New research from the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) and University College London (UCL) says that 80% of shops and other commercial premises on high streets across England could be lost because of further changes to planning rules.
The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has reiterated its concerns about the expansion of permitted development rights as the new rules around the policy came into force.
“With little fanfare, the government has this week (1 August) changed planning rules in England so that the vast majority of shops and other commercial buildings, including restaurants, cafes, offices, gyms, nurseries, day centres and light industrial units, can be made into homes without planning permission,” said the TCPA.
The new changes allow the change of use from commercial, business and service uses (Class E) to residential use (C3) in England. Class E, which includes primary offices, restaurants, shops, professional services and light industrial premises – was introduced as a new use class in September 2020.
TCPA and UCL’s research examined four case study areas representing different types of built environment – Barnet, Crawley, Huntingdonshire, and Leicester – it found that 80.3% of shops and other commercial buildings could be lost to residential conversion. This figure was as high as 89% for Barnet. “Clearly, anywhere near this reduction in commercial premises – whether shops, cafés, restaurants, gyms, nurseries, or day centres – would rip the hearts out of our communities,” said the TCPA.
“More widely, these changes will mean that councils have very little say over what happens to their high streets and whether new housing meets people’s needs,” it added. “Communities will have no say at all. Planners will only be allowed to assess new developments against a short list of requirements drawn up by central government.”
TCPA’s chief executive Fiona Howie said: “We recognise the need for more homes and the desire to regenerate high streets. But we need new homes to be high quality and for town centres to be able to provide a mixture of services and amenity space. This latest expansion of PDRs further reduces the ability of local authorities and communities to shape their local areas. This is not the right approach if government really wants to ‘build back better’ and to revitalise our high streets.
“This latest expansion of PDRs also contradicts the government’s recent emphasis on high quality design and beauty. Design codes could be a powerful tool but, as this research has shown, in urban areas around 80% of shops and premises could be converted to homes and local plan policies and design codes would not apply.”
RTPI has restated its concerns that these changes could undermine communities by wiping out essential services for local people.
The government is intent on using permitted development rights as way of reaching its target of producing 300,000 new homes each year. It says that the method has accounted for more than 60,000 homes over the last four years.
Victoria Hills, chief executive of RTPI, said: “The RTPI remains deeply concerned about the further roll out of permitted development rights. Offering landlords the opportunity to convert commercial units into places to live could diminish the vibrancy of our high streets, the importance of which has become apparent during the pandemic.
“Without a place-based planned approach, we also fear that essential local services such as convenience stores, crèches, pharmacies, solicitors and post offices could be wiped out permanently as landlords race to recoup losses accrued during the pandemic in return for higher residential values, impacting those who can least afford to travel and leaving a legacy of unsustainable travel behaviour.
“The RTPI will be closely watching the impacts that come as a result of these changes. We remain clear that a planning policy and a carefully curated place-based strategy is the best way to support a green recovery of high streets and town centres.”
In September 2020 the government announced that homes developed through permitted development rights must meet space standards which require a minimum of 37 square metres of floorspace for a new one bed flat with a shower room.
Hills said: “The juxtaposition of increasing the use of permitted development rights with proposals to introduce rigorous design standards seems confused and is an uneasy contrast and risks creating a two-tier system.”
The institute also questions the possible impact on physical activity with gyms, swimming pools and sports and leisure facilities also included in Class E.
Previously, the RTPI has set out a series of additional prior approval matters that it said must be considered if the proposals go ahead. These include the impact on the provision of essential services, access to amenities such as parks for outdoor fitness and exercise, the provision of fresh air through ventilation and the quality of design.
The RTPI has also set out two ‘red lines’ to prevent the creation of large areas of residential development in existing warehousing and supermarkets in highly unsuitable locations. These stipulate that there must be a size limit of 250 square metres on such change of use and the land must have been in retail or office use in December 2020. This is to prevent the exploitation of a loophole that h could see warehouses and supermarkets ending up in residential use.