Faster routes to residential permissions…in principle

11 / 02 / 2016

Amongst a raft of proposed changes to the planning system, two stand out as potentially providing faster and more certain procedures for obtaining consent for residential development. But will they do so?

Permanent office to residential permitted development rights

Various categories of change of use can take place under permitted development (“PD”) rights contained in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (the “GPDO”) without the need for planning permission.  One of these is Class O of Schedule 2, Part 3, which permits, within certain limits, a change of use from offices to dwellinghouses.  This is not new, but a government announcement on 13 October 2015 set the scene for an extension to the life of these rights and important additions to them.

The current PD rights expire on 30 May 2016, but will now be made permanent.  Those who already have ‘permission’ under the existing PD rights will also have a further three years to complete the change of use.

There has been much confusion and differences of opinion as to what precisely needs to be done to a building by the current deadline to benefit from the rights: completion and occupation of one apartment?; occupation of an apartment on each floor?; or occupation of the entire completed residential development?  This has often created a race against time, with no certainty of lawful use at the end of the process for many, and difficulties in obtaining funding.  The permanent rights will remove this uncertainty.

The new rights will also allow for the demolition of the existing office building, which is currently not permitted – this has acted as a barrier to the take up of the PD rights as many existing buildings are unsuitable for conversion to office use.  It will also be possible for light industrial buildings and launderettes to be used as homes.

The amendments to the GPDO are still awaited, but the rumours are that they will be published in mid-March and take effect in early April.  Consequently we do not yet know what the restrictions will be or whether the prior approval procedure will be any more onerous than the current system.  It is also unclear if new buildings constructed following demolition will be able to exceed the size of the previous building.

The extension of the rights will be welcomed by owners of office premises who currently face uncertainty and restrictions – they should make it easier, quicker and potentially much cheaper to obtain permission for residential use.  The rights will help the government’s house-building drive in the short and medium term, although the use of them is likely to dwindle over time as the availability of appropriate premises becomes more limited.  A concern is the potential knock-on effect of the PD rights on the supply of office accommodation and the impact on the local economy and vitality of the surrounding area.  These are problems that may have to be tackled at a later date, along with deficiencies in infrastructure to serve new mixed-use communities that are created in locations where they were never intended to be.

Planning permission in principle

The Housing and Planning Bill 2015 introduces a system for the grant of a new ‘permission in principle’ (“PIP”) for development of land in England.  The new system should make more (predominantly brownfield) land available for residential development, provide certainty for developers at an earlier stage, and save time and cost.  The Bill is currently being scrutinised in parliament and should become law in the spring.

PIPs would have similarities to outline planning permissions, as a new ‘technical details consent’ would be required to turn them into a full planning permission.  The technical details would be approved if they accord with the PIP as the local authority would not be able to re-open or reconsider the principle of development at the technical details stage.  However, a big difference with outline permissions is that planning conditions will only be imposed in the technical details consent, and not in the PIP.

National development orders would first need to be made to enable PIPs to be granted, by one of two alternative routes; either automatically, or following an application to the local planning authority.

For the automatic route, once the relevant development order is in place PIPs would be granted automatically for land that is included in a register of brownfield land (which the Bill introduces as a requirement on local authorities to compile), or is allocated in a future or revised development plan document or neighbourhood plan – this will not apply retrospectively to land that is already allocated.  The automatic route will apply to developments of any number of homes.

The application route is intended to be for fewer than 10 homes and it seems that applications would be subject to the same procedures and rules (including appeals) as standard planning applications.

The technical details consent will put the meat on the bones of the PIP, but it is not clear how it will operate in practice.  It is not known if an element of starter homes (or more conventional types of affordable housing) will be required, or whether developments will have to fund infrastructure through section 106 obligations or community infrastructure levy.

The benefits and opportunities for developers are clear, particularly from the automatic PIP route, but there are a number of considerations and obstacles that will have to be addressed, such as the need for environmental impact assessment, effects on heritage assets, consultation and publicity.