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Labour vows to scrap office-to-resi ‘slum housing’

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Labour has pledged to scrap a controversial planning ‘get-out clause’ which allows offices to be converted into homes without planning permission

The party said changes to permitted development rights (PDR) have allowed developers to dodge affordable housing requirements and build ’slum housing’.

Shadow housing secretary John Healey said the workaround meant many new homes did not meet basic space standards and had created ‘rabbit hutch’ flats.

‘To fix the housing crisis, we need more genuinely affordable, high-quality homes. This Conservative housing free-for-all gives developers a free hand to build what they want but ignore what local communities need,’ he added.

Planning rules were relaxed in 2013 to allow offices to be changed into flats without planning permission. Since 2015, 42,000 homes have been delivered through such conversions.

The government argues the rules are helping tackle the housing crisis and is consulting on proposals to expand PDR, including plans to allow existing commercial sites to be demolished and redeveloped as residential without the need for full planning permission.

But it is facing resistance from organisations including the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and the RIBA, which strongly opposes the wider PDR rollout.

A damning RICS report published last year documented how office-to-residential conversions were producing ‘extremely poor-quality’ housing, with just 30 per cent of units meeting national space standards.

Numerous cases have emerged of offices being converted into poor quality homes, including Newbury House in Ilford where people were living in homes as small as 13m².

The AJ uncovered a case in south London where developers were trying to squeeze 26 flats into a two-storey office – the smallest flat was just 18m². The proposals were described by Levitt Bernstein’s Julia Park as the clearest example she had seen of how PDR was being exploited. 

And earlier this month a BBC investigation revealed that a 14-storey office block in Harlow, Terminus House, was being used by the local authority as temporary accommodation.

Families told the BBC how the block, dubbed the ‘human warehouse’, had serious issues with crime included anti-social behaviour, burglary, criminal damage and arson. 

According to the report, children had to eat in their beds as the converted flats were so small. 

But reacting today to the Labour pledge, Caridon Property, the owner of Terminus House, said abolishing PDR would ‘hit poorest most’ by removing the ‘one single policy that has done most to boost new housing supply’.

Caridon’s managing director Akeel Alidina said: ‘Without permitted development rights, we wouldn’t have been able to create the hundreds of low-cost homes we manage today.

‘Many of these flats house people who would otherwise be sleeping rough on the streets, or stuck in a B&B or hostel, where they’d have less space, privacy and security, and costing the taxpayer more in nightly accommodation fees.’

Comment

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders 
If Labour is going to put more strain on the planning system by scrapping commercial to residential permitted development, it must also think carefully about how planning will be resourced.

Small and medium-sized housebuilders cite the planning process as the third greatest barrier to them increasing their delivery of new homes. Planning departments are chronically underfunded and we can’t ask them to do more without providing them with additional funding. 

We mustn’t make permitted development synonymous with poor quality as it can create really positive outcomes. In recent years, permitted development rules governing domestic properties have been relaxed, which has made it easier for homeowners to extend their homes without having to go through the rigmarole of a full planning application.

Félicie Krikler, director at Assael Architecture 
Labour are completely right to point out the poor quality housing that can be delivered via permitted development and to call for this loophole to be closed. However, this should not be the end of all office-to-residential conversions.

Buildings should be allowed to be repurposed, as it is a sustainable and effective solution to developing unused space, but only if developers follow clearly regulated standards in regards to aspects such as dwelling sizes. Office-to-residential conversion can be a useful tool to deliver high-quality homes at a time of undersupply, but creating a free for all will inevitably lead to the exploitation of the system. 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • As with many creative ideas, they can all too easily be tainted or corrupted. The principle of permitted development is a smart one: why should recycling existing stock require planning permission when the building already exists? On the other hand, why shouldn't space standards apply also -- a matter of design rather than planning as such. There must be room for improvement, but let's not automatically ditch a policy which has generated huge housing numbers at a time when too many planners are making it their business to block or delay significant housing development. Sad but true.

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  • Clare Richards

    In response to the point by Caridon’s managing director, that people would otherwise be homeless and so have less space, privacy and security... Why should this group be subjected to sub-standard homes, particularly as a matter of policy? And are we really to believe that developers are doing these office-to-residential developments for altruistic reasons? Yes, it makes sense to allow some reuse of existing office buildings, as a contribution to providing much-needed homes , but design and space standards must apply.

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