Briefing: The implications of proposed rights to allow upward extensions

Proposed new rights are meant to boost housing delivery but they may be no quicker to use than the conventional approach, says Katherine Evans.

Upwards extensions: government moves to make such development easier
Upwards extensions: government moves to make such development easier

Q What are the proposed new permitted development rights (PDRs) for upward extensions designed to achieve?

A The proposed expansion of PDRs was put forward in the government’s October Planning Reform consultation document. Among other things, it would facilitate upward extensions to create new residential units, primarily above existing buildings in high streets and town centres. This will be welcomed by some, because policies to increase housing stock are sorely needed in areas that have already been developed. Bringing more residential units into commercial areas, the government hopes, will increase footfall and revitalise retail locations.

Q How would it be applied in practice and what limits would be likely to be imposed?

A The reforms would allow up to a maximum of five storeys from ground level for commercial and residential buildings once they have been extended. Additional storeys would each be limited to a maximum of three metres in height. One approach suggested in the consultation is for upward extensions to be permitted to no higher than the "prevailing roofline" in the "locality", although questions remain on how each of these concepts would be defined. Under a separate proposal, free-standing blocks of flats more than five storeys high could be extended upwards, with views sought as to the maximum additional number of storeys.

Q What would authorities be allowed to consider when deciding whether to give prior approval?

A As well as locally driven considerations, for instance mitigating specific risks such as flooding, the government has proposed that authorities would be required to apply design codes to the prior approval process for upward extensions. It has also proposed that the prior approval process would consider the design, siting and appearance of the extension, which throws into question whether the process will be much quicker at all.

What impact could this change have in practice in terms of amenity, street scene and design?

The proposed approach to prior approvals notes the importance of sustaining a "strong sense of place" and taking into account the wider location – in terms of heritage and local character. But it also states that prior approval for a scheme’s design would be expected to be granted if it is in keeping with the existing building. The latter provision raises questions over whether a local authority would be able to prevent any such scheme submitted for prior approval on the grounds of its design impact on the wider area.

With that in mind, there is a real question mark over how the proposed PDR reforms would interact with the revised National Planning Policy Framework. This already enables and encourages certain upward extensions and better use of airspace to pursue densification, but within the context of the wider planning system and regulations including section 106 agreements, which are not required when prior approval is sought under PDRs.

If it is confirmed, is the take-up of the PDR likely to be widespread? If so, are councils well placed to deal with the resulting extra work?

Widespread take-up of any extension to the rights would be likely if it makes prior approval, in practice, quicker than applying for planning permission. However, these rights are unpopular with some planning authorities wary of the effects of businesses being displaced and a loss of application fees. In addition, PDRs can potentially bypass the processes that seek to ensure positive development in terms of design and amenity. At the same time, though, permitted developments can deliver both residential and commercial benefits.

Authorities are poorly resourced to deal with their workload. Shifting the emphasis from planning applications to applications for prior approval could lessen the burden, but probably not by much due to the emphasis on design and amenity, which will still require the planning officers to make judgements.

Katherine Evans is partner and head of planning at law firm TLT

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