The Government’s proposals to extend Permitted Development Rights in England have been welcomed by the Builders Merchants’ Federation (BMF).

The Department of Communities & Local Government (DCLG) has proposed changes to current restrictions that relate to homes, shops, small businesses, offices and industrial buildings. The intention is to boost local economic activity and make it quicker, easier and cheaper to build small-scale, single-storey extensions and conservatories.

The proposed changes would initially apply for a temporary period of three years, though ministers have left open the possibility that such changes could become permanent. The DCLG also sought views on scope to use permitted development to make it easier to carry out garage conversions.

Responding to a consultation exercise, the BMF said it fully supported the proposals because anything that accelerates the number of extensions or conversions completed will help merchants’ trading activity. It told DCLG officials that easing the rules was sensible and welcome at a time when SME builders and allied trades in home improvement face dwindling order books.

In its written response, the BMF added that merchants see the return of a thriving property improvement market as a way to revitalise a local economy. Many sense that demand in their part of the world is being held back by economic uncertainty and consumers’ unwillingness to spend. The Catch 22 is voters are investing too little in small building work – yet politicians tell people they are spending too much and living beyond their means.

The proposals attracted plenty of criticism from Labour and Liberal Democrats. Despite being in Coalition government with the Conservatives, Lib Dem activists oppose the changes. BMF were in Brighton during their Party Political Conference last autumn where grass-roots members forced a vote on the proposals. Though not binding on Lib Dem ministers, the Conference carried the motion against extending Permitted Development Rights in England.

The consultation period closed in a welter of claims and counter-claims over the likely consequences. Several local authorities denounced the initiative, claiming it would encourage unsightly buildings. Other councils have refused to implement the plans. Heritage and conservation charities – along with certain national newspapers – mistook the proposals as the green light for a planning ‘free for all’. Opponents think it will lead to a big rise in disputes between neighbours over eyesore extensions or out-of-place development.

Points to note:

  • any planned works cannot take up more than half the area of a garden or suchlike
  • any intended extension cannot be for shop fronts, or extend beyond a shop front
  • houses of multiple occupancy were not included in this consultation
  • local authorities can continue to consult their voters using Article 4 directions (as now)
  • change of use classes were not part of this consultation
  • permitted development only covers the planning permission aspects – requirements under other regimes (e.g. Building Regulations) still apply.

In submitting its views, the BMF made several fundamental points about the trade. These included the fact that small works are labour-intensive and done locally by trained and competent people, often by word-of-mouth referral, using local suppliers and done sympathetically to various property types. All projects are hand-made, on site, to customers’ specifications and in all weather, often with the homeowner on site throughout the project.

The BMF concluded by highlighting that the consultation exercise was all about changes to supply-side policy and regulation – it did not look at the demand side. Even if families or businesses can take advantage of Permitted Development Rights, aspirations can still be thwarted by difficulties in paying for the work, wrote the Federation.

Improved availability of finance for businesses and mortgages for individuals is essential for construction-based economic recovery led by private enterprise, the BMF added. It believes that without this, output will be constrained and aspiring homeowners will continue to be frustrated, although ministers’ efforts to boost local economic activity in this way are very welcome to merchants.

In the light of the furore over the National Planning Policy Framework, the BMF suspects the DCLG will continue to meet resistance from other interested parties. Merchants and their customers wait to see how elected local councillors interpret and implement the final policy on the ground. The BMF believes there is an overriding need for ministers to get the national policy right because there will doubtless be those who bring test cases, hoping the courts find loopholes.