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Labour pledges to end office conversion free-for-all

24 Apr 19 The Labour Party has committed to scrapping permitted development rights for converting office blocks into housing if and when it next comes to government.

Planning permission is not currently needed to convert offices into housing
Planning permission is not currently needed to convert offices into housing

Labour says that the current system of developers not needing planning permission to turn commercial property into housing has resulted in a new generation of slum housing. They are also free to ignore social housing obligations that are enforced by planning authorities on other developments.

Permitted development rights introduced since 2013 allow developers to bypass the normal planning process by converting commercial spaces into housing without local authority planning consent. There are 42,000 new housing units (including student bedsits) that have since been converted from offices.

Labour cites research by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, which found that permitted development had “allowed extremely poor-quality housing to be developed”, with only 30% of homes built through permitted development meeting national space standards.

John Healey MP, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, said: “Conservative permitted development rules have created a get-out clause for developers to dodge affordable homes requirements and build slum housing. To fix the housing crisis, we need more genuinely affordable, high-quality homes. 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 needs.”

A May 2018 report by the RICS recommended the scrapping of permitted development rights for commercial-to-residential conversions, bringing them back under control of the planning system. It said: “Overall, office-to-residential PD [permitted development] has been a fiscal giveaway from the state to private real estate interests, whilst leaving a legacy of a higher quantum of poor quality housing than is seen with schemes governed through full planning permission.”

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Earlier this month, the Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, challenged the government on this issue, saying “the policy has not worked… It has allowed landlords to build ghettos”.

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) said that if permitted development rights for these projects are to be scrapped, than the planning system must be given more resources.

FMB chief executive Brian Berry 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.”

Brian Berry continued: “We mustn't make permitted development synonymous with poor quality as it can have really positive outcomes. In recent years, permitted development rules governing domestic properties have been relaxed, which has made it easier for home owners to extend their homes without having to go through the rigmarole of a full planning application. These permissions have proved popular among builders and home owners alike. The reason being is that they give even more people the opportunity to add a bit more space – eight metres for a detached house and six metres for an attached house – to their home. 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 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.”

He concluded: “We do completely accept the point that we must prevent ‘rabbit hutch’ homes without windows being developed under permitted development. Tiny uninhabitable homes are not something the FMB would ever support. Small and medium-sized construction firms compete on quality and that’s at the heart of everything they do. We support Labour’s drive to reform permitted development to prevent low quality conversions and will work with them to achieve this.”

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