Why some fear the government's use class overhaul may be a threat to town centres

The government's shake-up of high street use classes will be "transformational", commentators agree, but some warn of unintended consequences that could threaten the town centres the changes are seeking to protect.

High streets: Fresh PD shake-up on the way (pic: Getty)
High streets: Fresh PD shake-up on the way (pic: Getty)

Last week, the government made far-reaching changes to planning use classes that have been described as the most radical since the system was set up in 1987. The changes, which secretary of state Robert Jenrick said aimed to "renew our town centres", will consolidate a huge variety of high street uses in to a single new use class, called class E. This will allow businesses to change between uses as diverse as shops, offices, light industrial and nursery care without planning permission (see tables below).

The change to the Use Classes Order (UCO), which will apply from September 1, will dramatically reduce planning authorities' ability to control commercial uses, with implications that some argue could serve to undermine the town centres the move seeks to protect.

Richard Shepherd, director at consultancy Nexus Planning, said the government had been expected to simply consolidate existing class A retail uses, including shops, professional services premises and restaurants. However, the actual consolidation extends beyond that, covering uses such as offices and research and development facilities. "These changes are massive transformational changes to the system we've been used to since 1987," said Tim Price, director of retail planning at consultant Savills, "They're more radical than we expected."

However, not all control has been lost. The government has also created an "F" class to protect pubs, community uses and small rural shops, and placed hot food takeaways and other potential "bad neighbours" into sui generis, allowing councils to prevent a proliferation of these springing up.

The merging won't mean all class E uses will automatically benefit from the permitted development (PD) rights of some, such as offices, to change to residential. For the purpose of PD rights only, the existing uses will remain until at least the end of July next year, when such rights are due to be reviewed.

The changes have been warmly welcomed by many in the private sector. Ian Fletcher, director of policy at the British Property Federation, said they struck a balance. "I think they are radical, without being reckless," he said. "They provide welcome flexibility between commercial uses, but don't stray into allowing commercial to residential, while there is a list of exceptions which remain outside the new commercial, business and service use."

Andy Fisher, director at planning consultancy Barton Willmore, said: "A lot of local authorities have already been moving away from the kind of restrictive A1 frontage policies we've traditionally seen to something more focused on the diversification of town centre uses."

But Mike Kiely, chairman of the Planning Officers Society, said authorities will be hugely concerned at the loss of control over their town centres. "The consequences will be phenomenal. Just leaving the market to do what it wants is very unlikely to deliver the combination of uses that attract people to town centres," he said. "At the moment, councils cluster uses to provide vitality. This will decimate town centres as you end up with lots of 'dead' uses not serving the public. It's madness."

Kiely agreed with other commentators that councils will be unable to evade the impact of the policy with Article 4 directions in the way many have done with the government's expansion of PD rights. This is because changes between different uses within the new class E will not be classified as development of any kind – permitted or otherwise – and thus will be unaffected by an Article 4 direction.

Hence, experts suggested that councils are likely to resort to including restrictive conditions on planning permissions, which can force a developer to retain a particular use. However, this will only be applicable to new development coming forward, and even then may not be straightforward.

Hannah Quarterman, partner in the planning team at law firm Hogan Lovell, said the fact the government had "lumped all the use classes in together, and extolled the virtues of interchangeability" potentially made it difficult to justify conditions stating that "one class E use is acceptable but not another". Peter Wilks, a senior director at planning consultancy Lichfields, said it was likely that developers would challenge such conditions, "and even seek to appeal them".

Quarterman said another concern was that, far from creating diversity, competition for sites could see essential but less profitable uses such as nurseries or research and development priced out of high streets. "Really important uses are now at risk of being squeezed out in favour of retail uses, if that can command a higher rent," she said.

Probably the biggest shared concern between planning authorities and the private sector is over the impact of the changes on "town centre first" planning policies designed to protect town centre economies. Under last week's proposals, any class E use anywhere will be able to change to any other, which Shepherd said could see food retailers target out of town business parks to convert properties into supermarkets.

Wilks said this was an unintended consequence that "potentially drives a coach and horses through the town centre first policy". He said developers who supported the deregulation may well change their mind when they realise it might threaten existing investments in town centres. "The whole objective of the changes are to stimulate town centres – but this could have directly the opposite effect," he added.

Dominic Curran, property policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, said: "Reducing bureaucracy is fine in principle but we need to be careful not to undermine councils' ability to properly plan their high streets."

Click here to enlarge the table below.

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