Would you live in a Cambridge flat the size of a disabled parking bay?
Flats as small as 17 square metres will be built in Cambridge, drawing criticism from the leader of the city council over a legal “loophole” which he said reduces scrutiny and regulatory standards.
Marchingdale Developments was granted permission on May 20 to build 149 flats in Huntingdon Road.
The two “prior approval” applications that make up the development were not subject to the city’s usual planning regulations or voted on by elected councillors because government legislation does not require it when converting certain office blocks to housing.
The development will convert the old head offices of the National Institute Of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), which moved to another location nearby in February.
The smallest flats to be constructed on site will have a floor space of 17 square metres, the developer said. That’s about the size of a disabled parking bay, or half the size of the six yard box on a football pitch.
The average unit size will be 22.5 square metres.
A spokesperson for Marchingdale Developments said the units comply with all the necessary regulations and “are of a perfectly reasonable size, allowing for all of the necessary functions to support daily life”.
The council’s executive councillor for planning policy, Katie Thornburrow, said the flats will have “inadequate spaces to live in”.
Cllr Thornburrow said she has concerns the design may lead to social and mental health problems.
“It’s such a lovely building,” she said, “potentially it could have provided lovely accommodation.”
She added: “I think it’s appalling that this is going ahead.”
Government guidance on internal space for residential homes says the minimum should be 37 metres squared. However, this is not legally required and planning authorities have the option of whether or not to include such a standard in their planning requirements. Cambridge City Council does enforce the standard, meaning developments are required to abide by it to be granted planning permission. This can be waived in certain cases, but that requires exceptional circumstances. For example, last year six micro-homes for the homeless were granted planning permission - each had 25 square metres of floor space.
Developments granted “prior approval” permission by converting offices to homes are not required to align with the guidance on minimum space standards.
The planning documents filed to the city council for the NIAB development show the council did seek legal advice after questioning if the homes meet the definition of a dwelling. Ultimately, the legal advice said that they do.
The leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert, said he has had concerns over the policy that allows such development since it was introduced in 2013.
He said this was the first significant scheme of this kind in the city, and that the council would alert residents when such development is proposed.
“It is quite clear that the government permitted development loophole, which allows developers to convert purpose-built offices into housing, has resulted in some appalling developments across Britain,” he said, referencing work done by BBC Panorama, which he said exposed “that too much of this new permitted development is substandard schemes with inadequate open space and parking.”
He added: “On a large site like NIAB it also means disjointed applications and poor overall development, when what was really needed was a masterplan and proper engagement of the local community and councillors on the whole site, particularly as we understand further planning applications are still to follow.
“What was a permitted development proposal for 71 flats two years ago for the two buildings has also now mushroomed into plans for 149 flats without any proper regulation of key aspects like future living conditions and minimum space standards, and the evasion of low carbon design policies in our Local Plan. The residents and councillors of Castle ward deserve far better from this site.
“We will be monitoring this development carefully, and working with Daniel Zeichner as our city MP in trying to win back the national principle that it is best for Cambridge and all cities, that all major development is treated equally and all subject to obtaining full planning permission after proper consultations.”
A spokesperson for Marchingdale Developments said it was disappointed by the criticism and stressed the plans were fully compliant with the government legislation.
The spokesperson said: “The prior approval process was introduced by central government in 2013 to increase the delivery of housing and to promote the reuse of vacant office buildings. The applicants have complied fully with the legislation and accordingly the principle of development cannot be in question, subject to it being demonstrated that there would be no adverse impacts in respect of transport and highways, contamination, flooding and noise.
“It is important to emphasise that Local Plan policies are not capable of being a consideration during the determination of this type of application as it is for prior approval for development automatically granted by a government development order.
“The units are of a perfectly reasonable size, allowing for all of the necessary functions to support daily life, and our clients are very clear that there is both a need and demand in Cambridge for the form of accommodation proposed.”
The spokesperson added that Marchingdale was “looking to bring forward comprehensive redevelopment proposals for the wider Huntingdon Road site”.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, said: “Permitted development rights have delivered over 60,000 homes, including 54,000 from office to residential, and they will play an important role in making our commitment of delivering one million new homes by the end of this parliament a reality.
“We announced that we would review the quality standard of homes delivered under such rights. This will conclude shortly and further announcements on its findings will be made in due course.”
More by this authorBen Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter