Regular listeners of BBC Radio Four’s Today programme would last week have heard John Healey, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, deliver a damning assessment of permitted development (PD) rights that allow commercial premises to be turned into housing without planning permission. "This is a get-out clause," said Healey, pledging to scrap the rights which he claimed have allowed developers to "dodge any social housing obligations and build slum-like housing".
The announcement saw Labour taking aim at a flagship government planning policy that has emerged as one of the most controversial reforms of recent years. First introduced on a temporary basis in 2013, PD rights allowing office to residential conversions were made permanent in 2016. According to MHCLG figures, more than 11,000 office to residential conversions have been allowed under the policy since April 2014. But it has attracted criticism from a range of built environment bodies including the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), Planning Officers Society, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and Royal Institute of British Architects, who have warned that housing numbers are being prioritised over the quality of new homes.
Just a few weeks before Labour’s announcement, at the time of the government’s spring statement, housing secretary James Brokenshire announced that a raft of further rights would be introduced in the coming months. At the same time, he appeared to acknowledge mounting concern about the policy among built environment professionals. "I intend to review permitted development rights for conversion of buildings to residential use in respect of the quality standard of homes delivered," he said.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government declined to comment on the date, scope, or format of the review. Regardless, Brokenshire’s statement represented official acknowledgement that the quality of conversions carried out under PD rights warranted investigation. Ian Fletcher, policy director at the British Property Federation, described a similar shift in the development industry’s attitudes. "As time has gone on, those buildings that were most ripe for conversion have been converted and I think sentiment has changed," he said, noting growing "ambivalence towards this particular policy".
Commentators differ in the extent to which they believe Labour’s announcement will heap any additional pressure on the government to change its stance on PD rights. Richard Blyth, head of policy at the RTPI, said: "I’m not really conscious that the government spends a lot of time listening to Labour when it’s working out what to do." However, Hugh Ellis, policy director at the TCPA, said ministers are facing calls to shift their position from Conservative local government members as well as built environment professionals. "I think Labour’s decision brings some more pressure to bear," he said.
Nick Raynsford is a former Labour housing and planning minister and the author of a recent TCPA review of planning in England, which found that PD rights had resulted in development with "serious adverse implications for people’s health and wellbeing". Raynsford told Planning he was unsure how much impact the announcement would have on government thinking. But he said there was a contradiction between the government’s stance on PD and its commitment to improving the design quality of homes. "That message does not fit at all comfortably with permitted development, where the hard evidence is that a very high proportion of the homes that have been created through office to residential conversions have been substandard in a variety of different ways," said Raynsford. "It’s very difficult to ride two horses going in opposite directions. That’s the situation the government has managed to get itself into."
Brokenshire’s spring statement announcement, confirming the rollout of further PD rights, may provide an insight into how the government intends to try and balance these competing priorities. Blyth pointed to concessions made by the housing secretary when committing to a new right allowing upward extensions to provide homes. At first glance, "that seems a bit inconsistent with the government's message on building beautiful," said Blyth. However, Brokenshire stressed the government would be "engaging with interested parties on design and technical details" and said any new homes would "respect the design of the existing streetscape". "There was a little bit of retreat," said Blyth. "That was encouraging."
Fletcher said he expected the government to adopt a similar approach towards existing rights for office to residential conversions. "I think the government will probably continue with the policy but with significantly greater restrictions on it," he said. "They seem wedded to permitted development rights. I don’t expect them to step fully back from the policy but I would expect them to put in place a number of restrictions which lessen its use."
Ellis predicted a similar scenario, describing the government’s likely approach as a "classic fudge". Any attempt to place restrictions on PD rights will mean avoiding an obvious solution to concerns about the policy, he said. "How do you solve this problem? You make people put in a full planning application."