Baroness Thornhill: We must base planning decisions on the individual circumstances of each site, not through a one-size-fits all central diktat
Following her question in the House of Lords, Baroness Thornhill writes for PoliticsHome on why extending permitted development rights will create even more poor quality homes and undermine local economies.
The government’s consultation ‘Planning Reform: Supporting the high street and increasing the delivery of new homes’, which has just closed, contains proposals to even further extend permitted development rights (PDRs) to allow building to extend upwards and to allow commercial premises to be turned into residential units without needing planning permission.
My concerns are based on the proven negative impacts of the government’s current policy, in place since 2013, which allows offices to be converted to housing units (I hesitate to call them homes). This has led to the creation of poor-quality homes, as well as the loss of important employment space, while driving a coach and horses through local plans and leaving the public mystified as to who can do what where and when. Our council’s ability to scrutinise outcomes of these conversions was at best limited, at worst non-existent.
When I was Mayor of Watford we saw the numbers of these conversions rising, as they have done in other popular, high cost areas. The work of Shelter TCPA, CPRE and LGA has confirmed that our fears were shared by others.
Offices were never built to be fit for human habitation and without having to go through the planning process, many developers are not going to provide decent living spaces. The forthcoming Raynsford report suggests that many were under-standard, some significantly so, with gardens and play spaces non-existent. In fact such dwellings were found to have a much lower standard with regard to not only internal space but energy efficiency, noise limitation and natural light.
Many are being built on industrial estates isolated from community facilities, schools, shops and not served by public transport. Councils are struggling to provide basic services such as refuse collection, as developers have not had to factor that in to their plans appropriately. Deciding where to put bins, bikes and buggies may be an unexciting part of the development process, but it is necessary for ensuring a decent standard of development and an important part of what planners do when discussing plans with developers.
There is also no mechanism to gain contributions to affordable and social housing and community infrastructure. In a time of continuing depletion of council resources this is massively significant. Shelter estimate that some 10,000 such homes have lost since 2015. Schools, open spaces and leisure facilities have also lost funding due to permitted development rights.
Despite the Localism Act, the government is still wedded to a top down approach to planning. But elected councillors and officers who actually know their local area are better judges than ministers and civil servants in Westminster and Whitehall of how to balance the need for employment space with providing new homes. No doubt conversion of employment and commercial buildings and building upwards in town centres all have their part to play in providing new homes. But these decisions should be made locally, based on the individual circumstances of each site, not through a one-size-fits all central diktat.
Baroness Thornhill is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.