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Office Block Conversions: Essex

– in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee 3:00 pm, 13th February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered permitted development rights for office block conversions in Essex.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I wish to talk about a pressing and ongoing issue in my constituency of Harlow that can be described only as ghetto building, human warehousing and social cleansing, under the expanded permitted development rights legislation.

Let me be clear: I believe in more housing. We face a crisis in this country, with 1.2 million people on the waiting list for social housing, and more than 682,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. Yet studies by the University of Sheffield show that 94% of land in the UK is not built on. Housing consultant Colin Wiles even suggested that English golf courses occupy more land than homes.

I am pleased that the Government are accelerating our house building programme, with 1.3 million homes delivered since 2010. My constituency of Harlow is set to benefit from 16,500 new homes by 2033 from the Harlow and Gilston garden town alone. I agree in principle with the motivation behind expanded permitted development rights legislation, to make it easier for new housing to be built, and when the legislation came to the House of Commons, no party opposed it. I have even seen how permitted development rights can be a success. Edinburgh House, formerly home to Pearson publishers, has been converted by Land Charter Homes into quality apartments that are close to the station, with good transport links.

However, as the BBC “Panorama” documentary detailed last week, permitted development rights have been an unmitigated disaster for our town. The reasons for that are threefold. First, Harlow has become a prime location for such developments, with 12 former office block conversions, including Terminus House, Templefields and Redstone House. Harlow’s proximity to London and comparatively lower property prices make it a preferred location for developers; but, of course, the legislation does not require the builds to comply with local planning regulations. As such, around 1,100 units have been created in Harlow—a town of around 40,000 homes—none of which has been tested against the requirements of the local plan.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the creation en masse of new, relatively inexpensive accommodation in Harlow has made such properties an attractive option for councils outside Harlow looking to house individuals who have presented as homeless in their area. That has allowed predominantly London councils to socially cleanse their boroughs and to place vulnerable individuals, often with additional needs, into those converted properties as temporary accommodation. A freedom of information request that I made in July 2019 found that 32 Labour councils have made out-of-area placements.

In Harlow, we have had an influx, receiving placements from Barking and Dagenham, Enfield and Harrow, to name just a few. The placing authority does not have to notify Harlow Council, or offer any additional funding to cope with the increased demand on local services. The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that Harlow Council did not take up the full capacity of Terminus House when it was initially offered by Caridon Property to house Harlow residents in need of accommodation. We might well ask whether Harlow Council, had it accepted that offer, could have worked with landlords to ensure that the housing was of good quality. However, Caridon offered the remaining units to other authorities for rental, causing that increase in placements of individuals from other areas.

Thirdly, the impact of the influx on Harlow has been catastrophic. The rabbit-hutch housing developments have been a hive of criminal activity and drug abuse, placing huge pressures on our local police, A&E and social services. The “Panorama” investigation found that Essex police have been called to one site—Templefields—nearly 600 times in three years, and of course Harlow taxpayers bear the brunt of all such problems.

Our local schools are under immense pressure. One primary school, Tany’s Dell, looks after pupils from 20 families currently living in nearby temporary accommodation at Templefields House. The teachers have described issues relating to safeguarding, poor attendance, anxiety and even exhaustion from the 30-minute walk to school, undertaken by children some of whom are as young as just three years old. There are no buses or any proper public transport links around that building.

I believe passionately that it is my duty in Parliament to address social injustice. I am not blaming the individuals and families, who are taken away from their usual support networks of friends and family.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

My right hon. Friend has always been a champion of social justice and, not for the first time, does this House a great service in bringing to our attention matters that are of both local import and national consequence. Does he agree that the report recently published by the commission that the Government tasked with looking at building beautiful places is highly pertinent to the debate? If we build homes in which people want to live, in places that they can feel proud of, social solidarity will be the result. I hope that the Government will shortly respond to those recommendations.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee

I thank my right hon. Friend. He is right: beauty is everything in building. When I initially saw the legislation on converting office blocks, I thought that it would be a good idea. I never imagined that loopholes in the legislation would allow the building of literal ghettos—of tiny rooms, as I will describe later—without any thought to beauty, aesthetics or the local environment for the poor residents who have to live in such places.

