Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 10th September 2020.

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Lord German:

Moved by Lord German

That this House takes note of the Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/632).

Special attention drawn to the instrument by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 21st Report.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I move this Motion because these regulations contain important policy matters that make significant changes in planning law, as outlined in the report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member. These would otherwise not be discussed by this House. Admittedly, we had a debate under the affirmative procedure on the fees regime for these planning law changes, but as Members who participated will know, it was the substance of these regulations that was the principal concern of the House. Before addressing the policy changes themselves, I shall spend a few moments examining the parliamentary process which has led to this debate.

First, these regulations are being brought in under the “Coronavirus” heading: two completely separate matters are addressed by these regulations and only one is related to the coronavirus pandemic. The part of the legislation covering the building of additional storeys is both permanent and totally unrelated to the present pandemic, so it is quite legitimate to ask the Minister to explain why this planning law change is misrepresented as a response to the coronavirus health issue. Secondly, as our previous debate on the fees issue demonstrated, significant policy changes are being proposed through the weakest form of parliamentary scrutiny that exists. This is a perfect example of a major policy change being side-slipped through Parliament, first, under the cover of a response to the coronavirus crisis and, secondly, by the use of the negative procedure.

There are further changes coming down the line in the form of a suite of negative procedure regulations that also make big policy changes to planning law. I find this all the more surprising when the Government are proposing new primary legislation on planning law, which would be the ideal and wholly appropriate vehicle for consideration of these changes and would have had the value of full parliamentary scrutiny, undoubtedly leading to better legislation. As it is, the Government are giving the public a set of hand-me-downs one piece at a time, with no possibility of developing a cohesive policy. Why are the Government doing it this way? I look forward to a full explanation from the Minister.

I turn to the policy intent itself. The permanent change to planning law allows up to two additional storeys to be constructed on existing, purpose-built blocks of flats of three storeys or more built between 1 July 1948 and 5 March 2018, up to a total height of 30 metres. When the Government consulted on these proposals, the majority of responses were opposed. The opposition fell into a number of areas but, broadly, they were the lack of local accountability, the quality of the homes in the new storeys, access issues and the impact on residents and neighbours. Of course, upward development should be possible, but only with the essential proper protections for the existing community. These regulations introduce a new and permanent permitted development right that removes much of the protection for those communities.

The process of consultation proposed is a shadow of what currently exists. The expedited approval process may be suitable for considering home extensions, but the building upwards of new floors on domestic buildings are major schemes with large community impact. While prior approval notice is to be served on owners and tenants, within a very tight timetable, all comments received are to be considered only if they relate to the dual issues of amenity and external appearance. For example, will the council be able to consider the means of egress from the building? Is the lift core of sufficient size for the increased number of residents? What about negative effects on the service charges levied on owners? Then, of course, there is the quality of build issue—the materials to be used and the match to the existing homes. It seems to me that the number of new homes delivered by this mechanism will not be great, and certainly not the 800 a year anticipated by the legislation.

A three-storey property extended up to five would require a lift. If one is not present in the existing building, it would mean the construction of one external to the building. An existing lift in a building with five floors may not be a suitable lift for seven floors. Consider the protection provided for existing residents in these blocks. The developer will be required to produce a report on how they intend to minimise disruption; a report not subject to any checks will be produced by the developer. Anyone who knows this business will know that significant disruption is inevitable. The roof covering will need to be removed and the remaining roof area made temporarily waterproof before any construction can take place. It is difficult to see how this can be done without erecting scaffolding around the whole building for a considerable period, during which existing residents will suffer a major loss of amenity as a result.

Residents will turn to their council and their councillors to express their concerns, and they will find them powerless. Our planning system is constructed on a system of checks and balances, on local people and their councils providing the fair play our communities need. I would be very surprised if developers using this legislation did not meet substantial local opposition, meaning much more work for the local authority but without the power to provide any solutions. The light-touch planning requirements in these regulations offer very little succour to residents and neighbours, who will now find their ability to voice their interests and concerns severely limited.

These proposals indicate a Government making a dramatic shift away from strong and caring communities, with local councils as their facilitators, towards the aspirations of developers and a distant Government. It is through local councils’ transparent process of planning and regulations that the public can make their concerns heard. It is only through this process that elected councillors can make recommendations and insert conditions that ensure the protection of those affected and pay respect to the principle of community cohesion.

The Minister, in responding to the previous debate, called these regulations “gentle densification”. Well, the Government have got it wrong—they are anything but gentle. With the opportunity of the new planning regulations and the new planning law which the Government are providing, it would be wholly appropriate for the Government to take these regulations away, give them a comprehensive rethink and bring suggestions for any changes back in the primary legislation, where they could be properly debated.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords) 2:38 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I have a Motion to Regret the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord German. The regulations before the House today are indicative of the Government’s approach to planning; indeed, they are indicative of the Government themselves. They are another example of incompetence after a summer littered with U-turns. I begin by reminding the House of when these proposals first emerged. It was Thursday 12 March, and the impending crisis of Covid-19 was unfolding. It was on that day that the Chief Medical Officer first raised the risk from “moderate” to “high”. Public Health England announced that it would stop performing contact tracing, as it could not cope with the number of infections. As a result, the FTSE 100 plunged by more than 10%, the biggest drop since 1987.

