First World Problems 2: Amalgamations And Deconversions

Securing planning permission for your proposed super-basement is definitely a first world problem (see my previous 5 December 2016 blog post). 
As is seeking to knock two or more flats or houses into one.
There’s that scene in Help! where John, Paul, George and Ringo each open their separate front doors in a terraced street, which all open into one enormous Beatle mansion. (Illusions shattered: in reality Ailsa Road, St Margarets followed by a set at Twickenham Film Studios.).

Until 2000, the general view was that amalgamations like this, as well as deconversions of flats back into single dwellinghouses, probably didn’t amount to development requiring planning permission. The statutory definition of development specifically includes sub-division of dwellings (“the use as two or more separate dwellinghouses of any building previously used as a single dwellinghouse involves a material change in the use of the building and of each part of it which is so used“, section 55(3)(a), Town and Country Planning Act 1990) but is silent as to amalgamation. 
The way in which that position has changed, without any change in legislation is an interesting example of the way in which the scope of planning law and of relevant planning considerations can change over time to reflect social priorities and concerns.
The judgment of Christopher Lockhart-Mummery QC sitting as a deputy High Court judge in London Borough of Richmond v Secretary of State (28 March 2000) was a significant turning point. “It is undoubtedly the law that material considerations are not confined to strict questions of amenity or environmental impact and that the need for housing in a particular area is a material consideration…” The case involved a conversion from seven flats to one dwelling. 
It was then thought that this case could often be distinguished in terms of the number of units that were to be lost in that case and that LPAs would face an uphill struggle where they did not have policies in place restricting amalgamations resulting in the loss of dwellings. 
For instance, Kensington and Chelsea’s consolidated local plan currently states that the council will “resist development which results in the net loss of five or more residential units”. Until August 2014, the council took the view that this constrained its ability to argue that amalgamations leading to the loss of less than five units did not amount to development requiring planning permission. In R (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) v Secretary of State (Holgate J, 15 June 2016), Christopher Lockhart-Mummery QC was representing the owners of two flats in Stanhope Gardens SW7 seeking to defend a certificate of lawfulness of proposed use which they had won on appeal. The inspector had considered that without a formal change in policy, the loss of a unit by way of amalgamation could not be relevant, even though the inspector accepted that “the scale of amalgamation in the Borough may be having a material effect on the number of dwellings in the Borough“. Holgate J held that this approach was wrong – whilst the nature of the policy would be relevant to whether planning permission should be granted, this did not mean that the housing need concerns raised by the council were not significant “for the threshold purpose of deciding whether planning permission even applied“. All was not however lost for the owners – the inspector had also granted planning permission for the amalgamation and the council’s challenge to that decision was rejected. 
RBKC’s local plan partial review, which is currently under examination, proposes a more restrictive policy that would only allow any amalgamation where the resulting dwelling is less than 170 sq m. Westminster City Council takes a different approach. Policy S14 of its city plan indicates that:
“Proposals that would result in a reduction in the number of residential units will not be acceptable, except where: 

* the council considers that reconfiguration or redevelopment of affordable housing would better meet affordable housing need; 


* a converted house is being returned to a family-sized dwelling or dwellings; or 


* 2 flats are being joined to create a family-sized dwelling.”

Amalgamations are a drag on net housing supply in both boroughs. Housing in London 2015: The evidence base for the Mayor’s Housing Strategy (Mayor of London, September 2015) reports:

“Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 a net 5,010 homes were created through conversions and a net 1,160 homes were lost through de-conversions.

Conversions were most common in accessible Inner London locations, and de-conversions in high price areas. The ward with the most conversions in this period was St. Leonard’s in Lambeth with 74 followed by Childs Hill in Barnet with 65. The three wards with the highest numbers of de- conversions were all in Westminster – Hyde Park (with 42), Knightsbridge and Belgravia (27) and Bayswater (26).


