Is permitted development allowing poor quality?

Appalling housing conditions persist in many areas, but there is a way to ease the problem


  • Jan Ambrose

09 March 2020

Thank goodness for the 21st century, where the horrors of the Victorian slums and overcrowded housing are behind us.

Oh really? Sadly, the long-running housing deficit has prompted local and national government to turn to innovative but unsuccessful approaches to deal with the problem.

Since May 2013, it has been possible to convert an office building to residential use without planning permission. This policy of deregulation was intended to boost housing supply and help regeneration by re-using vacant offices. It was also predicted that there would be no financial costs; local planning authorities would make administrative savings, there would be few applications and it was unlikely to lead to housing in unsustainable locations.

In May 2018 RICS research team assessed the consequences of extending permitted development rights (PDRs) for office-to-residential conversions in England. Five local authority case studies were conducted in the London Boroughs of Camden and Croydon, and in Leeds, Leicester and Reading to assess the extent of individual office-to-residential building schemes that have proceeded under PDRs, as well as their implications for local authority revenues, planning and local communities. The research also considered similar projects in Scotland and the Netherlands.

Key findings included the following:
  • high rates of prior notification were found for such conversions in all authorities, far more than predicted by the then DCLG – now the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) – when introducing the policy
  • divergent views from stakeholders on the merits and impacts of PDRs
  • PDRs have allowed the development of extremely poor-quality housing, much worse than schemes that required planning permission; viable office-to-residential conversions could clearly still be delivered through the more stringent full planning permission process
  • there was direct evidence of the profitability of conversions for developers and landowners; in contrast there was little evidence of contribution to the extra public infrastructure required to support the additional housing seen in the five case study authorities
  • the comparative study of Rotterdam showed the potential for alternative, softer governance approaches instead of the hard governance deregulation seen in England.

In August 2019, the childrens commissioner for England released a shocking report which stated that more than 210,000 children are estimated to be homeless, with some being temporarily housed in repurposed shipping containers and office blocks, and whole families living in tiny spaces.

Councils blamed a £159m funding gap, while a spokesperson for MHCLG said anyone who feels they have been placed in unsuitable accommodation should request a review. However, according to the report, this is easier said than done.

Case study: unsuitable accommodation

When a single parent, Lucy, became homeless, she and her two-year-old son were placed in a flat by her local authority in a converted office block far from her previous home. The flat had no basic furniture; Lucy had to borrow a blow-up mattress and a cot. It was noisy, with cars and lorries continually whizzing past, and she felt unsafe when walking to the shops.

Although it was considered temporary accommodation, they were there for 11 months. It took six months and a formal complaint before her local authority completed its assessment and found it had a duty to find the family a permanent home. She was then put on a waiting list and asked to express an interest in properties she wanted to live in by bidding online, but was told she was too low on the list to be offered anything in the short term. Lucy was also unable to start bidding until a dispute about her temporary accommodation was resolved.

The whole process and worry about her son's living conditions made Lucy ill with stress. She had to submit another complaint to be moved back to her local area. This took another three months.

Lucy has now moved to a self-contained flat back in her local area. The flat is up three flights of stairs and there is no lift, but Lucy prefers carrying her son's buggy up the stairs to avoid drug dealers on her doorstep as she had to in her previous situation. She still has no idea when she and her son will be offered a permanent home, what it will be like or where, and feels terribly let down by the system.

Unfortunately, this story is typical of the current housing situation. Children's commissioner Anne Longfield, who visited the properties, said that whole families live in single rooms barely bigger than a parking space, adding that shipping containers converted into flats are blisteringly hot in summer and freezing in winter.

Housing in crisis

In Essex, 13 office blocks were converted into more than 1,000 individual flats; in one such building, some units measure 18m2  the average size of a home in England is 90m2 and are being used to house whole families with parents and children sleeping in a single room also used as a kitchen. Crime rates have risen in areas of overcrowded housing, while office block conversions are often located on or near industrial estates, presenting safety risks and being some distance away from shops and amenities.

B&Bs are also being used as temporary accommodation. The bathrooms are often shared with other residents and vulnerable adults. A third of the 2,420 families known to be living in B&Bs in December 2018 had been there for more than six weeks. The report also confirms that two in five children had been in temporary accommodation for at least six months, and at least 6,000 children had been there for a year at this date.

As a further 375,000 children in England are in households that have fallen behind with rent or mortgage payments thousands more could become homeless. Temporary accommodation is costly  councils spent nearly £1bn on such short-term solutions in 201718.

These stories are appalling, and it is acknowledged that the UK has suffered an increasing housing deficit, now estimated at more than 1m homes, for many years. Sixteen years ago the Barker Review made various recommendations including building 120,000 extra houses each year.

Readers will doubtless recall numerous occasions where senior politicians from all parties have outdone each other in promising to build hundreds of thousands of affordable homes, blithely ignoring the problems of planning regulations availability or suitability of land and resources in the construction industry, among other issues. The increasing housing deficit confirms the promised homes have never been built.

"RICS members and staff have offered practical and innovative solutions"

Property Journal has covered this topic repeatedly over the years since David Cameron was prime minister, and RICS members and staff have offered practical and innovative solutions: some have even questioned whether there is a housing shortage at all.

The elephant in the room

Why do politicians continue to ignore the elephant in the room that is the ever-increasing number of empty homes? The MHCLG published statistics in May 2019 showing that at October 2018 the number of empty homes in England stood at 634,453. This figure includes more than 226,000 long-term empty homes properties that have been empty for longer than six months and among these some buildings, both residential and commercial, have stood empty for more than ten years.

During the last general election, the major parties' leaders continued to parrot on about the huge numbers of affordable houses they would build if elected. The Green Party's manifesto did say it would 'empower local authorities to bring empty homes back into use, change the planning system to incentivise renovation, extension and improvement of existing buildings, rather than relying on new build, to reduce the use of steel, concrete, cladding and finishes which produce massive amounts of carbon in their manufacture'. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour all suggested hiking council tax on empty homes.

In response to an earlier letter from Action on Empty Homes the then housing minister, Esther McVey, pointed to existing initiatives such as the Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO). However councils have found EDMOs introduced in 2006 too difficult to administer (see Property Journal October/November 2019 pp.5051). Only six EDMOs were used in 2018, not the 1,000 a year that were originally envisaged.

Chris Bailey is campaign manager at Action on Empty Homes. Before the election the organisation sent the following proposals to the parties vying for power:
  • establish a national empty homes programme to create additional housing for those in most need, using vacant properties or those requiring renovation
  • introduce new powers to allow councils to bring empty homes back into use
  • create a national fund through a locally-focused programme of grants and loans to support councils in bringing tens of thousands of long-term empty homes back into use
  • ensure that owners taking advantage of this programme agree nomination rights and fair rents with councils; in this way homes brought back into use can help alleviate local need and reduce the £1bn national temporary accommodation bill for local authorities
  • create a fund for local authorities to help build capacity for local, community-led housing projects that sustainably refurbish long-term empty homes and buildings.

It is hoped the government will listen to these eminently sensible proposals. Obviously there is no easy or quick solution to the disastrous housing situation, but it surely makes more sense to act to reduce both the number of empty homes and the housing deficit.

Or are the politicians' repeated promises to build new houses while not actually doing anything  as is shown in current figures and the number of people living on the streets  a better option?

Related competencies include: Housing strategy and provision, Planning development and management

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