Councils are doing their bit to tackle the housing crisis. But one of the challenges in making sure homes are good quality and affordable is the extension of permitted development rights, says Darren Rodwell
As the new vice-chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Environment, Economy, Housing and Transport Board I look forward to working with the government to tackle the national housing crisis and take forward the priorities and concerns local authorities are raising.
These include Right to Buy and planning reform to scrapping permitted development rights and tackling homelessness.
Local authorities have been quietly getting on with the job of tackling our housing shortage, but there is much more to do.
Over the past few years councils have been accelerating their housebuilding programmes to deliver more safe, affordable, high-quality homes with the right infrastructures, and by lifting the borrowing cap last year the government has both demonstrated its willingness to tackle the crisis and recognised the important role councils play in addressing national housing need.
More needs to be done, but enabling councils to resume their historic role as major house builders of affordable homes must be at the top of housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s agenda.
The last time the country built more than 250,000 homes in a year, in the 1970s, councils built around 40% of them.
However, it isn’t just about numbers – we need affordable, good-quality homes.
One of the greatest challenges facing councils is the extension of permitted development rights. These rights give developers greater flexibility to convert barns, old office blocks and storage facilities into new homes.
The loss of office space leaves our businesses and start-ups without the premises they need to get off the ground and grow, and local residents lose out on access to local jobs – both of which underpin the success of our communities.
Equally, the rules allow developers to bypass the local planning system, which takes away the ability of our communities and local leaders to shape the area in which they live.
And there is, critically, no requirement for developers to build affordable homes or support infrastructure such as roads, schools and health services as part of a development.
Latest figures show that since 2015, a total of 42,130 flats have been developed after being converted from redundant office space – all without local scrutiny or planning permission.
But what does this mean for our communities and local authorities?
While this amounts to approximately 7% of new homes nationally, in some parts of the country it represents a much higher proportion of all new housing.
Office-to-residential conversions under permitted development rules accounted for 40% of new homes in Islington, Welwyn Hatfield, Mole Valley, Croydon and Derby in 2017/18.
The implications are clear. Building homes in this way can increase supply, but at the expense of affordable, good-quality new homes.
The government needs to work with local areas to tackle the housing crisis. It is vital that local leaders, who are answerable to their communities and have a vested interest in ensuring their communities thrive, are given a greater voice in the planning process.
Extending permitted development rules and building homes outside of the planning system is not the answer.
“Building homes in this way can increase supply, but at the expense of affordable, good quality new homes”
Councils have lost almost 60p out of every £1 they had from government between 2010 and 2020 to spend on services, but despite cuts to planning departments the planning system is not a barrier to housebuilding, with councils approving nine in 10 planning applications.
Alongside scrapping existing rules, the government needs to drop proposed plans to extend the rules to allow upwards extensions and the demolition of existing commercial buildings, as well as give councils the funding and powers to build more affordable homes.
The LGA strongly advocates a local plan-led system that takes into account the needs and expectations of existing and new communities. This is the best way to secure community buy-in, good-quality housing growth and the infrastructure needed to support new development.
There are opportunities to further streamline the local plan process and make it quicker and easier to get local plans in place, alongside providing greater certainty to councils, developers and communities.
Councils are well-positioned to deliver more homes and kick-start a housing revolution. With the right powers – from Right to Buy reform, such as giving councils the ability to retain 100% of their receipts and set discounts locally, as well as adequate resourcing for the planning system – councils can do just that.
A genuine renaissance in council housebuilding is the only way to boost housing supply, help families struggling to meet housing costs, provide homes to rent, reduce homelessness and tackle the housing waiting lists many councils have.