Change is inevitable and town centres need repurposing, but these half-baked proposals need much more thought, writes Julia Park

Julia Park

It would have been naïve to assume that, having been forced to confront the findings of the independent report on the outcomes of office-to-residential permitted development rights, the government would have thrown up its hands and admitted that it had all been an error of judgment. But it was remarkably clumsy to announce new PDRs on the very day that the damning report was published.

That was back in July. The report did elicit a commitment to require all habitable rooms achieved through PDR to have a window and daylight; something that the vast majority of people would assume we could take for granted – and until PDR took off, we could. Months later it is still not clear how much daylight is required, whether it can be from a rooflight or borrowed from another room, and whether it needs to be openable.

These may sound like trivial details but, if it is your home, and particularly if it is your only source of daylight, it really matters. Who knows how planners will decide to address these gaps – and how much more sensible to have taken daylight requirements into Building Regulations where they can be defined and applied to all new homes. 

Welcome though it was, the ruling about windows suggested that the case for space had failed. If the government had intended to impose the NDSS, it surely would have announced it on the same day.

There has been no apology for introducing a policy that has produced so much new, poor-quality housing

Two months later, fearing a damaging defeat in a debate about PDR brought by Labour, a statement confirming that the NDSS would be applied to all new homes achieved by all forms of PDR took everyone by surprise. Of course, that was welcome too, but the cynical, last-minute nature of the U-turn suggested it was more about avoiding humiliation than righting a wrong.  

There has been no apology for introducing a policy that has produced so much new, poor-quality housing, and no apology either to the thousands of people who are now living in homes that the government has been forced to concede are not acceptable after all. 

While we tend to assume that PDR flats are rented, a sizable proportion (up to a third, I believe) have been sold. I fear that current owners may find it difficult to sell their studio flats when they can no longer face living, cooking, sleeping and, in many cases, also working, in one room.

The risk of negative equity feels very real and my advice to anyone contemplating buying a flat of less than 37sq m is to ask their solicitor to get assurance from the vendor that the dwelling is fit for human habitation and free of hazards under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). 

Would-be renters should ask their landlord the same question. It is nerdy stuff but new worked examples in the guidance that supports the HHSRS have found a studio of 16.6sq m to be so dangerous that a local authority would be required to serve an immediate enforcement notice, and a studio of 28.28sq m dangerous enough to give the council the right to serve a notice. 

Prospective buyers should also take a careful look at the external condition of the building. External changes are not permitted under this form of PDR so anything more than 30 years old may soon need new cladding and/or windows. The cost will inevitably be borne by the leaseholders. A green retrofit also looms, of course. 

The latest official figures show a dramatic slow-down in office-to-resi PDR approvals. Much of that is likely to be covid-related disruption, but the imposition of the NDSS on top of that (which, unless it has all been a hoax, takes effect on April Fools’ Day), will have a big impact on the developers responsible for the smallest flats, particularly those who have been targeting people in receipt of housing benefit.

Their business model has been predicated on rents payable under the Local Housing Allowance. For any new development approved after April, they will receive the same rent for a single person flat/studio of 37sq m as they currently receive for one of 13sq m – effectively a third of the dwellings and therefore a third of the revenue.

Some are likely to drop out of the market altogether but, with more office buildings coming on to the market as a result of changing working patterns, prices will surely come down. From a climate-change perspective, it is vital that these buildings are re-purposed unless they really are not worth saving.

The PDR that permits demolition and new-build therefore poses a serious dilemma – a new, purpose-built, residential development ought to yield better-quality housing, but only at the expense of embodied carbon – something that is not yet on the government or the development industry’s radar.

Meanwhile, more forms of PDR are planned. Apparently undeterred by the general feeling that PDR has not proved popular or edifying to date, we are invited to express our views about sweeping changes to the full range of typical high-street uses, in light of online shopping and casualties in the hospitality sector.

>> Also read: Architect calls for embodied carbon targets to be enshrined in planning policy

>> Also read: Architects warn of ‘disastrous’ consequences as government allows entire high streets to become housing


In principle, we must support this too, but only when all opportunities for community uses have been exhausted, and only then when we are confident that these buildings and their immediate environments will make good places to live. The consultation offers “new housing opportunities including for those who will benefit from close proximity to services, such as the elderly and those living with disabilities…”  Well maybe, but with all the incentives directed towards residential, rather than community uses, the high street won’t have much left to offer anyone.

Change is inevitable but why always PDR, and always in a hurry?

Reading the small print, it also seems that, subject to prior approval, these new rights will apply in conservation areas too – something not seen before.

Change is inevitable but why always PDR, and always in a hurry? It is lazy, cynical and smacks of desperation and a lack of ambition.

It is hard to imagine that the re-purposing of high streets and town centres will ever be reversed so these decisions cannot be taken lightly. The proposals promise to cut some local consultation periods from 21 days to 14. What difference does a week make in the overall scheme of things?

Given the long-term impact that so many of these half-baked ideas will have, local authorities surely deserve time to plan for an orchestrated shrinkage of town centres and high streets, incentivised by favourable business rates for non-residential uses – and we deserve a planning process that upholds local democracy.

Have a look at the consultation and respond if you can. A quick tip: if you are short of time (and who isn’t these days), the right answer to most of the questions that begin with the words, “Do you agree…” is, “No”.