It was on that day, at a key point—coincidentally, I am sure—during the unfolding crisis that the Communities Secretary informed the Speaker that he would make a Statement in the Commons. Perhaps he would be updating the House on the important role of local government in what had now been declared a pandemic. Perhaps the ministry would support the most vulnerable, who would soon be subject to self-isolation. No, on both counts.

On that day, the Communities Secretary announced that blocks of flats could add an additional two storeys without planning permission. Fast-forward six months, and while the Government should have spent the summer preparing for autumn and winter, they have spent it lurching from crisis to crisis, with not a government resignation in sight. The Secretary of State’s pet project —to transform the skylines of suburbia—is still being pushed through. All the while, the High Court awaits a hearing for claim of judicial review to block the move and local communities and local councils across the country are livid at the prospect. Yet for reasons unknown, this House is today still being asked to consider the implementation of these regulations.

I need not go through every issue with allowing developers to build upwards without consent, as this House has already well illustrated the flaws. I am sure that grass-roots campaigners behind the legal challenge will also do so. However, I firmly believe that, at the very least, we should make two preconditions for all residential developments: first, they should afford the resident a fit and proper place to call home; and, secondly, they should respect both the natural and human environments that exist around them. It is abundantly clear that new upward developments will not ensure either of these.

We have already heard concerns that these new homes will be cramped, undersized and at times poorly built. Surely many, if not most, will be unaffordable, since there will be no screening of the new spaces and no requirement for homes to meet Section 106 duties. Both the Minister and I are former council leaders, and I am sure he will agree with me that Section 106 funding plays a vital role in providing important community facilities that councils could not otherwise afford—particularly after a decade of austerity and underfunding of local government. There can be no doubt that new developments will impact the quality of nearby homes and communities, either by poor design or by the blocking of light.

Of course, there is more to these regulations than a new right to build additional storeys. As a result of this instrument, permitted development rights are also extended to allow for markets and motorsport events to take place more frequently without permission. I have no qualms with the Government supporting outdoor events, and they are right to explore ways of doing so. However, will the Minister explain why this measure has been lumped into this instrument, rather than including it in the Business and Planning Act? Surely that would have been a more appropriate setting for the House to consider the merits of this provision. There are also further provisions which make minor changes to compensation liability, as well as to the length of time for which land can be used temporarily. I would be grateful for clarification as to if, and how, the Government worked with local authorities on the drafting of these provisions.

I hope I have made it clear that the provisions of these regulations in relation to upward developments and the omission of Section 106 contributions do not have the support of our party. We will not vote against them today but will instead await their consideration by the Commons and the judgment of the High Court. I urge the Government to look for ways of restraining developers’ profits, so that opportunist developers have less ability to make life worse for our communities. If we have learned anything from the past six months, surely those of us in public service should be striving to make things better for the people of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Redfern Baroness Redfern Conservative 2:44 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I support the instrument to create two new PDRs, which will help businesses reopen following the lifting of certain coronavirus restrictions.

As a former leader of a local authority with a busy planning department, I know how important it is for decisions to be made as quickly and transparently as possible in order to aid a vibrant commercial sector, to create new business opportunities, to deliver those much needed jobs, and to reduce bureaucracy and cost in the planning system.

In the context of the Government’s post-coronavirus economic renewal package, I welcome that the regulations will enable local authorities and developers to speed up agreements for functions to be held either on behalf of local authorities or developers for an unlimited number of days to allow development. The regulations are time limited until March 2021 and sit alongside measures to support businesses reopening quickly following the relaxation of previous restrictions. Permitted development rights also have an important role to play. They can provide developers with a greater level of certainty, within specific planning controls and limitation measures, which will incentivise and speed up housing delivery.

As we have heard, the permitted development rights allow for existing purpose-built detached blocks of flats of three storeys or more to extend upwards to create new two-storey self-contained homes, while respecting the nature of the area. In some instances, creating new homes from derelict properties in urban centres can bring multiple benefits. They can help kick-start affordable homes, breathe new life into those areas and enhance the reform of our high streets.

It is important to note that the right requires prior approval in respect of the provision of natural light in all habitable rooms. Local authorities can refuse prior approval applications where there is inadequate natural light.

It is critical that we build faster, making use of available brownfield sites and supporting all our communities—both urban and rural—across the UK. I support the instrument.

Photo of Lord Thurlow Lord Thurlow Crossbench 2:46 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for initiating this debate. I am grateful to the Minister for his time on Monday, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I declare my property interests, as set out in the register.

As we have already heard, PDR is a complex subject which is not easily understood. It was conceived to bring back into use otherwise redundant office buildings, thereby reducing blight and increasing the housing stock. To do so quickly, it bypassed the planning process. As with many short cuts, it came at a price—a price which planning officers and their departments could do nothing about.