Often such properties are developed in areas never intended for residential dwelling. They are placed in isolated employment areas of the town with poor public transport routes, as I have just highlighted, making it difficult for residents to integrate socially and economically into the community. That is why it is so important that councils play at least some role in determining where such conversions take place. Individuals arrive, unfamiliar with social and counselling services and schools, and can feel unsupported in the new area. I am not against those vulnerable families—we have a duty to help every vulnerable family—but I have a duty to my constituents, and when families who have nothing to do with Harlow are brought to the town, they are separated from their own networks and support.

If families are not deemed vulnerable at the time of placement, it is easy for their new difficult living situation to affect that. Regularly in my constituency surgeries, and when I am out and about across our town of Harlow, I meet families living in such ghettos and hear moving stories. One lady, a recovering drug addict, was placed on a corridor where other residents were taking drugs right in front of her. That lady was sent from another borough. She had no links to Harlow, and was trying to get her life back on track, doing everything possible to get off drugs. She was a single parent, living in a room hardly bigger than the table behind me, and was now surrounded by drug dealers and people taking crack and other kinds of drugs. I ask the Minister how we can expect that lady, and so many others like her, to get their lives back on track living in such an unhealthy, unpalatable and unacceptable environment.

Ongoing support following placement is necessary if families are to thrive in their new area. Does the Minister not agree that in order to provide support, councils must first be notified of their placement and be given the funding to provide the care that vulnerable families need through local services? Permitted development rights were never meant to be about building ghettos. Nor were they about living space, and letting councils ship people off like cattle to the east of England and to Harlow.

I made this clear at the beginning of my speech: I know we need more housing, and I recognise that permitted development rights have made an important contribution in some parts of the country, but there have to be rules, particularly about quality, and councils must have some say in how the office blocks are converted. As one resident told me, the buildings were built for paper, not people, which sums it up exactly. If we truly want to help people, homes must be quality, safe spaces, not tiny box rooms where a single parent and a little baby live in a space where one can barely put one’s arms out without touching the walls and where the so-called kitchen is a yard away from the bed. They should not be housed in the same corridor as drug users and violent individuals.

In January, the Secretary of State confirmed to me in the Chamber that the review into permitted development rights

“will be taking forward any reforms necessary”.

He recognised that,

“All properties built in this country need to be safe.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2020;
Vol. 670, c. 34.]

BBC’s “Panorama” documented cases where councils house individuals, couples and families in single rooms. Kitchens and toilets are metres apart. That is not a proper living environment. Shelter estimates that poor housing costs the NHS £1.4 billion a year. I ask the Minister again: in the Department’s review into permitted development rights, will he look beyond the numbers and consider the quality of housing being built? Will he work with colleagues to reform the legislation and make it a requirement in law that all properties, for temporary accommodation or not, meet minimum national space standards?

According to the House of Commons Library, local authorities have had powers to restrict permitted development rights under an article 4 direction at least since the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. Changes made in 2010 mean it is now for local planning authorities

“to confirm all Article 4 directions”,

making it easier for councils to invoke restrictions on permitted development rights. In Harlow, the council should have acted earlier. Only in March last year did it seek an article 4 direction in certain areas of the town.

The issue has been ongoing for years, but there is another factor. The Library confirmed to me that,

“residential premises created from office conversions under permitted development which add to an authority’s council tax base... count for the purpose of the New Homes Bonus payments” received by local councils. So is there therefore very little financial incentive to take action to restrict the developments? That is particularly the case in Harlow, where the new homes bonus created a grant back to the council worth more than £1 million in 2018-19. With more than half of the new properties last year being office conversions, Harlow Council should do more to use the money to help individuals and provide security around the town.

Furthermore, sections 76 to 93 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 grant powers to the council to seek a closure order for a property on the grounds of either disorderly, offensive or criminal behaviour; serious nuisance to the public; or disorder near the premises. To be fair, the order is not a permanent solution. It lasts only six months, and other local authority closure powers are substantially limited in their scope, for example, to deal with environmental concerns.

Councils need stronger powers to take meaningful action against permitted development right conversions where they create issues for our town. Having said that, councils should do more to use the powers that are available to them. I believe ghettos such as Terminus House and Templefields should be closed down once and for all. Will the Minister ensure that the review provides stronger solutions to allow councils to deal with the issues that permitted development rights have created and that exist now?

