Enabling change of use in town centres

Recently, amongst almost daily updates in the national news on the state of our high streets, new changes to permitted development rights in England were reported.   

The changes, which came into effect on 30th May, were widely reported as a boost to town centre regeneration that will make it much easier to bring new uses to empty units on the high street.  But how much impact will these changes actually make?

Summary of the changes

Changes were made that enable certain changes of use without the need to apply for planning permission.  In relation to town centres the key changes are:

  • Premises in B1(a) office use will be able to change to C3 residential use.
  • Buildings with A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, B1, D1 and D2 uses will be permitted to change use for a period of up two years to A1, A2, A3 and B1 uses to help new and start-up businesses.
  • Premises in B1, C1, C2, C2A, D1 and D2 use classes will be able to change use permanently to a state-funded school.

This means that the costs and delays associated with the need to apply for planning permission in these cases can be avoided.  The intention here is to speed up the process and make it easier to fill currently vacant space in town centres.  This  helps to bring planning in line with wider town centre revitalisation initiatives that are based on diversifying uses, promoting new local businesses and increasing vitality.  Allowing the change from office to residential use has the potential to increase footfall in town centres which will increase demand and it is therefore a step in the right direction.  

However, planning is only one of a number of hurdles in bringing empty spaces back into use in town centres.  Therefore the changes may not have the degree of regenerative impact that is being anticipated.    

There are a wide range of challenges that need to be overcome along side the matter of planning.  Some of the key issues include:

  • Prior approval - The changes of use that no longer require planning permission will require an application for prior approval which will consider matters including highway/transport impacts, contamination risk noise and flood risk.  
  • Building Regulations - Whilst planning permission will not be required, the conversion of buildings will need to meed building regulations.  Our experience indicates that this can be a significant barrier particularly in the conversion of upper storey offices to residential.  
  • Demand - A relaxation in planning alone does not create demand for new uses or developers who will undertake the conversions; it is not a case of ‘permit it and they will come’! 
  • Management - The residential use of a property has different management implications to commercial uses and landlords may not have the capacity or inclination to accommodate these changes.  

The changes are welcome in principle to facilitate change but it is unlikely that they will, in themselves, bring about substantial revitalisation of town centres in England.