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Life after Lockdown part 8: Build, Build, Build: for better or for worse?

At the end of June, UK prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled a host of changes to the permitted development rights (PDR) regime under which certain types of development waived the need for a planning permission. Most of the measures had already been heavily trialled and in that sense are not new, but they were significant and are almost certainly coming into force sooner than would have been the case without the COVID-19 crisis.

Perhaps most eye-catchingly, the documents accompanying Johnson’s announcement stated that builders will no longer need a “normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes”. Furthermore, a “wider range of commercial buildings will be allowed to change to residential use without the need for a planning application”. The sector is still waiting for the detail, but the assumption is that this largely refers to retail assets.

Then there were the changes on so-called “airspace” development. Property owners “will be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation”. Earlier in the month, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) had published regulations introducing a new PD right, effective from 1 August, to allow blocks of flats to be extended upwards by two storeys to create new homes. However, the notes published alongside the new regulations said the government intended to introduce “further permitted development rights for building upwards, including for new and bigger homes”.

Diminishing democracy

RICS gave a cautious welcome to the prime minister’s announcement. “As the country recovers from lockdown and the economy tries to bolster itself against a recession, it is clear that the government is keen to get Britain building,” said Tamara Hooper, policy manager at RICS. “RICS has consistently advocated for a change to allow commercial property to change use more easily in response to changing social, economic and market conditions, and welcomes this news that should invigorate the high streets and make them more flexible.”  

However, Hooper added that she was concerned that issues surrounding the quality of homes being delivered via the existing office-to-residential PDR had not been sufficiently addressed. “The government has not addressed the many issues that still exist around permitted development rights and substandard homes, including building and space standards.”

Of course, any extension of PDRs diminishes local democracy – planning applications, after all, are decided by a committee of elected members. It is for this reason that Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, has a problem with the new changes. “We can’t aim to revitalise town centres without involving local communities,” she says. “Steam rolling over people’s views will be divisive and counterproductive.”

The devil is in the detail

It is for that reason that Will Edmonds, partner at Montagu Evans, thinks that the new rights might not prove to be all that revolutionary once the detail has been published. “I’ve lived through a lot of government announcements and, as ever, the devil will be in the detail in terms of what underpins a statement,” he says. “Being slightly cynical, I think it will get watered down a little. The local government system is based on a democratic process and I think fundamentally there will still be a degree of democracy.”

Edmonds believes that ultimately the government wants to put in place a “zonal” planning system whereby some types of development are automatically eligible in certain areas. That is the case in many countries in Europe, as well as in the US, but it doesn’t mean that developers have carte blanche to build what they like. 

“Where it is heading is a more zonal system, where you have areas where uses are permitted but you still have to go through the process in terms of high-quality design and so on,” says Edmonds. “There will be a degree of subjectivity and community engagement.”


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