At a time of acute housing shortages, converting unused office buildings into accommodation, as long they are the right buildings in the right place, converted to a decent standard and subject to proper planning scrutiny is some thing I could support. However I am extremely concerned about the detail of the Government’s new proposals for planning reform. Their intention to give developers the opportunity to convert a wider range of commercial buildings into residential housing without the need for planning permission, or indeed any input from local councils, should concern everyone in Harlow.
Conversions like Caridon’s Terminus House have been described callously as “ghettos” by some, “human warehousing” and “rabbit hutch” housing by others: blocks like this are the result of the Tories taking an “axe” to planning legislation in 2013. Old office blocks converted into housing too small to decently house one person, but more than often than not a space that whole families have been forced to move into. I have really felt for these families during lockdown – we have all had to carry a mental strain from staying home for so long but when “home” is less than 18 square metres that mental strain must be incredibly great.
For our part, Harlow Labour, denied any planning control over these “Permitted Developments”, have done everything we can to campaign for both Permitted Development Rights reform and for other councils to stop using converted office blocks in Harlow. We have also done what we can as a council to stop further office block conversions in Harlow.
"For our part, Harlow Labour, denied any planning control over these 'Permitted Developments'..." Councillor Mark Ingall
Before the lockdown, it seemed Robert Halfon and his Conservative colleagues had come round to our view.
In February, in a speech in Parliament, Robert Halfon said: “we must give local authorities stronger powers to shut down these human warehouses and ensure our councils have a say with regards to office-block conversions”; finally joining our calls for reform. Indeed we were beginning to work in a cross-party way on this issue of paramount importance to Harlow.
It is now obvious to everyone, that despite the warm words, the Tories are pursuing the complete opposite. These proposals for an extension to Permitted Development rights will be good news for businesses like Caridon and incredibly bad news for everyone else.
In a report made by the Children’s Commissioner into the issue last year, Harlow was labelled a “hotbed” for office block conversions. This legislation will pave the way for that “hotbed” to reach absolute boiling point and will freeze the council out of being able to do anything about it.
We will continue to fight and campaign against the proposals and we hope the Government will see sense and give councils a say over office-block conversions but I fear our warnings will not be heeded.
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Councillor Danny Purton 1945-2021