Permitted development = Quantity over quality
Ministers and officials ignored warnings that developers were creating “unbelievably small” flats by exploiting a change in planning rules, The Times can reveal.
Civil servants who attended a meeting with a leading architect three years ago were shown evidence that the policy was resulting in terrible living conditions but allegedly dismissed it. The architect, Julia Park, sent a letter to ministers including James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, two years later arguing that the policy was being abused by “unscrupulous landlords”.housing secretary, two years later arguing that the policy was being abused by “unscrupulous landlords”.
Since 2013 permitted development rights have meant that developers can convert offices into flats without planning permission or minimum size requirements. The government did not start a review of the quality of the housing that was being created until March this year.
Yesterday The Times exposed three developers who have made millions from converting offices into tiny flats dubbed the “slums of the future”.
Some are 14 square metres, barely larger than a normal parking space and significantly below the minimum space standards that would apply under the planning regime. Many house children and vulnerable adults paying rent of about £800 a month for a bedsit, with one company, Caridon, receiving £8 million a year in housing benefit payments.
The Local Government Association and MPs called on the government to take urgent action. Martin Tett, the association’s housing spokesman, called on ministers to “urgently bring forward its commitment to review the quality of homes”.
John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said that the “warning signs have been clear for several years but ministers have sided with developers rather than those desperate to get a decent home”. Mr Healey said that the government should “act now to make these developments go through the planning system and meet the same standards”.
An impact assessment published when the rules were changed in 2013 concluded that the move would probably lead to 140 applications a year. Instead, more than 11,000 applications have been approved in five years.
The assessment also dismissed the risk of “houses being located in unsustainable locations, such as industrial sites” as minimal because they wouldn’t be “attractive” for developers. A number of developments on industrial estates and overlooking major roads have been carried out.
Ms Park, who is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein and chairwoman of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ housing group, met a senior planning official and her deputy at what was then the Department for Communities and Local Government in spring 2016 after raising concerns about the quality of office conversions. She highlighted an office-to-residential scheme in which two of the apartments were 13.5 sq m. “There is no outdoor space, no view and really nothing good you can say about them,” she said.
Ms Park said that the example was dismissed as a “one-off” and that that year, after a three-year trial, the change in the rules was made permanent.
In August last year Ms Park wrote to ministers to draw attention to Newbury House on the A112 dual carriageway in east London, calling it “one of the worst examples I have encountered, though it is by no means an isolated case”. She described “double studios” for two people as small as 14.7 sq m with no through ventilation, and said the building was in poor condition, with an open ground floor that was full of rubbish.
“We can only be deeply ashamed that people are living in this way, and equally ashamed that this is a direct result of a ‘flagship policy’ — one that continues to be hailed as a huge success by politicians and unscrupulous landlords, but few others,” she said.
A civil servant replied to Ms Park in October, insisting that office conversions were making “an important contribution towards housing supply” and were “producing homes that suit a range of needs and budgets”.
Ms Park wrote again to press her case. “The risk that mental and/or physical health could be adversely impacted by living conditions such as this is substantial,” she said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that permitted development rights for office conversions were being reviewed “in respect of the quality standard of homes delivered”.
Caridon said that it was providing affordable housing and denied the flats were substandard.
Only recently I read that the housing minister, James Brokenshire, is very well respected across the whole sector. This comment was made by a leading member of the LGA. It therefore comes as a disappointment to