From the 1st of August, developers will be allowed to convert a wide range of business premises into residential apartments and flats.

Office to residential conversions are already allowed under permitted development rights (PDR), but as from 1st August these rights are to be extended to include Covid hit vacant shops, restaurants and gyms.

There are of course some safeguards. To be eligible for these conversion rights, developer’s proposals must meet specific limitations and conditions set in the legislation. In some cases a prior approval application is required and even where a scheme meets all the PDR criteria developers can ensure that a scheme is lawful by applying to the planning authority for a lawful development certificate (LDC). In all cases initial consultations with local planners is essential.

The move to relax restrictions on conversions through PDRs, it is hoped, will help regenerate Covid hit town and city centres that will struggle to recover during and after the pandemic.

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However, a recent study by insurers Zurich UK warns that some of these conversations are likely to lead to poor quality housing which not only fail to meet recognised space requirements, they will be vulnerable to overheating in summer.

With housing provision high on the political agenda, reforming the planning system has been a recurring theme over recent years with extensions of permitted development rights introduced in 2005, 2010, 2013 and 2015 and now in 2021.

A recent research report published by RICS has highlighted the benefits but also the problems introduced by extending permitted development rights. By having building conversions proceed without formal planning approval in England it limits planning authorities control.

Of five local authorities studied by RICS, with high rates of permitted development schemes, Camden, Croydon, Leeds, Leicester and Reading, including site visits to 568 buildings, inconsistencies were found in the quality of developments. RICS found that only 30% of conversions delivered through PDR met national space standards.

While the chartered surveyor’s body did find examples of “extremely high-quality housing conversions”, there were also examples with “no amenity space, low quality design and were poor locations for residential amenity.”

The study concluded that office-to-residential conversions under PDR had produced a higher number of poor quality housing than those governed through full planning permission.

The Zurich UK study warns that the drive to convert more town and city centre commercial space into residential housing risks creating more poor quality homes that are vulnerable to overheating in the summer.

The company fears that “A rush to redevelop shops and offices left empty by the pandemic could create a swathe of sub-standard homes that are vulnerable to climate change.”

Zurich thinks the problem could be so severe that small self-contained bedsits and studio flats in particular “could potentially become uninhabitable during increasingly hot summers.”

Warning that properties in built-up areas, towns and cities, are affected by what is termed the “urban heat island” effect, where temperatures are much hotter than suburban and rural outlying areas. There is also the danger in some locations of flash flooding as we have seen in recent weeks, caused by heavy downpours on mainly paved, tarmacked and concrete surfaces.

Tony Mulhall, associate director of the land professional group at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors say:

“The post-Covid city may need to quickly adapt to new modes of behaviour, which could see many building types adapted for purposes not originally intended.”

According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the independent body which advises the government on climate change, says that already 20% of homes in the UK are susceptible to overheating. This, the organisation warns will result in a tripling of the heat related death toll by 2050 as temperatures continue to climb.

According to the Zurich UK study, over 64,700 flats have been converted from unused offices in the last five years and between January and March this year, applications for office-to-residential conversions in England have risen by 28%, to a three-year high.

Developers are currently buying up office blocks which have been left vacant by an exodus of workers from city centres and which are now ripe for conversion to residential. The conversions typically have large windows, but no air conditioning. If all the windows face south, it can create a sweltering flats, with no escape from the heat.

A government spokeswoman for Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) has refuted some of Zurich’s claims, arguing that the claims are based on unfounded assumptions and that homes delivered through PDR have continued to make an important contribution to housing delivery.

“Our reforms will transform unused buildings into much-needed new homes, and all new homes must be of high quality and meet national space standards and building regulations, including ventilation requirements,” the spokeswoman said.

Mr Mulhall for RICS has said that the changes to PDR mean:

“A generation of hermetically sealed commercial buildings may now fall into this category to be repurposed for housing, needing to satisfy a completely different set of standards.”

Adding that energy poverty may mean that some residents cannot afford to heat their homes during the winter, “The other increasing concern is residential buildings which, due to increased natural temperatures, are tending to overheat,” he said.

Those flats developed out of a commercial buildings, from a large square floor-plates, often have only one facing aspect and no outside space which this means they can’t get the cooling effect of a good through-draught.

Zurich says it wants ministers to look at ways to climate-proof buildings, including cooling measures in flat conversions. Fitting heat-reflecting windows, installing window shutters and sunshades and using reflective surfaces and improved ventilation systems are suggested solutions.

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