Up in the air: how new policy can help unlock rooftop homes

6th June 2024

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Writing in React News, Fruition Properties CEO, Mani Khiroya, and Land Director, Jon Smart ask could changes to airspace rules unlock residential delivery?

In dense urban conurbations like London, where available development land is scarce and at a premium, airspace development represents a significant opportunity to unlock new housing by building above existing structures. The sector was given a boost in 2020 when the government introduced permitted development rights (PDR), which allowed developers to build up to two additional floors without requiring full planning permission – in theory creating a faster and more efficient process. However, four years on the impact has been limited, with significantly fewer homes delivered than initially anticipated.

In light of this, the government’s most recent consultation on changes to PDR – including aspects directly pertaining to upward extensions – closed last month and could help to accelerate and unlock further airspace delivery by removing certain barriers.

Arbitrary Extensions

There are currently several rules regarding which buildings are excluded from upward PDR – such as those built before 1 July 1948. The consultation questioned whether this should be removed entirely or amended to an alternative date. With the Home Builders Federation reporting that 38% of the UK’s housing stock was built before 1946, we firmly believe that this arbitrary date doesn’t assist the protection of heritage assets. Allowing more buildings, regardless of age, will be a positive step.

The consultation also questioned whether “prior approvals for building upward PDR could be streamlined or simplified”. While introduced in August 2020 to expedite the planning process and speed up housing delivery, current government statistics reveal the legislation has had limited effectiveness to date. New build completions created through this type of PDR stand at just 1,022 for the year 2023.

In addition to this, the government database shows an approval rate of only 43% of applications across local authorities. This is in stark contrast to the delivery of an additional 24,400 new homes delivered through the office to residential PDR over the same period according to government data. Upward PDR is generally agreed to be a more sustainable way to develop, promoting the intensification of a site and not a change from one use to another.

Upward PDR regulations have other exemptions which we believe could be altered to unlock more upward PDR delivery. For example, the arbitrary restriction on a 3km offset from aerodromes, which significantly reduces the scope of buildings in dense metropolitan areas such as London. The broad definition of an “aerodrome” in legislation captures an array of sites, from major airports to small unlicensed grass strips – effectively placing large swathes of land off-limits for development without considering various nuances. This blanket approach is unnecessarily restrictive and stifles housing growth.

The definition is also subject to interpretation by each local authority as to which helipads are classed as aerodromes. For example, London boroughs such as Southwark, Enfield and Camden do not apply the 3km aerodrome rule to hospital helipads, whereas boroughs such as Tower Hamlets and Merton do.

This inconsistency underscores the need for further government guidance to establish a uniform approach among local planning authorities (LPAs). The Association of Rooftop and Airspace Development (ARAD) proposes a more nuanced approach, aligning with the provisions set out in the Town & Country Planning (Safeguarded Aerodromes, Technical Sites & Military Explosives Storage Areas) Direction 2002. By consulting aerodrome operators on developments within safeguarded zones, we can ensure safety without hindering development. This would allow for a case-by-case assessment, rather than a blanket ban, unlocking substantial land for residential development in high-demand urban areas. The planning could simply be conditioned to have this consultation burden placed upon the operators only when the LPA is satisfied with all other material matters.

Airspace Development Industry

There also remain key uncertainties around the recent introduction of the Building Safety Act 2022 and unknown fire safety requirements for working on existing buildings. For new buildings taller than 11m, sprinklers are now mandated in the design. However, it is likely not deliverable to retrofit an entire occupied building. Freeholders generally can carry out works in existing buildings, but it often is not possible to do major alteration work in existing leaseholders’ flats. ARAD believes we should do all we can to improve fire safety whilst respecting that people will live there whilst work is being undertaken.

A sensible approach is to look at each building on its own merits and assess the risk and harm ratio, agreeing upon the extent of the fire safety works which are required for the changes brought about by adding new flats. If not, we will be left with this “all-or-nothing” approach which means we either leave the building in its current status quo, perpetuating issues, or we let the upward PDR development facilitate the improvements of our existing housing stock.

Similarly, since July 2023, new build residential block designs have been mandated to include a second staircase over 18m tall (six storeys). However, it is unclear if this also applies to airspace extensions or not. We will need to see a few sites pass through the new Building Safety Regulator to see how they respond to this ambiguity. How often is there space in existing residential buildings to even consider trying to fit a secondary staircase?

Overall, upward extension PDR embodies the principle of efficiently utilising existing residential and commercial land. If these rights can become more flexible and widely applied, they should incentivise applications to redevelop and densify existing residential plots. While upward extension PDR cannot resolve the housing crisis alone, when properly applied, it represents a step in the right direction to delivering much-needed housing without the need for demolition.

Clarity on the planning and technical requirements for existing buildings really could unlock this sector for the gain of all.

This article first appeared in React News. Fruition Properties is a founder member of ARAD.