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Office-to-resi conversions: new figures show worst areas

grim office building
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More than half of the homes developed in Harlow last year were in office blocks converted under permitted development rights (PDR), shocking new figures reveal

As well as pinpointing the areas where office-to-resi conversion are most common, the Local Government Association’s (LGA) research suggests more than 13,540 affordable homes have been lost through PDR in the past four years, with councils unable to impose Section 106 agreements.

While Harlow saw 51 per cent of new homes delivered in converted offices between in the year to 1 April 2019, the figure stood at 48 per cent for Norwich and 43 per cent for Three Rivers in Hertfordshire. 

Two more councils saw more than a third of new local homes come in office blocks without their consent: Spelthorne in Surrey (39 per cent) and Slough in Berkshire (35 per cent). 

Permitted development rights were introduced in 2015 and allow developers of some housing types – most notably homes converted from office blocks – the freedom to build without needing local authority permission.

But the policy has been criticised for allowing developers to bypass regulations, including on minimum space standards, which usually apply to new housing.

In total more than 54,000 homes have been created from old office blocks through permitted development rights since 2015, amounting to 6 per cent of all new homes created nationally.

But according to the Local Government Association, the uneven distribution of the use of PDR has meant some councils have no means to act on ‘serious concerns about the quality, design and safety of housing […] as well as the location of new homes’.

These councils also disproportionately miss out on the opportunity to impose Section 106 agreements, which require a certain percentage of the new homes, usually 25 per cent, are affordable. 

The Local Government Association, a public body which represents councils in England, said PDR need to be scrapped for local authorities to be able to properly ensure the housing needs of their community.

David Renard, the LGA’s housing spokesman, said: ‘Permitted development rules are resulting in the alarming potential loss of thousands of desperately-needed affordable homes.

‘Planning is not a barrier to housebuilding, with councils approving nine in 10 planning applications. It is vital that councils and local communities have a voice in the planning process and are able to oversee all local developments.’

RIBA president Alan Jones said: ’These figures show that Permitted Development Rights damage the ability of local authorities to provide more affordable housing, as well as leading to poor-quality and potentially dangerous homes.

’Permitted Development Rights give developers the green light to cut corners and sidestep standards put in place to ensure people can live healthy lives. The government must scrap this policy as a matter of urgency.’

Comment from Ben Derbyshire

It is really quite an alarming revelation to find that in some areas half the supply of new housing is going to be of inevitably lower standard than that delivered through the planning system.

For all the good intentions of initiatives like the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and the consultation on the Future Homes Standard, what is actually going on [in places with high concentrations of office-to-resi developments] is an absolute dive for the bottom, in terms of the standards of housing which is being provided. It’s a complete contradiction in terms.

There is another important problem [besides the lost affordable housing], which is that there are no other planning gain contributions through [PDR].

This means people not only end up living in unsuitable accommodation – quite often in the wrong place, the wrong environment, in the wrong building – but there is no contribution from the developer for providing social infrastructure for those people, especially families. What we are getting here is an absolute shedload of not only poor housing in itself, but poorly supported households in those dwellings.

Ben Derbyshire is the chair of HTA Design and the immediate past president of the RIBA. He has previously said no architects should work on office-to-resi PDR schemes

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Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    Office to residential conversions are not an issue. The fact that there is no government legislation requiring any new homes to be habitable by anyone, except the very strange, is lamentable. Size is a side issue. The schedule of furniture in M4 of the building regs is a very good guide and very few developer ‘starter homes’ stand a chance of even accomplishing that minimum requirement. Just including conversions To homes into the category new homes and making the ‘advisory’ space standards mandatory would be a start.

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