Out-Law News 2 min. read

High Court judge dismisses office-to-home challenge by London boroughs

The Government's procedure in deciding which areas to exempt from recently introduced permitted development rights allowing offices to be transformed into homes without planning permission was fair, a High Court judge has decided . 

The judge dismissed a joint challenge by the London Boroughs of Islington, Camden, Richmond upon Thames and Lambeth to the Secretary of State's (SoS) decision not to grant exemptions to areas within their boroughs from the new permitted development rights which came into force on 30 May last year.

Following an application procedure, areas within 17 local authorities were granted exemption, including the Central Activities Zone (CAZ) and Tech City in London, as well as areas in the Isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone.

As part of the challenge, the four boroughs said that the Government had failed to inform them of the way in which their applications would be assessed and that the procedure was therefore unfair and unlawful.

The judge said that a statement by the SoS in September 2012 and a letter from the Government's Chief Planner to all planning officers sent in January last year gave "sufficient information to enable all applicants to appreciate what had to be established to obtain an exemption and the need to provide clear and cogent evidence to justify the grant of an exemption".

The judge said that, although it "would have been sensible" for the SoS to have worked out in advance how applications were to be assessed and to have given that information to local planning authorities, the failure to do so was "not to be equated to unfairness justifying a decision that what was done was unlawful".

The judge added that he could "well understand" the concerns by the councils which had led to the claim and that he found the lack of any requirement for affordable housing under the new rights "worrying". However, he said that those were not matters which could "lead to the grant of relief on the claimed basis of unfairness in the process for seeking exemptions".

"This Government policy has created a reckless free-for-all in the planning system - we are very concerned about its impact and so we are disappointed by the outcome of this case," said Islington Council's executive member for housing and development James Murray in a statement.

"The loss of all these offices is damaging our local economy and it's not producing the sort of homes we need. There is no control over the quality or size of the new flats, and they don't include any affordable housing at all - a fact the judge felt was worrying and that we know is very bad news for Islington," Murray said.

Lambeth Council leader Lib Peck said that the Council was "very disappointed" at the judge's decision. "This policy threatens jobs in our town centres, and will potential result in expensive and substandard housing. This policy is not the answer to sorting out London's housing shortage," Peck said.

"We maintain that the Government's decision making on exemptions to this policy are unfair and badly thought out and are glad the judge acknowledged this. We also note he also understood our concerns about the worrying lack of any requirement for affordable housing," he added.

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