Reports written over the past two years or so by the RICS, by architects Levitt Bernstein, and by Shelter have illustrated a lot of the problems. In short, the provision of some of the worst housing seen in Britain for decades came through PDR mark 1—if that is the right way to describe it: crushingly small flats lacking adequate daylight, with windows out of position for suitable residential use, designed to squeeze the maximum number of bed-sits into a given floor area, cramming in as many rent payers as possible with little regard for the quality of life, mental health or general well-being of the people there. The image of a modern Rachman comes to mind. Let us avoid these well-documented mistakes; it is never too late. As we have heard, the forthcoming business and planning legislation is certainly the right place to deal with this.

The rights of leaseholders have also been touched on. I am not going to dwell on these, though I think others will. However, with additional floors added to occupied properties, there will be nuisance, breach of quiet enjoyment, issues of adequacy of lifts and services, and future service charge issues. Many landlords will negotiate with their tenants—they are the responsible ones. Others will not. It is likely to become a minefield of legislation and only a small percentage of tenants will be able to afford it. There is no regulation of landlords, no minimum standards and no best practice of building management. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, mentioned Section 106 agreements. Local authorities do not even get those, though they do have a greater involvement than with PDR mark 1. There is no contribution from developers, notwithstanding the super profits handed to them by government through this arrangement.

Finally, this PDR will lead to further abuses, if not checked now. It is important to learn the lessons from PDR mark 1. This proposal may add a few flats to the housing stock, but potentially at a great social cost.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 2:50 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I very much support the two eloquent opening speeches from my noble friend Lord German and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, which set out why this proposal is what, in my vernacular way, I would call silly nonsense.

First, it will not have a major impact on the number of houses built or kick-start the economy; it will simply cause a lot of difficulty and nuisance in a few places. I declare my interest as a member of Pendle Borough Council and of a planning committee. I cannot think of a single property in the whole borough of Pendle to which this would apply, so I am not talking about problems in our area.

The Government do not understand just how much pressure local authorities and planning departments are under at the moment. Covid and the cuts in local government spending have reduced many planning departments to a skeleton of what they used to be. Frankly, the new complicated proposals being introduced, such as this, will in practice not be very different from an ordinary planning application.

The Government say that this is a quick way and will be quicker, but the actual work required to deal with one of these applications will require consultation with residents and with statutory bodies—notably, in the case of districts, the highways authority, which will be the county council—and consideration of design and amenity. Highways design and amenity are just about the most important things people get worked up about when there are medium and relatively small developments of this nature being proposed. That it will somehow be much easier and simpler for planning departments is simply not the case.

The other problem is that it is yet another example of the Government micromanaging planning at a national level when planning is really about local communities and places. It is different everywhere. The idea that you can simply impose national rules like this without consideration of the importance they will have in a particular locality is quite wrong.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:53 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for introducing this debate—and for the way he introduced it—and to the Minister for the time he gave some of us on Monday to express our concerns. He will therefore anticipate much of what I will say.

The Minister made it clear in that meeting that the purpose of this instrument is essentially to help the Government meet their housing targets. I completely appreciate that but, as he will know, I do not think this is the way to do it. In fact, I do not think it will help very much; it will make a marginal difference, as we have heard—possibly 800 homes a year, but probably far less. Of course, none of them will be affordable because it is permitted development.

This SI will guarantee uncontrolled profits for developers who are looking around at the scale of building in the centre of London, for example, thinking “I want some of the action” and taking opportunities to do just that. It will also damage the prospects and well- being of residents of existing residential blocks of flats who in different ways will be put at serious risk by this.

The impact statement reflects the imbalance in interests expressed. It reveals the scale of profit potential for developers, which has been estimated by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership—which is very authoritative—to be between £20 billion and £40 billion. However, it is silent on the costs to the well-being and safety of residents, tenants and leaseholders from these massive interventions to existing buildings. It is also silent on the prospect of huge increases in the cost of enfranchisement, which will follow from the uplift in the value of a freehold. In this case, this policy absolutely cuts against what the Ministry of Justice wants, which is essentially a much simpler, more accessible and cheaper form of enfranchisement.

When launching the policy, the Secretary of State was, like other Ministers, silent on this point too. All he referred to was the opportunity for individual families and homes to add a storey. Yes, the policy is presented as one of gentle densification; there is nothing gentle about the impact on residents. I must declare an interest as a resident of a block of flats in London which is already threatened with such an upward extension. We have not been consulted; we do not want it; it is unpredictable and problematic in terms of buildability, safety and loss of amenity. We may well be faced with a choice between living in a building site—ceilings coming down and holes in the walls—or evacuating, and there is no compensation for the loss of peaceful enjoyment.

