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Going up – but are extra storeys a good idea?

Toy houses

The government has proposed permitted development rights for extra storeys on buildings. Are such ‘upwards extensions’ without planning permission a good idea’? Simon Owen offers his thoughts

In early October, James Brokenshire, the housing secretary announced that the government would consult on extending permitted development rights to so-called upwards extensions – additional storeys on existing buildings. 

The rights would mean that building owners would not need to seek planning permission to build residential units on top of their property. Brokenshire said this would introduce “more flexibility to extend upwards on existing blocks of flats, shops and offices making better use of space by increasing housing density”.

Can these rights work in practice? Design and planning firm HTA advocates for densification in suburban areas. But do upwards extensions fit the bill?

This sounds like a great idea and an easy win to deliver new homes, writes Simon Owen MRTPI, associate with HTA Design LLP. Where there are only going to be limited impacts on surrounding neighbours this move has the potential to deliver new homes. It is important that existing residents are safeguard by careful consideration of the impacts of new floorspace.

The issue will be to ensure sufficient safeguards - will it actually be possible to create a prior approval process that doesn’t make it confusing and subject to interpretation.

As a practice of planning consultants and architects, we find that small scale schemes in suburban areas attract more objections than many larger schemes. This means that upward extensions in existing residential areas where there aren’t already taller buildings adjacent will probably be quite unpopular. 

The prior approval process would need to ensure that an extra floor on an existing building would be subject to detailed assessments to stop people building whatever they want which could impact on neighbours.

"The issue will be to ensure sufficient safeguards - will it actually be possible to create a prior approval process that doesn’t make it confusing and subject to interpretation?"

Impacts normally assessed by planning applications would still need to be considered in the prior approval process – issues such as overlooking, overshadowing and daylight/sunlight impacts would need to be considered with detailed reports submitted to the council to check that the proposals are acceptable.

Making sure that the upwards only extension fits in architecturally with the existing building – property owners wouldn’t normally want to blight their building with a devaluing ugly extension, but it is still important to ensure quality.

New homes on existing blocks of flats should still be subject to minimum space and amenity standards. There can be no excuse to create a system where an extension to a building will provide sub-standard homes.

Extending upwards on an existing house would only increase the number of rooms, not the number of homes so would have limited benefit. As most houses are in residential areas where impacts could be more controversial and significant, it is right to exclude conventional houses from any permitted development rights to extend upwards. Politically unpopular as well. 

We support the principle to extend offices, retail and flats upwards through permitted development rights, but can we make sure that we don’t end up with a system that ends up with poor quality homes that blight existing residents.

Simon Owen MRTPI is an associate with HTA Design LLP

Photo | iStock


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