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Planning reforms – inspired or ill-conceived?

On Tuesday, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced changes to planning laws intended to make it easier to build homes and repurpose commercial property. Controversial new rules will mean full planning applications are not required to demolish and rebuild unused buildings as homes. This means that shops, for example, will be able to be quickly repurposed without going through a lengthy planning process. 

On a smaller scale, homeowners will also be allowed to add one or two additional storeys to their houses through a fast tracked approval process. This is intended to create space for growing families or new homes, easing pressure to build on greenfield sites, and there will still be a requirement to consider the impact on neighbours.  

Detailed plans for reforming the planning systems are expected to be set out this month, but these initial announcements have focused on an extension to permitted development rights (PDR) that have existed in England since 2013. Ironically, on the same day Jenrick announced these new laws, the Government also published a report, ‘research into the quality standard of homes delivered through change of use permitted development rights

The research found that 22.1% of permitted development homes met the Nationally Described Space Standards, as opposed to 73.4% of homes that had gotten planning permission through the full process. The report concludes that “permitted development conversions do seem to be more likely to create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions.”

Unsurprisingly, this combination of information has been met with some less-than-impressed reactions from the industry. The Royal Institute of British Architects immediately spoke out against the new laws, calling the extension of PDR “truly disgraceful”, and along with the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and the Chartered Institute of Building, signed a letter to Jenrick warning against the potential impact on quality of life and communities. 

22 London Borough Councils have also called for an urgent rethink of the plans. They claim they would cause “resourcing problems for councils”, and “undermine [the] ability to ensure developments contribute to local infrastructure and allow developers to bypass regulations on building affordable housing”. Without the planning application process, councils will not be able to enforce S106 or CIL agreements. 

Looking at it from another angle, I don’t doubt that there are plenty of developers rejoicing at this news. Their projects will be made easier, quicker, and often cheaper, by these rules. (Although when you look into the restrictions in place, like new buildings having to match the footprints of old ones, it is unclear why developers wouldn’t just stick to existing PDR to convert existing buildings…) There is, of course, the possibility that these laws will result in an increase of quality housing and a refresh of town centres – it all depends on who uses them to their advantage. Some specifics are also still unclear – what we will define as “unused”, for example. All will hopefully become clear when detailed plans are revealed later this month. No doubt there will be further reactions from all angles.

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