The planning world is not used to celebrities arguing over the effects of the General Permitted Development Order, but that is just what is happening in Camden in respect of a proposed change of use of offices to flats at a development known as Utopia Village in Primrose Hill.
Mary Portas, Dame Joan Bakewell and Alan Bennett are among those lobbying Eric Pickles, the secretary of state, to refuse the application because it will result in the loss of jobs.
Camden Council, having initially refused the application, now claims that if permitted the application will infringe the human rights of nearby residents by impacting on their privacy.
Permitted development rights were revised in 2013 to provide a truncated procedure for applying to convert offices to residential use. The rights apply to all of England, apart from 33 specified protected areas, listed buildings and offices within safety hazard and military explosive areas.
The rights still require that an application is made to the local authority for what is known as prior approval, but their ability to decide an application is limited to only three grounds. Those grounds are relating to the transport and highways impacts, the contamination risks or the flooding risks on site.
The Utopia Village application involves converting 23 business units into 53 residences, and was refused by Camden Council in December 2013 on fifteen different grounds. These related to many issues wider than the three grounds set out in the general development order, including the failure to make section 106 contributions towards open space, education and affordable housing as well as overlooking of neighbouring properties.
“The secretary of state must now take into account the economic and social impact of permitting the application”
An appeal was lodged against the refusal and the Secretary of State subsequently called the application in for his own determination, and a decision is now awaited from him. This is the first called in application of this kind in England.
Although the application was originally refused on 15 grounds the Council has subsequently withdrawn a number of them either on the basis that it accepts that it cannot pursue the reasons legitimately or because the applicant has offered a planning obligation relating to transport and highway aspects of the scheme that has overcome some of the reasons for refusal.
However, the Council is still pursuing the issue of human rights infringement of nearby residents as a reason for refusal despite it not falling within any of the three ‘prior approval’ criteria.
Meanwhile the celebrities are claiming the 2013 changes have been used opportunistically - and that the secretary of state must now take into account the economic and social impact of permitting the application.
Given the circumscribed wording of the General Permitted Development Order it is impossible to see how the secretary of state can refuse this application, apart from on one of the three criteria set out in the order. Economic and social impacts and human rights issues are, for these purposes, an irrelevant consideration.
That is not to say, however, that if the permission is granted that this is the end of the road for the campaigners. If human rights have truly been infringed then those affected could still bring a claim - perhaps seeking to have the provisions of the General Permitted Development Order declared unlawful, on the basis that it requires their legitimate concerns to be ignored, or seeking compensation from the government because its laws have inevitably led to their rights being infringed.
John Bosworth is a partner at Ashfords legal firm