With the Government having recently introduced new permitted development rights, Richard Morgan, planning and development consultant at youngsRPS, looks at what the changes might mean for bringing vacant town centre buildings back into use.
On August 1 this year, permitted development rights came into force allowing buildings in certain commercial, business and service uses to change to residential without the need for planning permission.
The new ‘Class MA’ of the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) will replace the current office to residential permitted development rights (Class O) and follows the revised Use Classes Order that was introduced in September 2020.
The revised order subsumed a number of commercial uses into one all-encompassing new category, Class E.
This includes shops, restaurants, gyms, offices, professional services and light industry.
Therefore, the residential conversion of many commercial uses found on our high streets could, in theory, take place more easily.
The new rule has proved to be controversial, and during the consultation stages many were concerned that deemed approval for this change of use would lead to poor quality housing and that existing businesses on high streets would be pushed out by landlords.
In the GPDO as enacted, a number of conditions have been added, presumably in an attempt to appease these concerns and create some checks and balances.
The permitted development right is subject to a size limit of 1,500sq metre of floorspace (can be part of a building) and only applies to buildings that have been in a Class E use for two years, including time in former uses now within that class.
Furthermore, to try and protect viable businesses, the right only applies to buildings that have been continuously vacant for at least three months.
Notably, the right will apply in conservation areas, but not to listed buildings and not in other protected areas such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites.
Although billed as a fast-track process, as with other change of use permitted development rights, it requires a prior approval application to be submitted to the local planning authority.
In this sense, permission is still required.
While the principle of the proposed change of use is already established, there are a number of other considerations to be taken into account as required by the GPDO.
Matters to be considered include transport impacts, flood risk, noise impact from commercial premises and the provision of adequate natural light to all habitable rooms.
The Government believes the new rules “will help support the creation of much-needed homes while also giving high streets a new lease of life – removing eyesores, transforming unused buildings and making the most of brownfield land”.
The leading member organisations within the development industry do not agree, though, with the Royal Town Planning Institute, Royal Institute of British Architects, Chartered Institute of Building and Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors issuing a joint letter to the Prime Minister strongly objecting to the new measures.
With our town centres in decline, however, action is clearly needed.
According to a report from the British Retail Consortium and Local Data Company, the vacancy rate across UK high streets, retail parks and shopping centres rose to 14.5 per cent in the second quarter of 2021.
The North East is the worst affected region, with 20.6 per cent of units standing empty.
The Government has certainly pushed through the legislation very quickly despite some strong opposition.
Only time will tell whether the rush has left some loopholes and if the prior approval conditions introduced are enough to prevent any adverse outcomes.
We see the need for town centres to remain people focused and new uses should bring footfall to our high streets, ensuring they are vibrant places during the day and into the evening.
More residential property in town centres will bring life and activity, which in turn can have a positive impact on existing retail and leisure uses, as well as bringing new investment.
The new permitted development rights could provide an excellent opportunity for property owners to bring vacant town centre buildings back into effective use.
*This article originally featured in the September issue of North East Times Magazine, visit www.netimesmagazine.co.uk