The current state of permitted development rights raises numerous issues. First, councils take advantage of cheap converted office blocks to ship people off to the east, where they believe there is living space. Individuals with additional needs, who require support from their local authority, are being dumped in shoddy, rabbit-hutch housing, with the receiving authority having to pick up the pieces. There is no sense of a duty of care for the individuals. There is no notification and no extra funding granted to the receiving authority to provide resources, and certain parts of the country are disproportionately affected. In areas such as Harlow, the pressure on the taxpayer, local services and schools is enormous.

Vulnerable individuals are housed together in isolated areas, away from their support networks, creating a breeding ground for criminal and antisocial behaviour. Those trying to get their lives back on track must do battle with an unhealthy living environment every day. I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to spend 30 minutes watching the BBC’s “Panorama” programme, which makes an unanswerable case for the need for affordable and more quality housing.

The permitted development rights legislation has been disastrous in certain circumstances. The people of Harlow have been let down by councils and by flaws in the legislation that seems to support quantity over quality housing. They have been let down by the planning guidelines, which should give more powers to stop unsuitable accommodation in certain areas, and they have been let down by the fact that when the vulnerable families come through, there is no extra support or funding. I urge the Government and the Minister to take urgent action. In the 21st century—in 2020—we must put a stop to London boroughs’ social cleansing and the building of ghettos. We must put a stop to it all. We must give local authorities stronger powers to shut down human warehouses and ensure our councils have a real say on office block conversions.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South 3:17 pm, 13th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate Robert Halfon on securing such an important debate. As in his constituency, permitted development rights have allowed the creation of poor quality homes in my constituency of Luton South in Bedfordshire—it is also, technically, in the east.

We have a severe housing crisis. Millions of people live in unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable homes. We have young people struggling to get on the housing ladder, renters stuck in unfit flats and families stuck on council house waiting lists. The Government are failing to get to grips with the symptoms of the crisis. They have not built enough council homes or homes that are actually affordable for local people. In the past decade in Luton, the council house waiting list has grown by 106%, but the overall number of council houses has reduced by 6% as a result of right to buy.

Some might see the converting of redundant office buildings to residential buildings as an attractive way to begin addressing the demand for housing. In some cases, it might make sense to regenerate vacant office space. However, the Government have completely misjudged the situation by incentivising the conversions through permitted development rights. Doing so has removed local authority oversight and simply provided developers with the opportunity to bypass thorough planning processes.

As PDR schemes are not bound by section 106 obligations, they are not required to meet quality guidelines, contribute to the provision of education or community benefits, or convert a certain percentage of flats into affordable homes. The Local Government Association estimates that in the past three years more than 10,000 affordable homes have been lost as a result of the rules. Research by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors shows that although the quality of office-to-residential schemes ranged from high to extremely poor, overall PDR schemes were “significantly worse” than homes that had been through the full planning process. Only 30% of homes built under the rules meet minimum space standards.

PDR schemes are amplifying the housing crisis and undermining the processes that ensure that people live in safe and suitable homes. Many local authorities are struggling to find temporary accommodation to meet their housing obligations and so are pushed into using converted office blocks to house vulnerable people and families with children. That is the only option that many authorities have, but the Government must recognise that it is an unsafe practice, because many who are living in temporary accommodation come from a variety of sensitive circumstances. To be frank, vulnerable people with a variety of complex needs are being homed in tiny flats that do not meet quality regulations and lack the necessary amenities. That is a recipe for disaster; it damages mental wellbeing and is conducive to antisocial behaviour. The right hon. Member for Harlow put that point so well.

It seems to me that the Government have been asleep at the wheel. They stressed the importance of the

“right homes in the right places” in their 2017 housing White Paper, but in Luton the wrong homes are being created in the wrong places. For example, a number of PDR converted office buildings, such as Unity House, house families with children and are within an air quality management area along our four-lane inner ring road. That is allowed to happen only because PDR schemes bypass planning permission air quality regulations.

