Britain’s housing crisis came into stark focus during the pandemic. Existing divides between homeowners (usually over the age of 65) and those in insecure, rented housing became magnified. Sudden job losses due to coronavirus meant that many struggled to pay rent and now face homelessness, while others with the capital to buy a house enjoyed government mandated perks such as mortgage holidays and a tax break in the form of a Stamp Duty reduction.
Housing didn’t become a problem during COVID – it’s a crisis that has been building for years, thanks to poor housing policy. Thatcherite policies like right-to-buy created a huge deficit in social housing, while also turning homes into assets. Since then, successive governments have failed to build new homes. This means that many in the UK are trapped in the cycle of renting, unable to save enough money to get on the property ladder. The solution? Build more houses.
This June, Boris Johnson stood behind a podium emblazoned with the words “Build, Build, Build”, promising, it seemed, to do exactly that. Among a number of policies announced – some involving affordable housing – was a plan to extend something called Permitted Development Rights (PDR). The extension of these rights, set to become legislation in September, allows property developers to turn empty office blocks or commercial spaces into flats without obtaining planning permission.
This may sound like a great way to use up empty office space and accelerate the building of new homes. However, scratch below the surface and you’ll find that it’s one of the most worrying changes to building policy in recent years. PDR bypasses many of the building requirements that ensure homes are suitable to live in – mainly, that they’re big enough. Houses built under the relaxed PDR rules only need to be 157 square-foot – a lot smaller than the 538 square-foot homes currently require to comply with nationally defined space standards. Indeed, the policy drew wide criticism from housing bodies such as the UK Green Building Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects, while MP Nick Raynsford warned the it could produce “slum housing”. Under PDR, developers are also not required to fulfil any affordable housing quotas.
Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, told VICE News: "It makes sense to look at ways to turn old offices into homes, but the government’s plan to rip up the rule book is a disaster waiting to happen. We already know giving developers free rein to bypass planning rules results in slum-like blocks not fit for human habitation.”
“Bad housing also results in bad health, higher crime rates and utter misery for the families forced to live in it,” she adds. “So why on earth would the government want to see even more of these shoddy, shoe-box homes built?”
How bad would these PDR flats, built on high streets and in office blocks, actually look? With the help of illustrator Owain Anderson, we created three visualisations of what PDR regulation homes could look like.
A normal flat (right), compared to one built under PDR (left)
A close-up of a 157-square-foot PDR flat
Just to show how small a flat built under PDR really is, here it is with three grand pianos in
And if you tried to swing a cat in it, you would struggle
Neate says that the government should be focussing its housing efforts elsewhere to help Brits during the pandemic. “Permitted developments mean developers can get out of building any social housing at all,” says Neate. “We desperately need more secure social homes, not fewer – especially when a new and devastating recession is thundering our way.”
“Instead of green-lighting the creation of poor-quality homes, the government should be helping our communities to recover from this pandemic by building safe, decent, and genuinely affordable social homes."