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“Dismal” Office to Residential Conversions

Questions to the Mayor of London – answered on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of Joanne McCartney Joanne McCartney Labour

Should the government, if it will not scrap Permitted Development Rights legislation, give local authorities in London increased powers to stop schemes which can be described as ‘rabbit-hutch’ homes?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

Yes, Chair, I have been clear that these permitted development (PD) rights should either be devolved to London or be scrapped. Creating substandard housing is not the answer to the housing crisis.

If the Government refuses to see sense and these PD rights are to continue, London needs to be able to ensure that the homes they deliver meet the housing standards in my London Plan. Not having enough living space has a negative impact on people’s health and quality of life and our children’s social and emotional development. Minimum space standards are critical to improving Londoners’ health and wellbeing, but they also provide other advantages such as making homes easier to adapt to changing needs over time. These space standards which are set out in the London Plan are not required under PD rights and, because these developments are not subject to planning policy requirements, schemes coming through this route are not required to deliver affordable housing or other requirements crucial to good growth such as outdoor space and children’s play space.

Office‑to‑residential PD rights have not only led to extremely poor‑quality housing but also eroded the stock of viable occupied offices in the capital. It is a lose‑lose situation. The Government’s own planning inspectors have grappled with this issue, having to allow schemes that do not offer a positive living environment because the way these rights work means that fundamental considerations such as whether homes have windows and ventilation or meet minimum space standards cannot be taken into account.

Photo of Joanne McCartney Joanne McCartney Labour

Thank you for that answer and you have been firm on that throughout the time you have been Mayor.

This was thrown into stark relief for me recently when an application in Wood Green to convert an old office building, Alexandra House, was made by a private developer. It was to be turned into 219 ‘rabbit hutch’ homes that your own planning adviser called ‘dismal’. Some of these appear to be no more than 30‑feet‑by‑30‑feet rooms which are meant to deal with bathing, cooking, living and sleeping. Following this application through its prior approval, it appeared that while the local authority could have some say, for example, if it would be affected by traffic outside or noise from nearby commercial buildings, it would have no say on the quality, affordability or size of these accommodations.

If the Government is not going to repeal this legislation, would you argue for at least some minimum standards?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

Absolutely. You have highlighted this one example in your constituency and there are numerous examples around London of the consequences of PD of office blocks. As I said, we are losing office spaces and the quality of homes often is not very good.

By the way, I understand the intention of the Minister was not to create poor quality housing. He did not get out of bed and say, “You know what? Let us create awful housing and lose office space”. I suspect their intention was to make it easier for the transition from office to residential. What I am trying to say to them in a respectful, courteous, non‑partisan manner is that it has not worked in relation to what we are seeing and so I want them to give councils more power and to devolve more power to councils to decide this issue.

One of the things that the Government could do very easily is to make it easier for local authorities to introduce article 4 directions [under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995], which would make a big difference to remove these PD rights in order to keep what they have, but also to have the sort of minimum standards that they need. Then the councils can make sure that appropriate schemes could go ahead and those that are not either do not go ahead or need to be amended.

Photo of Joanne McCartney Joanne McCartney Labour

Thank you. In fact, Haringey Council, when this legislation came in, did apply for an exemption for the Wood Green area because it was worried about this exact issue and it is also against the local plan that has been agreed by councillors. You said earlier that you want these powers devolved to you. Does the Government seem as if it is going to be moving on that? This application is over the threshold. If it was a normal building, it would be referable to you.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

One of the frustrations is that it is not referable to me. As you know, schemes that are above 150 units or over a certain height do come to me. What the Government has done, either intentionally or unintentionally, is to create a loophole and so we will be lobbying the Government to try to close this loophole.

I question if that was their intention. I am hoping it was not because what it has led to is substandard housing and I cannot imagine any Government Minister wanting to create substandard housing.