A Ben Adams Architects-designed office to residential conversion dubbed the ‘human warehouse’ has been thrown out by planners in north London
The practice’s plans to turn an office in Wood Green into 219 tiny homes – some as small as 16m² – under the controversial permitted development rights (PDR) rules faced a huge backlash.
Under the PDR rules, councils can only reject schemes on the grounds of their impact on traffic and highways, noise, contamination and flooding. This means refusals of office-to-residential conversion projects are rare.
But last week Haringey Council’s planning officers threw out Ability Developments’ planned conversion of Alexandra House on Station Road, which had attracted a total of 84 planning objections.
Concerns were raised over the size of the units, the sanitation and mental health consequences associated with overcrowding and the risk of fire. Haringey’s own director for public health objected to the plans on the grounds they were likely to be ’harmful to health’.
Opponents included the local MP Catherine West, who said the units planned for the 1980s block fell ‘far short’ of national space standards of 37m² for a one-bedroom one-person home.
However, according to a planning officer’s report produced by Haringey, the council could not consider most of these objections in its decision.
It gave seven reasons for refusal, including that the proposals do not demonstrate that ‘the proposed units would be reasonably described as a dwelling house’ as defined under previous case law.
The authority’s report argued that the plans ‘lacked detail’ and did not mark out the bathrooms or kitchens in the flats’ internal layouts, meaning it was not possible to decide whether the units met the definition of a dwellinghouse.
This refusal reason was highlighted by critics of PDR which said it could have wide-reaching implications for other councils seeking to find ways of refusing the conversion projects.
Ben Clifford, a professor at UCL’s The Bartlett, said other local councils have tried to refuse PDR schemes on the basis that the units were too small to meet the definition of a dwelling house, but these have been overturned on appeal.
Clifford said: ‘There are numerous examples of prior approval applications with plans similar to the ones seen in this application, ie lacking detail beyond showing the outline of each unit.
‘This decision does indeed set a very important potential precedent. It adds to the interesting body of case law building up around such permitted developments and the prior approvals process associated with them.’
Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein, who has been campaigning against permitted development rights, said the stance taken by Haringey was ‘admirable’.
She said that refusal reason 3 in particular, ‘challenging what is meant by a “dwelling”, gets right to the nub of the issue. I hope it proves to be a turning point for PDR – and not just in terms of internal space, though that would be a great start.
‘The decision could also have serious implications for the thousands of tiny “homes” that PDR has already produced.’
Colin Kerr, the architect who staged a one-man protest outside Alexandra House, said the decision could be a watershed moment for the permitted development and a ‘significant step’ towards preventing ‘human beings squeezed into sub-standard units’.
He added: ‘Permitted development is generally limited to minor and non-controversial matters but here the order, either by design or through unintended consequence, would seem at first sight to set aside provisions put in place to ensure that human beings are not trapped in dwellings that are unsuitable for habitation.’
Haringey also refused the scheme because it was in conflict with a planning condition included in the original construction of Alexandra House in 1980.
A Haringey Council spokesperson said: ’The permission included a condition whereby the basement car park is required to be retained for parking in connection with its office use. Officers considered that the proposals were in conflict with this condition, and that permitted development rights cannot be exercised if in conflict with an existing planning condition.
’The legislation also only permits change of use to the C3 (dwellinghouses) use class. The proposal was unclear as to whether the units proposed were self-contained C3 units. Particularly as they were shown as being small with no indication as to whether they could incorporate all the facilities that constitute a private dwelling, as per case law.
’These points, along with a lack of information in respect of potential contamination, transport and noise impacts, formed officers’ case for refusal.’
The AJ has asked Ability Developments whether it will appeal the decision, but the company has not yet responded. Ben Adams Architects declined to comment.