Planning for the future: A Sutton Storey

“Permitted development rights allowing upwards extensions offer opportunities for creativity,” says Gary Hoban – but with freedom comes responsibility

As anticipated, the recent extensions to permitted development rights (or PDRs, as part of the government’s wider shake up of UK planning), has caused an avalanche of debate.

Without rehashing all the points raised, the extremes of opinion fall into two camps.  

According to government, housing minister Robert Jenrick and many developers, extended PDRs will free up vital new sites to deliver vital new homes, making it easier for people (particularly younger people), to get on the coveted housing ladder.

RICS, CIOB and RIBA on the other hand have multilaterally denounced the extensions, framing them as an accelerated race to the bottom in terms of housing size and quality. The naysayers’ cups overflowed when, on the day the changes were announced, it transpired the government had pushed for the extensions in the face of its research commissioned through UCL and the University of Liverpool. The report found that only 22 per cent of PDR dwellings developed between 2015 and 2018 met the nationally prescribed space standards – compared to 73 per cent of units created through full planning permission.  

“Fast-tracking new storeys to an existing residential block is usually more complicated than a developer may first anticipate”

As a director at a commercial firm of residential architects, I can’t help but feel caught up somewhere in the middle, so rather than contribute to more conjecture, I’m going to focus on a recent project we led on for social landlord client Sutton Housing Society, in Sutton, south west London.

As part of its development pipeline, in 2019, Sutton identified five dated 1970s tower blocks for ‘airspace’ development – building new storeys on top of existing dwellings, a key liberalised element of the extended PDRs moving forward.

This involved submitting five (now successful), separate planning applications under the old rules, and will result in 71 new homes for mostly older people, built on top of existing dwellings.

This project has given us a timely opportunity to reflect on what impact the PDR extensions may have had on this project.

First off, I think it’s important to emphasise that fast-tracking new storeys to an existing residential block is usually more complicated than a developer may first anticipate.

Adding anything more than one storey to a building will most likely require new structural support to sustain the increased load, as well as new lift and stairs access as well as fire escapes. Until we see the detail of the new PDRs, these should all still require formal planning consent.

In this case Sutton Housing Society took the opportunity to improve the fifty-year-old buildings as part of the design to accommodate these additions. This involved new facades, windows and improved communal facilities, creating a more desirable environment for the existing residents and the neighbouring community.

This was very much driven by Sutton Housing Society, and I certainly think that more emphasis will be placed on developers and their designers maintaining the design quality of new homes.

This is particularly true of two-storey additions where the impact on the street scene can be considerable.

One-storey extensions can be more readily visually accommodated as ‘penthouse’ levels, but creating a cohesive design with two storeys is a challenge. In short: the building has to look balanced.

This issue was certainly prevalent on this project, as an application for a two-storey extension on a two-storey building was rejected, with a single storey finally approved.

It’s my professional opinion that the two-storey approach was suitable for the site and surroundings, as the building was wide and low, but its proximity to a tall, adjacent church caused the council concern.

“If this project was started today the developer’s perception of ‘sensible’ would be vital” 

The proposed extension would most likely have been accepted under the new rules, delivering Sutton a further six homes, but the responsibility would lie with the developer to manage the visual impact.

This shift in emphasis from the council to the developer will undoubtedly offer ample opportunity for creativity and high quality design, but with freedom comes responsibility.

Sutton Housing Society was very clear in what it considered to be a ‘sensible’ housing density, but we were still able to exceed the client’s housing yield by 6 per cent under the old rules. If this project was started today the developer’s perception of ‘sensible’ would be vital, as the temptation could be to go for as high a density as possible.

Not everyone in the industry will take this sensible view, and this could certainly be to the detriment of aesthetics, the quality of life of existing residents, or the design and size of the new homes.

So, moving forward, I would hope that the new PDRs will mean a positive mindset shift towards allowing two-storey extensions, and that local authority planning control can still be exercised on such developments to promote cohesive and considered design, where permission is needed for ancillary elements to support them.

For more information, please use the following link to access the article: https://www.theplanner.co.uk/opinion/planning-for-the-future-a-sutton-storey