Build, Build, Build* (*Terms & Conditions Apply)

The Government is about to announce two major proposals for significant deregulation of the planning system by way of amendment of the Use Classes Order and the General Permitted Development Order. According to Robert Jenrick’s 30 June 2020 letter to MPs:

“I will create a new broad category of ‘commercial, business and service’ uses which will allow commercial, retail and leisure uses greater freedom to adapt to changing circumstances.”

(“In undertaking this reform, I recognise that there are certain uses which give rise to important local considerations; for example to ensure local pubs and theatres are protected, or to prevent the proliferation of hot food takeaways or betting shops”).

There will also be “… a new permitted development right to encourage regeneration and put empty buildings back to good use. This will serve to bring forward additional much needed homes and boost investment opportunities for the construction industry.

The right will allow free-standing vacant and redundant commercial and residential buildings to be demolished – and rebuilt as residential use within the footprint of the existing building. I recognise that development in certain locations requires individual consideration and therefore, I propose that the right does not apply, for example, in national parks and conservation areas or to listed buildings.”

The reforms, due to come into law in September, follow on from those contained in the Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, which were laid before Parliament on 24 June 2020 and which were summarised in my 26 June 2020 blog post New Planning Legislation! A Detailed Guide. The most radical of these measures was the creation of a new “building upwards” permitted development right: “works for the construction of up to two additional storeys of new dwellinghouses immediately above the existing topmost residential storey on a building which is a purpose-built, detached block of flats”.

My Town colleagues Lida Nguyen, Rebecca Craig, Victoria McKeegan and Meeta Kaur have created a flow chart to describe how the new “building upwards” right will work, when it comes into law on 1 August 2020. It is not straight-forward:

The new rights will of course be equally complex to navigate. The complexity of dealing with any use classes or permitted development rights question is accentuated for those without an expensive subscription to a legal updating service: the Government still does not provide access to up to date consolidated versions of secondary legislation and so it is extremely difficult for non-professionals to navigate the inevitable regulatory trip hazards.

Many of us of course continue to query whether the new right should have been further constrained – that the flow diagram is too simple (leading one to wonder perhaps whether the traditional planning application route isn’t quite so unwieldy after all…). Clive Betts, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, set out a number of specific questions in his 8 July 2020 letter to MHCLG Minister of State Christopher Pincher:

⁃ “What will the Government do to ensure that basic standards, including minimum room sizes and guarantees of amenity space, will apply to new PDRs.”

⁃ “What will the Government do to ensure that local authorities do not, as a consequence of new PDRs, miss out on the funding they need to provide vital infrastructure and affordable housing for their communities?”

⁃ (With reference to the proposed Building Safety Bill, which will implement a new fire safety regime) “Could you confirm…that where a building is extended in height above 18 metres (or six storeys) through the new PDR, that it will then fall under the scope of the new building safety regime?

⁃ “What rights will local authorities have to object to a scheme which damages the local streetscape?”

⁃ “How will the rights of existing business, e.g. pubs and restaurants, be protected to ensure that they can continue to operate in an area changing its mix of development?”

⁃ “What research has the Government undertaken into the potential impact on leaseholders of these changes and what protections will the Government put in place to ensure that they are not financially disadvantaged as a consequence?”

(We now have further detail in relation to the proposed Building Safety Bill, referred to in that third bullet point. MHCLG has published its 18 July 2020 press statement Landmark building safety law to keep residents safe and accompanying guide, although until we see the draft Bill on 20 July we will not have the answer to that question as to whether the duties in the Bill will apply to development carried out by way of permitted development rights, which personally I would guess that surely they would but we shall see…).

Aside from those substantive concerns, which will equally apply to the proposed “demolish commercial to replace with residential” permitted development right, there are inevitably a number of uncertainties as to various aspects of the “building upwards” right. For instance:

⁃ Does the existing building have to be entirely in residential use? What if, say, there are any commercial units on the ground floor?

⁃ How is the adequacy of natural daylight to be determined? This cannot be allowed to turn into inconclusive debates as to “BRE compliance” given the flexibility urged in the BRE guidance itself as to application of its tests.

⁃ What is the scope for the local planning authority to refuse prior approval on the basis of effect on amenity, overlooking, privacy and loss of light? If any exercise of the right would lead to one or more of these problems, due to the inherent circumstances of the building, can the local planning authority refuse permission even if that thwarts the owner’s ability to rely on the right?

