Lessons learned in the United Kingdom
In the UK, the last decade has witnessed a seemingly endless programme of reform and deregulation of the planning system in an attempt to solve its housing crisis. As with the recent RMA Amendment Act overriding the tier 1 councils and imposing increased housing requirements, the UK reforms have seen the government centralise planning for housing and take powers away from councils and their planners.
Not all these changes have worked out well. One of the key reforms has been a dramatic expansion of permitted development rights (PDR). This is where the government consents a wide variety of development without the need for full permission from the local council.
These PDR reforms concentrate on converting existing buildings into homes – offices, cafes, shops, warehouses, agricultural buildings ... even casinos! At the same time, it reduces council powers to technical considerations such as flood risk, highways or noise impacts, side-lining design, amenity and whether the location is appropriate.
Opening the door to unfit housing
To be fair, the approach has clear advantages – certainty for developers and the environmental benefit of re-using existing buildings. However, the rush for change has also led to some very poor outcomes.
Research shows that from 2015–18 only 22% of homes created via the PDR meet nationally described space standards. This compares to 73% of homes created via traditional planning permission.² PDR developments were described as “having led directly to the creation of slum housing” in a 2020 report by UK planning charity the Town and Country Planning Association.³ An example of how horribly wrong it can go occurred in 2019 when consent was granted to convert an industrial building into 15 studio flats, seven of which had no windows.⁴
Increasing urban density offers many benefits, but it's vitally important to ensure occupants who live in these dwellings have access to services and green spaces, especially occupants on lower incomes who are more likely to have limited outdoor space and rely on public transport. This proved especially true during lockdown when the local park became a lifeline for people wanting accessible green spaces.
Sustainable concepts such as the 15-minute city, where residents can access local services close to their homes, will not be possible if housing intensification happens in the wrong place.
Think carefully about reforms
Ministers in the UK have taken an unfortunate attitude to such concerns. Rather than think ahead and address these frankly foreseeable issues, lawmakers have stubbornly pushed on with further reforms, only rowing back when they meet sustained opposition.⁵ Of course, by then it’s too late. A series of poor-quality developments have already gone ahead and the damage is done.
In New Zealand, where our housing market is so hot it leaves buyers with little choice, planners are one of the few bulwarks against poor-quality housing. As our urban forms evolve, affected councils must think carefully about the planning powers they still have and try to use them to ensure new housing is of the highest standard and communities develop sustainably. Otherwise, Aotearoa may be left with its own 21st Century slums.
1 Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021
2 Research into the quality standard of homes delivered through change of use permitted development rights. Clifford, Canelas, Ferm, Livingstone, Lord and Dunning. 2020. p10.
3 Planning 2020 ‘One Year On’ – 21st Century Slums? Raynsford Review of Planning in England. TCPA. 2020, p11.