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Report commissioned by MHCLG concludes PD homes provide a ‘poor residential experience’

Words: Laura Edgar
The quality of homes / iStock-1146453488

Government-commissioned research into the quality of homes created through permitted development (PD) rights has concluded that such conversions create ‘worse-quality’ homes than those created after going through the full planning process.

It also found that the local socio-economic situation appears to influence the quality of the home created, as does the type of building available for change of use. 

Research into the Quality Standard of Homes Delivered Through Change of Use Permitted Development Rights uses a case study approach to look at the quality of converted homes, including from offices, retail and light industrial. These were compared with any schemes consented through full planning permission.

Eleven local authority areas were considered between April 2015 and March 2018: Bristol, Crawley, Derby, Enfield, Huntingdonshire, Manchester, Richmond, Sandwell, Sunderland, Wakefield and Waverley. The report states that these authorities “represent a diverse range of authorities in terms of their socio-economic characteristics, geographical locations, urban/rural mix and built environment characteristics”.

For the authors of the report, the research painted a “nuanced picture”, more so than previous research and media coverage has shown. 

According to the report there is little difference between PD granted through the prior approval process and planning permission schemes when considering the general level of deprivation within a neighbourhood, but there was a “notable tendency” for PD schemes to be located primarily in commercial and industrial areas – 7.9 per cent of schemes compared with 1.0 per cent of schemes that went through the full process. The report states: “Our site visits found that some of these locations offered extremely poor residential amenity.”

On internal design, there was a “significant difference” between PD and full permission schemes: only 22.1 per cent of dwelling units created through PD would meet the nationally described space standards (NDSS), compared with 73.4 per cent of units created through full permission. 

The report clarifies that “in many cases, the planning permission units were only slightly below the suggested standard, whereas the PD units were significantly below (for example, studio flats of just 16 square metres each were found in a number of different PD schemes)”.

The research also considered windows – 72 per cent of the dwelling units created under PD only had single aspect windows, compared with 29.5 per cent created through planning permission. Of those that secured full permission, 67.1 per cent benefited from dual or triple aspect windows compared with only 27.3 per cent of PD units. 

On amenity space, the report details that 3.5 per cent of the PD units analysed benefited from access to private amenity space, compared with 23.1 per cent of schemes with full planning permission. 

According to the authors, “it is the combination of very small internal space standards, a poor mix of unit types, lack of access to private amenity space/outdoor space, and inadequate natural light which can provide such a poor residential experience in some permitted development units”.

They found that office-to-residential conversions provided the worst space standard, window arrangements and access to amenity space, compared with other categories of conversion, while storage/light industrial-to-residential units tended to have the worst access to services.

“Given these considerations, we would conclude that permitted development conversions do seem to create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers,” the authors said. “These aspects are primarily related to the internal configuration and immediate neighbouring uses of schemes, as opposed to the exterior appearance, access to services or broader neighbourhood location. In office-to-residential conversions, the larger scale of many conversions can amplify residential quality issues.”

The report also found:

  • Rates of making exterior alterations, such as new windows, doors and cladding, are broadly similar between planning permission and PD schemes.
  • On noticeable additional amenities, such as provision of parking, open space and facilities for refuse and post, there are no obvious differences between planning permission and PD consented schemes overall.
  • Little difference between PD and planning permission units in terms of energy performance or council tax banding (and hence potential property value).
  • On access to services, transport and green space, there is overall little difference between PD and planning permission schemes. 

The authors also spoke to 11 planners from the aforementioned authorities and 12 developers working in those areas. 

Planners think the prior approval process is considered to be “an increasingly complex and resource intensive area” for local planning authorities. 

“There appears to be inconsistency, and even confusion, over when schemes are treated as ‘prior approval required and granted’ and when they are treated as ‘prior approval not required’.”

Many are also concerned that planning contributions cannot be secured through section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy (CIL) because additional residential units do create additional pressure on local infrastructure despite overall floor space not increasing.

Developers, though, “value the prior approval system for its certainty over the principle of change of use and for its speed compared to a full planning application”. 

Although requiring higher standards could reduce the number of housing units delivered, the report explains that some developers were open to the idea of some standards being applied through the prior approval process, as long as consent was not delayed. 

The authors of the report – commissioned by the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) – are Dr Ben Clifford, Dr Patricia Canelas, Dr Jessica Ferm and Dr Nicola Livingstone of the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London (UCL), and professor Alex Lord and Dr Richard Dunning of the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Liverpool.

The report was published on the same day (21 July) that housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced that the legislation required to allow buildings to be extended upwards through permitted development rights has been laid before Parliament. The rules mean that such extensions will not need planning permission from the local planning authority. Also, permission will not be required for the demolition and rebuilding of unused buildings as homes.  

The Planner contacted MHCLG on how it plans to ensure homes delivered through PD are of a good quality, subscribe to space standards and have access to the necessary amenities, such as doctors. 

An MHCLG spokesperson told The Planner: “Permitted development rights make an important contribution to building the homes our country needs and are crucial to helping our economy recover from the pandemic by supporting our high streets to adapt and encouraging the regeneration of disused buildings.

“This independent research shows on average there was little difference in the appearance, energy performance or access to services between schemes delivered through permitted development and those that were granted full planning permission.

“All developers should meet the highest possible design standards and the changes we are making will continue to improve the quality of these homes, including new requirements for natural light and checks to ensure changes are in keeping with the character of their local area.”

Research into the Quality Standard of Homes Delivered Through Change of Use Permitted Development Rights can be found here on the MHCLG website. 

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