Housing and Planning Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Deputy Chairman of Committees 6:30 pm, 25th April 2016

My name is on this amendment and I support what my noble friend has said. The contribution we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, gives us very important context in our understanding of the possibilities. We all need space as much as we need light. That was what Parker Morris recognised when the first space standards were set down, and so many people have benefited from those. We now face the opposite situation. Government policy decrees that it is optional for local authorities to adopt national standards. There will be many good ones that will want to do that because they recognise the health benefits of having proper space and light, but many more will be inhibited by the requirements that are attached, which are going to add more burdens and complications.

It is interesting how often this Government generate more bureaucracy while constantly railing against it on every occasion. There will, therefore, be another dimension to the postcode lottery: local authorities which recognise that space is essential to good health and family and social harmony and provide for it, knowing that the converse means greater family and social stress; and local authorities which will not do that. It will mean less room for children to do homework; for teenagers to have necessary privacy; for parents to have room to move. All those things make for well-being.

Nowhere is this more crucial than in areas where there are no planning standards at all. I raised this issue in last week’s debate on the conversion of offices into dwelling spaces. It was very late in the evening and I did not want to test the patience of the House, but the other issues we have discussed, such as the impact on the viability of town centres and the general viability of enterprise, make it timely to raise it again. In 2013, when the Government amended permitted development rights without planning permission, this was at first for only three years. In October last year it was made permanent. This has given rise to grave concerns, in addition to the very serious ones raised last week by noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord True. There is a great deal more to be said about this aspect of policy and its impact in evidence from local authorities as diverse as Bath and Camden. For example, the London Borough of Barnet told our Select Committee that because there are no planning standards for converting offices to domestic dwellings, local authorities have no control over important details such as space standards, dwelling mix and tenure. The London Borough of Barnet told us that:

“There are no planning standards, so you could theoretically build rabbit hutches, as people sometimes refer to them, if you wanted to, whereas planning standards that define a good-quality size of units are almost set in stone”.

I refer noble Lords to a recent report by RIBA, which pointed out that, of the 170,000 homes built last year, 20,000 were converted offices. As such, under the regulations, there are no planning standards which give safeguards for the new home owners. The conversions need not meet space standards or any other planning-based quality standards such as energy efficiency. Some of these apartments are no more than 14 square metres, which is about one-third of the national average. If noble Lords are sceptical, I invite them to look at the RIBA report: it is on the web.

Overall, this is serious. It weakens the ability of local authorities to secure good quality housing, and it will lead to a new generation of home owners who will be expected to manage in conditions which are neither ethical nor healthy. Given the number of homes that may well be coming forth through these conversions, I hope the Minister appreciates that these are inadequate and, frankly, unsafe conditions and that she will undertake to review the need for full planning conditions to apply to them.