The Labour Party has committed to ending permitted development rights which currently allow developers to convert commercial buildings, such as offices, storage units and industrial buildings, into homes without receiving proper planning permission.
Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey has said 10,000 affordable homes have been lost because of a “get-out clause” in the “permitted development” rule, based on research by the Local Government Association. He believes this lets developers convert commercial buildings into “slum-like” flats instead of building acceptable affordable housing.
Mr Healey also said the result was the creation of poor-quality “rabbit hutch” flats, with 42,000 new housing units converted from offices since 2015.
The previous government introduced temporary permitted development rights for office-to-residential conversions in May 2013, later making these rights permanent in October 2015.
From October 2015, applicants were permitted to convert existing office accommodation to residential dwellings without seeking planning permission. Instead, applicants were required only to make a ‘prior approval’ application.
Some 42,000 new housing units have been converted from offices since 2015, according to the Labour Party.
Labour says the policy so far has seen the loss of more than 10,000 affordable homes, and has meant that flats “just a few feet wide” are now counted in official statistics as new homes.
Mr Healey said: “This Conservative housing free-for-all gives developers a free hand to build what they want but ignore what local communities need. Labour will give local people control over the housing that gets built in their area and ensure developers build the low-cost, high-quality homes that the country actually needs.
Conservatives defend the policy
Marcus Jones, Conservative vice-chair for local government, said: “Labour’s plans would cut house building and put a stop to people achieving homeownership. We are backing permitted development rights, which are converting dormant offices into places families can call home.”
He also commented that he believes Labour’s stance puts politics before families, while the Conservatives are delivering the houses the UK needs.
A welcome commitment
Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), said: “The TCPA has long campaigned against extending permitted development rights to allow the conversion of commercial buildings to housing. This was because of a range of concerns including the poor quality of many of the resulting homes, the inappropriate locations of some of those homes, and the way that by bypassing proper planning processes, developers can avoid funding new affordable homes.”
Ms Howie added that the TCPA has witnessed new houses built on industrial estates, where the only space for children who live there to play outside is a car park. The TCPA strongly welcomes the commitment from the Labour Party to scrap these recent permitted development rights.
While the TCPA recognised the urgent need for more homes, they also said that these must first be ‘decent’ and ‘safe’ homes that will enhance people’s health and wellbeing.
“The government has suggested solving the problem by tweaking permitted development rights to recognise the importance of design. But this is not enough, because we need new homes to be developed within high quality places that enhance people’s lives. Using permitted development rights to create new homes simply is not creating good places,” said Ms Howie.
More housebuilding required
Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB, said: “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 house builders 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 have really positive outcomes…In short, let’s not damn all permitted development. It would also be good to see proposals from Labour regarding how we can more easily convert empty spaces above shops.
“There are 300,000 to 400,000 new homes which could be created, by making use of empty spaces above shops on our high streets. Surely we can make use of permitted development regulations in a way that utilises these spaces without bringing to market tiny uninhabitable homes. This would have the added benefit of revitalising our struggling high streets across the country,” Mr Berry said.
Berry concluded, saying the FMB completely accepted the need to prevent ‘rabbit hutch’ homes without windows being developed under permitted development, supporting Labour’s drive to reform permitted development to prevent low quality conversions.