13 Mar 2023

Documenting the shocking realities of sub-standard office to residential conversions

At the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), we have long been aware of the disastrous impacts that poor quality housing has on health and wellbeing throughout the span of our 124 year-long history. The TCPA has a long track record of campaigning to improve housing standards and promoting healthy placemaking; from securing the first planning legislation in 1909 to our ongoing Healthy Homes campaign with the Nationwide Foundation.

It is safe to say that the state of planning and the regulation of the built environment has greatly varied in those 124 years. The challenges faced today, particularly due to the expansion of office to residential permitted development rights (PDR), have created a new set of challenges for planners, campaigners, and residents alike.

Many of these PDR conversions lack access to natural light, are poorly insulated, and are small in size. They often lack access to any communal space, or outdoor green space. Some conversions are located in isolated industrial estates, without public transport connections. Local communities may not be prepared or properly resourced for the influx of residents, since these conversions avoid the need for approval and regulation from the planning system. This can leave essential services such as school and GP surgeries ill-equipped for the sudden increase in demand.

The scale of this problem as huge. The TCPA estimates that 93,273 homes have been converted from offices in England in the last 10 years, but this number is likely to be an underestimate. Additionally, the TCPA approximate that 120,500 people are living in conversions with single aspect windows and 130,500 people are living in conversions that do not meet the minimum Nationally Described Space Standards.

It would be easy to walk past many of these buildings and have no clue that they are homes at all. This is what inspired our photography project, to shed light on this hidden problem. The fittingly titled These are Homes photobook aims highlight the experiences of people living in and affected by PDR conversions – which residents have described as worse than prison cells. In These are Homes, working with photographer Rob Clayton, we have documented the shocking realities that many PDR residents face, creating a visual resource that draws attention to the substandard housing that is being produced in this country, often affecting society’s most vulnerable individuals and families.

The TCPA recognises the pressing need for new and genuinely affordable homes. And, we are not against converting disused buildings, but we need to ensure stronger legally-enforced standards are in place to better regulate building quality. This includes establishing primary legislation that sets a clear obligation on the Secretary of State ensure new homes are built to promote people’s health and wellbeing.  

We are campaigning to do just this through the introduction of eleven Healthy Homes Principles in our Healthy Homes Bill, sponsored by Lord Nigel Crisp (crossbench peer and former chief executive of NHS England). The bill would create a new duty on the Secretary of State to ‘secure the health, safety and wellbeing’ of residents, and establish a duty to local planning authorities to plan for affordable housing needs.

In addition, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is currently making its way through the House of Lords. A series of Healthy Homes amendments have been tabled by Lord Crisp which, if approved, would place new obligations on the Secretary of State to uphold the Healthy Homes Principles.                                                                                                                      

Links and more information

You can find more about the Principles and support the Healthy Homes campaign here.

You can view the photobook here.

If you would like to learn more or join the campaign, please contact Sally.Roscoe@tcpa.org.uk or Rosalie.Callway@tcpa.org.uk