Office to residential developments providing 'poor quality housing'
1 May 2018
Research co-led by UCL highlights the benefits and detriment to residential housing, along with the implications for public authorities and local communities, following a series of changes to permitted development rights.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has published a report, Extending Permitted Development Rights in England, looking at the effects of expanding the policy.
Significant extensions to permitted development (PD) rights occurred in 2005, 2010, 2013 and 2015*. The outcome of these changes, means scores of building conversions are proceeding in England, without the need for full formal planning, impacting oversight and regulation.
Commissioned by RICS, researchers from the UCL Bartlett School of Planning, examined five local authorities with high rates of permitted development (PD) schemes, namely Camden, Croydon, Leeds, Leicester and Reading.
Site visits to 568 buildings found an inconsistency in the quality of developments, with only 30% of units delivered through permitted development meeting national space standards. While examples of extremely high-quality housing conversions had been found, there were also examples that had no amenity space, low quality design and were poor locations for residential amenity.
The research indicated that office-to-residential conversions, developed under PD rights, had produced a higher number of poor quality housing, than those governed through full planning permission. In Glasgow, where the conversions require full planning permission, the report found higher quality residential schemes maintained with better space standards.
The potential impact on local publicly-funded infrastructure was also assessed by UCL. As the schemes were not making Section 106 contributions, local authorities were subject to further losses of £4.1 million due to reduced planning fees and a potential loss of £10.8 million (as well as 1,667 affordable housing units).
Separately, researchers from the University of Sheffield looked at how PD, generally, has grown across England since 2000. This research assessed the number of schemes, any patterns and the financial consequences of permitted development across England.
Developers and agents from the 30 stakeholders interviewed during the research cited many policy benefits including delivering more housing units, regeneration of town and city centres, and quicker implementation
However, with the benefits of speed and efficiency, brought concerns including:
- Removing opportunity for local authorities to weigh up costs/benefits of a specific development and refuse permission if necessary
- The impact on the quality of housing and evidence of the reduction of affordable housing contributions in the case of office-to-residential conversions
- Rural residential developments not being sustainable due to added road traffic - in the past local authorities could block agricultural-residential conversions
- Impacts that are not immediately apparent e.g. PD rights diminishing ability of local government to promote long-term economic development through planning adequate office space
The report makes a number of recommendations, including:
- Amending Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) regulations so that all development creating new residential units are liable
- Government reregulation, or introducing safeguards to the prior approvals process. For example, adding minimum space standards
- Developers giving careful consideration to the wider implications of their schemes on communities and people's everyday quality of life.
Lead researcher, Dr Ben Clifford, (UCL Bartlett School of Planning), said: "The idea of reusing vacant office space as housing is a good one. The way this is currently governed as 'permitted development' in England is, however, highly problematic. Whilst we saw some high quality conversions of office buildings to residential use during our detailed case study research, we also saw many other examples of very poor quality housing.
"These issues included problems over external design, location, residential amenity and the size of the housing units leading to strong concerns about the quality of life for residents. Furthermore, there were examples of adverse impacts for local businesses from the conversion of occupied office space to housing, and none of these conversions were contributing properly towards local affordable housing need, the costs of public infrastructure associated with the additional housing units, or the costs of local authority monitoring of these schemes.
"We believe there is a need for a better regulatory approach to the change of use of office space to housing."
*A significant expansion of permitted development rights occurred through regulatory amendments in 2005, 2010, 2013 and 2015, which included:
- Large extensions, residential annexes and other alterations to houses
- The conversion of commercial buildings, including offices, to residential use
- The conversion of agricultural buildings to residential use
- Changes between different industrial and commercial uses
- The extension of industrial and commercial buildings and the construction of new buildings on their sites
- The development of new residential units through the Planning Permission in Principle (PPIP) process and under Local and Neighbourhood Development Orders (LDOs & NDOs)
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