Is Adding Extra Floors to London Properties the Solution to the Housing Crisis?

A recent change to planning rules has made it easier to develop the ‘airspace’ above properties by adding more floors. Could this be a solution to the lack of housing in our overcrowded cities?


What has changed?

On 1 August 2020, a number of changes to the UK’s planning rules came into force. The changes can be found in the pithily-titled Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, and one section that has got people particularly excited is the bit about building extra dwellings on top of existing buildings.

In essence, the new rules will allow certain building owners to add up to two residential floors on top of an existing building, without needing to get full planning permission. 

So is it as easy as just getting the builders in?

As you might expect, this isn’t quite the free-for-all it sounds. While full planning permission may now not be required in some cases, any developments still have to get prior approval from the local planning authority and abide by various rules. For example, they will have to consider the rights to light and/or privacy of neighbours, existing residents and new residents; the new portion can’t damage the overall appearance of the building, and there will need to be various safety and impact assessments. The new permitted development rights will also only apply to certain properties. 

Really what these amendments represent is a sort of streamlined planning process for qualifying properties, rather than carte blanche to start slapping extra floors on your roof. There are still quite a lot of hoops to jump through.

Which properties might the new permissions apply to?

The full list of eligibility criteria can be found in part 2, 22 of the regulations mentioned above, but key points include:

  • the existing building has to be at least three floors high
  • the building has to have been built between July 1948 and March 2018
  • the additional floors can’t be taller than the existing floors, with a maximum height of three metres each
  • the new floors have to be flats
  • the development can’t extend the height of the building by more than seven metres
  • the extended building can’t be taller than thirty metres. 

There are also various mentions of the ‘external appearance of the building’, which means that properties in conservation areas are unlikely to get approval.

The wider context

The government recently set out a plan to drastically reform our planning system, arguing that the one we currently have just isn’t fit for purpose any more. The scheme is ambitious to say the least, promising to streamline the planning process, cut down on bureaucracy, empower smaller builders to increase their share of the market, and promote developments that enhance local communities rather than stretching existing infrastructure.

A key element of the proposal is that all local councils should identify land that is ripe for development, and that it should be made much quicker and easier to get permission to develop these plots.

It’s a tall order, but ultimately we really need to be building new homes, and we aren’t doing it fast enough at the moment. The government is hoping that sweeping reforms to planning processes might help achieve this. 

So will this help solve the housing crisis?

There have been figures thrown around suggesting that the ability to develop ‘airspace’ could provide around 41,000 new homes in central London alone, but this does seem quite an optimistic estimate given the qualifying criteria and the rules for pre-approval. In the end, though, there’s no magic bullet that’s going to solve the housing crisis on its own. The important thing is to make it easier to develop new residential properties in appropriate ways and spaces, and allowing people to build upwards as well as outwards (subject to careful controls) could well help the situation.