Takeaway below our flat has left us in crippling debt

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I bought a flat in Haringey five years ago, which was, at the time, above an empty A1 retail unit (which excludes most food-related uses). In late 2019, planning permission was granted to turn it into an A5 fast-food takeaway. This was despite the fact the site is opposite a school, and Haringey council’s public health team objected.

The construction was so disruptive we decided to sell, and the flat was valued at £300,000. We found a buyer and went ahead with buying a house. However, our buyer was unable to secure a mortgage offer because the flat was now above a chicken shop. We were unable to back out of the buying of our new house by that point, and had to take out a loan to complete the purchase.

We are now in crippling debt with two mortgages and two council tax bills. I understand that our plight will become more common as permitted development rights allow premises to be converted to takeaways without planning permission.
SM, London

To start with, your last point – permitted development rights allow a change of use from, say, a shop to a cafe or restaurant. You still need planning permission to convert to a takeaway, although, since lenders tend to be wary of all outlets where food is cooked, the distinction is immaterial to affected householders.

Your plight – and the rules of permitted development – show that homeowners are paying the price for initiatives designed to cut red tape and revitalise town centres. And my investigation into how Haringey council overruled its own public health advisers highlights what appears to be worrying confusion about how planning is controlled.

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The council told me that in 2017 it sought to restrict takeaways within 400 metres of schools to tackle child obesity, but a government-appointed planning inspector vetoed this. Her report concluded that, since there was already a proliferation of takeaways in the borough, the restrictions would be pointless and a ban would curtail consumer choice.

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While a draft of the London plan, drawn up by the mayor’s office, sought to restrict takeaways near schools, it had not been implemented in January 2020 when the planning permission was granted.

Councillor Matt White, Haringey’s cabinet member for planning and corporate services, says: “Planning permission was granted for this property as the unit had been empty since 2017, and had been actively marketed for retail use but did not generate any interest. Even though our own public health team had concerns, we did not have the policy backing to follow it through.”

Unfortunately for you, Haringey appears to have got its facts wrong. The government inspector drew her conclusions on the basis of the national planning guidelines at the time. Weeks later, in July 2017, those changed to allow councils to limit takeaways provided they had evidence it would benefit public health.

According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the council was free to take into account the changed national guidance, the draft of the London plan, and the advice of its public health team when considering the application.

When I went back to Haringey with the ministry’s comments, it said that the emerging London plan policy and national guidance did not form part of its development plan.

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Specialist mortgage brokers should be able to find a lender for your flat, but there are likely to be restrictions on the terms of a loan.

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