There is a scandal happening in towns and cities across the UK. It isn’t new. It’s been happening for years.
Yesterday the Prime Minister announced he was planning to make it even worse.
Social cleansing of our cities is rife and no one seems to care.
Permitted development isn’t sexy. In fact, the policy itself sounds like it might even been a good idea. Take a load of derelict office blocks and turn them into much-needed housing and speed up the planning process.
In fact, while you’re at it, demolish vacant residential and commercial properties like old factories and turn them into housing without planning permission. What’s not to like?
In fact, the prime minister likes it so much that yesterday he announced a widening of permitted development rights to cover the conversion of even more commercial buildings and empty shops into housing.
Apparently councils are blockers when it comes to building homes.
The truth is that permitted development is the worst example of laws with unintended consequences to have been passed in the last five years.
Ever since its inception in 2015, it has been the driving force behind a previously unforeseen social cleansing of boroughs, a displacement of families and an increase in homelessness and social division. It should be ended, not extended.
For those blissfully unaware of what is happening, here’s the reality.
All across the country, there are developers and landlords taking buildings that they can no longer rent out to businesses, and turning them into housing.
They don’t need a single vote from a single councillor in a single planning committee meeting. If they want to do it, they can.
The result is that the conversions are often incredibly poor quality as developers look to divide their floor space into as many studio apartments as possible.
For most of us, we would look at the space and quality of these homes and run a mile from any estate agent offering us the chance to call one our home.
But these developers are far from stupid. Before they press ahead with the conversion, they cosy up to councils who have a desperately long homeless and vulnerable persons list. They offer the councils a quick fix to get their homeless housed but offering entire floors of rooms for rent in these new blocks. Again, doesn’t sound too tragic. Homes for people who need them? What’s not to like?
The unintended consequence comes next. The developers don’t rent the apartments to the local authority where the development lies.
They look for the councils that pay a higher housing benefit who are willing to ship tenants out. For councils that are close to major cities, this is a huge problem.
I’m the Leader of Basildon Council which sits 10 miles outside the border of Greater London. In my borough, once the developers buy up the offices, do a quick and dirty conversion into low quality, cramped flats, they are then leasing them to London councils desperate to find somewhere to place their homeless families.
They can get higher yields from London authorities paying the higher rate of London housing allowance, rather than renting locally. This makes our own local housing problems more acute.
For example, a landlord can earn £161.10 per week in rent for a one-bedroom flat from Basildon Council or they can earn £268.46 per week in rent for the same flat from a London Borough.
Which do you think the landlord is going to go for?
The individuals and families placed in these permitted development conversions are often some of the most difficult to place – they are vulnerable people (including children and young people) and have a high level of need.
In the past four years, there have been more than 1,500 of these households placed in Essex by London and East of England local housing authorities, including almost 2,300 children.
More than three in four of these placements have been into the boroughs of Basildon and Harlow. In the last 4 years, we have had an entire primary school’s worth of children come into the borough.
Our infrastructure cannot cope.
One of the major consequences of bypassing local authority planning committees is that no consideration needs to be taken by the developer of the need to consider the provision of health, education or other facilities.
Councillors are unable to press them for monies to contribute towards the increase in demand on local services which inevitably come under increasing strain.
The families placed suffer from being thrown into unfamiliar surroundings, often far from family and friendship networks.
This is no way to solve our housing crisis – and it is no way to build communities. It is a vicious circle, not a virtuous one.
What is more, in over 50% of cases, my council isn’t even made aware that vulnerable and sometimes dangerous tenants have been moved out of London Boroughs and into my borough.
So much so that unbeknown to my council, we had a situation when two rival London gangs had been moved into the same permitted development block in the borough without Essex police or Basildon Council even knowing.
Meanwhile the developer is long gone, pocketing their money from the London Council’s coffers.
And the knock on effect then spreads further.
Because its not just the permitted development landlords who start to realise they can make a quick buck out of the plight of 55,000 homeless Londoners.
So in the private rented sector, where Basildon Council has spent decades fostering relationships with local landlords to provide housing to local people at social rents, those landlords are now ending their tenancies with Basildon tenants and opting instead to take London tenants for more money.
It means people who have been in their homes for years on social rents are being given the boot, often being made homeless by landlords who realise they can make more cash.
The only recourse then available to Basildon Council is look for accommodation for them further out of London where our housing allowance is comparable to the local levels.
This can mean people who have lived their whole life in Basildon, forced to move to Bradford or Bolsover overnight.
Members of Parliament should be engaged in some socially distanced shouting from the rooftops over any plan to extend permitted development. This needs to be stopped.
Councils should not be able to gain a competitive advantage by being able to pay higher local housing allowances outside of their boroughs.
Developers who engage in Permitted Development must contribute towards infrastructure costs and communication between councils and police forces has to improve before people get hurt or fall through the cracks of an already fragmented system.
This is a genuine scandal. Those who need the security of a home the most are the ones who are being shipped off with a one-way ticket to box rooms, communities in chaos and next door to other vulnerable and sometimes dangerous individuals.
And Boris Johnson’s answer to this utter scandal, is to do more of it.
Gavin Callaghan is the Basidon Council Leader and Labour Councillor for Pitsea North West.