In this week's column, Jason Brock, the leader of Reading Borough Council, slams the decision of the department of levelling up, housing and communities to limit the council's use of rules to block what he calls 'unsuitable' conversions into flats. Councillor Brock writes:

It increasingly feels like local councils are working with one arm tied behind their backs.

That’s how it is with our efforts in Reading to limit the number of substandard and inappropriate homes we sometimes see springing up in some parts of Reading.

Developers regularly make use of existing planning laws, called Permitted Development Rights (PDR), to allow them to bypass a council’s planning application system when converting offices into flats. Without the usual checks and balances provided by the local authority planning process, it means they are able to build sub-standard accommodation with little or, more likely, no outdoor space at all.

These are often also in locations with are wholly unsuitable as places to live, due to issues like noise disturbance or poor air quality for example. They are also almost exclusively one bed or studio flats as you might imagine, completely ignoring the desperate need for more family-sized homes in Reading.

Aside from all of that, since they were introduced in 2013, PDR has also cost Reading around 600 new affordable homes, at least £3.5 million in off-site contributions to affordable housing and around £4 million in planning fees and education, leisure and transport contributions. It is very clear that some developers are solely in the business of maximising their own profits at the expense of the town.

In order to combat this, last year the Council introduced what is known in planning parlance as an Article 4 direction in large parts of the town.

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This effectively blocked commercial to residential conversions, stopped developers adding residential storeys onto commercial buildings and from demolishing commercial buildings and rebuilding them as residential units, without the local planning authority first approving the plans.

Our decision was always subject to review by the Government and a few weeks ago the then Secretary of State confirmed she was modifying Reading’s local ruling. This blocked sites from being included in the Article 4 direction where their inclusion was justified by noise and/or air quality issues alone. So, to put it another way, noise disturbance and poor air quality is not enough of a reason to block these conversions.

The Government decision means that the modified Article 4 direction in Reading, while still more effective than in many local authority areas, now only covers only 21% of the area of the original.

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This stuff matters. Reading residents know first-hand the detrimental impact poorly converted bedsits and one-bedroom flats have on local communities in Reading. Residents who have little option but to live in these substandard homes have to endure the daily misery of noise and poor air quality because of where they are located.

Here we have a local council who knows all too well what the local issues are, attempting to take local action, only for it be blocked centrally by a Government working to its own agenda.

Nobody is saying more homes are not needed in Reading, but surely these need to be of decent quality and in suitable locations.

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Surely its right that wealthy developers should be made to give something back to the local community where they are located, whether that be ensuring those homes are built to high environmental standards or making appropriate contribution to local infrastructure or affordable housing levels, as opposed to solely increasing their profit margins at our expense.

It very clear to see whose side this Government is on, and unless you are one of those wealthy developers, it’s not yours.