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A huge new development is set to begin in South Bristol. However, there won’t be a single affordable home.But this time it’s not developers trying to get around around council targets.

In this case, the council can’t even attempt to negotiate for a handful of reduced rate homes.

Parkview Office Campus on Whitchurch Lane is the latest and biggest example of the effects of a law that has been blasted by local government representatives as “detrimental to the ability of local communities to shape the area they live in.”

The 2013 law known as ‘permitted development’ enables developers who convert offices to residential units to avoid much of the planning process.

This means they don’t have to even consider the council’s targets of including up to 40% reduced-cost housing in new developments. Additionally, these new homes can be less than half the floorspace of normal one-bedroom flats, as there are no minimum size standards.

This law was designed to incentivise property developers to build new houses, and it has. But at a cost. Towns and cities across the UK have lost thousands of potential affordable homes, and businesses have lost valuable office space. In just two years, Bristol has lost 190 affordable homes that would otherwise have been built, according to Cable analysis of Local Government Association data, the organisation that represents councils across the country.

Taking advantage

But one person’s housing crisis is another’s opportunity. Enter Berkshire Court Property, who bought the land and buildings at Parkview in August 2017 for £16.5 Million, just months after more than 100 council workers found themselves locked out of work after the previous owners went into administration.

Company records show that the new owners are in the business of making the most of permitted development rights. The same directors of Berkshire Court Property also own seven other companies named ‘Permitted Developments Investments’.

But there is more to this pie. The company responsible for actually bringing this development to market will be a developer called Caridon. An arm of the company was set up to specifically to ‘take advantage’ of the permitted development rules that enable building to begin ‘without the delays associated with the normal planning process’.

The conversion of offices to houses is a lucrative niche, however someone still needs to front the cash. A company based in the tax haven of Luxembourg has provided a £40 million loan and is a partner in the business.

And so, after a few administrative hurdles, the builders can break ground on this massive development. There will be no affordable housing at the Parkview Campus. If this development had gone through normal channels the city could have gained up to 189 new reduced rate homes.

As it stands, it’s unclear how much the completed houses will cost or what the set-up will be. The developer’s website states that “we endeavour to assist in the social and employment needs of the communities and associations we serve.” When asked how they planned to do this Caridon did not respond.

Will the council “step in”?

The process of office to residential conversions is playing out across the country with an estimated 7,600 homes lost in the two years to April 2017, prompting widespread calls from councils for the government to make urgent changes to the law.

And it’s not just affordable housing that’s being affected. It’s also the office space that is crucial for local economies and businesses to thrive. In 2015, Zoe Wilcox the head of planning at Bristol City Council penned an article for an industry website saying that permitted development “is doing nothing to contribute to our affordable housing needs in Bristol”.

Wilcox added that if more office space is replaced by unaffordable housing the council “will need to step in to restrict future conversions”.

In the last two years, 20% of all new homes in Bristol have been conversions from offices. So will the council be stepping in? A spokesperson for the council said: “The permitted development rules were initially a temporary measure and we lobbied for them not to be made permanent, but they were.”

“We are supportive of the extra housing they deliver but as they don’t require planning permission we cannot secure any affordable housing as part of the conversion,”

“This remains a concern and we will continue to lobby for the permitted development rules to be amended to enable us to build more affordable housing.”

Recent history shows that concessions can be eked out. After a large redevelopment of offices threatened the future of iconic Bristol venue, The Fleece, its owner Chris Sharp successfully campaigned to get permitted development laws changed in 2016.

Developers now have to seek prior approval on noise impacts before offices can be converted into residential properties – perhaps a sign that pressuring the government on this quirk of planning law can have an impact.

With Bristol third in the country for the most office to residential conversions, and housing charity Shelter warning that permitted development is creating overcrowded “rabbit hutch” homes, will the government listen?

Additional reporting by Alon Aviram

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