Another unwanted side effect of PDR is the harm that converted buildings do in relation to the regeneration and re-planning of town centres. Often the buildings that are converted are historic post-war developments with limited townscape and visual appeal that would have been strategic sites for redevelopment. In Luton we face that challenge in managing the town centre properly, given the spate of conversions in key locations, so when the Government proudly profess that 42,000 homes have been built as a result of the schemes, we have to question whether they understand that they are allowing the creation of poor provision.

Our constituents should not have to live like this. Local authorities are only working within the parameters set by the Government, and they have limited powers to act—usually once issues have arisen. Luton Council has had to implement an article 4 direction to remove the rights in certain areas. However, unfortunately for many of my constituents, the terrible housing has already been created.

We can never allow the desperate need for housing to be met at the expense of the quality of housing. We all deserve a home that supports our health and wellbeing, where we have enough space to live and where we feel safe. The Government must end the housing crisis by building homes that are safe, affordable and fuel-efficient and, crucially, that meet building regulations. I invite the Minister, again, to Luton South to see for himself.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

I have been quite generous about the scope of the debate, given that there is plenty of time available. Before I call the shadow Minister to respond, I ask her to try to relate her remarks to Essex in particular—and the Minister likewise.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 3:22 pm, 13th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I will stick to the subject. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate. It is timely, given the “Panorama” programme that we saw a couple of weeks ago. I hope that if he has not already done so, the Minister will watch it. It was very powerful. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins on her contribution pointing out some of the problems with permitted development, not least of which is air quality. That had not yet been discussed, and it was interesting.

Permitted development is a symptom of the way the housing system has broken. The principle, as the right hon. Member for Harlow said, of making it easier to build housing, is clear, but the consequences since its introduction are obvious. It has not increased affordable housing, which is what we would hope for. The ad hoc nature of the development can be seen in Harlow, Luton and Croydon, and in Croydon it has meant overdevelopment of office space. There is now a gap, because businesses that want to come into the area cannot, as everything has been converted through permitted development. Also, a lot of quite unsavoury people are making quite a lot of money. That was obvious in the “Panorama” programme about permitted development in Harlow.

I think that permitted development was introduced to allow developers to bypass the normal planning process. It gets people off the hook in spatial terms, and with respect to the need for windows in flats, and it makes it possible for unsanitary, unsafe and unpleasant conditions to develop. Plenty of people have written about the issues and brought them to our attention, and many of the examples used are from the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Vicky Spratt has done a lot of work on the matter in the i newspaper, and has raised cases, including one in my constituency, where leaseholders have bought such properties through Help to Buy. So it is not only the planning situation that has made what we are talking about possible; the Government are also funding it through Help to Buy.

The Shelter report that came out of the “Panorama” programme was helpful and showed the scale of the problem. Inside Housing has been good at highlighting the issue, and has talked about the warehousing of poverty by the housing system—something that the right hon. Gentleman referred to. A good piece of work was done by Tom Copley in City Hall in London showing that only 0.4% of the new homes built under permitted development in London are affordable. More than half of the permitted development homes in London are smaller than the minimum space standard that one would hope to see.

Last year 12,000 homes were created under permitted development, and there were 5,000 in London. There were more than 600 in my borough of Croydon, but I will not talk too much about that. The Grenfell Tower fire showed how flawed the building regime system is. Permitted development is one part of the system that has created the problems described so well by the right hon. Member for Harlow. In total, 54,000 new housing units have been created by conversion from offices since 2016. However, in research by the Local Government Association it is estimated that more than 10,000 affordable homes would have been created under the normal planning process, but have been lost, because they were not created under permitted development. That is why Labour has committed to scrapping permitted development—not because we do not think offices should ever be converted to residential use, or because we do not want more homes to be built, but because we see the consequences of permitted development, which are grave.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that permitted development has

“allowed extremely poor-quality housing to be developed”,

with only 30% of homes built through permitted development meeting national space standards. As the right hon. Member for Harlow pointed out, in recent weeks Shelter and “Panorama” have exposed the impact of a kind of slum housing on vulnerable people who are placed in his constituency and elsewhere. The investigation revealed how different elements of the housing crisis are layered together to create a truly awful situation. Councils that already suffer the impact of record low investment in social housing under the present Government simply do not have the supply of genuinely affordable council housing. There are more than 1 million people on council waiting lists, and multiple failures in the private rented sector—whether it is the growing number of no-fault evictions, spiralling rents or poor quality accommodation —mean that more and more people are left with nowhere to go but temporary accommodation. Councils are left to try to find somewhere to house them.

