Ben Adam Architects’ controversial plans to squeeze 219 flats into a Haringey office block is just one example of a wider problem the profession can no longer ignore, says Julia Park
At one level Alexandra House is just the latest casualty of permitted development rights (PDR). It probably won’t be the worst and it certainly won’t be the last, but it’s incredibly important that we don’t behave like the politicians, don’t just sit back and tell ourselves that in light of the housing crisis, it’s okay. Because it really isn’t.
Under PDR there is no lower limit to the size a home can be, and no requirement to even disclose the floor area. Independent evidence suggests that this has produced thousands of homes under 20m² and some less than half that size. The Times recently highlighted an example in Purley which was 8.3m² – the size of a child’s bedroom, or, as they described it, the inside of a taxi. Either way, uncomfortably close to the ‘coffin homes’ in Hong Kong, which have led to rioting.
The fact that the normal planning rules are stripped away means that more of the decisions become a matter of conscience. It’s impossible not to feel collectively ashamed of some of those decisions; particularly as we know that the worst developments often end up being home to some of the people least able to cope with the environments they offer.
The worst developments end up housing the people least able to cope with them
Perhaps we still assume that the law won’t allow anything too bad to happen. In truth, it does. We still have very few minimum standards for private rented accommodation. When Karen Buck MP brought forward the first version of the Fitness for Human Habitation Bill in 2016, MPs voted against forcing rented homes to be made fit for human habitation (219 in favour and 312 against). That element was removed, the bill was finally passed, and the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, become law in March of this year.
While there is now an implied duty on landlords to ensure that the homes they rent are fit for human habitation, the primary purpose of the Act is to allow tenants to take their landlord to court without fear of recrimination, such as no-fault eviction.
The grounds on which the accommodation will be judged stem from the Housing Health and Safety System, brought in 15 years ago and widely seen as setting a very low bar. It provides guidance for assessing 29 potential hazards including ‘Crowding and Space’ and ‘Lighting’ – two of the most common shortcomings in PDR conversions. Local authorities are required to take enforcement action when a Category 1 hazard is identified and may choose to act in respect of a Category 2 hazard.
New case law relating to HMOs that have been converted into flats indicates that many PDR schemes would, if tested, be found to contain Category 1 or 2 hazards. What an irony then that the same councils that have been forced to allow these conversions to go ahead could shut many of them down as soon as they are occupied. Enforcement isn’t an easy process, but I’m convinced that it’s only a matter of time until cases are brought.
It’s that bit worse when you see an architect’s name on the drawings
So yes, if invoked, the law will usually deliver justice in the end, but remember, with PDR we are talking about new homes; these are totally avoidable outcomes.
We’ve always been careful to say that converting office blocks to housing is not a bad idea and that not all of the outcomes are unacceptable. We’ve been equally clear that the government bears most of the blame, closely followed by an unscrupulous minority of developers who exploit the system.
But it’s that bit worse when you see an architect’s name on the drawings. And I only say that because I believe that overwhelmingly we do good, and that our contribution is undervalued. Architects don’t generally aim to stay just on the right side of the law; we work tirelessly to come up with brilliant ideas and make them work in practice. And, alongside using our professional skills, we, like everyone else, exercise our conscience.
Julia Park is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein
Ben adams ah proposed fourth floor