There will be resort to law, but only for people who can afford it. The Government knew from the start that this was an unpopular policy, as the noble Lord, Lord German, explained, and many of the issues raised were completely ignored. I suspect the Minister is discomforted by what he has inherited here; will he consider whether anything more can be done to protect residents by way of the planning Bill coming down the track, or can he commit to an early review of the policy rather than waiting the normal five years? Will he also seize the opportunity presented by the Law Commission to accelerate the reforms in leaseholding and look for ways to restrain the colossal prospects of developers? It is an unfair, unbalanced and inefficient policy, but we have a chance to do something about it.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 2:56 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I have enormous sympathy with the comments made so excellently by the noble Lord, Lord German, and others. However, I also have sympathy with the Government’s position on this SI. It is a mixture of temporary and permanent measures, which is a shame if it is badged as a coronavirus measure, which should not cover the permanent angle. Affordable housing should be introduced and increased across the country, but that can be addressed separately.

I share some of the concerns expressed by the Delegated Powers Committee on how neighbourhood concerns will be taken into account, but I am reassured that this must be subject to successful prior approval applications. Those applications must have adequate provision for natural light; they will check to make sure that they are not on hazardous sites and that there is no extra flooding risk; it must be built within three years; it will pay the community infrastructure levy. There are controls on this via that route.

I understand that there is significant concern, but, like my noble friend Lady Redfern, I think the Government have a point here, particularly on the issue of developers. Big profits for developers are principally stoked by actions of monetary policy, which have deliberately inflated asset prices across the economy as a policy objective for economic growth. Without additional development, how can we address the housing shortage? Of course affordable housing is required, but that will be necessary in addition to any of this. I do not believe it is possible to build the scale of housing that we need to redress the shortfall between supply and demand without some disruption somewhere.

Therefore, I think that these measures deserve our support overall. However, I have one question for my noble friend. If the existing building has a prior planning condition limit on, for example, the number of units or how far it can be extended, could the owner of that building now make a new application to override that historic limitation for permission to extend it under this new SI?

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat 2:59 pm, 10th September 2020

I also thank the Minister for giving his time generously this week in the meeting that has already been mentioned. I certainly appreciated it. I give my wholehearted support to the two opening speeches, which said it all.

The ability to add two storeys to a block of flats is already happening. It is happening in urban centres, it is certainly possible, and it is certainly lucrative, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, outlined. Planning guidance issued over recent years has promoted greater densities, and developers have certainly not missed that trick. The Government believe this might yield 800 new homes a year—a very small contribution to the housing total for such an unpopular policy.

If this is already happening under a full planning permission, what is the Government’s rationale for bringing it into the permitted development regime at all? It is a serious question because under this updated PDR, most of the responsibilities for the local authority remain the same, including site notices and the length of the consultation period. Planners must also take into account certain aspects set down by government. To residents and the untrained eye, this looks, feels and acts like a planning application, yet it is not. Residents will not appreciate the difference.

What are the differences and why have the Government made them so? There is a lower planning fee, there are no internal space standards and no contribution to affordable housing. However, the most significant difference is that for a prior approval, what councils can and cannot consider is very tightly defined in statute. Government decides it knows best. That is in contrast to planning applications, where councillors and communities have their input about their place, in that full planning applications are determined in accordance with the council’s own development plan and with its locally adopted policies.

In short, under this PDR, the council has the same responsibilities but cannot apply policies that take into account the specifics of its place. It is the difference between building beautiful and having little choice but to approve whatever developers think they can get away with—and, regrettably, that happens. From the developer’s point of view, they are being relieved of having to match the space standards of the flats below—that is, creating substandard housing—they do not need to contribute to much-needed affordable housing, they pay a lower fee, and face much less council “interference” in the shape of local policies.

When such schemes are already being permitted while ensuring that standards are maintained and community benefit captured, can the Minister say why and for what developers are now being let off the hook and residents short-changed?

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative 3:03 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, ever since I entered public life when I was chairman of the housing committee of the London Borough of Islington and its leader, I have taken a specialist interest in housing. I sat for a new town, Northampton, for 23 and a half years, which was a good experience for the wide spectrum of housing, whether affordable, council housing or unoccupied, and since I lost my seat in 1997, I have been a non-executive director of Mansell, which builds extensively in London and is now part of Balfour Beatty. I therefore claim a little of experience here.

My noble friend on the Front Bench should be proud of what the Government have achieved, particularly in 2019. You have to go beyond the Blair period to see the scale of change that has happened. It is all very well for noble Members opposite to talk about council housing, and so on—just look at the figures achieved under the Blair and Brown Governments, and even under the coalition Government. I therefore say to my noble friend on the Front Bench: keep going. This is a useful addition. It is not that revolutionary; it is not hugely incremental, with a target of 800 per annum. But it helps. It may not be achieved, certainly in the first few years, but I suspect that when we look back on it, 8,000 in 10 years probably will be achieved, and that will be a useful addition to the housing market.

Of course there are concerns, and I share some of them. The construction has to be appropriate and has to be safe, particularly from fire. We know why—we know what has happened in not so recent times. I am not sure there is a definition of adequate natural light, but that is clearly an important dimension, as are detailed floor plans. I am also not sure why this excludes the pre-war blocks, because if you look at London and some of our other major cities and towns, some developments were of a lower scale and could easily take a couple more storeys.

