On Monday night (22nd April 2013), the House of Lords passed the amended Growth and Infrastructure Bill. The bill, which had narrowly avoided defeat in the Commons the week before, is, for the purpose of this post, better understood as the Permitted Development Bill.
The Government, under the auspices of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles, has for a long time now been trying to ‘Get Britain Building’. This jingoistic programme of house building, which actually involves not a lot of house building, has been superseded by ‘Get England Extending’, with a planned extension of Permitted Development (PD) rights that would allow extensions (plus, as the Daily Telegraph seems to insist on reminding us all, conservatories) of 8m (detached properties) and 6m (semi and terraced properties) without the need for planning permission.
Quite why the Government believes a temporary (3 year) extension of PD rights will a) solve the housing shortage crisis and b) solve the economy is beyond me, but I’m sure someone somewhere else has solved this conundrum. The point of this post is to look at the amendments to the bill and work out what they actually mean.
In the Commons, the main grounds for objection to the previous bill was that it would lead to unsightly extensions that neighbours could do nothing about. It was precisely this concern, therefore, that Mr Pickles has attempted to allay with his amendments, principally by introducing a “new light-touch neighbours’ consultation scheme”. Now this is where it all gets interesting.
The scheme will work as follows:
- Homeowners wishing to build extensions under the new powers would notify their local council with the details.
- The council would then inform the adjoining neighbours – this already happens for planning applications.
- If no objections are made to the council by the neighbours within a set period, the development can proceed.
- If objections are raised by neighbours, the council will consider whether the development would have an unacceptable impact on neighbours’ amenity.
- This is a form of ‘prior approval’ process which allows for consideration by ward councillors, and (if the council wishes) by a Planning Committee.
- There will be no fee for householders to go through this process.
The letter to Parliament explaining the scheme suggests that it is truly the best of both worlds – when that world is a Conservative housing policy – since it cuts red tape and strengthens localism. Whether you believe such paragons of policy are progress or not is irrelevant, since the amendments spectacularly fail to achieve both.
By allowing neighbours to object to potential extensions, and it’s important to remember here that we are talking about extensions under Permitted Development i.e. extensions that one can legally do without planning permission, the Government is paying lip-service to the idea that the neighbours’ opinions will change the end result. They will not.
It simply doesn’t matter if a neighbour objects to an extension on grounds of design, materials, style etc – if the extension meets PD criteria (which is more or less solely concerned with size) the ward councillors will be obliged to give “prior approval”. Ugliness is inconsequential when it comes to this policy.
There are, of course, exceptions when a) the homes are listed or in a conservation area or b) the extension infringes on the neighbour’s right to light, however these exceptions have always existed.
But the letter mentions “amenity” you might say, and you would be wright. The letter does state that “the council will consider whether the development would have an unacceptable impact on neighbours’ amenity”. The important point here is the word “unacceptable” – unacceptable to whom? No doubt many of these large extensions will be unacceptable to said neighbours, but they are unlikely to be unacceptable to ward councillors who are, to a certain extent, obligated to fulfil council policy.
The point of this policy was to speed up and increase building, that is why the amendment allowing councils to exclude themselves from it was defeated. It is viewed as a policy of national economic interest.
I believe the amendments are simply there to legitimise larger extensions in the eyes of the wider public. By forcing councils to confirm the more contentious projects, it closes the door on neighbourly protest. The fact that there is no mention in the letter of an applicants right-to-appeal, like there would be in the normal planning process, again suggests that “prior approval” is simply a forgone conclusion, a rubber-stamping process.
So once again it seems that a national, top-down policy has been unsuccessful in delivering localism. Who’d of thought? What the policy has been successful in, however, is taking red tape and wrapping it round and round a previously straight-forward part of planning policy. If I am wrong, and neighbours’ amenity will be fiercely protected, it still does not hide the fact that by introducing a neighbours’s consultation scheme, whether it is “light-touch” or not, Mr Pickles has introduced a whole new layer of tape to a policy that was designed to not have any at all.
The whole point of PD is that there was minimal room for manoeuvre; a strict set of changes you could make to your house without planning permission, regardless of objections. If you now allow people to object, which then has to involve ward councillors, and potentially the planning committee, it seems to me that you’ve managed to come up with a rebranded version of planning permission, albeit without a fee.
The benefits to increasing PD allowances are unknown, and the point of this post was not to try and support or disparage the policy either way; the point was to highlight the total fudge that has been made of it. The policy has changed so much that it no longer achieves the primary point of it’s being, and does in fact complicate what was a previously understood process. Cross party back benchers have been successful in permitting Mr Pickles to do not a lot, and development, rightly or wrongly, has certainly been put on hold.