The ‘Everybody in’ campaign was one of the few silver linings to come from COVID-19. Back in March the government wrote to local authorities asking them to find temporary accommodation for people sleeping rough.
Since then, local authorities have moved an estimated 90% of rough sleepers off the streets and into hotels, hostels, unused offices, and many other temporary living arrangements. Over 15,000 people have been rehoused.
But as the pandemic lingers on, and the reserves put aside by the government to house the homeless start to dwindle, local authorities predict a surge in homelessness could be just around the corner. Politics Home quotes a recent analysis  from the District Council’s Network (made up of 187 councils). They claim ‘half a million households are currently at risk’. So finding permanent solutions couldn’t be more urgent.
The government’s new changes to permitted development rights could provide part of the answer.
Permitted development rights have been around since the statutory planning system was established back in 1948, and over the years they’ve gone through various iterations.
The recent evolution allows developers to demolish a commercial unit and rebuild a residential building in its place. They can also add a further two storeys onto the original height of the site. And all of this can be done without having to labour through the usual planning process. Developers only have to apply for prior approval from the local planning authority (LPA).
Of course, the rebuild has to fulfil a specific criteria to qualify. For example, it’s only open to buildings built before 1990 and it has to have been empty for at least six months.
But this could potentially open up a wealth of possibility for tackling the homelessness crisis. With so many businesses switching to a more remote working business model, vacant office spaces are likely to be an increasing feature of town and city streets and could be reused or rebuilt with the intention of housing the most vulnerable.
Homeless charity Shelter, however, has a different view. When applying for planning permission the traditional way, developers have to meet affordable housing obligations. Shelter is concerned ‘a whole new loophole has been opened for developers to avoid building affordable homes when they build new blocks of up to 60 or 70 flats.’
It is also worried about the quality of these new homes. On the same day the government announced the permitted development changes, it also published a report that wasn’t wholly behind the process It found that homes built through permitted development were more than three times more likely to fall short of national space standards.
If we dig a little deeper into the report, the numbers are quite telling. Only 22.1% of residential units created through permitted development met national space standards. Compared to 73.4% that went through the usual planning process.
And it’s not just space standards. The report summary noted ‘a poor mix of unit types, lack of access to private amenity space / outdoor space, and inadequate natural light which can provide such a poor residential experience’.
Outdoor space has really gone under the microscope during the pandemic – those living in multi-storey buildings have been hugely disadvantaged when you compare them to people who have access to gardens. It would seem that loosening permitted development rights would do little to change the state of play.
Because LPAs are unable to fully scrutinise design elements of rebuilds going through this process, developers are more likely to cut corners and produce sub-standard housing.
Also, even though permitted development presents a shorter planning process, it doesn’t mean the development wouldn’t be open to public appeal. For instance, adding one or two storeys onto the original plan could encroach on a disgruntled neighbour’s view, prompting them to make a public challenge.
The law stays in place, whether you go through the traditional planning process or not. And by transforming the shape and purpose of the building, there’s ample opportunity for the community to engage with it.
So local authorities have to tread carefully. Yes, it’s true, that with more and more people working from home on a permanent basis, many of our office and commercial spaces could be up for grabs, and might be one of the solutions to solving a national crisis. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of civil unrest and sub-standard living.
After all, if we’re trying to put an end to rough sleeping, we should be offering a better alternative.
Published date: 14th September 2020
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