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Housing: Permitted Development Rights

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 23 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review permitted development rights following a planning inspector’s decision to overturn Watford Borough Council’s rejection of plans to convert a light industrial unit into flats of 16.5 square metres and with no natural light or fire escapes.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, all homes created through permitted development rights for change of use are required to comply with building regulations, including in respect of fire safety. We announced in a Written Ministerial Statement on 13 March our intention to review permitted development rights for the conversion of buildings to residential use in respect of the quality standard of homes delivered. This will inform any future decisions on permitted development rights for change to residential use.

I thank the Minister for that Answer, but building regulations are not quite the same thing as standards. Does he agree with Watford Borough Council in this instance that, with a total floor space of 16.5 square metres and containing no windows, these do not constitute homes in 21st-century Britain? As for the welcome review, the spring is quite a long way off. Can the Minister indicate how quickly changes will come into place and whether he can inject a little urgency into the process? Does he also acknowledge that these controversial permitted development rights have damaged relationships with an already anti-development public, who were quite incredulous that such standards were permitted without planning permission?

On the case concerning Watford which the noble Baroness mentioned, the borough council may appeal against the planning inspector’s decision within the next few days, so she will understand if I put that to one side. I make two general points: first, I hope all noble Lords will agree that, if you have redundant office or industrial buildings in an area where there is a severe shortage of residential accommodation, it makes sense to convert the one to the other. That is why the coalition Government in 2013 issued the permitted development order, which said that if you have planning permission for an office, you have planning permission for residential. That policy has produced 46,000 new homes, the vast majority of which are of good quality. Secondly—here, I agree with the point the noble Baroness made in a debate last week and which the noble Lord, Lord Best, raised yesterday—there have been some very unsatisfactory applications of that policy and some homes of very poor quality have come on to the market. That is why we have announced the review. We want to learn from Watford. The review is scheduled to complete by the end of the year. I take what she says about urgency: we want the policy to produce properties of a decent quality.

My Lords, can the Government not take this wonderful opportunity to praise the borough of Watford for not slipping us back to the 1940s and 1950s, when many of our poorest people lived in appalling conditions?

I hope the noble Lord will understand if I do not praise the London borough of Watford, as it may be about to take the Government to court—that might get me into difficulty. However, I agree with the thrust of what he said. It is worth reminding the House that the Prime Minister said last month that,

“I believe the next government should be bold enough to ensure the Nationally Described Space Standard applies to all new homes”.

I agree with that.

My Lords, would it not be illegal to keep animals in these circumstances, let alone human beings? What advice has been given to planning inspectors about such proposed developments? It seems astonishing to anyone who has worked in local government, as the noble Baroness and others in this House have, that these permissions are being given by planning inspectors.

Again, that is subject to the case, which may come before the courts, as to whether what was applied for in Watford constituted a dwelling house. That is the issue that may well be tested. I refer the noble Lord to the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 that comes into effect in March next year, which gives tenants additional rights if they believe their property is not fit for human habitation.

Although the Government are right to conduct a review, surely it is not impossible to introduce changes to the present system so that all buildings must have windows and natural light?

At the moment, building regulations do not require that, and that is one of the issues the review will look at. At the moment, there are no requirements for a property to have windows, natural light or minimum space standards. That is why we are reviewing the position, and the noble Lord is quite right to make that point.

My Lords, may I very gently correct the Minister? He said, “the London borough of Watford”, but the Borough of Watford is not in London; it proudly sits in Hertfordshire. The planning inspector says very clearly that he is constrained by the GPDO 2015 rules. He says he recognises that,

“living without a window would not be a positive living environment”.

When planning inspectors are so constrained, surely it is time urgently to review these planning regulations? They are clearly not fit for purpose. Can the Minister come back to the House as soon as possible with a revised review date?

This Minister may not be in a place to come back to the House, but I take the noble Baroness’s point. There is clearly strong feeling in your Lordships’ House that the current position is wholly unsatisfactory. We are reviewing it and I take the point about urgency that all noble Lords have impressed on me; we will come back the moment we have some progress to report. I take on board what noble Lords have said: that people should not be required to live in properties of the kind described by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham.