Leader hopes damning report by children’s commissioner prompts government policy change on converted office blocks

Wednesday, 21 August, 2019

Following today’s (21 August 2019) publication of the children’s commissioner for England’s report entitled “Bleak houses - tackling the crisis of family homelessness in England”, the Leader of Harlow Council, Councillor Mark Ingall, said:

“I take no joy in welcoming the children’s commissioner’s findings about the impact of converted office blocks in Harlow. The report backs up the serious concerns we have been voicing for many months about national policies that have resulted in London councils and others placing children and adults into former office blocks in the town. The independent commissioner’s findings cannot be ignored and it is time Ministers acted to address the issues. The report provides a damning summary of the effects of the government’s permitted development rights policy which has not just impacted Harlow but other areas in the country. 

“These office-to-residential conversions in Harlow are private developments, which have been actively promoted to councils in London and other areas as a cheap answer to social housing shortages. Sadly we have been powerless to stop these developments as full planning permission is not needed due to permitted development rights. We are taking action to try and limit future developments by introducing article 4 directions which means full planning permission must be sought and granted before any conversions.  However introducing article 4 directions is a lengthy process and will not address the developments which have already happened.

"The pressure on London Councils to offload their housing crisis onto Harlow has according to these councils been made worse by the Local Housing Allowance cap freeze. This is making it increasingly difficult for London Councils to find accommodation for benefit claimants in their own areas that falls below the maximum they are allowed by Government to spend.

“We know of a case where a mother and two children are living in a bed sit in one office block conversion in Harlow, with only a single bed and a single mattress on the floor for them to share and with no bathroom or toilet of their own to use. We also know of parents and children that have been forced by other councils to move into these permitted developments in Harlow removing them from familiar surroundings, moved miles away from their communities, families and where they go to school, socialise or play. There is no doubt that this, along with living in often unsuitable accommodation, disrupts a child’s development, their wellbeing, their ability to succeed in school and ultimately this will impact on their future potential.

“Harlow was designed and building began to realise Gibberd's vision shortly after the Second World War, when the country was virtually bankrupt. It is a great place to bring up a family and many people have chosen to move here for a new life. The UK is now the fifth richest country in the world, it is unacceptable that there isn’t the funding for councils to build sufficient houses across the country to prevent families being forced to relocate into unplanned and unsuitable accommodation.

“The government must now act quickly to change its permitted development rights. It must also work closely with councils to review the freeze on the Local Housing Allowance Cap and make funding available to help create the council housing the country desperately needs, which will provide proper, decent affordable homes.”