Permitted development is key to race to build homes

Delivering more homes is the new political imperative. But how to do it while protecting the countryside? Cabinet ministers reportedly want to build on the green belt, a courageous policy which the Tory Party manifesto explicitly rejects. Villagers are justifiably outraged when their neighbourhood plans are torn up by developers. New towns are a marvellous idea until one is planned near you.

None of the policy choices are easy, yet one has delivered thousands more homes without touching a blade of grass. The Government’s policy to make it easier to change the use of a building, particularly from office to residential use, has increased housing supply while preserving green spaces.  

By last year, 17 per cent of new housing supply in England came from changing the use of buildings, the majority from office to residential use. The number of homes created has nearly tripled, to more than 37,000 a year. The policy has protected 2,750 hectares of greenfield land, an area around the size of Bournemouth and larger than Oxford.

But as a new report by The Project for Modern Democracy warns, this increasingly important means of supplying homes, particularly in urban areas where housing pressures are acute, is being undermined. 

The policy is popular with businesses and renters but not with councils and planners. This year, the Local Government Association called for it to be suspended nationally, claiming it was causing a shortage of business space, lowering levels of affordable housing, and creating unsuitable homes – criticisms which are largely unfounded. 

Permitted development does not mean a free-for-all for developers. Proper safeguards remain, for instance, to ensure buildings are suitable for habitation. Still, councils are increasingly using “Article 4” directions which let them withdraw permitted development rights. Their use seems to be rising in London, hindering the provision of homes where the need is greatest. 

The Mayor’s new Draft London Plan backs use of the directions. Westminster and the City of London issued them earlier this year by, and another is proposed by Kensington & Chelsea. This brazen attempt to circumvent permitted development will mean fewer underused offices and shops becoming homes. Yet the threat to a flagship planning policy has so far failed to provoke a response from the Government.

There is now a danger of the number of homes being created in London through change of use being cut. If the Mayor does not reverse his proposed changes in the draft London Plan, the Government should make clear that it will enforce Article 4 directions very carefully. If no action is taken, other councils could also move against change of use. This would be a change for the worse.

To read the original piece in the London Evening Standard, click here.