21 August, 2020

Eager to deliver good news and a stimulus to the struggling economy, the government has published a number of new permitted development rights (PDR) which take effect at the end of August.

These new rules represent a form of approval in principle for specified types of development which will bypass normal planning rules and be approved by a fast track process. The new rights allow existing residential properties to be demolished to make way for new homes. Upwards extension are also allowed for certain dwellings as well as demolition of unused commercial premises to create new, self-contained residential accommodation.

By “cutting red tape, but not standards”, Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick is hoping to encourage people to build more ‘granny flats’ for elderly relatives, or additional bedrooms to accommodate growing families. The move to allow developers to convert redundant commercial buildings to new homes is seen as part of a broader initiative to help reverse the decline of town centres.

Seen as part of the government’s drive to, “build, build, build”, announced by Boris Johnson in July, the relaxation is intended to introduce a faster, more streamlined ‘light-touch’ approval process. However, anyone examining the long list of pre-conditions that need to be met, the level of detail that has to be submitted for consideration and the degree of subjective planning judgment involved in reaching an approval decision, would be hard pressed to describe the process as “light-touch”.

The Government’s proposals have been good at one thing though: bringing together leading professional real estate bodies including the RTPI, RIBA, RICS and the CIOB to criticise extending permitted development rights in this way. Critics point out that the rush to provide new homes shouldn’t mean that the quality of places suffer. They feel strongly that by relaxing PDR, that is exactly what will happen. It’s claimed that most of the current changes were opposed during previous consultations on planning reform and, on top of that, a recent government-commissioned review found that the use of permitted development rights had created homes of significantly poorer quality. This included space standards, natural light and the availability of amenity space, largely as a result of their location and internal layout.

Boris Johnson has made planning reform a policy objective. On the face of it, increasing the scope of permitted development offers a quick fix and signals the government’s desire to release development from the red tape that he believes is throttling economic recovery. The trouble is, permitted development can’t simply allow a free for all, so it needs rules. When these rules start to look as complicated as the system they’re designed to replace and there is, at the same time, evidence they will deliver worse outcomes, there is a strong argument that this is not the best way to reform planning. Earlier in the year the government indicated it was considering broad reform based on using a zoning system possibly coupled with design codes. It’s an approach that many in the industry consider would speed up planning, but its introduction simply couldn’t meet the need for an immediate economic stimulus.

It’s a tough ask for the government to look beyond the urgent task of getting the economy moving again, but the negative consequences of a poorly thought through quick fix could be far-reaching and irreversible. For all the criticism about delay, technical complexity and opacity, the planning system shapes the built environment, our cities and our lives, and in setting its priorities it probably says as much about ourselves and what we value, as does our literature and art. There should be no objection to reform, but it needs to be done with care and a keen eye on the consequences. Planning needs to be a transparent, even-handed mechanism able to deliver low cost, highly sustainable housing, wherever it’s needed and without compromise to quality. We don’t need fewer rules, we just need better rules.