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‘It’s impossible not to feel collectively ashamed over “human warehouse” schemes’

My post (18)
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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

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

Ben adams ah proposed fourth floor 

  • 10 Comments

Readers' comments (10)

  • Can someone explain how on earth they can meet building regs in 8sqm and 13 sqm flats?

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  • @heathcliff
    Building regulations have nothing to do with space standards, which is exactly the problem.

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  • @Russell - what about part M? Corridor widths, turning circles, WCs, kitchens services and controls positioning, fire means of escape... I suppose the minimal requirements are pretty minimal, but still, 8.3sqm....

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  • Clare Richards

    Good for Julia Park and Colin Kerr for the different stands they have taken. I couldn't agree more that we cannot collectively ignore what is being done under PDR. This is not really about the pros and cons of micro homes (I've just come back from Japan where there are some cleverly designed examples); nor is it just the architect's fault (although I tend to agree that we simply shouldn't do this type of work). The problem is much broader – the mute acceptance across the board, from commission, through conception to delivery, that people should live like this. Through the NPPF we are required to ‘achieve sustainable development’, with the three ‘objectives’ of ‘economic’, ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ sustainability carefully spelled out. There is nothing about the Alexandra House that could remotely be considered socially sustainable.

    Not read the ‘social objective’ of sustainability recently? Here it is (NPPF Clause 2.8):

    – ‘to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by ensuring that a sufficient number and range of homes can be provided to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by fostering a well-designed and safe built environment, with accessible services and open spaces that reflect current and future needs and support communities’ health, social and cultural well-being.’

    What’s not clear about that? It’s a great description for Goldsmith Street, though!

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  • Thank you for bringing to light what is happening under PDR.

    Kudos to Tower Hamlets for bringing on Article 4 Directions to remove PDRs. In June this year they have removed PDR for offices (B1) use to residential.

    https://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgnl/planning_and_building_control/planning_policy_guidance/Article_4_Directions.aspx

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  • RIBA Code of Conduct: "Members shall respect and seek to uphold the relevant rights and interests of others. Members shall treat people with respect and shall strive to be inclusive, ethical, and collaborative in all they do. Members shall seek and promote social justice."

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  • Ben Adam would surely become a better architect if he took a cue from Erno Goldfinger - who famously moved into Balfron Tower to taste 'social' life at first hand - and moves into Alexandra House to experience the finer aspects of life in his own oeuvre.

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  • I would never have agreed to take on a commission such as this, as a matter of principal, however there's always someone who will, including non-architects, so as others here have stated, these PD regulations need to be repealed.

    The only time I have ever requested a meeting with my local MP was to try to point out the dangers of the PD relaxations when they were first about to be introduced in 2013, but he wasn't in the least but sympathetic. At the time I was mainly concerned with the then proposed temporary 3-year relaxation that could double the length of domestic extensions ... since made permanent in May this year, however the increasing number of these dreadful mulit-storey rabbit hutches are now an even greater issue.

    In our grossly overcrowded country it is the last twenty years, and continuing, mass immigration that has created the unaffordability of housing and thus the demand for such inhuman dwellings as these. The answer is not only to introduce decent legal minimum space standards for both rented AND ownership housing but to stop immigration. Not to do the latter will only see the housing situation get ever worse.

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  • Just a quote:

    "Established in 2010, Ben Adams Architects has quickly developed a reputation for elegant, contextual architecture balancing function with an appropriate degree of innovation and flair."

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  • @Peter -
    Aaahh of course. It's not the politicians' fault. Nor the greedy developers. Nor the architects who accept these commissions. It's the immigrants of course! For being alive and taking up your space. Let's rant about that. And while we're at it, let's also call for British immigrants to be sent packing from Spain, France, Falklands, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, and especially Mauritius where they are illegals.

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