Old versus new

July 05 2022
Old versus new

Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling

ASK any builder if they would like to convert a building and the answer will probably be a question: Why can’t I knock it down and build a replacement instead?

This is a perfectly reasonable question. A new build is something you have control of from the ground up. You can ensure the walls intersect at 90 degrees, insulation can be incorporated, the materials required can be accurately estimated and so on.

The alternative can be difficult, call for specialised labour, require compromises and there can be a whole world of unknowns which affect the budget and deadlines.

But now look at it in terms of the resources that are required: demolition, while creating a clean slate, also creates waste to be removed and ideally salvaged in some form, if not damaged beyond repair. That is not very efficient.

Then we come to the process of creating the new building materials and the carbon cost of that, from running furnaces to the polluting side-effects of manufacturing, and the transportation cost of getting the materials from factory to depot to site. Again, not very efficient.

Although the government is committed to reducing carbon use, recent permitted development rights do not appear to have taken this into account. Being able to knock down buildings and replace them without the need for planning permission takes the potential ‘recycling’ of buildings completely out of the equation. Indeed, if you were looking to change the use of a building it may make more economic sense to knock it down and start from scratch. Yet the government also wants to see the creation of highly skilled and highly paid jobs. Requiring the upgrading of existing buildings could provide a reason to create many of them.

Then there is the aesthetic argument. The existing buildings in our urban landscape define it, add variety and help us discern the history of a place, be it a historic town centre, an ancient church or a 1930’s parade of shops. They can add colour as well as character to the townscape.

Original farm buildings are often retained and converted to pubs to serve new housing estates, as they are distinctive and easily recognised. I suspect that just about anyone would be concerned at replacing a thatched house with a modern one, albeit with a more easily-maintained roof.

As is often the case in planning, there are two sides to the story. Insisting that buildings can only ever be converted can also backfire, if, for instance, they are built of materials which leave the conversion under-insulated or unable to be brought up to modern standards.

Those kinds of issues are often resolved through Building Regulations, and often at great cost.

Next month there is an announcement scheduled on the reform of planning.

After complicating many matters in the name of simplification, I would argue that it is long past time for a full overhaul of permitted development rights, with coherent justification for them – or for some tactical U-turns.

I will not be holding my breath, though.