I am reassured. I believe there has been good consultation—I read the whole document right the way through—and I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench, even if the official review is in five years, it would be helpful to the House and to those who take a particular interest in this market to have a review after three.

Finally, it is all very well for the Opposition to state that seemingly all property developers are rogues. They are not—they do a good job. I look forward to seeing this thing on the statute book so that we can get the contractors and developers cracking.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 3:06 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, sitting in an office in London dreaming up flexibility to the planning laws to encourage more housing sounds a good use of time. I know; I have done it myself as Planning Minister. I just want to give a cautionary tale. It comes from my former constituency and concerns the Westminster Road area of west Handsworth in Birmingham.

Some 20 years ago, when I left the Commons, the private rented sector in Birmingham accounted for some 10% of households. By 2018, it was 33% and growing. An area that was saved in the 1970s and 1980s by the urban renewal programme of half a dozen streets in Handsworth, half a mile from the Commonwealth Games village has gone backwards to the 1960s, according to residents. The successor to the specially formed housing association in the 1970s, which did much to enhance and improve the housing, is pulling out. Midland Heart housing association has no heart in Handsworth. The door has been opened up for a new breed of landlords to buy up the larger properties, either for HMO use or the more lucrative supported housing.

Recently, a for sale notice by agents Bairstow Eves stated, “For sale: potential 17 bedrooms”—a clear signal for exploitation. Across the area, landlords are converting garages, outhouses and even sheds into what are cynically called bungalows. For example, signs appear on the front walls of houses stating “Bungalow 6A and 6B at rear”. At 61 Westminster Road, a house converted into an HMO some years ago, providing 11 units, the landlord recently converted four garages in the back yard into living accommodation, with a secure fence to hide what had happened. There is evidence that residents of these dwellings are told to dump their rubbish in black bags on the opposite side of the road.

No. 229 Church Hill Road was a large family house. Used as business premises, it is now applying to be an HMO by claiming it was a “hostel”. No. 22 Livingstone Road, a former family home, has been converted in three social rented flats. Midland Heart cleared the tenants out and sold it at auction in Liverpool for £260,000 on the basis that it would generate an income of £18,000 a year. The new owner maintains that it is still flats, but locals see it run as an HMO, and just two of the tenants are generating over £27,000 per annum.

The HMO Action Group in Handsworth describes it as a “community under siege”. This is a cautionary tale. It ought to be taken note of.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

Since the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was unable to join us at the beginning of this debate, I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative 3:09 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my property interests, as in the register. I understand the laudable reasoning behind the first of the regulations. The permitted development right to hold a market and temporary use of land seem eminently sensible, given that it is recognised that events held outside are less likely, if properly supervised, to allow spread of the virus. I also understand that this is time limited, which seems appropriate. I would welcome clarification that that is indeed the case.

However, I have some concerns about the permanent permitted development right to allow additional storeys to be constructed on existing blocks of flats to create new homes. Many of these have been expressed in earlier speeches. Of course, anything that can be done to increase the number of new homes available, especially affordable ones, is welcome—but not at any cost. There must, as has been mentioned, be appropriate safeguards. I ask the Minister whether there is going to be any control of the design and visual impact of those potential new storeys. Perhaps even more importantly, what control will there be to ensure proper safety and access?

Presumably there will be issues for any existing occupiers of flats where storeys are being added. I understand that there will be no opportunity for their comments to be taken into consideration, although I hope that I am incorrect on that point. I wonder whether there will be any assessment after a period—for example two years, rather than five—to judge whether this has been a success, and whether further tweaking of the regulations, or, indeed, their removal, will be required.

Having made these few comments, I hope that I will receive some comfort from my noble friend that my fears are unfounded. But I am sad to say that I have a bad feeling that this is all going to end in tears. I hope that I am wrong.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 3:11 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate, and I welcome the opening speeches by the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport. For me, this statutory instrument represents an infringement of the rights of communities to their natural environmental space. It is a major change in planning policy, which really belongs in primary legislation. In that respect, I have several questions for the Minister.

The noble Lord, Lord German, has already elaborated on his committee’s report. What consideration did the Government, and the Minister, give to the requirement for possible financial assistance for the provision of affordable housing, and the whole area of developer contributions? I recognise the need to uplift the economy, but why is there a need to underpin developers at the expense of communities and their housing needs? Why allow relaxed planning regulations in the guise of permitted development rights?

What consideration was given to other environmental matters, including landscape issues, and to the resilience of existing buildings in accommodating such top-floor extensions? How will the technical resilience of buildings be assessed and measured, particularly if the existing buildings are in low-lying areas? What consideration was given to the impact on the local environmental amenity and the needs of existing dwellers? Sometimes existing dwellers do not like this densification, or gentrification, as it is sometimes called. What consideration was given to prevailing public planning policy on development matters? Having had a cursory look at the measures, I would say, very little. I regret that the Government have not given that greater emphasis. Given the history of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, was any consideration given to the need to impose the requirement that materials in such extensions should put safety first, and be resistant to fire damage?