Shelter’s investigation revealed that 90% of the £1.1 billion spent by councils on temporary accommodation went to private landlords and letting agents. The research revealed how investors were purchasing office blocks, which they would then convert to temporary accommodation without local authority planning permission, before charging them out back to councils at huge expense, despite the sub-par standards. In one case that was highlighted by Shelter, a temporary accommodation provider bought a permitted development block for £8 million and leased it to the council for £1 million a year for three years, before selling it to the same council for £13 million, making a 50% profit, plus millions in rent.

I will not talk in much detail about Croydon, because we are mostly discussing Essex, but it is the epicentre: it has more permitted development units than any other part of the country. I have dealt with many cases of substandard accommodation, including Delta Point, Canterbury House and Green Dragon House. Those have been converted, and there have been all kinds of issues. One instance speaks to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman about the buildings being built for paper, not people: we had a block with a boiler system that was intended for people using the office space in the day. It was nowhere near good enough for the hundreds of people living in the block, so it failed and people went weeks without water and heating. We had to step in to try to solve that problem.

Those of us here today—we are quality, rather than quantity—are saying that the system is flawed. The Secretary of State has accepted that it is flawed. The Royal Institute of British Architects has called for an end to the scandal of families living in homes that are smaller than budget hotel rooms. I hope the Secretary of State is having some second thoughts. The consultation was originally introduced to look at expanding permitted development, but he has made remarks in the Chamber and elsewhere that suggest he understands that there are problems that need to be fixed. The nature of retail and office space is changing, and traditional high streets are changing, but converting everything into residential at great speed with no quality is not the way to help our high streets.

From our perspective, permitted development as it stands is better off scrapped, but if we are not going to go that far, I have some questions for the Minister. Does he accept that this is a significant problem, which is affecting a lot of people? If so, what does he propose to do about it? When can we expect the result of the consultation, and how does he see permitted development fitting into the solution to the huge problems of the housing crisis, examples of which we have heard about today from Harlow, Luton and Croydon?

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:31 pm, 13th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon for calling this debate. It is an issue that he is extremely passionate about; he has raised it in the House many times. He is a champion on this issue, regularly lobbying Ministers to ensure that he gets his point across. He has done so again, extremely powerfully, today. I thank him for his contribution.

Rachel Hopkins made a powerful speech. She has invited me to come to her constituency twice in the last week. I spent part of my youth growing up there, and it would be a pleasure to come back to speak to her and to see the issues at first hand.

I take on board some of the points raised by the shadow spokesperson, Sarah Jones. The homelessness advice and support team have not heard some of the specific issues that she has raised about developments in her constituency, so I will ensure that that information is taken away, and that the team gets in touch with her local authority following the debate.

Nobody here today is in any doubt that the root of the issue is the need for new homes. We want housing for all those who aspire to have a home, whether a home of their own or a home to rent. A key part of achieving our ambition is to reduce homelessness, end rough sleeping and give people the homes that they need. Building the homes that this country needs, closing the opportunity gap and helping millions of young people into homes is something we want to focus on.

Together, we have delivered more than 1.5 million new homes since 2010. Of those, more than 465,000 are affordable homes, which includes 325,000 homes for affordable rent and 140,000 for social rent. We delivered 240,000 additional homes in the past year, which was the highest number in any year but one in more than 30 years. To build on that success, we have committed to deliver 300,000 new homes every year by the mid-2020s, which we will do by committing at least £44 billion of funding over five years.

We are reviewing the affordable homes programme, providing more than £9 billion up to March 2022, which will deliver a quarter of a million new affordable homes of a wide range of tenures, including shared ownership and social rent. The Government are also lifting the housing borrowing cap for councils, so that local authorities can deliver a new generation of council housing. In addition, to help people to buy homes where they already live, last week we launched a consultation on First Homes. These are discounted homes for local people and key workers, and the policy has the potential to save them tens of thousands of pounds and help them take their first steps on the property ladder.

