The deregulation of planning has often been touted as the way to get housing built and to make the economy vibrant, ‘We must free the market of needless red tape and liberate it from the vicelike grip of faceless grey bureaucrats’; or so the discourse goes. But what gets lost when we pursue deregulation? Is this always the best way forward to build the communities we want to have? In this London Talk we deal with just this issue by asking the question – How does planning deregulation impact neighbourhoods? (Listen to podcast here.)
Our discussion focussed on two instances of partial or full deregulation of planning policy, the partial deregulation of short term letting (STL), which allows residents to rent out part or all of their property for 90 nights in a calendar year without needing to seek planning permission. And the deregulation of office space to residential conversion through Permitted Development Rights (PDR).
We were joined by LSE researcher Alessandra Mossa, who has academic expertise in the deregulation of planning; Dr Ben Clifford of UCL who has done extensive work on PDR conversions; and Gary Bakall, an enforcement officer in Camden, who has worked at the sharp end of these two issues.
We began the evening discussing the recent changes to STL regulation in the capital, which has seen a near exponential rise in the number of properties put on the market for holiday lets. The issue is at its most intense in central London boroughs. Here claims that housing supply is being restricted and amenity is being damaged has led to numerous complaints from residents and considerable lobbying by councillors and officers who fear a rampant market will damage neighbourhoods. Mossa noted that the current regulation, which requires no interaction with local planners is almost impossible to enforce. This was echoed by Camden planner Bakall who explained that attempting to gather evidence on STL was costly in terms of time and resources. However, given the sheer size of the issue in Camden (estimates are that nearly 7000 properties are listed annually in the borough), local housing needs, amenity concerns and neighbourhood complaints they make it a priority. He went on to discuss some of the novel ways they have been trying to collect evidence including new computer software, easy to use complaints procedures for residents and inter borough partnerships.
Office to Residential conversions is the focus of Clifford’s research, conducted for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). His work spanned five Local Authorities (Camden, Croydon, Leeds, Leicester and Reading) in England and illustrated some of the real problems that arise when the conversion of property from one use to the next does not go through the planning system. Whilst the government seems keen to continue and extend this policy, Clifford’s work clearly shows what problem arise for local communities when planning is bypassed. Many of the properties his team reviewed were below space standards (overall rate of just 30% meeting national space standards), some were of very poor quality and most were small flats aimed at young single householders (77% of the units in the case study buildings were studio or one-bedroom flats). In addition to this, the conversions do not contribute to the communities in which they are located (they are exempt from Section 106 payment. Bakall pointed out, because converting an office to a residential unit is so lucrative, Camden has seen a drastic reduction in the amount of office space in the borough, which challenges its ability to create a vibrant employment offer. Worse still, much of the office space lost is smaller and slightly older and therefore serves as incubator space for young companies just starting out.
Our discussions on the evening were lively. We all agreed that some degree of flexibility in the planning system is necessary in order to ensure that creativity and innovation can occur. However, ill-considered deregulation creates a situation where the market acts as the arbiter for community values. The result can be inappropriate and inadequate development that does not meet the needs of the communities it should serve. In the form of STL, it can also impact on what housing is available in areas with high housing need and it can impact on the amenity and daily lives of residents.
More on planning deregulation:
Camden (2018) Planning Enforcement Performance. Report to the planning committee.
Camden (2018) Short term letting and planning permission. Webpage.
Clifford, B. et al. (2018) Assessing the impacts of extending permitted development rights to office-to-residential change in England. Report for RICS.
Holman, N., Mossa, A., & Pani, E. (2018). Planning, value(s) and the market: An analytic for “what comes next?” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(3), 608–626. https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518X17749730
LSE London (2016) Market vs. Planning: is deregulation the answer?