New planning rules a cynical attempt to assist big housebuilders

Recent changes to planning law brought in by Conservative governments mean that our Council is losing control over developments in our towns. ‘Permitted development rights’, which allow office blocks (not just empty ones) to be converted into flats have led to some becoming modern-day slums which have had a detrimental effect on the mental and physical health of their occupants.

Some developers give little or no consideration to natural light requirements, the size of living space, access to green space or local facilities. During lockdown, as we have all spent more time confined to our homes, these sub-standard ‘permitted developments’ have been exposed. But nevertheless further relaxations are being planned.

Conservatives have introduced two new kinds of ‘permitted development’ – that is, changes which don’t require planning permission.

Offices to housing – with no planning standards

In 2016, the Government introduced a permanent permitted development right for change of use from offices to residential properties (this followed a temporary permitted development right since 2013).

This gave the green light for conversions in our area – including the change of Furness House on Brighton Road into 70+ flats – and now Quadrant House by Redhill bus station is to be converted into 124 flats, some of them with no direct sunlight.

Permitted development means that the buildings don’t have to provide any affordable housing or comply with the usual planning rules. The proposed flats in Quadrant House are very small and would not meet national space standards, however local planners are not allowed to refuse the change. The flats will provide very poor quality accommodation to the future occupiers.

New storeys on any block of flats

This year, the new Government has introduced a new policy allowing any block of flats built between 1948 and 2018 to have an extra two storeys added on top – again without the need for planning permission.

In Watercolour, the developer, Linden Homes, has sold on the freehold for the flats. One block is now applying for permission for an additional storey on top, with no extra parking. If the Council refuses this, there is a risk that the new owner can just add two storeys anyway.

A future without planning controls?

These are worrying signs of changes to come. Although Dominic Cummings has pledged to overhaul the “appalling” planning system, the Royal Town Planning Institute has recently challenged this misguided thinking saying that relaxing rules so developers don’t need planning permission will give them “carte blanche to build in places which perpetuate car dependency and health-sapping deprivation, deny neighbours sunlight and daylight, erect tall buildings in the wrong places, and houses in areas that may give little consideration to the health and wellbeing of the people who will live in them“.

Planners do a vital job protecting our towns, villages and countryside from uncontrolled sprawl and unsafe, unsuitable homes and workplaces and they are a facilitator of healthy, happy sustainable communities. Housing charity Shelter said 280,000 homes were given planning permission in England between 2011 and 2016 but were never built. In 2017-18 382,997 applications were granted – more than enough to meet the government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year so why are we now relaxing the rules? An independent report on house-building in October 2018 also found that the planning system was not a barrier, so again, why the changes?

We believe these changes represent a cynical attempt to open opportunities for the main housebuilders as part of a bigger plan to build roads and cover the countryside with new developments using the pandemic as justification.

While more offices may be converted to homes as part of the “new normal”,  especially if more people work from home, these should not be sub standard.

We are challenging the changes and standing up for proper processes to be followed for all significant developments, and for local policies to be respected, delivering quality for our communities.

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