To support the delivery of new housing, there is a duty on local planning authorities to have in place local plans, which need to allocate sufficient land in our towns and villages for new homes, and to have policies that encourage appropriate development. Some 302 local planning authorities have an adopted local plan— 89% of all local authorities—and 145 have plans adopted within the past five years. In the coming months, we shall set out an ambitious planning White Paper, which will continue the simplification of the planning system for the public and for small builders and make more land available for housing.

This debate links to the issue of homelessness, including in Harlow. Some important points have been made about homeless households and the impact that poor housing quality has on families, individuals and the community. We need to address that, whether in Harlow or any other town in our country. In 2020, it is unacceptable that anybody should have to sleep rough, especially at a time when we are enduring sub-zero temperatures. That is why we have brought forward our manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament, rather than 2027. We want people to feel safe and secure in their own home.

On temporary accommodation, we always want to see homeless individuals and families moved into settled accommodation as soon as possible and on a permanent basis. The action that we are taking to increase the delivery of housing supports that. However, we do of course recognise the important role that temporary accommodation can play in the meantime, in ensuring that no family is without a roof over their head. We understand that there has been an increase in the number of households in TA in recent years. Although the overall numbers have been rising, the number of households with children has remained relatively stable since the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—a groundbreaking piece of legislation. The increase in TA numbers since the Act took effect has been almost entirely driven by single households receiving help that was previously unavailable to them.

For the first time, the Act requires local authorities and public servants and the third sector to work together to actively prevent and relieve homelessness for people who are at risk, irrespective of whether they are a family or a single person. That means that more single people, who might otherwise have been on the streets, are getting the help that they need.

To help local authorities deliver their new duties under the HRA, we have created a specialist team of homelessness advice and support team advisers with expertise in the sector, to challenge and support local authorities in tackling the issue in their area. At the same time as supporting councils to deliver a transformation in their local homelessness services, the team has helped local authorities to deliver a 39% reduction in the number of families housed in B&B accommodation for longer than six weeks.

I absolutely acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has raised particular developments in his constituency. However, we recognise the importance of providing self-contained homes for families in need, and permitted development rights can play a role in enabling that. It is easy to dismiss the value of a person having a house and home to call their own—I know my right hon. Friend is not doing so—and we think that permitted development rights play an important role in the system.

My right hon. Friend raised the issue of people being moved by councils from other local authority areas, in his case from London, and placed in his constituency. We are clear that, as far as possible, local authorities should avoid placing households outside their borough. However, in some areas where there is a limited supply of suitable accommodation, it has been necessary to place households outside their local area. It should always be a last resort—I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend on that point. Where it does happen, the council should place the household as near as possible to their home local authority. The local authority also has a legal duty to notify the receiving local authority of any households that are placed in its area.

It is important to stress that households have the right to appeal against the decision made by the local authority, if they feel that the TA that they have been placed in is not suitable. Collaboration between local authorities is paramount, which is why we welcome the initiative taken by the Local Government Association to bring together local authorities from London and around the country to try to address concerns about unsuitable out-of-area placements, including the use of blocks converted under permitted development rights. That will also help to deal with the concern that councils may be unaware of placements that are taking place in their area.

We completely recognise the particular challenges that London boroughs face in securing suitable temporary accommodation. To tackle those challenges, we have invested £37.8 million into a partnership of local authorities across London, which has set up Capital Letters, a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee that enables councils to pool their procurement activity in order to access an improved supply of good-quality accommodation to prevent and relieve homelessness. Capital Letters will reduce the use of expensive nightly paid temporary accommodation and ensure that properties are allocated more locally than they currently are.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee

I realise that the Minister has stepped in because the previous Housing Minister, to whom I pay tribute for her championing of blue-collar Conservatism, has sadly left her post. However, I say to the Minister that this is not a last resort for the councils around London that are dumping their people in my constituency. It is a first resort; it is the easy option. It means they do not have to pay for those people, and there are no strictures that say they must notify Harlow Council. The Minister may not be able to answer this question today, but I want to know what specifically is going to be done in my constituency to stop these things happening, and to ensure that permitted development rights are only allowed for five-star-quality accommodation, not for the kinds of things that I have described in my speech, and which the hon. Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) have reported to be happening in their constituencies.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My right hon. Friend is completely right to raise the challenges that his local authority faces, and I know that the Secretary of State has visited that local authority to discuss the significant impact that it has been dealing with. The best thing may be for the new Housing Minister, upon appointment, to write to my right hon. Friend to update him about the Government’s plans and the work we are doing. If he wants to meet me to discuss this issue further, I am happy to meet him, but I am sure that the new Housing Minister will be able to give him some satisfaction.

