Who has control over planning decisions?

The London Borough of Hounslow has just lost a High Court case which goes to the heart of who has control over planning decisions.

Five years ago the Government introduced ‘Permitted Development’ orders which enabled certain building and development works to be carried out without the need for the normal planning process. The rationale was to make it easier for people to be able to extend their homes but also for developers to be able to create new homes in existing buildings such as offices, shops and warehouses. In last week’s Budget the Chancellor announced a £675m fund to help councils transform unused High Street shops and commercial buildings into homes and he said the Government was going to consult on how to simplify the process of converting commercial buildings into homes.

It seems like a great idea when we have a housing crisis and young people find it impossible to make the first step on to the property ladder. Paradigm Land are developers who have taken this opportunity, bought up unused office space and turned it into cheap housing (bearing in mind that everything is relative in property pricing) targeted at young professionals in their twenties and early thirties. They’ve bought a block on the Great West Road, a few hundred yards west of Chiswick roundabout, which overlooks Gunnersbury Park on one side and the M4 on the other. Unsurprisingly they’ve called it Park View (M4 view doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). The one and two bedroom flats went on sale in June, though most of the building work has yet to be done and nearly all the cheapest ones (starting at £270k) have already been sold.

The London Borough of Hounslow has fought the development every step of the way. They refused to grant prior consent for the conversion of the building. The developer appealed and the council’s decision was overturned by a planning inspector. The council then sought to use an Article 4 Direction, a tool that can be used by a Local Planning Authority to remove permitted development rights in a specific geographical area, to remove office to residential rights. The council hoped to reassert its authority over the planning process. Berkshire Assets, part of Paradigm Land, submitted three further prior approval applications for alternative schemes in December last year to maximise use of the space. Hounslow said no. Berkshire Assets took them to court and the judge, Justine Thornton QC, backed the developer.

Why all the fuss? The development may be popular with twenty somethings desperate to own their own space, but it drives a coach and horses through the council’s plan to have office blocks beside the motorway as a barrier for noise and pollution, and residential housing a bit further away. They opposed it on the grounds that people shouldn’t be living in such highly polluted air and that there was insufficient infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure is an interesting one. It didn’t stop the development of the Brentford FC stadium with 740 homes, which relies on the same two stations – Kew Bridge and Gunnersbury. The air pollution is also serious, but the developer is installing an MVHR air conditioning system which filters the air inside the building. The windows facing the M4 don’t open.

In the national debate about such conversions the main concern is that housing which doesn’t need planning permission is going to be bad housing, by definition. I was curious to see whether this was the case at Park View so I went and had a look at the apartments. It isn’t. They’re small, but attractive, well-appointed flats, very well designed to use the space to the absolute maximum. Bypassing the planning process doesn’t preclude the necessity to meet national standards on the amount of space per person and natural light. The developer also has ideas about how to use the space in the building which isn’t suitable for living space, where there isn’t enough natural light. Plans have been on hold until the outcome of this court case was known, but the ideas being kicked around are things like a gym and a climbing wall; a dining area which you can book out for the evening if you have friends over to dinner. They’re trying to put the communal space to good use so the building as a whole is more than a succession of small independent flats. They’re also considering buying some electric cars which would be available to residents to borrow. They call it ‘affordable housing for a co-living generation’. If you’re young and single and looking to get your first job in London, I can see how it might appeal.

If developers such as Paradigm Land create properties which are attractive to their target audience and have Government backing it looks as if we will be seeing a lot more of this sort of development whether the local councils like it or not.