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Posted in Planning

The Use Class that keeps on giving

Just when you thought that no more excitement could happen in the planning world, the government has launched a consultation seeking views on potentially far reaching proposals to allow a change of use from any Commercial, Business and Service (the new Class E) to residential (Class C3). This would allow any property falling within Class E on 1 September 2020 to change to residential property without requiring planning permission, although not vice versa.

Vibrant town centres and the COVID-19 response

The new Class E only came into effect 1 September 2020 and spans a significant range of uses, from retail to sport and fitness, to crèches and nurseries. The government considers that owners of such properties should have greater flexibility to move between uses and that this, in turn, will enable businesses to respond to changing market demands. Key to this strategy is the impact of COVID-19 on the retail sector, with retail spaces becoming less attractive and people looking for long-term flexibility for their assets in response to the increased prevalence of home working.

The consultation notes that in the year from June 2019 – June 2020 there has been a net reduction of 5,350 retail units in English town centres. The government is therefore hoping that the new permitted development right (PDR) to allow this change of use, will not only address housing need, but will also increase footfall for those retail units that have survived the pandemic by increasing the numbers of local residents, while offering those unable to sustain businesses an alternative option.

Whilst the proposed measures form part of the government’s overall efforts to mitigate the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, thought does need to be given to their longer term consequences. Whilst the aim of increasing footfall by way of new residents is laudable, it does increase the risk that in areas already poorly served by amenities such as shops, the situation could become even more dire, as property owners switch these valuable local resources to become homes. Indeed, there is nothing within the proposals to stop whole areas of retail or employment uses being lost entirely.

Any exceptions?

The proposals relate to England only and the new permission would apply to any property within Class E without limitation to the size of the building (part or whole) to which the PDR would apply. Properties with certain designations, such as listed buildings, would fall outside of the PDR. The change, if approved, would come into force on 1 August 2021.

What else is in the consultation?

The consultation also seeks views on speeding up the approval process in rolling out public infrastructure improvements – a key focus point for the Prime Minister and government – and to introduce a further new PDR allowing educational and medical establishments to increase their facilities by up to 25%. Given the controversy which often surrounds the extension of schools, in terms of  increased traffic and noise, these proposals may not receive the warm welcome the government seems to expect.

Next steps

The consultation remains open to responses until 28 January 2021. The speed and content of the government’s response is sure to be impacted by the pandemic over the next few months. The timing of this consultation also demonstrates the government’s confidence in the changes that it introduced to the Use Classes Order and the Permitted Development Rights in September. The recent, failed challenge to those changes (read our blog) has clearly fuelled the government’s appetite to deliver on its promise of a reshaped planning system.