National permitted development rights for the change of use to residential continue to play an important part in the planning system and make an important contribution to housing delivery. Those rights are delivering additional, much-needed homes that may not have been delivered otherwise, and have attracted new developers into the market. As has been mentioned, in the four years to March 2019, some 54,000 homes to buy or rent have been delivered through those rights, which allow a change of use from office to residential. We are clear that permitted development rights are a worthwhile way of making better use of existing buildings and preventing them from lying dormant and unused, which helps reduce the need to build on greenfield sites. Those rights also provide flexibility for property owners and offer a simplified approach to securing planning agreements. Where there are local issues that residents feel strongly about, planning authorities can of course consult with the community about whether to remove a permitted development right.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned good-quality homes being created through permitted development rights in his constituency, and I am glad that he did so. We do not want local authorities to be in a hurry to remove rights; they should take the time to ensure that they are getting those decisions right. Harlow has already removed the permitted development right for the change of use from office to residential in parts of that borough, and rights have been removed from buildings in the area around the developments described by my right hon. Friend. The Government expect that all homes should be of good quality, including those used for TA, and should meet building regulations —of course, the majority of developers ensure that they do so.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee

I realise that my hon. Friend stepped in at the last minute, and I do not want to make things difficult, given that he did not know that he would be responding to today’s debate. However, in my view, these places need to be closed down immediately, and as I highlighted in my remarks, there are some powers to do so. Could not the Government work with the local council to bring in special powers to close down these unsuitable buildings, which are causing misery for the people in them and the people of Harlow? We need action on this issue. I realise that my hon. Friend may not be able to properly answer me today, but could someone—whether he or the Housing Minister— contact me to say whether it would be possible to take emergency action?

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am absolutely happy to ensure that that is one of the issues that the new Minister contacts my right hon. Friend about. Of course we recognise the issues that have been highlighted, which is why, last year, we announced that we would undertake a review of the quality standards of homes delivered through permitted development rights. Further announcements on that will be made in due course, and I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is alerted and aware as soon as we are able to provide him with some certainty. However, I will be explicit about Government policy: an ongoing supply of new homes delivered through permitted development is important if we are to hit our ambitious housing targets while driving down rents and offering affordable homes to help people on to the property ladder.

These debates are vital. Some concerning cases have been raised by my right hon. Friend, which is why the Government are taking the action that we are. He has been a passionate advocate for change in this area; his points have been made loud and clear, and I will ensure that the Secretary of State is aware of the issues he has raised. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to this afternoon’s important debate, including my right hon. Friend, and look forward to visiting the constituency of the hon. Member for Luton South.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee 3:45 pm, 13th February 2020

I thank the Labour Members present, the hon. Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). There is a lot of unity on this issue across all parties in the House, and the Minister has done a very good job of standing in at the last minute to respond to this debate. However, I urge him to make sure that the Department does everything possible to deal with this problem, because it is ruining towns and places for the people and families who live in them, including the people of Harlow.

The crucial point is about planning and the quality of housing that is allowed to be built, because these landlords would not be able to do what they are doing if there were strict rules about the size of the housing. Permitted development rights were not meant to be about temporary accommodation; they were meant to be about affordable housing, which is why I supported them. Although there was no vote in the House of Commons at the time—those rights were backed by all parties—I never would have supported them if I had known then what has happened over the past few years. We need the review of quality standards to have real teeth and substance, so that this situation is changed forthwith, and the existing buildings in Harlow need to be closed down, because they should not be allowed in this day and age. The Government, working with local councils, should take action to close those buildings down and make sure the residents in them have other accommodation to go to. We need to stop this once and for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered permitted development rights for office block conversions in Essex.

Sitting adjourned.