New planning laws to make it easier to turn empty shops into flats could result in poor-quality homes with “absolutely no privacy”, campaigners claim.
However, a separate rule change should mean an end to tiny “rabbit hutch” flats – an issue that has been highlighted by Guardian Money on many occasions in recent years.
The coronavirus pandemic is changing the face of the UK’s high streets, with thousands of shops having closed permanently since the first lockdown in March 2020. At the same time, calls for more homes to be created continue to get louder.
The government saw an opportunity to tackle both of these problems, and on 31 March it announced measures “to help high streets and town centres recover after lockdown”, including allowing unused commercial premises to be converted into “much-needed new homes”.
It is already the case that under permitted development rights (PDR), turning office buildings into housing does not require planning permission – the developer simply has to notify the local authority of its intentions and gain what is called prior approval. This controversial planning freedom has resulted in scores of empty office blocks being converted into flats.
Ministers have created a new PDR that takes effect on 1 August and works in the same way but applies to town centre buildings. It enables a change of use from “commercial, business and service” (the class E use) to residential.
The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said: “By diversifying our town and city centres … we can help the high street to adapt and thrive for the future.”
However, campaigners are concerned the change could lead to a new wave of poor-quality housing and pose a threat to high streets. They say that many existing shops are totally unsuited to being turned into homes.
Julia Park, the head of housing research at the architects Levitt Bernstein and one of the London mayor’s design advocates, said she has no problem in principle with upper floors being converted, and that no one wants to see boarded-up buildings.
But with the other forms of PDR, you cannot change the outside of a building at all. She says unless the new right allows external changes to be made, people living in some former shops would be stuck with big floor-to-ceiling windows and fully glazed doors.
“They will offer very little privacy and risk overheating in summer and excess cold in winter,” she said, adding that many retail units are narrow and deep, which will mean little or no daylight in the rest of the building. Most also have little potential for private amenity space or storing bins and bikes.
“You would feel so exposed,” said Park, who thinks it will mean residents having to have permanent shutters, blinds or curtains, wheelie bins on pavements and “really dark interiors”.
The pavements in some high streets are only about one and a half metres wide, she said, adding: “Who wants to live on the edge of a busy pavement?”
Park said that while pockets of housing can work, to keep high streets vibrant “every effort should be made to retain active uses first at ground level – gyms and leisure facilities, nurseries, co-working spaces, craft and repair workshops, adult learning centres, galleries, music venues and community centres, etc”.
However, Park and others have welcomed separate new rules on the minimum size of a property that took effect in April, and which are designed to prevent developers from cramming large numbers of tiny flats into unused offices, shops and other buildings.
They are aimed at stopping developments of the type proposed recently in a shopping street in Leicester, where a developer wanted to convert the rear of a chip shop into single-room flats, the smallest of which would be 7.7 sq metres. That would have been a little over 9ft by 9ft for the resident’s entire living space.
The new regime means all new homes in England provided through PDR must meet the government’s nationally described space standard, which states that the minimum floor area for a new one-bedroom, one-person home (including conversions) is 37 sq metres, and for a one-bed, two-person home is 50 sq metres. The new homes will have to provide adequate natural light.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said a number of protections are built into the new PDR, including a requirement that the building changing use has been empty for at least three months, and a size limit, while local councils will be able to have their say on issues such as flooding and noise.
A MHCLG spokesperson said: “We reject these concerns: the changes to permitted development rights will help support our high streets by transforming unused buildings into much-needed new homes. All new homes must be of high quality and meet building regulations, and suggestions otherwise are unfounded.”