A recent assessment by the Local Government Association (LGA) – the national membership body for local authorities – estimates that communities have lost out on over 13,500 affordable homes as a result of permitted development rights (PDR) allowing offices to be converted to residential units without planning permission.
Figures released by the LGA, showing areas in which office-to-residential conversions are most common, refer to significant examples such as Harlow, where more than half (51%) of new homes in the year ending 1 April 2019 were former office blocks converted under PDR.
What is the law on office-to-residential PDR?
Taking effect from 1 April 2016, the Town and Country Planning (General PermittedDevelopment) (England) (Amendment) Order 2016 (2016 Order) made permanent existing temporary PDR allowing change of use of office buildings to residential without planning permission.
The 2016 Order provides that prior approval (Prior Approval) of the local planning authority (LPA) is required in relation to transport/highways, contamination, flooding and noise impacts; Prior Approval may be refused for those reasons only. If Prior Approval is granted, the development must be completed within three years of the date of that Approval.
Why are office-to-residential PDR in place?
The rationale behind using PDR to facilitate office-to-residential conversions was explained in a 2013 press release published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG, now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government), which described the rights as creating ‘an opportunity for office owners and developers to bring outdated and underused buildings back to life and create much needed new housing…more quickly without costly delays from seeking permission to change the use of a building’.
What is the effect of office-to-residential PDR in practice, according to critics?
A 2013, DCLG impact assessment predicted around 140 applications for Prior Approval would be received in England per year. In reality, 10,166 applications were received in England between 2014 and 2017, according to a 2018 impact assessment published by RICS.
Critics of PDR being used in this way argue that removing the planning system’s checks and balances results in poorer-quality housing - as the schemes need only to comply with Building Regulations as opposed to, for example, government standards on minimum space - and loss of valuable office space.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly to those operating in the social housing sector, PDR allowing office-to-residential conversions leaves LPAs unable to require the provision of affordable housing units or contributions, resulting in the loss of units reported by the LGA.
RICS’ 2018 impact assessment describes office-to-residential PDR as ‘a fiscal giveaway from the state to private real estate interests…leaving a legacy of a higher quantum of poor quality housing than is seen with schemes governed through full planning permission’.
What does the future hold for office-to-residential PDR?
The LGA and a number of other bodies are calling on the government to scrap these PDR, so that the usual system of development controls will again apply to all office-to-residential schemes. However, the government announced proposals in late 2019 to extend the PDR scheme to other types of change of use, and to ‘upward extensions’ (adding additional storeys to buildings without planning permission).
Despite concern about the quality, design and safety of the homes being built under office-to-residential PDR and the loss of affordable housing, it appears further deregulation is in store.