Our February blog, from Andy and Rebecca at LivShare Housing & Consultancy, highlighted the contribution that shared housing can make to meeting the housing needs of people on low incomes. But, whilst the delivery of affordable housing has long been an aspiration of the planning system, delivering new forms of development, such as purpose built shared housing, can bring its own planning challenges. So as promised last month, we now take a look at what some of those challenges are…
Shared housing developments can of course take different forms; from co-living projects offering small private living units with extensive communal facilities, to purpose built houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). However, many of the same planning challenges are faced whichever model is followed.
Firstly, there is the question of which use class such developments fall under. In Scotland, Use Class 9 – Houses allows the use of a house by not more than 5 unrelated residents, with flats expressly excluded from this and defined as a sui generis use (one that does not fit within any particular use class). As such, co-living projects will not generally be covered by any use class, although HMOs may still be covered by Class 9, depending on how many people are living in them. In this regard, a Court of Session decision last month (Alastair MacIntyre and others v The Scottish Ministers  CSIH 10) confirmed that residents do not need to be living together ‘as a single household’ for Class 9 to apply, despite Scottish Government guidance (Circular 1/1998 The Town and Country Planning (Uses Classes) (Scotland) Order 1997) stating that this is required. To add further confusion, we are aware that some local authorities (for example, Aberdeen City Council, by way of the Proposed Aberdeen Local Development Plan) believe that the use of a house as an HMO should require planning permission, even when there are less than 5 unrelated individuals are living in it. It remains to be seen what position is taken on this in light of the decision in the MacIntyre case.
Secondly, the fact that purpose built shared housing is still a relatively new form of development means it may not always be well understood, and the strict application of existing planning policies designed to regulate traditional housing developments is not always appropriate. In our experience, this is particularly so when assessing the level of amenity afforded to residents in co-living projects where, while individual apartments may be relatively small, there are a wide range of amenity spaces throughout the scheme which are designed to be used as extensions to residents’ homes. As such, it is necessary to consider the level of amenity available throughout the development as a whole, rather than just in each individual apartment as would traditionally be the case. In this regard, some parallels may be drawn with build to rent developments in which residents also often have access to a range of communal facilities outwith their flats, in recognition of which the Scottish Government’s Planning delivery advice: build to rent states that a flexible approach to relevant elements of design (namely density, minimum space standards and numbers of single aspect units) may be justified for build to rent schemes where this is the case. A similar approach could be taken to shared housing schemes, although there is not currently any specific guidance on these.
On the other hand, concerns have been expressed that taking a flexible approach to shared housing proposals creates scope for the concept to be exploited to develop higher density housing than might otherwise be acceptable, without delivering the benefits that shared living should. For example, Ireland's Minister responsible for housing announced a virtual blanket ban on co-living schemes in November last year, citing concerns that the scale of such developments was “moving away from the niche quantity of units the concept originally aimed for”, and that “inappropriate locations away from the core city centre have undermined the concept.” The last point relates in particular to the fact that co-living projects often don’t include parking and, while this may be appropriate in city centre locations, it is less likely to be so outside of these.
There are however ways to address such concerns without effectively banning co-living projects, and we are aware of a number of recently adopted and emerging development plans introducing specific policies on shared housing to do just that, most notably in London. For example, the London Plan 2021 requires all large-scale purpose built shared housing proposals to meet certain criteria, including that these are located in areas that are well-connected to local services and employment by walking, cycling, and public transport, and that they meet minimum requirements with regards to the communal facilities to be provided. Taking things a step further, the recently adopted Hackney Local Plan contains more stringent criteria, including that such proposals must meet an identified need; the site is not suitable for the development of conventional self-contained units; and at least 50% of units must be provided at rental levels which do not exceed one-third of ward-level incomes. At the same time, the Hackney Local Plan describes shared housing as being a strategically important part of the housing offering, highlighting that this meets distinct needs, reduces pressure on other elements of the housing stock, and provides flexible and relatively affordable accommodation. Such provisions are though not yet commonplace.
Although it is perhaps not surprising that planning policies can sometimes take a while to catch up with emerging types of development, both the Scottish Government and Scottish planning authorities would do well to look at the policies being introduced elsewhere and consider what might be done to facilitate the role that shared housing can play in meeting housing needs and ambitious affordable housing targets, while ensuring that all such schemes are well designed and of good quality.
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Thanks for reading!
Pippa and Maggie