In recent years, the government has created a series of new permitted development (PD) rights in a bid to add flexibility to the planning system. The best known, and to date the most controversial, allows the conversion of offices to homes. At the end of October, the government went a step further. A consultation document published alongside the Budget included a number of proposed policies aiming to "help town centres remain vibrant" (see panel below).
Most radically, the government suggested replacing the existing A1, A2 and A3 use classes with a new "single use class to cover shops, financial and professional services, restaurants and cafés". The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) consultation response document states: "Premises on the high street are often in more than one use, for example a bookshop and café, which allows them to attract a wider range of customers. There could be scope for a new use class that provides for a mix of uses within the A1, A2 and A3 uses beyond that which is considered to be ancillary, which would support the diversification of high street businesses."
While PD rights leave councils with some powers to shape proposals through the prior approval process, the creation of a broad new use class "would mean that movement between these uses was no longer development and not a matter for the planning system to consider", according to the document. The change would "bring greater flexibility," it said, but would also "reduce the ability of communities and local planning authorities to distinguish between shops and restaurant uses".
The proposal has prompted concern among public sector planners. Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, said merging use classes could damage local authorities’ efforts to plan high streets and town centres effectively. "Councils have historically sought to zone town centres into the retail core and peripheral areas where services can go," he said. "Different councils will look to do that in different ways. There isn’t one size fits all. The Use Classes Order draws a barrier between different uses, so you can craft policies to manage your town centre."
Existing PD rights have prompted a number of councils to bring in article 4 directions, which reintroduce the need for planning permission, to regain control over changes of use. A merged use class would remove local authorities' powers to intervene in changes within that new use class altogether - and Kiely said that’s a problem. "We recognise that we probably have too many shops and the impact of the internet is fairly severe and likely to continue," he said. "But allowing the market to address these issues is not something that is likely to result in a satisfactory solution."
It’s also unclear whether the market needs more flexibility. Nicole Roe, a planning associate at Barton Willmore, said the need for change of use applications has rarely been seen as a barrier to development in the past. "If there is big demand for different uses, a change of use application is not insurmountable," Roe said. In addition, she added, developers’ appetite to pursue conversions will vary depending on the existing vitality of an area - and changes of use are unlikely to be enough to turn town centres around. "You can’t instantly make an unpopular area more popular by changing the Use Classes Order. If we want to diversify town centres - because ultimately the more diverse they are the more sustainable they are - there needs to be some sort of element of control over things."
Michael Bach, planning chair at the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, said the proposed policy fails to recognise that different high streets and town centres require different solutions. "In the places that are really suffering, there’s a lot of vacant property," he said. "But what’s being designed is a tool that probably won't lift them out of their problems because there perhaps isn’t a market for these alternative uses. Whereas in areas where things are a little bit more buoyant, you’re creating an opportunity for developers to come along and pick off whatever they want."
Therefore, Bach warned, allowing changes of use without planning permission could have the opposite of the intended effect, damaging the vitality of currently successful high streets and town centres by allowing landlords to convert shops to other more profitable uses. "Some of these changes are one-way trips. It’s a potentially disruptive factor for centres where it’s not a question of empty shops," he said.
Paul Keywood, head of retail and town centres at consultants Turley, said planners may need to be more flexible, but will require some control to deal with the challenges facing high streets. "With the diversity of sizes, types and locations of town centres, a planned, holistic and bespoke approach is needed for each one," he said. In contrast, the government’s proposed changes to the Use Classes Order and extensions of permitted development rights, which he described as "piecemeal changes", risk shops being converted to other uses and therefore could "erode the reasons why people still visit centres".
Other proposed changes to town centre use classes:
• New permitted development (PD) rights allowing allow shops (A1) financial and professional services (A2), hot food takeaways (A5), betting shops, payday loan shops and launderettes to change to office use (B1).
• New PD rights allowing hot food takeaways (A5) to change to residential use (C3).
• Simplifying the A1 retail use class "to ensure that it accommodates new and future business models and modern shopping preferences".
• Extending the time period for temporary conversions between a wide range of uses, including shops, restaurants and financial services, from two to three years, with changes allowed to a wider range of community uses, including museums, health centres and libraries.