Permitted Development Rights and what they could mean for the future of Local Government

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One of the most fundamental aspects of a local authority, is its role in providing a vision for its area. The single most critical power to facilitate this is the Council’s planning powers.

Planning has often formed a battleground between impatient central government and local authorities wanting to make sure what is consented within their locality is what fits with the vision they were elected to deliver.

Once more, we seem to have a government raising the question of  the extension of permitted development rights (predominantly the change of use from office to residential) and considering whether this could become more common place.

This is lazy thinking and simply does not get to the root of the problem. While some may find this attractive, it fundamentally distorts careful consideration (you might even say, planning) of local communities.

Over time, planning should result in a balance of residential numbers, transport capacity, employment opportunities and social infrastructure (schools, GP practices etc) which permits a locality to grow and develop in a manner which does not lead to too great a distortion in these elements.

Whilst it may seem like a great idea to convert underused, disused or abandoned office buildings into homes, this removes land that at the last consideration was deemed necessary employment land.

In addition, permitted developments do not carry with them the same stringent criteria that traditional residential developments do, for example the provision of affordable homes or space standards that are applied to housing. They also remove office stock in areas where house prices are high, creating dormitory towns on the outskirts of major conurbations, stretching often already overloaded commuter transport capacities.

We may be in for an interesting policy clash. The role of permitted development rights in providing homes is advocated by Jack Airey, the recently employed housing advisor at Downing Street. The new Deputy Mayor for Housing in London, Tom Copley, has described conversions as modern day slums, lacking the quality and space standards of a properly planned development.

In his report Re-thinking Planning for the 21st Century Mr Airey outlined an overhaul of the planning system from its current form to a zonal planning system where land is either in a development zone or non-development zone and applications are automatically permitted if compliant with certain rules. Effectively this would apply the rules of permitted development to land in general instead of as a result of gaining planning permission for a specific building or project.

But this is to consider planning and housing through only one single lens. A proper development needs to balance the factors described above.

How many citizens will the development add to our place? Can we cope? Where shall they work and how will they travel there? Do we have the health and school capacities to accommodate them?

The test of a good planning application is to answer these questions. A move to increase the supply of housing will potentially slow properly planned development within the industry by flooding the market with unplanned homes, leading developers to choke back on new build in case the sales market is not there. 

It runs the risk of leading councils to decide they have been forced to accommodate too many such as hoc developments and increase the rates of refusal of proper schemes and increase the demands for social infrastructure which those enjoying permitted development rights did not have to accommodate. 

The idea of taking decision-making powers around planning away from local authorities will be extremely controversial, not least with Conservative district councils who have historically guarded their place-making role very jealously.

Any push to enhance permitted development rights will be an early sign that a government, led by a man famous for lacking attention to detail, is set to establish this lack of consideration for detail as its modus operandi.

Further thought might lead government to ask local authorities to consider self-identifying office, or even declining retail space, for housing. This would enable a joint approach, with more constructive focus.

At the same time, to accelerate the development of vast swathes of brownfield land across cities, not least in London, it might tax under-developed land and also cut further, the three year period successful planning applicants have to commence development of their schemes.

In this, it might also move away from the token ‘spade in the ground’ definition of commencement of works, perhaps to one based on occupation.

Any and all of these ideas would accelerate development in the right way.

And if government really wanted to inject more consistency and structure into local planning, it could end the absurdity of planning being considered as a backbench, non-cabinet function within local authorities.

Planning is the core of local government. Leaders and executive councillors should be mandated to determine applications, at least above a certain threshold. After all, in London applications are called in by the Mayor of London, not a committee of London Assembly members.  One does not appeal for non-determination, or against refusal, to the House of Commons Select Committee of backbench MPs.

Planning at every level of government is an executive function, except at local authority level. It is this which is overdue for reform.

Government needs to strengthen the planning system, not look for easy and lazy ways to bypass it.

Recent news from Number 10 suggests that the proposals for extending permitted development rights will be taken very seriously.

We can do better than that. A strengthened system with decisions taken by leaders and executive members of councils will provide for much greater certainty, pace and informed decision-making.

But it requires some attention to detail in government to achieve it. 

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