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Architects blast Government’s ‘damaging’ plan for new homes

In this week's Big Issue, we investigate what recent legislative changes really mean for housing in England – and what it means for the desperately lacking social homes market. Now the Royal Institute of British Architects has had its say

Last month housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced a change in legislation making it easier for developers to convert buildings like offices into residential units – a practice that sparks fears shoddy homes that promote overcrowding.

The Government says the extension of Permitted Development Rights will help us build back from the Covid-19 crisisIt means offices, shops and warehouses in England can now not only be repurposed for housing but demolished entirely to build homes on the land without planning permission.

The news was met with widespread opposition. Housing experts said it would allow developers to sidestep minimum space standards and meant they wouldn’t be beholden to Section 106 – a requirement that they contribute to the local community, whether that be by creating a percentage of affordable housing or injecting cash into local amenities.

Instead, developers submit a prior approval notice to the local authority who can only consider limited factors – like flood risk and traffic – when deciding if the project can go ahead.

Deregulation is not the way to bring about new homes

The idea is that the creation of something built to fit the national standards is streamlined. But the resulting homes are tiny – as small as 13 square metres in some cases – often small studio flats with poor ventilation and internal windows reducing privacy. Some have no windows at all.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) wants Westminster politicians to consider.

“For too long, England’s housing market has failed to meet public demand while generating enormous returns for shareholders and executives of the large housebuilders,” RIBA president Alan Jones said.

“We urgently need a broad mix of affordable, age-friendly and sustainable housing – but it looks as though this so called ‘planning revolution’ will deliver the opposite.

“Only two weeks ago the government saw fit to extend Permitted Development regulations, contrary to its own experts and research, which have made clear the damaging consequences.

“The government has missed a huge opportunity to make changes to the planning system for the better, and we call for urgent reconsideration. Deregulation is not the way to bring about new homes.”

When the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors (RICS) researched the issue in 2018, they concluded that these conversions “come at a cost both financially and socially”.

Just 30 per cent of the homes created through extended permitted development rights in the past met minimum space standards – nearly 80 per cent were studios or one-bed units, compared to just 37 per cent of those created using the full planning permission process.

When compared to similar developments in Glasgow – conversions in Scotland and Wales must still go down the planning route – homes in the devolved nations were found to be much higher quality, better maintained and had more space for families to live in. RICS concluded that easing up office-to-residential rules was a “fiscal giveaway from the state to private real estate developers”.

But the reforms will bring about a “more diverse and competitive” housing industry, Jenrick said.

Writing for The Telegraph, he added: “Under the current system, it takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to go through the planning system – before a spade is even in the ground.

“Seven years to make a plan, five years to get permission to build the houses and slow delivery of vital infrastructure.

“This is why the Prime Minister has been clear that we need an ambitious response that matches the scale of the challenge in front of us. A once in a generation reform that lays the foundations for a better future.

“So this week I am bringing forward radical and necessary reforms to our planning system to get Britain building and drive our economic recovery.

We are introducing a simpler, faster, people-focused system to deliver the homes and places we need.”

To read The Big Issue’s investigation into this – an issue that could plunge the housing market deeper into crisis at a time of widespread povertypick up a copy from your local vendor, buy a copy from The Big Issue shop or download it in our app.