Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones has called on the government to scrap “permitted development” rules which allow developers to convert offices into the “slums of the future” without the consent of local councils.
Even though Croydon’s Labour-run council blocked further permitted development in the town centre from 2014, official figures show that the borough has the biggest number of conversions in the country, with almost 500 in the last year alone.
Some of those have been commissioned by the council itself, as it has bought up disused office blocks in Thornton Heath and Norbury to convert for homeless people who would otherwise have to stay in B&B temporary accommodation. Alison Butler, the Labour council’s cabinet member for housing, recently told a Town Hall meeting that the council is considering further such conversions.
Nationally, 54,000 housing units have been created from office conversions since 2010. Government figures show there were 494 office to residential property conversions in Croydon in 2018-2019.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday Jones, Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, criticised the Tory government for letting unscrupulous developers bypass council planning rules and affordable housing requirements.
Permitted development rights were introduced by the Tories in 2013 ostensibly to boost housing supply. In fact, they have given their developer mates – some of whom have been enthusiastic donors to the Conservative Party – free rein to make massive profits by exploiting the demand for homes. What has resulted is thousands of “rabbit hutch” properties just a few feet wide in former office blocks, and unsuitable buildings with numerous health and safety failings.
Research for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors found that 7 out of 10 permitted development properties fail to meet national space standards. It has been shown that Croydon has the country’s smallest such flats.
An investigation into permitted development last year discovered flats in Purley measuring just 9m² converted from offices, and residents living in “psychological torture” in the former BT headquarters in central Croydon – Delta Point – due to lack of soundproofing, running water or ventilation.
Bypassing planning requirements also gives developers a “get out clause” from affordable housing requirements, with the Local Government Association predicting that more than 10,000 affordable homes have been lost nationally as a result.
The Labour Party has committed to ending the ability of developers to convert non-residential buildings such as offices, storage units and industrial buildings into homes without receiving proper planning permission. These types of development would be possible under a Labour Government, and many will be encouraged, but developers will need to get planning permission in the usual way.
“Permitted development is a symptom of our broken housing system,” Jones said.
“It was sold by the Conservatives as a solution to the housing crisis, but the reality is people in Croydon stuck in poor quality, rabbit hutch housing and developers dodging their affordable housing obligations.
“To fix the housing crisis, we need more genuinely affordable, high-quality homes. This Conservative housing free-for-all gives developers a free hand to build what they want but ignore what local communities need.
“Labour would give local people control over the housing that gets built in their area and ensure developers build the low-cost, high-quality homes that the country needs.”
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