Planning Resource briefly reported (subscriber only content) a ruling by Lang J on 27 July 2017 in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea v Secretary of State, where she apparently quashed the decision of a planning inspector, who had allowed an appeal against refusal of planning permission partly on the basis of a certificate of lawfulness of proposed use or development for a proposed amalgamation that had been issued before the council’s August 2014 change in stance. Presumably she considered that circumstances had materially changed such that the certificate could no longer be relied upon. 

The battle has moved now to whether planning permission should be granted, rather than whether it is necessary. On 13 July 2017, in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea v Secretary of State and Noell and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea v Secretary of State and Lahham Deputy High Court Judge Neil Cameron QC quashed two decisions where separate inspectors had granted permission on appeal. The inspector had made a mistake of fact in both decisions when calculating housing land supply as he deducted vacant units returning to use from the requirement whilst including those units in the supply and by stating that the housing land supply would be boosted further by recent deliverable planning permissions when those planning permissions were already accounted for in the calculated supply. The Secretary of State did not defend either claim. Christopher Lockhart-Mummery QC acted for the owners (if there’s a golden thread that runs through the case-law on amalgamation, it’s Christopher). 
Pending a tighter policy being in place, Inspectors have indeed still been allowing appeals in Kensington and Chelsea. For instance:
Warwick Gardens, Kensington, 17 May 2017:
“In regards to the development plan, whilst I find conflict with Local Plan Policy CH3 and London Plan Policy 3.14 in that a unit of residential accommodation would be lost, and saved UDP Policy H17, the appeal proposal would not prejudice the Council’s ability to meet its housing supply targets or give rise to unacceptable harm in regards to housing choice. Indeed, it would assist to address the imbalance in the housing stock in regards to 3 bedroom dwellings. Consequently, I do not consider that the appeal proposal conflicts with the development plan when taken as a whole.”

15 Cheyne Place, Kensington, 10 April 2017:

“The proposal would conflict with Policy CH3 of the CLP and 3.14 of the LP, which seek to ensure that that there is a sufficient supply and choice of housing. Notwithstanding this conflict, I do not find that, in this instance, the proposal would undermine the Council’s ability to achieve its housing targets. In addition, it would also make a contribution towards an identified need for three bedroomed units. Moreover, the emerging Local Plan Partial Review indicates that the Council intend to accept amalgamation development of this scale. Therefore, in culmination, I attribute significant weight to these matters which outweighs the moderate conflict the proposal has with the CLP and LP.”
28 Victoria Road, Kensington, 11 January 2017:
“I saw at the site visit that the garden arrangement as existing is not ideal. There are presently no separate areas that 2 individual units could use and, if shared, residents of the upper floors would be able to gain views into the bedroom window of the ground floor flat whilst using the garden. To restrict the use of the garden to the ground floor occupants would leave the larger unit with no outdoor amenity space apart from a small terrace at first floor level.

77 Drayton Gardens, Kensington, 4 November 2016:

“As part of its Local Plan Partial Review, the Council is about to consult on a policy which would permit the amalgamation of two residential units to one, if the gross floorspace of the resulting unit would not exceed 170 sqm. Mr Burroughs’ unchallenged evidence is that the resulting unit in this case is 99 sqm. ”

“The amalgamation of two residential units (second and third floor flats) into a single residential unit conflicts with CLP Policy CH3, saved UDP Policy H17 and LP Policy 3.14B, which aim to ensure an adequate supply and choice of housing to meet identified needs. The Framework also requires Council to boost significantly the supply of housing. However, on the evidence before me, the amalgamation will not, on the balance of probability, affect the Council’s ability to meet its housing targets. Furthermore, it will contribute to meeting a current identified need for larger dwellings in the borough, whilst improving the quality of accommodation, in accordance with LP 3.14A. Furthermore, in the light of the terms of a policy now being proposed as part of the Local Plan Partial Review, the Council appears to consider that amalgamations of this kind could be acceptable. On balance, these are material considerations which indicate that I should allow the appeal on ground (a) and grant planning permission, notwithstanding the conflict with the development plan.”

Simon Ricketts, 6 August 2017
Personal views, et cetera

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