Developers turn Dacorum offices into flats on more than 300 occasions in five years
The Local Government Association warned communities may have lost out on "desperately needed" affordable housing
Developers in Dacorum have turned vacant offices into flats on more than 300 occasions in the last five years using powers to bypass normal planning rules.
The Local Government Association warned communities may have lost out on "desperately needed" affordable housing through the use of permitted development rights, allowing certain conversions to be carried out without full planning permission.
Data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government reveals there were 313 office-to-residential conversions in Dacorum in the five years to 2019-20.
Of those, 38 took place last year, while 2015-16 saw the highest number carried out over the period – 108.
A permitted development right is general planning permission granted by Parliament for certain developments and changes of use.
It allows developers to turn office buildings into homes without submitting a full planning application, as long as they meet recently introduced requirements such as having enough space and natural light.
It also means the typical requirement to provide a proportion of affordable housing cannot be enforced.
Office-to-residential permitted development rights were first introduced in 2013 as a temporary measure to tackle the UK's housing shortage, with the legislation becoming permanent in 2015.
Across England, 65,000 such conversions have been carried out under the scheme in the last five years.
But David Renard, the LGA’s housing spokesman, said "serious concerns" remain over the high number of homes which continue to be created from former office buildings.
He added: “Permitted development rules are resulting in the alarming potential loss of thousands of desperately-needed affordable homes.
"Planning is not a barrier to house-building, with councils approving nine in 10 planning applications. It is vital that councils and local communities have a voice in the planning process."
In Dacorum, former offices accounted for 10% of the 3,022 net additional homes created in the area in the last five years – the total of all new builds, conversions and changes of use minus any demolitions.
By contrast, they made up 41% of new homes in the Essex town of Harlow over the same period.
Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, said allowing conversions of commercial buildings into residential through permitted development rights has been "an absolute disaster".
She added: "It has resulted in tiny windowless homes no bigger than a parking space, often on remote industrial estates miles from schools, shops, or buses.
"Extending PDR further to allow even more conversions will only keep producing unfit and unsuitable housing.
"If the Government truly wants to fix our housing emergency it needs to invest in a new generation of decent social homes, not hastily constructed rabbit hutches."
An MHCLG spokesperson said the fast-track system contributed to the delivery of more than 243,000 extra homes of all types last year.
They added: “We are investing over £12 billion in affordable housing – the largest investment in a decade – and the infrastructure levy in our planning reforms will ensure developers deliver at least as much affordable housing as under the current system."