You may have heard about the new legislation released on Tuesday (21.07.20) which introduces new rights to build additional storeys on top of houses. In the case of two storey houses, it permits an additional two storeys to be built, even on a terraced street (existing roof heights permitting).
The relaxation is so far reaching that it seems to have wrong-footed the industry. Up to this point, Permitted Development (PD) has treated the existing ridge height as sacrosanct. We have, in the past, had spirited debates with planning officers about the design of the ridge tile itself. These new regulations completely discard these principles and open up scope for huge upward extensions.
These changes are so extraordinary that it is hard to contemplate their physical manifestation. Box dormers are already the ugly secret that many nice streets hide around their back – are we really talking about two storey lofts, visible from the front? Well, there is a salutary precedent of how this may look. In Haringey, local councillors decided that such extensions were acceptable within a given area. A Google tour of the toast-rack streets south of South Tottenham station will give an impression of how this may look on your street. Incidentally, the new legislation permits these extensions to be self contained flats.
Thankfully, pre-war houses and Conservation Areas are excluded. Thankfully, that is, if you live in a Conservation Area. You may not currently be familiar with where your local Conservation Areas stop and start, but you soon will be. You will come to recognise the areas without such protection by the jetsam of sheds dropped from the sky.
This initiative is designed to side-step the planning system. But the planning system is a public good, a communal means by which we protect ourselves and our environment from abuse. We outsource the protection to the local authority, but it is there for our collective benefit. It is much maligned because it has become terribly unwieldy. I spend much of my professional life navigating development through the planning system. It can be a maddening, Kafkaesque experience that drains resources and saps innovation. It desperately needs an overhaul. It needs to be reprofessionalised, with architects, engineers, conservationists and town planners collaborating within it. It needs to go back to serving the community, rather than frustrating it.
Here’s an alternative model that shows what can be achieved. In Tower Hamlets, residents lobbied the council to relax policies which prevented roof extensions in certain Conservation Areas. These extensions were of normal proportions, fulfilling the usual role of enabling expanding families to stay put. The council commissioned architects to design a prototype mansard, which was eventually adopted as a template. The revised policy allowed residents to replicate the standard loft extension, alongside restoration of front elevations and a small financial contribution. This proactive approach means that homeowners can build the additional space they need, that every new loft in the street matches, and funds are directed to improve the streetscape of the Conservation Area. Everyone benefits, but it does require a little thought, collaboration and investment. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a sustainable win.
The government are right in identifying problems in the planning system, but this is not the correct medicine. Councils are sometimes able to fight back, finding ways to challenge the legislation or prevent it from applying. In this instance, I wish them luck.
Jason Harris, is owner and Principal Architect at T-Space.