How much genuine power communities will have to shape the places where they live and work has, rightly, been a huge question throughout both the storm of controversy on the National Planning Policy Framework and the development of the neighbourhood planning concept. A less publicised aspect of the planning reforms, however, could also have significant impacts on communities, streets and neighbourhoods: the Government's review of how changes of use are handled.
There are many factors that can contribute to better streets – genuine community engagement, good design, safe vehicle speeds and sensible maintenance are key elements. Yet people’s relationship with their streets goes wider than this. Easy access, within a short walk, to a good mix of shops and services is also crucial: without it, few people will be out on the streets at all.
Dispiritingly, though, research commissioned this year has shown that over a quarter of us feel isolated, or have a friend or loved one who does, because of difficulty accessing basic amenities such as libraries, schools, shops selling fresh food, post offices, banks, GPs and community pubs on foot. Worsening health and air quality resulting from less physical activity and more car journeys, a widening equality gap as those without cars are left behind, and a decline in social interaction in the neighbourhood are obvious consequences of a lack of walking access to essential destinations.
People want to live in walking-friendly neighbourhoods – they tend to carry higher property prices to prove it. More power to safeguard a good mix of local shops and services is likely to be a big draw for groups to get involved in neighbourhood planning, but the new planning powers outlined in the Localism Bill and National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) may disappoint. The General Permitted Development Order currently allows many essential local shops and services to have their use changed without planning permission, undermining a community’s power to safeguard the services they need within walking distance, or to prevent oversaturation of the same types of shops.
As commented on by Planning previously, betting shops are a particularly sore issue, with an effective loophole in legislation seeing betting shops classified as ‘financial and professional services’, meaning changes of premises from local services such as banks and community anchors such as pubs to betting shops count as permitted development. Nationally, 11 betting shops every month are currently opening, while 14 bank branches are shutting, reducing the mix of shops and services that people can access on foot. This is against overwhelming public opinion: Living Streets’ YouGov research showed that 81 per cent of British adults think communities should have a say when the use of a building is changed.
The issue has been particularly prominent in London. Deptford’s high street area contains ten betting shops, despite local business opposition, while Ealing hosts 13 betting shops within 150 metres of its main underground station. Politicians including David Lammy in Tottenham and Joan Ruddock in Deptford have notably been active on the issue, joined recently by the Mayor of London. But it’s not just a London issue: other urban areas such as Bradford have also been affected.
It is far from certain that the Government’s review of changes of use will address these concerns. The stated aim of the review is to ‘ensure that full consideration is given to the balance between supporting growth and ensuring communities have the opportunity to influence their environment’. However, deregulation is explicitly a central theme and the review was trailed, significantly, by a consultation earlier this year on liberalising changes of use from commercial to residential, further undermining community voices.
Yet deregulation and localism do not have to compete. Of course the economic demand for particular types of premises does, and should, play a role – but this isn’t a reason for certain changes of use to be able to evade the planning process and bypass local opinion. The most effective and genuine way to reduce centralised, top-down regulation is to give local communities the power they need to address local circumstances.
Including a ‘community’ use class within the Use Classes Order, reclassifying betting shops as sui generis ie, effectively placing them in a use class of their own, extending planning protection to ‘assets of community value’ identified locally as proposed in the Government’s Community Right to Buy, and enabling Local or Neighbourhood Development Orders to amend permitted development rights locally are all possibilities which could be explored.
This is part of a broader argument about what kind of planning powers communities really want. People aren’t necessarily aware of largely arbitrary distinctions between ‘planning’ and other aspects of governance: discussion on the Localism Bill in the House of Lords noted, for example, that traffic and street management issues may well be of greater day-to-day concern for many communities than planning for development, but found little enthusiasm from the Government for allowing communities to address these factors through neighbourhood planning.
Above all, decisions such as those on changes of use are fundamentally what local communities perceive planning to be about. If the Government fails to give communities a say on something so basic, it’s difficult to see many people being engaged enough to move towards the more radical manifestations of localism – like taking over a local amenity – that the Government is keen to encourage.
The review of use classes is ongoing, and it seems likely that the NPPF will continue to be the headline act at DCLG as the Department wades through the huge number of consultation responses. But the message from communities is clear – the Government must act to give local people a say in creating a good mix of useful shops and services and make good on their promises to ensure communities have the opportunity to influence their local environment.
Tony Armstrong is CEO of Living Streets, a national charity that campaigns for pedestrians. It campaigns to create safe, attractive and enjoyable streets, where people want to walk.