Now I have had time to fully digest these proposals, I wanted to take a moment to look at the implications of the proposed changes for noise impact. In particular in relation to that ‘inner-city densification’
Peering through the political language in the announcement, the proposal here is to seek to make it easier for out of use shops to be converted into residential use, thus bringing buildings, which are struggling to be viable as shops within our city centres, back into use.
As with any new political announcement, particularly one which is focused on housing, the devil is very much in the detail, and this is certainly the case here. Doing city centre development well is very much about the detail.
Conflicting uses, some of which can generate high levels of noise and some which are very noise sensitive can, and do, work together in urban environments. At all times, though, consideration needs to be given to the principle of ‘Agent of Change’ to ensure that the amenity of residents is protected, and unnecessary or unreasonable limits are not placed on hospitality and retail uses in these city and town centre spaces.
City and town centres are fundamentally noisier places to live. Pubs, bars, restaurants, hotels, shops, pedestrian traffic, road traffic, air handling systems, cooling systems, buskers and rubbish collections all add to the mix of noise sources that can make an existing shop or commercial building a challenge to convert to residential use whilst ensuring that noise does not make any homes unsuitable for future residents.
There are solutions that can make (almost) any space viable for residential use within that environment, but they all add complexity and significant cost to the design, especially when converting existing buildings and the level of difficulty and cost sky-rockets if that building has heritage and conservation needs. Those solutions will inevitably mean changes to building such as replacing glazing or introducing secondary glazing systems. They will also include the need for consideration of the ventilation and cooling of new living spaces in order that the integrity of protection against noise is preserved. Those ventilation and cooling systems may, in turn, generate their own noise.
Any change to permitted development rights must take account of the need to protect amenity and to defend the future of existing city or town centre uses. Those planning controls already exist and for the most part, work well, when implemented properly, but when implemented poorly, the results can be disastrous, particularly for hospitality businesses.
The failure of Manchester City Council to implement the agent of change principles in relation to the development of residential space above Night and Day Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter is a prime example of a local authority getting it horribly wrong, doing enforcement poorly, and a business suffering the consequences and costs. It shows exactly what could go wrong and why the regulation around those changes must be tightly controlled.
The complexity of those two competing needs and managing the acoustic design around those two essential requirements does not easily lend itself to the permitted development process. It will take very carefully-crafted changes to the current planning rules to allow these city and town centre uses to be converted to residential use with ease, whilst also ensuring that the changes receive the level of detailed design input and regulatory scrutiny that they need to protect everyone in those urban environments.
As ever, the lack of detail in this announcement should and will make any acoustician nervous as to the Governments understanding of those risks and that they won’t be ignored in the rush to develop new housing in a challenging political landscape.