Permitted development rights won't save the high street, by Joey Gardiner

The government's consultation on allowing shops, restaurants and other high street uses to change to offices without planning permission raises concerns, says Joey Gardiner.

It seems that there is no planning challenge the government can’t answer through extension of permitted development (PD) rights. The rapid decline of high streets and town centres – undoubtedly a huge issue – is the latest. Just last week property consultant CBRE said £20 billion had been wiped off the value of retail property in five months. And last month the president of shopping centre trade body Revo, Mark Williams, said anything between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of all retail premises will be surplus to requirement within a generation.

The property industry has complained that local authorities are not being flexible enough in allowing vacant shops to change to other uses. This has seemingly prompted this latest government consultation, on a new PD right to allow shops, restaurants and other high street uses to change to offices without planning permission. So, will it work?

While this proposal has already proved controversial, the government’s thinking is not entirely unwarranted. Diversification is clearly part of the answer to the high street problem. And many local authorities have town centre policies containing quotas for shopfronts (A1 usage) that are now entirely unrealistic. Where these are applied rigidly, they can be damaging. One consultant cites a local authority that, to maintain its A1 quota, declined a high-end and well-regarded restaurant chain for a former Woolworths site. The vacant lot became, instead, a Poundland.

In addition, for shopping centre owners, this PD right will be welcomed, as it helps them to take a strategic view on usage across their whole development, with minimal delay and bureaucracy.

But a PD rights extension is not actually what most landlords have been calling for. For a start, it’s not clear, in those secondary locations where high streets are struggling, that office units will provide a viable answer.

Consultants suggest that largely, in fact, it will be the primary shopping locations (which are least affected by high street woes and should be protected), where the demand for office conversion will be highest. This raises the spectre of the PD right – as with office to resi – prompting landlords of happily occupied properties to change use in search of a higher value.

It is ironic, of course, that some areas may have a shortage of office space exactly because of the conversion under PD rights of so many offices to flats. Last year the British Council for Offices reported that the amount of office floorspace in the country had started declining for the first time on record, with 18 million square feet lost by 2015 alone.

It also is not clear that obtaining change of use permission is a significant barrier. Many local authorities are taking pragmatic decisions in response to the retail bloodbath, whatever their historic policies say. They will undoubtedly oppose this new PD right.

But they’re not alone – many in the private sector are also concerned. Outside single owner-curated shopping centres, the PD right raises the risk of stores in primary shopping streets turning into offices in a piecemeal way that reduces the intensity of retail outlets, the number of active frontages, vitality and animation, and could ultimately deter shoppers. While bringing in different uses to town centres is now essential, where those different uses go is important. Without a plan to protect a smaller retail core, town centres could be fatally undermined. That is a threat to property owners and local authorities.

Joey Gardiner is special correspondent for Planning

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