29 Jan 2021

The wrong homes in the wrong places?

On behalf of CIH I have now submitted our response to MHCLG on supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure. Amongst the topics this consultation sought views on was a proposed new permitted development right (PDR) for the change of use from commercial, business and service use (Class E) to residential to create new homes. 

We have probably all heard the horror stories of homes created through PDR with no windows and tiny rooms, families struggling to live in ‘rabbit hutch’ flats in completely inappropriate office conversions.  The government would argue that since their own funded research concluded that such conversions create 'worse quality residential environments,' great progress has been made through legislation to ensure that homes delivered under PDR must meet the nationally described space standards and provide for adequate natural light. Indeed, these are important improvements, although I would argue a basic minimum rather than and seal of quality.

So, what does this potential extension of PDR mean? It is actually pretty significant as if the proposals go ahead as planned anything in the new Use Class E (introduced in September 2020) which covers retail, food, financial services, gyms, healthcare, nurseries, offices and light industry, will no longer need planning permission to be converted to residential use.

With high street retail struggling and town centres’ futures uncertain, the government says these proposals will mean that where there is a “surplus of retail floorspace, quality residential development will help diversify and support the high street. It will create new housing opportunities including for those who will benefit from close proximity to services, such as the elderly and those living with disabilities. It will also make effective use of existing commercial buildings, bring additional footfall from new residents, and assist in the wider regeneration of town centre and other locations.” 

However, I am not totally convinced by this for a few reasons.

Firstly, these proposals would impact directly on Local Planning Authorities’ (LPAs) abilities to ‘plan’ to meet their specific local needs. Land use planning will be effectively side stepped by these PDRs, creating a scenario where there is a lack of control for LPAs to ensure the delivery of the right homes in the right places. 

Secondly, these proposals risk delivering poor-quality, poorly located homes.  Despite the justification for the proposals being related to high streets they will, in fact, apply to every retail park, business park, gym, crèche, nursery or light industrial unit.  Will a converted shop, gym or creche be able to provide suitable access for disabled or older residents?  And how does this fit with the government’s own focus on design and beauty set out in the Planning White Paper ‘planning for the future’?

Thirdly, there is no reference in the consultation document to Section 106 (s106) or Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) contributions. There is a real risk that if the proposals go forward sidestepping contributions, we will see many homes being created in areas without the necessary infrastructure and facilities to support them, and with no requirement for at least a proportion of those homes to be affordable. Developer contributions play an incredibly important role in helping to ensure that the impacts of development are appropriately mitigated and that the right infrastructure is in place to support it. S106 is currently a major mechanism for delivering new affordable homes, particularly homes for rent. In 2018 – 2019 nearly half (49 per cent) of all affordable homes delivered were funded through s106 (nil grant) agreements.  Sixty-six per cent of new affordable homes in 2018 – 2019 were for rent, including social, affordable and intermediate rent (National Statistics, Statistical Release, November 2019). Research also shows that we need 145,000 new affordable homes a year to meet need, including 90,000 at social rents. It is vital that we do not lose valuable opportunities to provide the homes we need so badly.

Finally, I wonder what this will really mean for our town centres and whether it is what we want for them. Whilst I agree that there is role for residential uses in high streets and town centres, and that a mix of uses in the right location can create a vibrancy, footfall, and a positive environment to live, this blanket approach seems too broad brush a tool and could risk seeing entire locations turned over to residential.  Where town centre uses have been hit by the pandemic but have the potential to be viable again in the future, they could be ‘flipped’ to residential because of potentially higher rental value, thus preventing future opportunities for businesses in these locations. When our high streets are in such a precarious situation surely we need more planning, support, and innovative solutions for them, rather than deregulation?

You can read our consultation response here.

Written by Hannah Keilloh

Hannah Keilloh is a policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing. She leads on all policy work surrounding planning. Hannah is member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.