⁃ What amounts to “completion” and what are the practical implications of the development having been substantially carried out but not completed by the three years’ deadline?

Any project to construct additional storeys onto an existing block of flats also of course brings all manner of private law complexities: a minefield of landlord and tenant, building management, private nuisance and rights to light issues for example. It is often not the need for planning permission that scuppers the proposal.

Don’t just listen to me: it’s worth reading the Government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee’s lukewarm endorsement of the impact assessment accompanying the 24 June changes. The assessment had estimated that the “building upwards” right could lead to approximately 81,000 homes being built above existing structures. I would be astonished.

Simon Ricketts, 18 July 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Through A Glass Darkly: To BRE Or Not To BRE

How to determine whether the impact from a proposed development on the daylight and sunlight enjoyed by neighbours, or to be enjoyed by future occupiers of the scheme, is appropriate? That is the question. 
The problems are multi-layered:
– There is no practical guidance in the NPPF or NPPG as the approach to be taken.
– Many local planning authorities default in their policies to requiring compliance with a guide to good practice published by the Building Research Establishment in 2011: “site layout planning for daylight and sunlight: a guide to good practice” (BR 209) by Paul Littlefair (a document incidentally not freely available but available for purchase from the BRE for £55). 

– The document has various numerical criteria and calculations to determine acceptability. Whilst the need for flexibility in application is acknowledged in the document itself (“Although it gives numerical guidelines, these should be interpreted flexibly because natural lighting is only one of many factors in site layout design“) in practice this is often overlooked. 

– The document has not been updated to reflect changes in our understanding of what makes great places or indeed nuanced to reflect the very different expectations of those living in urban environments, and London in particular. 
The Government signalled in its February 2017 housing white paper that a new approach may be needed: “the Government intends to amend national planning guidance to highlight planning approaches that can be used to help support higher densities, and to set out ways in which daylight considerations can be addressed in a pragmatic way that does not inhibit dense, high- quality development.”
I will be disappointed if we do not see this in the draft revised NPPF (likely to be published on 5 March). 
Disappointingly, the Mayor of London has omitted specific guidance from the draft London Plan (2 March representations deadline looming). The opportunity has been missed to stress the need for flexibility and appreciation of context. Given the loss of the previous density matrices, daylighting and sunlighting issues will continue to be relied upon by objectors seeking to resist higher density schemes, which are inevitable if the housing targets in the plan are to be achieved. 
Against this context it is fascinating to read the inspector’s decision letter dated 21 February 2018 allowing an appeal by Londonewcastle for their Whitechapel Estate development, which comprises “demolition of all existing buildings and redevelopment to provide 12 buildings ranging from ground plus 2-23 storeys (a maximum 94m AOD height), comprising 343 residential dwellings (Class C3), 168 specialist accommodation units (Class C2), office floorspace (Class B1), flexible office and non-residential institution floorspace (Class B1/D1), retail floorspace (Class A1-A3), car parking, cycle parking, hard and soft landscaping and other associated works.” The site falls within the City Fringe Opportunity Area Planning Framework.
The inspector summarised the main issues as:
* “The quality of design of the appeal proposal and its effect on the character and appearance of the area and on the wider townscape;

* The effect on heritage assets and their settings; 


* The effect on living conditions of neighbouring residents, having regard in 
particular to daylight and sunlight, outlook and privacy; 


* The quality of living conditions for future residents of the development, having regard in particular to daylight and sunlight, overshadowing, outlook and privacy. ”

The inspector’s approach to daylight and sunlight is particularly interesting, given that it follows detailed evidence from, for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, none other than Paul Littlefair, author of the BRE guide, and, for the appellant, leading consultant Gordon Ingram of GIA, proponent of a more nuanced, contextual, assessment approach. 

It is plain from the decision letter that the inspector preferred the GIA methodology:
107. It is agreed that the starting point in the assessment of the effect on residents’ living conditions arising from daylight and sunlight should be the Building Research Establishment 2011 publication Site layout planning for daylight and sunlight: A guide to good practice, (‘the BRE guide’) whose author gave evidence at the Inquiry on behalf of the Council. Use of this methodology is demanded by the supporting text to MDD Policy DM2539 and by the Mayor of London’s Housing SPG of March 2016. 