Finally, can the Minister outline why the Government have deviated, or want to deviate, from the developer contribution that has been central to affordable and social housing public policy for many years? As a former Minister for housing in Northern Ireland, I encouraged it, because it provided much-needed affordable housing and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, much-needed community development in local areas.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Warwick Lord Taylor of Warwick Non-affiliated 3:15 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, there is an old saying, “Always plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark. A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow”. Housing has always been a barometer of a nation’s well-being. It is a practical sign of whether people are at the centre of a Government’s policies. Clearly, we need to stimulate regeneration of our towns and cities. The economy has to start moving again after months of lockdown in response to Covid. Furthermore, additional homes need to be provided more easily and with less delay.

I recall, when I was a barrister and district councillor, being involved in planning applications which were too often frustrated by red tape. Ironically, the original symbolic meaning of red ribbon and red tape in the Bible was that of faith and hope. In modern times we have turned that symbol on its head, to signify the opposite.

I have some practical questions about the PDR for the Minister. Would any utilities—for example electricity meters and water tanks—located at the top of buildings need to be moved? If so, how will this be achieved? How will complex building works be carried out with individuals remaining in residence on the lower floors? What evidence would need to be submitted to the local authority as part of the prior approval process? Is this likely to result in higher fees being levied for applications for prior approval?

The Government have admitted that more than half of respondents did not support that proposal. There were four main concerns. First, there was the lack of public consultation, then there was the potential poor quality of the homes. There were also problems with access and safety, and the potential negative impact on others nearby. In response, the Government have promised that they will

“continue to engage with interested parties on the technical details”.

What does that mean in practical terms?

In September last year there were 216,000 long-term empty homes in England, which is more than 72% of the Government’s annual new homes target. Meanwhile there are more than 1 million families stuck on local authority waiting lists for social housing. In January this year there were almost 25,000 houses in London alone left unoccupied, the highest number since 2012. I am not against PDR in principle, but what are the Government doing to address the wasted resource of thousands of empty flats and houses, which could provide accommodation for homeless families?

The initials PDR also stand for the management term “performance and development review”. That is an annual review of how well a project is doing. I hope that in one year’s time the initials PDR will also mean positive dynamic results.

Photo of Lord Bhatia Lord Bhatia Non-affiliated 3:18 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, this instrument was laid before Parliament on 24 June 2020. It is already in force. It is subject to the negative procedure and will remain in law unless either House rejects it within 14 days, allowing for recess days, of its being laid. It is part of the Government’s economic renewal package in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The regulations apply to England only and have two purposes, one of which is a permanent PDR to allow two additional storeys to be constructed on existing blocks of flats, to create new homes. I spoke on this subject in this House on 29 July, and I reiterate that although the instrument is for building two additional storeys on existing blocks of flats, it must provide housing for low-income and first-time buyers.

Another issue has come to the forefront recently: the increasing number of homeless people—families who have been made homeless because of their inability to pay their rent. Can the Minister confirm that the instrument will give priority to homeless people and/or young first-time buyers?

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Conservative 3:20 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on moving his Motion and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on speaking to hers. It has been an extremely important debate.

The Minister is to be congratulated on the department doing much to ensure that housing is being brought forward. We have heard this week about £12 billion being brought forward for affordable housing, and that public land is being made available for more housing. This is a genuine need, and I do not want to stand in the way of necessary housing.

However, there is a process point here, which the noble Lord, Lord German, outlined: why is this legislation coupled with legislation relating to coronavirus measures? I certainly approve, as other noble Lords have indicated that they do, of the action on markets and outdoor events. That is quite appropriate; they relate to coronavirus. It is hard to see how this permanent measure—and it is permanent—relates to coronavirus. I look forward to hearing about that.

If, as I suspect, this should not have been coupled with coronavirus measures, the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, become very relevant. Should we look at an early review of this legislation or additional rights, for example, for leaseholders being brought forward in fresh legislation? I believe fresh legislation will be brought forward shortly. I look forward to hearing about that possibility, and I am sure the Minister will want to be constructive about what can be done there.

I wish to highlight some concerns, which I have mentioned before, about the rights of leaseholders and enfranchisement. There is a danger that they are being short-changed; they are not really considered in this legislation as they should be. This point was raised in the other place by the honourable Member Sir Peter Bottomley as well.

Moving from the rights of leaseholders to the housing itself, concerns have been raised about space standards and cramped space. This is particularly relevant post Covid. I also raise, in parenthesis, whether there will be a general move away from housing in flats to housing with gardens—there is already evidence of this happening—and away from and out of the large cities. The Minister may want to say something on this in general terms.

