricketts, 13 October 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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