Legal Viewpoint: Crucial details omitted in permitted rights measures

In an announcement that was slightly overshadowed by publication of the Housing and Planning Bill later the same day, planning minister Brandon Lewis last month unveiled further extensions to permitted development rights for changes of use to residential.

Lewis confirmed that the office-to-residential permitted development right due to expire next May will be made permanent, and that areas with exemptions from it - most notably central London and central Manchester - will have until May 2019 to adopt article 4 directions to retain these exemptions if they choose to do so.

Most significantly, Lewis announced that office-to-residential permitted development rights will be extended to allow demolition of existing office buildings and construction of new residential buildings. The effects of this could be enormous, as constraints surrounding existing office buildings were often a large obstacle to using the permitted development rights already granted.

Lewis’ announcement raises numerous questions. What parameters will be imposed on the new building? Will it have to be on the same footprint as the existing building or of the same height? How far will the local planning authority have a say in its location, scale and design? Assuming that details of the new building will be subject to some form of council approval, what criteria will be used in assessing whether it is acceptable? For example, how will overlooking, unit size and visual impact on the surrounding environment be assessed?

Lewis simply stated that the ability to put up a new building will be subject to "limitations" and prior approval. This leaves open the question of whether the prior approval process will be extended to allow authorities to consider what effect the loss of office space will have on employment in their area. Such a development would greatly dilute the effect of this permitted development right.

Also, will the local authority be able to require affordable housing as part of the prior approval process? Many in the industry see it as illogical that new-build residential developments will probably be required to provide affordable housing whereas office-to-residential redevelopment would not.

Finally, the minister announced that new permitted development rights to convert light industrial space and launderettes into homes will be introduced. Once again, it remains to be seen whether these will be subject to a prior approval process covering the principle of the change of use, as is the case with some existing permitted development rights allowing residential conversions.

Jacqueline Backhaus is head of planning at law firm Trowers & Hamlins

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