Central Croydon has been blighted not only by a seemingly endless wait for Westfield, but also by what has been described as “probably the worst housing policy mistake in the post-war era”, as BARRATT HOLMES reports
Croydon was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons once again over the festive season, with the Financial Times, not a publication known for sensationalising its coverage of issues, focusing on the high proportion of often low-quality office-to-residential conversion blocks in the town centre.
And all under the headline: “‘Slums of the future?’ UK office-to-homes policy sparks fears”.
Permitted Development Rights is a Conservative government policy which sought to set-aside the kind of planning controls that had been developed over more than a century to try to ensure that homes were fit for habitation. In certain instances, it has stripped local authorities of their planning powers, but left them to deal with the costs and consequences arising from such developments.
Permitted Development allows old office blocks to be refitted for residential accommodation with few strictures under normal planning laws, little by way of demands to deliver “affordable” housing, and rarely any contributions to the community infrastructure.
It’s basically a charter for massive profits for property speculators and overseas investors.
The resulting flats were described as “the slums of the future” by Croydon Labour councillors before they took charge of the Town Hall five years ago.
Once in office, Croydon’s Labour council put a stop to any more Permitted Developments – PDs or PDRs – in the town centre.
But the council still has to cope with the social impact of the high density of under-sized apartments which were converted from offices between 2013 and 2015.
In a little more than two years, Croydon Council estimates that planning approval was rushed through for a total of 2,700 homes via office conversions. In 2015-2016, Department for Communities and Local Government figures show that Croydon delivered mores homes via PD – almost 600 – than any other local authority in England.
Nationally, more than 42,000 homes have been converted from offices under PD in the past three financial years, according to government figures. About one-third of office-to-residential conversions have been in London — with more in Croydon than any other borough, government data shows.
There are other impacts, too. In those two years when PD was allowed, Croydon lost an estimated 100,000 sq m of employment floor space in the town centre because of prior approvals granted, some of it high-quality offices.
The FT article quotes Hugh Ellis, the interim CEO of the Town and Country Planning Association (so someone who should know about these things), as saying that PD is “probably the worst housing policy mistake in the post-war era”.
As a result of allowing developers to bypass normal planning rules, many of the homes that have gone ahead under the Tories’ “light-touch” process are well below the space and design standards that would normally be required.
In one plan submitted by a property developer in Croydon under PD, they wanted to create two apartments each totalling about 9 sq m — each one-third the size of a typical Travelodge room.
Developers merely have to demonstrate to planning officers that the scheme will not have a negative impact in terms of flooding, highways, noise and contamination. In removing the need for planning permission, the government also removed councils’ ability to extract developer contributions for affordable housing or infrastructure.
“Left to their own devices, real estate investors will see opportunities to deliver cheap, profitable developments to low standards,” Ellis told the FT.
“We need to bring back minimum standards in design for housing, like rooms with windows, children having some play space, and basic standards of energy efficiency. I would not have thought we would need to campaign for that in the 21st century.”
Everywhere you look in central Croydon, there seems to be an office block which has been, or is being, converted into flats.
Green Dragon House on the High Street was converted by Inspired Homes, a developer who has been behind several schemes in Croydon. It was Green Dragon House which, while building works were on-going, plastered its windows with “Vote Barwell” and “Vote Conservative” posters during the 2015 General Election campaign. They clearly know which side their bread was buttered…
When making the conversion, it emerged that under PD the developers were allowed to remove one of the building’s two staircases – required under fire safety regulations for office use – in order that they might squeeze in another couple of apartments.
Inspired Homes say that they specialise in “micro-apartments”, which are typically smaller than the minimum national space standards.
“By going smaller, the flats are more affordable,” was a claim made by Inspired’s marketing manager Alexei Ghavami in an interview in 2017. “When permitted development launched in 2013, it created that opportunity.”
In Central Cross, further down the High Street, Inspired offers some imaginative solutions to the issues of size and space.
The former office block is now 82 flats, the smallest measuring 29.9 sq m. The minimum size for a one-bed apartment in the DCLG’s space standards is 39 sq m.
“We normally recommend folding furniture,” Inspired’s resourceful marketing manager Ghavami said.
From the windows of some of the newly converted flats in Innova House, you can probably see straight into the offices of the council’s planning department on the other side of the Croydon Flyover.
Innova is Inspired Homes’ latest development, where the first phase of flats have already sold out and one-bed apartments are being flogged off for £280,000. They are being enthusiastically marketed to Chinese property investors, who are being promised a 4 per cent yield on their money, guaranteed over five years.
Whatever this Tory-backed, Tory-backing permitted development scheme is, it is not something which will resolve London’s homelessness crisis.
The Financial Times spoke to residents who have been forced to rent flats in one Croydon office conversion. One mother is paying £1,000 per month for a flat for her and her two children to live in. “It’s terrible. There is no ventilation and we only have one window that opens. The apartment is very small,” she told the FT. “I’m not sure it’s safe.”
The mother lives in the block on Sydenham Road which saw the developer, AA Homes, recently subjected to a hefty fine under Croydon Council’s landlord licensing scheme for failing to meet minimum fire safety standards (the owner, Anwar Ansari, maintains that all fire safety work has been completed to a required standard).
The FT even spoke to Paul Scott, the chair of Croydon’s planning committee from May 2014 to November 2018. “We are seeing hundreds of substandard units in what were already fairly poor-quality office buildings. To pretend that this is somehow responding positively to the housing crisis is a farce,” Scott said.
Croydon Labour’s position on PD is hardly consistent, however. Toni Letts, Scott’s successor as chair of the planning committee, recently risked prejudicing her position and her committee’s decisions when she spoke at the launch of one of the largest office-to-residential conversion schemes in the borough, on behalf of a developer who has further schemes in the planning pipeline.
Not content with the evidence of the housing and social issues created by their PD policy, the Tory government now wants to remove even more planning constraints on property owners and developers. Under a consultation ending this month, ministers propose another extension to enable commercial buildings to be knocked down and replaced with housing without planning permission. Takeaway restaurants could be turned into homes through PD, according to the Tories.
“By introducing additional permitted development rules we’re providing flexibility, reducing bureaucracy and making the most effective use of existing buildings,” is the position of the Tory housing minister, Kit Malthouse.
So that’s alright then. Trebles all-round!
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