So I have some concerns. I am certainly not against permitted development rights, but I wonder: why this legislation? I think there are ways that these regulations could be ameliorated. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on those points.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative 3:23 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I had a great involvement with housing in London, particularly as a member of the Greater London Council. More recently, I spoke in favour of converting unused offices for residential use to reduce homelessness, particularly in London. Since then, assessments have indicated that some of these converted offices are too small to provide ideal accommodation because, although toilet facilities are usually available, there is often not enough space for a full bath or shower room. In view of the acute housing needs, can more suitable use be made of these potential home spaces? Will the Minister ensure that it should be a legal recommendation that any conversions or extensions under the regulations will meet, or exceed, appropriate living standards for the 21st century?

It is good that the Government are working on so many new assessments and improvements, and the quality of new homes, as stressed by the noble Lord, Lord German, is of importance, without any doubt. I support the continuing attendance to this question as one of the many that face us today.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 3:24 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register, as a councillor in Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I thank both my noble friend Lord German and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for raising these issues today, and for making such powerful cases for this permitted development right to be withdrawn—though I am not holding my breath. They were not alone; their view has been supported by several noble Lords and this matter is the subject of a judicial review.

As a councillor, I know that issues about changes to the built environment are very much a concern of local residents. The current, locally based planning system enables residents and councillors to voice the immediate impacts and consequences of alterations to buildings. Of course, small additions or alterations that comply with current standards do not have to be considered publicly. The issue, and the subject of this debate, is where to draw that line.

I contend that extending permitted development rights permanently, via this back-door process, to allow two further storeys on blocks of flats that are already of three storeys or more, breaks that balance of development rights and resident and neighbourhood rights. This is what is at stake, with the gradual erosion, by this Government, of the rights of local people to have their voice heard.

One of the drivers for the original Town and Country Planning Act was to provide a process whereby standards for individual buildings and design that benefited whole neighbourhoods could be agreed and set. One of the purposes was to ensure decent, habitable standards in new houses following slum clearances. What is absolutely shocking to read in this SI are the regulations to ensure that new properties have

“adequate natural light in all habitable rooms”.

That should have been a given, and this demonstrates the need for planning oversight of new builds and conversions.

Many significant criticisms have been raised today. The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, made a strong case against what he called “PDR mark 1”, for constructing very poor-quality flats from office conversions, and hoped that PDR 2 would not replicate the failings. We need answers from the Minister: how are existing residents to be protected during construction? There is also the crucial challenge of learning lessons from the Grenfell tragedy—of the need to provide safe exits in case of fire or other major incidents. How will the recommendations from phase 1 of the inquiry be put into practice so that safety really does come first?

The impact assessment published with the SI states that the Government aim to make better use of land by building upwards—this is not an issue in itself. The only reason given for this permitted development right is that planning permission

“includes costs and can take time.”

Actually, so it should. Raising a block of flats by two storeys may have a very significant impact on residents and communities; they should be subject to proper, transparent and public decision-making. Unfortunately, some noble Lords believe that bypassing the planning process ensures more housebuilding. This is simply not the case. The LGA estimates that nearly 1 million homes have planning consent but have not been built.

As my noble friend Lord Greaves rightly said, this is an example of the Government trying to micromanage planning while ignoring local people—and all this to achieve perhaps 800 new properties a year. My noble friend Lady Thornhill pointed out that this PDR now looks just like a planning application, with the exception that space standards can be ignored, to the detriment of the residents. As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has said, there are major issues to consider about freehold and leasehold that have not been addressed.

An early review has been proposed, and I hope the Minister will agree to this: none of us wants to be associated with creating new slum dwellings. What this all points to is the Government making lucrative gestures to their developer friends, and not to the needs of those in desperate need of housing. That is no way to build better.

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), The Minister of State, Home Department 3:30 pm, 10th September 2020

My Lords, we have had an interesting, in-depth and wide-ranging debate on the Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020. I thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for their contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for tabling the Motions and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its report drawing the regulations to the House’s attention. I would like to take the opportunity to provide some further detail on the points raised by noble Lords in this debate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised consultation with local authorities. We undertook public consultation on building upwards, which included local authorities. Other temporary measures were brought forward at pace to give flexibility to local authorities to hold outdoor events. The noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, the noble Lord, Lord German, and my noble friend Lord Bourne asked why these planning measures were grouped with other coronavirus measures to kick-start the economy. This is to keep both sets of measures in one instrument; it is important to make the most efficient use of the instrument. It is possible to use an instrument to amend more than one order, which is why the compensation regulations were also amended. The noble Lord, Lord German, also queried the vehicle’s use in respect of permitted development orders. Negative procedure orders are the only way to amend the general permitted development order, as I understand it.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of community engagement being affected by this approach to planning. The permitted development right for building upwards on existing blocks of flats is subject to prior approval by the local planning authority. This allows the consideration of key planning matters. Among other matters, they can consider the external appearance of the building and the development’s impact on the amenities of the existing building and neighbouring premises, which includes overlooking privacy and the loss of light. There is no deemed consent and these planning issues can be raised. The local authority is required to consult with adjoining owners or occupiers of the land adjoining the site.

