Paciencia Obama Bindang has struggled to feel at home in her first London apartment.
Arriving in the UK capital from Spain in search of work two months ago, the Guinean national moved with her two children into the first home they could find: a £1,000-a-month flat in a converted office block in the south London borough of Croydon.
“It’s terrible. There is no ventilation and we only have one window that opens. The apartment is very small,” said Ms Obama Bindang, 31, who works as a housekeeper. “I’m not sure it’s safe.”
The building in Croydon’s central business district, where Ms Obama Bindang rents one of 54 flats, was converted under a planning exemption the government introduced in 2013.
But critics say the provision, which ministers want to expand, has undermined key aspects of a system built up over more than 100 years to prevent dwellings that are unsafe or unfit for habitation.
Ministers expanded so-called “permitted development rights” (PDRs) five years ago to enable office buildings to be converted to housing with no need for planning permission, in an attempt to push forward construction of new homes.
More than 42,000 homes have been converted from offices under the provision in the past three financial years, according to government figures, while the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) estimates there were about 95,000 PDR conversions from 2010 to 2017.
In 2017-18, such conversions helped to push new home construction up to 222,190, a 10-year high, government figures show.
Croydon leads the way
About a third of office-to-residential conversions have been in London — with more in Croydon than any other borough, government data show. Another third are in metropolitan areas, including Manchester, Bradford and Leeds, while the rest are in rural counties.
Paul Scott, Croydon’s council cabinet member responsible for planning and regeneration, said: “It’s totally unreasonable, and unprecedented in all other aspects of planning, to be able to build whatever you want. We are seeing units with no windows — we are building the slums of the future in Croydon now.
“We are seeing hundreds of substandard units in what were already fairly poor quality office buildings. To pretend that this is somehow responding positively to the housing crisis is a farce.”
Croydon, known for its ageing office stock, has seen thousands of new homes created under permitted development rights. From 2015, the council used its powers to override the PDR provision so that office-to-residential conversions once again needed permission. But plans already rushed through will ultimately result in 2,708 new homes.
Not all are of poor quality. One development, Green Dragon House, has won multiple awards. But at 5 Sydenham Road, the building where Ms Obama Bindang lives, the London Fire Brigade in late 2017 found serious fire safety breaches including a locked fire escape, poor ventilation and defective fire doors. It later said those problems had been resolved.
Only 14 of the 54 apartments in the block meet space standards normally enforced through the planning system, according to a Rics report on permitted development rights. There is no communal space, the report said, and the quality of the interior finish is “extremely poor”, including dangling wires.
Many of the windows do not open, in keeping with an office building designed to be used with air conditioning — but air conditioning was not available to residents, Ms Obama Bindang said.
AA Homes and Housing, which converted and still owns the building, did not respond to requests for comment. Anwar Ansari, its managing director, has previously told Inside Housing: “PDR has been a fantastic opportunity. It’s become a starter home for people — a replacement for affordable housing . . . If we had to go through planning, we wouldn’t be able to get funding to do the developments.”
Under a consultation ending in January, ministers propose another extension to enable commercial buildings to be knocked down and replaced with housing without planning permission. They also suggest takeaway restaurants could be turned into homes through PDRs.
Kit Malthouse, the UK’s housing minister, said: “We’re committed to speeding up the planning system to help deliver the homes the country needs. By introducing additional permitted development rules we’re providing flexibility, reducing bureaucracy and making the most effective use of existing buildings.”
Is it the ‘worst housing policy mistake’ since the war?
Hugh Ellis, interim chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, a group that campaigns for planning reform, said ministers should reverse course.
Expanding permitted development was “probably the worst housing policy mistake in the postwar era”, he argued. “Left to their own devices, real estate investors will see opportunities to deliver cheap, profitable developments to low standards.
“We need to bring back minimum standards in design for housing, like rooms with windows, children having some play space, and basic standards of energy efficiency. I would not have thought we would need to campaign for that in the 21st century.”
Alison Butler, Croydon’s council cabinet member for homes, said that another “crazy” plan submitted in Croydon under permitted development would result in two apartments each totalling about nine square metres — each a third of the size of a typical Travelodge hotel room.
Ms Obama Bindang said she hoped soon to move her family elsewhere. Meanwhile another resident of a Croydon PDR conversion suggested to Rics a more radical solution to preventing such developments.
“The politicians who allowed this need to come and live here,” the person said. “It’s a total nightmare.”