Tomorrow’s slums

Back in 2013, I interviewed RICS’ property experts about the coalition government’s then-temporary relaxation of planning rules on office-to-resi conversions, for Modus magazine. I summarised it like this: “Despite dystopian warnings from local authorities, it’s not only unlikely to transform the hearts of Britain’s towns and cities – conversions will only take place at all in a very specific set of financial, technical and political circumstances.” My hometown Croydon was set to be a hotspot, with loads of the right sort of office building and loads of demand for flats not too far from London.

The policy was made permanent in autumn 2015, declared a success by the new Conservative government. But successful for who?

Under permitted development rights, conversions take place without planning permission – and therefore with no scrutiny of design, quality or space standards, and without developers making any contributions to local infrastructure or affordable housing. The impact has been far worse than predicted. In May 2018, a report by the Bartlett School of Planning revealed the true face of England’s offices-to-resi boom: studio flats measuring just 12m², “homes” in the middle of industrial estates, children growing up in noisy, overcrowded blocks with no play space. By then, approximately 60,000 new housing units had been created in this way.

I interviewed the authors for the Bartlett Review 2019. They began their research in 2017, when the impact of four years of deregulation was increasingly discussed but little had been published beyond desk-based studies. Over the course of a year, they made 568 site visits across five English cities plus two comparators, surveying projects and their surroundings, counting door buzzers and speaking to residents. Lead researcher (and fellow Croydonian) Dr Ben Clifford told me they were “shocked” by what they found: “What stood out for us was the quality of residential development. It was much poorer than we anticipated and affected people much more severely in terms of their quality of life.” Some shabby commercial premises had barely been converted at all – one of the many grim photos in the report, taken in Croydon, shows a tiny unit fronting onto a busy main road with personal possessions piled against the windows. Only 30% of conversions met national space standards, and few had access to amenity space. Overall, 77% of the homes were studio or one-bed apartments and many were aimed at the investment market – hardly reflecting or meeting housing need. The five local authorities – Camden, Croydon, Reading, Leeds and Leicester – had lost a potential £10.8m in Section 106 contributions and 1,667 affordable homes, as well as £4.1m in planning fees.

For the least scrupulous elements of the property sector, permitted development rights has been a get-rich-quick free-for-all. The rest of us will be feeling the repercussions for decades to come.

Bartlett Review 2019_pages 8-9