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Shun work arising from misguided office to residential policy

Ben Derbyshire

Misery for residents and profiteering for developers unleashed by change of use

At this year’s Civic Voice conference, one of the audience asked the panel for advice about solutions to the growing problem of transient populations in areas where homes are being converted from offices. Don’t blame the people, I replied – blame the policy.

The coalition government introduced a range of change-of-use permitted development rights including conversion of commercial buildings to residential. These came into force in April 2016, unleashing a disastrous, unintended tide of profiteering by developers and misery for residents of their projects.
Government planning statistics reveal that in the year to June 2018, 5,400 applications were for changes to residential use, of which 3,700 were allowed without going through the full planning process. There is no indication of the resulting number of individual ‘dwellings’ but the total will be many times larger – 40-50,000 is not an unreasonable guess.

The government impact assessment for this policy predicted there would be little uptake, it would be cost neutral, it would save local authority planning department resources and that housing in unsustainable locations was unlikely. How could this assessment have been so totally wrong? 

Research led by Ben Clifford from UCL shows this policy has brought a wave of extremely poor quality housing that does little other than enrich unscrupulous developers. I have seen plans with ‘studio flats’ of just 13.2m2 and the UCL research reports an overall rate of just 30% meeting nationally described space standards, with no access to private or communal amenity space. Homes have been dumped in the middle of industrial estates or next to some of the busiest, most polluted roads in the country. There was direct evidence of the profitability of conversions for developers and land owners, but little sign of contribution to the public infrastructure needed for this additional housing. The consequence must surely be a heavy burden on social services and health departments, owing to the stressful circumstances in which people are being forced to live.


We should boycott this dreadful policy, turn down commissions that involve the creation of such poor living conditions

I have no objection to ‘micro flats’ provided they are well designed, their clientele is carefully selected, there is a management regime to support them and good facilities in the neighbourhood. But I object in principle to projects that are not subject to any sensible consideration of the human condition of their occupants and yet are enabled by this profoundly misguided and shortsighted policy.

The call to end this egregious and exploitative loophole in the planning system is one of the key asks in a new document from the RIBA Expert Advisory Group on Housing. Together with case studies of RIBA award-winning housing projects, it shows how good new housing developments can be when you combine a talented architect and a responsible and enlightened developer. 

Clifford’s UCL research concludes that developers’ agents should provide robust advice about this, particularly if there are professional conduct and ethics implications.  I would like to think that RIBA members would offer such advice based on evidence that already exists and turn down commissions that involve the creation of such poor living conditions. We should boycott it, campaign against it, and lobby with research-based evidence that will lead, ultimately, to the repeal of this dreadful policy. 

The commitment shared by all five architecture institutes of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, to strive to put the public interest at the forefront of all we do, will, I hope, result in a stronger Code of Professional Conduct and Code of Practice. I look forward to the outcomes of our Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission as well as the Conduct Review working group, which I hope will rule out our involvement in such poor projects.

A Home for All

‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’ – Berhold Lubetkin, 1946. A small but perfectly formed display of material from the RIBA Collections is on show in the RIBA gallery at the V&A until 26 May. A Home for All: Six Experiments in Social Housing delves into five pioneering projects from the 20th century and one that is currently under way. The display highlights the role and philosophy of the architect behind each scheme.