This article highlights the Barnet Society’s concerns related to the sweeping reforms announced last week by the Government, which are due to come into force from September. They will scrap the need for planning permission to turn empty buildings into homes and for changing the use of many commercial properties, and provide a new system of “fast track approval” for loft conversions. Because they are “permitted development” they will not contribute to affordable housing.
1. Converting Vacant Buildings. Developers will no longer have to go through the usual planning application process to demolish and rebuild empty residential and commercial buildings as long as they are used for new homes.
2. Change of Use. More small companies will be given flexibility to change the use of their premises without a planning application or local council approval, e.g. a shop being turned into café or office. However businesses viewed as essential to the lifeblood of communities such as pubs, libraries and village shops will not be covered by relaxation of the rules.
3. Loft Conversions. A “fast track approval process” will be established for owners who want to build upwards. But the scheme will be “subject to neighbour consultation”.
The Government has previously suggested that families will be allowed to add one or two new storeys to their homes. Although it first floated the idea for blocks of flats, it said the new right could eventually extend to all detached houses.
4. Turning shops into homes. The reforms will enable property owners to convert a wider range of commercial buildings into homes without requiring planning approval for change of use.
5. Public Sector Land. This will be better managed or released so it can be put to better use such as home-building and improving the environment.
The first three proposals are bad news for Barnet. The legacy of the office-to residential conversions that were permissible without planning permission in 2013 is grim. Council leaders and other interested bodies have expressed reservations saying similar deregulation in the past led to overcrowding and unsustainable development. The standard of homes provided is often well below normal standards regarding space, insulation, fire safety and natural daylight. In some areas developers have bought up abandoned offices in industrial estates, flipped them to low-quality housing and in many instances leased the flats to councils desperate to house homeless families. The result is quickly becoming a new generation of slum housing, and an ex-office building in Harlow converted into flats was branded a “human warehouse” last year.
The suggestion that an empty home or commercial building could be bought by a developer, demolished and a block of flats or house in multiple occupation built in its place without having to be approved by the planners is horrendous and would be the potential end of suburban houses with rear gardens. It would change our area completely, as can be seen by the blocks of flats that have already been converted from offices in Station Road, New Barnet (see photo at top).
Loft conversions are already permitted development within certain parameters, but this proposal would allow 2-storey extensions which could have a devastating impact on the appearance of the street and neighbourhood generally. Readers may remember the “beach hut” which went up on the roof of 141 High Street, on the corner of St Albans Road, a few years ago (see photo below). Fortunately, an enforcement notice was served on it and measures taken to mitigate its impact on the Conservation Area. In future this could happen everywhere, and only the brave next-door neighbour could object. Similarly a 4-storey block of flats could put another 2 storeys on top, which would be out of character with the rest of the neighbourhood.
There may be merit in converting some shops into flats. The Government, Mayor of London and Barnet Council are encouraging local town centres to regenerate and become hubs for local residents. Barnet is investing time and money in the Chipping Barnet Community Plan to bring life back to the town centre, and the Society is actively involved in proposing and commenting on projects to revive it.
The Government is also aiming to regenerate brownfield sites in urban settings to encourage building work in the Autumn, which is to be welcomed. If this and the other measures described above really would – as the Government claims – remove pressure to build on the Green Belt, the price might be worth paying.
Much more worryingly, however, the Government is proposing to follow these relaxations with “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War”. That was when the Society was founded to protect our green spaces from indiscriminate development. Now we have an equally big challenge to deal with.
How can a planning free-for-all be squared with the aims of Government’s own Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which in January published a report Promoting Health, Well-being and Sustainable Growth? None of those aspirations – which are just as important as building new homes – has yet to be addressed.
Covid-19 has reinforced the knowledge that good housing equals good health. These reforms will not provide good housing and will damage the street scene in areas like Barnet for ever.