The noble Lord, Lord German, and my noble friend Lord Randall both raised the issue of egress. New permitted development rights to extend existing buildings upwards allow engineering operations to construct the additional stories and safe access to, and egress from, the new homes. Both the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of disruption to occupiers and neighbours. We are aware that development can have an impact on both occupiers and neighbours, and that might occur during the construction of additional homes by building upwards. To ensure that this is considered before work commences, a developer has to prepare a report setting out the proposed hours of operation and how they intend to minimise any adverse impact of noise, dust, vibration and traffic movements during the building works on occupiers of the building and neighbouring premises.

The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and my noble friend Lady Gardner both made the point that this does not address the problem of homelessness. A number of noble Lords—including the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Wilcox—mentioned that this does not specifically contribute to the provision of affordable housing. It is true that the permitted developments do not require affordable housing provision and do not tackle homelessness. However, I point out that where additional floor space is created through the right, and the local authority has a charging schedule in place, a community infrastructure levy might be payable. In addition, registered providers or local authorities can use the right to extend their blocks to provide more affordable and social housing.

The quality of homes was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Redfern, and the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow. All homes built under permitted development rights are required to meet building regulations. In addition, such developments must conform with any conditions required by the prior approval. We have introduced a new requirement that homes delivered under this and other permitted development rights must have adequate natural lighting in all habitable rooms. This issue was raised by a number of noble Lords in the debate. We expect that the developers will want to bring forward homes that are of good quality and marketable.

My noble friend Lord Bourne raised the issue of space standards. It is a government priority to see new homes brought forward, and we think that developers are best placed to assess the type and size of homes best suited to the local market. We know that some well-designed new homes delivered through both planning applications and permitted development rights are smaller than the voluntary space standards. We do not wish to place stricter requirements on homes delivered through permitted development than through planning applications. I should also point out that smaller properties can be less expensive to buy, opening up home ownership to more people.

The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised the issue of HMOs. Homes delivered under these rights cannot be used as houses in multiple occupation. Local authorities have the power of enforcement if there is a breach of planning laws.

My noble friend Lord Bourne, the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, all mentioned the impact on leaseholders, potentially adding to enfranchisement costs. Freeholders will have to comply with the terms of any lease in taking forward proposals to extend the building upwards. The Law Commission’s report on enfranchisement valuation, recently published, includes an option for leaseholders to elect to take a restriction on future development of the property. This would have the effect of reducing the price otherwise payable when a leaseholder or group of leaseholders purchase the freehold. We are considering the detail of the Law Commission’s proposals and will make an announcement in due course.

My noble friend Lady Altmann raised the issue of prior limits on total units. You can apply to vary the conditions of a planning application. National permitted development rights do not remove existing conditions placed on a granted planning permission. My noble friend Lord Taylor raised the issue of utilities, among other issues. The right allows for the moving of existing plant—for example, the water tank or air conditioning units on the roofs of buildings.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the very important issue of building safety. As the building safety Minister, this is obviously something I consider to be of the utmost importance. Ensuring that buildings are safe remains a priority for this Government. Whether homes are brought forward through a planning application or through a permitted development right, they are required to meet fire and other building safety requirements. The new permitted development right to extend existing buildings upwards allows the engineering operations to construct the additional storeys and the safe access to, and egress from, the new homes. In the interests of time, I will write to my noble friend Lord Randall on some of the issues he raised, such as the time limitation and local authority markets.

The purpose of the regulations is to enable businesses to continue to operate safely during the coronavirus outbreak and to support housing delivery and economic recovery. Together with further statutory instruments laid in July, they form a package of measures to speed up and simplify the planning process to create new homes on existing blocks of flats and help businesses to continue to operate safely and to respond quickly to changes in how communities use their high streets.

The regulations we have considered today introduce a new permitted development right which allows the upward extension of detached purpose-built blocks of flats for the construction of new dwelling houses. This builds on national planning policy to boost density without the need to build on greenfield sites. Permitted development rights make an important contribution to housing delivery, helping us to meet our plans for 300,000 new homes per year. These rights have brought forward schemes that might not otherwise have come forward.

In conclusion, delivering new homes is a key priority for this Government. These regulations are an important tool to help drive up delivery by simplifying and speeding up the planning system. They also form part of our response to help businesses operate during the coronavirus outbreak. Having introduced a new category of permitted development right to construct new dwelling houses, we are keen to ensure that the rights are operating effectively, so I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, that we will be keeping their implementation under review and monitoring the impact. In the words of my noble friend Lord Naseby, this is a useful addition.

These permitted development rights make effective use of existing residential buildings and gently boost density. They avoid the need for sprawling greenfield development by focusing on existing residential locations and areas more likely to have access to public transport. The rights respect the appearance of the existing streetscape while ensuring that the amenity of neighbours is considered through prior approval considerations.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful for a moment to reply to the Minister. I note that the issue of the way in which these regulations and those which are to follow, which are all in the sphere of planning regulations, was not answered in the debate. It is a matter of concern for us all that we will be faced with other regulations which will address the same issues. While we have not had the answers, I have no fear that we will have an opportunity to do so again in future weeks before us and before this House.

Motion agreed.