Permitted development rights: concerns about build quality?

9 August 2018 | By John Wevill

The spate of housing projects using permitted development rights to convert commercial or industrial buildings into residential has raised concerns over the quality of these schemes. John Wevill explains.

John Wevill

Permitted development rights (PDR) have in recent years been extended to light industrial units. In October 2015, the government hailed new measures that made it easier to turn underused commercial buildings into new homes: "thousands more homes to be developed in planning shake up".

But the very lack of regulation that is freeing up sites for redevelopment is also a cause for concern about build quality.

A report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in May warned the lack of regulation with PDR is leading to the construction of poor quality housing, particularly in office-to-residential conversions. Of 568 buildings studied, it found an inconsistency in the quality of developments, with only 30% of units delivered through permitted development meeting national space standards

First introduced in 2013, temporary permitted development rights initially enabled offices to be converted to new homes without the need for the developer to apply for planning permission. Take up was significant, with many thousands of conversions being given the go-ahead, and the temporary rights relating to offices were subsequently made permanent. New rights to convert property from light industrial use (Class B1(c)) to residential (Class C) were introduced in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) amendment order of 2016.

Cutting red tape

The order is a further example of the government seeking to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that previously hampered the conversion of underused commercial and industrial space into new homes, by further deregulating and simplifying the planning regime.

Planning permission is not needed when the existing and proposed uses are within the same "use class", or where the order specifically permits a change to another approved use class. For example, under the latest updates to the legislation, which came into force on 23 May 2017, shops, offices, casinos, amusement arcades and agricultural buildings may all be converted to Class C3 dwelling houses, subject to "prior approval" by the relevant local planning authority. Prior approval will cover issues such as flooding risk, contamination, highways and transport issues and noise impacts on the intended occupiers of the development.  But planning permission is not required.

There are obvious advantages for developers in the absence of regulation under the new regime.  Developers will be able to achieve quicker project timescales from identification of a possible site through to completion of the redevelopment.  There are also potential cost savings for developers, for example in the absence of a requirement for planning permission, there will be no obligation to make a Section 106 contribution.

Are some buildings suitable for resi?

But developers should also be wary of the relative freedom now afforded to them when converting office and light industrial sites to residential. The key question to ask should be, is the existing building appropriate for conversion to residential use at all? 

Aside from issues such as location, amenities and impact on the local community – there are significant concerns about the generosity of space and quality of finish and materials. It would be a mistake for potential developers to cut corners on quality to realise cost savings, simply because the lack of regulation allows them to do so.  For the developer to make a profit and the development to be successful, someone is going to have to want to live in the converted units.

Potential investors and buyers will share similar concerns. In a deregulated environment, the temptation can be for developers to focus too much on whether they could redevelop a site, and to lose sight of whether they should.

John Wevill is a partner and head of construction at law firm Boodle Hatfield.


Re. concerns about quality of finish and materials, is there another Grenfell lurking around the corner because the lack of regulations allows free choice???

John Anthony, 16 August 2018

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