Government Consults on New Permitted Development Rights to allow Town Centre Uses to Convert to Residential

4th December 2020

The Government has issued a consultation paper seeking views on a proposed new permitted development right for the change use from the new Class E (Commercial, Business and Service) use class to residential in an effort to “support economic recovery, housing delivery and the regeneration of our high streets and town centres“.

The paper also discusses measures to support public service infrastructure through the planning system, and the approach to simplifying and consolidating existing permitted development rights following the recent changes to the Use Classes Order.  The consultation will run from 3 December 2020 to 28 January 2021.

A new use Class E was introduced on 1 September and encompasses the old A1 retail, A2 financial and professional services, A3 restaurants and cafes, B1 business use classes and other uses such as gyms and creches.  The Government feels that allowing such uses to change to residential (C3) use will help to diversify and support the high street, create new housing opportunities, make effective use of existing commercial buildings, bring additional footfall from new residents and assist in the wider regeneration of town centre and other locations.

All new homes delivered under the new permitted development rights would be required to meet the nationally descried space standards, and the rights will only apply to buildings in Class E use on 1 September 2020.  However, it is proposed that there will be no size limit on the buildings that can benefit from the right.  There will be the usual exclusions for sites of special scientific interest, listed buildings, scheduled monuments, safety hazard areas, military explosives storage areas and sites subject to an agricultural tenancy.  Similarly, the rights will not apply in areas of outstanding natural beauty, the Broads, National Parks and World Heritage Sites, although it is proposed that they will apply in conservation areas, subject to prior approval of the impact of the loss of ground floor retail use.  Prior approval will be required generally in relation to flooding, transport, contamination, noise, the adequacy of natural light, fire safety and the impact on the intended occupiers in an area the authority considers is important for heavy industry and waste.

The consultation paper also seeks views on proposals to amend existing permitted development rights to allow schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and prisons to expand and adapt their buildings without the need for planning permission. The Government proposes to amend the rights to allow such uses to expand their facilities by up to 25% of the footprint of the current buildings on the site at the time the legislation is brought into force, or up to 250 square metres, whichever is the greater.  It is also proposed that the height limit is raised from 5m to 6m, excluding plant on the roof, except where it is within 10 metres of the boundary or curtilage.

There are also proposals for a faster planning application process for larger hospital, school, further education college and prison development, including development on new sites. This will include a shorter determination period of 10 weeks, modified consultation and publicity requirements (14 days rather than 21) and measures to increase transparency, including a requirement to notify the Secretary of State of the application.  The Government wants to ensure that the planning system does not unduly cause delays to key public service infrastructure improvements.

Finally, the paper seeks views on the proposed approach to a much needed consolidation and simplification of permitted development rights.  The recent changes to the Use Classes Order mean that there is a need to review references to use classes throughout the General Permitted Development Order and to update individual rights, and articles as appropriate.

This is another bold step in the relaxation of planning rules by the Government, although it was not unexpected; the Prime Minister said back in June that he intended to provide for a wider range of commercial buildings to be allowed to change to residential use as part of his “Build, Build, Build” agenda.  However, the absence of a size restriction will mean that some conversions will be of a substantial size, and the ability of local authorities to manage such developments under the prior approval process will be restricted.  Given the current challenges facing the high street, it seems likely that our town centres will start to look very different if these changes are brought into force.

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