How easing of upward extensions could impact on planning

A proposed new permitted development right allowing upward extensions could prompt design concerns and is unlikely to be welcomed by local authorities, say commentators.

James Brokenshire: recommends building up, not out
James Brokenshire: recommends building up, not out

In one of the few new planning announcements at this year’s Conservative party conference, communities secretary James Brokenshire suggested the country could "be smarter" in the way it uses land. This meant building up rather than building out, he said.

A statement issued by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government after Brokenshire’s speech said the government would 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". It added that this would allow "more flexibility to extend upwards on existing blocks of flats, shops and offices, making better use of space by increasing housing density". The ministry said the government will "consult on these new measures in due course".

Permitted development rights for upward extensions have been floated before. In 2016, the then Department for Communities and Local Government proposed the policy in London only. But following a consultation, it announced that the plans were being withdrawn after more than half of responses suggested that a "one-size-fits-all" permitted development right would be "unworkable".

So what’s changed? In all likelihood, not much, said Mark Batchelor, planning director at consultancy Boyer. "The precise detail remains to be seen, but the approach is likely to be similar to that considered for London in 2016," he said. "That would mean a restriction on the number of additional storeys which could be proposed and a requirement that the extension only increases the height of a building to the same as the adjoining building."

That would mirror guidance already included in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which states that planning policies and decisions should "support opportunities to use the airspace above existing residential and commercial premises for new homes", particularly where "development would be consistent with the prevailing height and form of neighbouring properties". Batchelor said permitted development rights would likely "underpin" the NPPF policy and "add a layer of certainty" for applicants and authorities, "albeit with some restrictions".

What those restrictions might be remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Roger Hepher, director at hgh Consulting, is sceptical that permitted development rights would offer the level of control necessary for what are often sensitive proposals. "An upward extension is almost always going to be very visible, and will often stand out in isolation. Hence there is a stronger case for it to be subject to design control than most other extensions," he said. The NPPF policy is already sufficient, said Hepher, who sees the permitted development proposal as "more about political gesturing than anything else".

Under the 2016 proposals, permitted development rights would have been subject to a prior approval process, giving local authorities some control over design matters. Adopting a similar approach this time around will provide little consolation to cash-strapped councils, said Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, who believes plenty of work will still be required of officers to make sure proposals are of a satisfactory standard. "Normally, for prior notification, the fee is peanuts," he said. "We’re dealing with a fullblown application for very little money."

Councils may also lose out in other ways, Kiely said. Upward extensions, if large enough, would still be subject to Community Infrastructure Levy payments but would be exempt from section 106 negotiations, and therefore affordable housing contributions. Kiely points to office-to-residential permitted development rights, which he believes resulted in a wave of low-quality development with little public benefit. "Is that what we want to produce in terms of future housing stock?" he said.

Then there are questions about the extent to which the policy will actually create housing stock at all. Building upwards sounds good in theory, said Michael Bach, chair of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, but adding extra storeys raises all kinds of complications in terms of access. "The whole thing needs a reality check," said Bach. "When it was first suggested it was thought to be a bonkers idea that would just go away. And it hasn’t."

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