Great Britain

'It feels almost like prison': the developers building homes with no natural light

The slick marketing website for Reliance House boasts a timeless building near Liverpool’s vibrant waterfront “reimagined for modern living”.

The swanky apartments are furnished with wooden floors and sleek built-in storage (a one-bedroom flat is on the market for £114,950). But the website does not mention that five of the flats in the basement have no windows, while two more only have high level windows at street level.

The plans from the developer, Legacie Developments, however reveal that many of those living below ground in the £24m project will have to survive with little or no natural light.

Liverpool’s planners were unable to consider the lack of natural light as the project did not go through the usual approval process for new dwellings in the north-west city. Instead it was fast-tracked under controversial reforms, which allow developers to use so-called “permitted development rights” to convert offices to flats without full planning permission.

These changes were brought in by ministers to boost housing numbers in 2013 but are now subject to a government review amid concerns they have led to a flurry of poor-quality office to residential conversions across the country.

Julia Park, head of housing research at architects Levitt Bernstein, says developers are taking advantage of the lack of controls to build flats in basements for which they would not have received permission in the past. “Daylight and space are the two most obvious victims of permitted development rights,” she says. “I can’t imagine that any planning authority would allow either a conversion or a new home to go ahead without a window to each habitable room or at least a roof light.”

Lack of natural light can have serious implications for those living below ground. The government’s housing health rating system, which determines the standards demanded by housing officers, warns inadequate natural light poses a threat to physical and mental health. Sunlight is also known to boost vitamin D, which helps prevent bone loss and reduces the likelihood of various diseases.

“I haven’t met anyone who thinks that a home without daylight is acceptable – we all know that it’s essential to our health and wellbeing,” says Park. “Having a view out – a visual connection with the outside world – is also really important. However smart these flats are, they are likely to increase the risk of isolation and depression.”

For experienced planners, windowless flats are anathema. Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), says the window-free flats in Reliance House should never have been built: “Dwellings of any kind without natural light should not be allowed under any circumstances.”

Legacie Developments said it would not be commenting on the claims by the TCPA. “We’ve got nothing to say. We can’t comment on that,” said a spokesperson for the company.

These flats are just some of the estimated 65,000 new dwellings that have been created by turning offices into residential accommodation since 2013. A sample of more than 550 developments analysed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) last year found 70% did not meet space standards. Some of these are in basements, where natural light cannot penetrate and the outside world is rarely glimpsed.

Ellis from the TCPA warns that we are currently building the slums of tomorrow. “All sorts of unsuitable buildings including basements are being converted into housing right now,” he says. “Developers are trying to cram people into small, dark places, which is symptomatic of a much wider failure to provide the kind of decent housing that we need.”

Two hundred fifty miles away in Croydon, Kaisha Hance glances up towards the blur of legs drifting past the grimy, barred window at the far end of the narrow basement room she shares with her two young sons in the centre of Croydon.

“It feels almost like prison - it really does,” she says. “There are bars on the window. The glass is frosted. It’s dull in here all of the time.”

The 24-year-old and her two children, aged six and four, were placed in 3 Church Road – a former office block carved up into 32 tiny studio flats by developer Church Road Croydon Limited - by Croydon council in April. She had gone to the council for help after they became homeless.

There isn’t much in the way of a view and it gets her down sometimes. ““I wake up moody. I feel like it’s going to be a shit day. If we open the window here all we see is the underneath of cars and people’s feet.” Yet even this meagre connection with the outside world is frequently blocked by wheelie bins in front of the windows.

The room, which is below national space standards, is constantly bathed in the sickly yellow glow of electric bulbs. She has to leave the lights on because otherwise she would be unable to see through the gloom to do daily tasks such as cooking or laundry. “We get though £30 of electric a week,” she remarks.

The lack of natural light is just one of the problems with living underground. Hance points out blooms of black mould below the widows and says it gets really cold when the temperature drops. “It is absolutely freezing. The amount of times my kids have woken up saying: ‘I’ve got cramp in my leg.’ They’ve got duvets and tons of blankets so they can snuggle up warm but it’s not enough.”

Worse still, raw sewage has on a few occasions seeped out of her shower, and the drains in the outside yard sometimes get blocked. “The drain at the back was flooded and there was faeces coming out,” she says, screwing her face up in disgust. “It was coming through the door.”

There are six flats in total in the basement of 3 Church Road. Plans submitted by the owners in 2015 reveal three of the flats have barred street-level windows while the others rely on lightwells or high-level windows looking out onto a covered access road leading to the rear of the building.

This is despite guidance approved by prime minister Boris Johnson during his stint as London mayor nine years ago which calls for sunlight in all liveable rooms and generous windows for all new developments in the capital.

Ben Clifford from University College London, who is carrying out the government’s review of permitted development, says his team visited the completed conversion as part of a study published last year. “It would only have a poor level of light through the windows provided and no proper view of the outside world from their flats,” he says. “When combined with a lack of adequate private outdoor space provided for residents, this can lead to poor quality accommodation and potentially affect the health and wellbeing of residents.”

The building is managed by one of the main players in the temporary accommodation market, Theori, and partly owned by millionaire property developer, Mario Carrozzo – who reportedly drives a £164,000 Ferrari and lives in a £6m mansion in Surrey with a tennis court, indoor swimming pool and home cinema.

A spokesperson for Carrozzo said: “The building is fully compliant with UK building regulations and is leased to a third-party housing provider.”

Tony Theori, Theori director, says: “All flats were inspected by the local authority prior to placing any families in the flats and confirmation was granted to use the flats by the local authority for housing.”

Croydon council said: “Local planning authorities have very few grounds to refuse an application through the route of permitted development and poor natural light is not one.” Since 3 Church Road was converted Croydon has introduced special restrictions in the centre of the borough to regain greater control of office to residential conversions. It adds that it has to use privately owned emergency accommodation because demand outstrips supply.

It’s not just office basements that end up as dungeon-like dwellings. In many British cities, where there are stark shortages of affordable housing and intense competition over rentals, unscrupulous small-scale developers and landlords have been cashing in by converting basements into windowless rooms and bedsits.

London boroughs such as Southwark report an increasing number of properties are being carved up into “micro flats”, and spaces not designed for human habitation, such as basements, are being rented out. Last year the council’s officers took action to prevent a landlord letting a “very dark” uninhabitable basement bedroom in Bermondsey. It had no direct natural light, with only extremely limited light coming from a stairwell above.

In Camden, housing officers served a prohibition notice last year on a basement flat in King Cross deemed to pose a serious potential risk to the mental health of occupants. They found that even on a sunny day the flat was gloomy and normal domestic tasks could not be carried out without artificial lighting.

Victoria Mills, Southwark’s finance cabinet member, says this is being driven by an acute housing crisis. “We are finding that more landlords are attempting to rent out housing that is not only unsuitable but can have a detrimental impact on people’s mental health,” she says. “One such example are basement flats that do not have adequate windows and don’t provide simple things like ventilation, natural daylight or a view.”

The Ministry of Housing argues permitted development rights will continue to play a role in meeting the government’s target to building one million new homes by the end of the parliament. “But we’ve also got to get the quality of these new homes right – the review will be completed early in the new year and further announcements on its findings will be made in due course,” says a spokesperson.

For many in the planning profession, this will be a moral test for the new government. Ellis says ministers need to ask themselves: “are they happy for people to be regarded as storage problems not human beings, because that’s how this policy treats them?”

In the meantime Hance has a message for Carrozzo: “If he came and knocked on my door and asked how I was I would be like ‘come and live here and tell me how you are after 24 hours’. I’ve got to bring my kids back here every single day and call it home.”

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