108. The BRE document offers guidance on generally acceptable standards of daylight and sunlight, but advises that numerical values are not to be rigidly applied and recognises the importance of the specific circumstances of each case. Inner city development is one of the examples where a different approach might be justified. This is specifically endorsed by the Housing SPG, which calls for guidelines to be applied sensitively to higher density developments, especially in (among others) opportunity areas and accessible locations, taking into account local circumstances, the need to optimise housing capacity, and the scope for the character and form of an area to change over time. This approach is clearly relevant to the appeal site. The area’s identification for transformation through high density housing development indicates high scope for its form and character to change over the short and longer term. I agree with the appellants that blanket application of the BRE guide optimum standards, which are best achieved in relatively low-rise well spaced layouts, is not appropriate in this instance.
112. The figures show that a proportion of residual Vertical Sky Component (‘VSC’) values in the mid-teens have been found acceptable in major developments across London. This echoes the Mayor’s endorsement in the pre- SPG decision at Monmouth House, Islington that VSC values in the mid-teens are acceptable in an inner urban environment. They also show a smaller proportion in the bands below 15%. Even if there were some discrepancy in the appellants’ figures for this lower band at Whitechapel Central, which is disputed, the VSC outcomes for the appeal proposal would in general be very similar to those of the other major schemes. The appeal proposal would therefore appear to be in compliance with the LP as amplified by the SPG and as it is being interpreted by the Mayor. The GLA responses to the planning application did not raise any concern about neighbours’ amenity. 

113. I acknowledge that a focus on overall residual levels could risk losing sight of individual problem areas. It is accepted that light is only one factor in assessing overall levels of amenity, but I consider that the trade-off with other factors, such as access to public transport or green space, is likely to be of more relevance to an occupier of new development than to an existing neighbour whose long-enjoyed living conditions would be adversely affected by new buildings. However, I also consider that Inner London is an area where there should generally be a high expectation of development taking place. This is particularly so in the case of the appeal site, where the WVM and the OAPF have flagged the desirability of high density development. Existing residents would in my view be prepared for change and would not necessarily expect existing standards of daylight and sunlight to persist after development.”
121. As in the matter of daylight, the guidance on loss of annual and winter sunlight is not to be rigidly applied. Emphasis on the level of retained sunlight rather than degree of change would be justified. On balance, I accept the appellants’ conclusion the proposal’s overall effect on sunlight would not be significantly adverse.”
As to the effect of the scheme on living conditions for neighbouring residents:
125. I conclude that the proposal would result in some significant individual reductions in daylight and sunlight levels, but that this is almost unavoidable in achieving the policy requirement for high density development in a confined urban setting. The new buildings would for the most part be comparable in height with the existing and would re-define traditional street frontages. Retained levels of daylight and sunlight would be adequate and comparable with existing and emerging urban conditions. The effects would appear very comparable with those recently allowed by the Council at Whitechapel Central. There would be minimal adverse losses of outlook and increases in overlooking. Taken as a whole, the proposal would not result in unacceptably harmful effects on living conditions and would comply with the development plan in this respect. ”
Whilst of course individual decisions of inspectors are not formal precedents, and every scheme is dependent on its individual circumstances and the relevant local policy background, this decision is undoubtedly important and surely fully in line with what the Government was flagging in the housing white paper. 
The BRE guidance in part draws upon British Standard BS 8206-2 (2008) Lighting for Buildings – Part 2: Code of Practice for Daylighting. I am wondering whether one reason that the 2011 guidance has not been updated is that the British Standards Institute has been working with other EU member states’ standards institutes on a new voluntary set of standards for natural daylight, via the European Committee for Standardisation. During this process, revisions of the relevant standard at a domestic level must be placed on hold. Following consultation, a new ECS standard was ratified on 8 February 2018 and will be formally available from 25 April 2018. More information as to the tighter criteria that the new standard will introduce is set out in a useful (subscription-only I am afraid) Planning Resource piece by Gregory Francis of GVA Schatunowski Brooks. 
So, on the one hand, are we at last seeing a move towards more flexible application of daylighting and sunlighting standards? On the other hand, are we are likely in due course to see a tightening of the standards themselves? I find it disappointing that the extent to which there is domestic oversight of the BRE (since 1997 not a governmental body but an independent charitable organisation) is opaque to say the least, before we even get to the complexities of the workings of the European Committee for Standardisation. The Government, and London Mayor, really do need shine a light on all of this.
Simon Ricketts, 24 February 2018
Personal views, et cetera