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Government overhauls permitted development rights

Government overhaul of permitted development rights will help to create additional housing and save struggling high streets, explains Neal Allcock, partner (planning) at Carter Jonas.

Following an announcement by the Government last week, new Permitted Development (PD) rights will allow unused commercial buildings to be converted into homes from 1 August.

This change forms part of a series of new freedoms to support high streets as they navigate their way out of the pandemic, while also potentially creating much-needed housing.

The legislation will enable applicants to apply for prior approval under the new Class E to Residential PD right, rather than having to submit a full planning application, providing that they meet the following criteria:

· Vacancy requirement: the building will need to have been vacant for 3 months prior to the date of application

· Size restriction: no more than 1,500 square metres of floorspace will be able to change use under the PD right

· Long use restriction: the building must have been in Class E (Commercial, Business and Service) use for two years before benefiting from the right.

It is encouraging to see that measures have been taken to ensure that new housing units meet basic requirements: flooding, the impact of noise from commercial premises and provision of adequate natural light to all habitable rooms. New homes must also comply with space standards which were introduced to the GDPO last year and which came into effect on 6 April 2021.

Additionally, local planning authorities are required to consider the impact of any loss of health centres and registered nurseries and in Conservation Areas, the impact of the loss of the ground floor commercial, business and service use.

The fact that these issues are taken into account and feature prominently in the MHCLG’s press release suggests both that the Government is aware of previous controversies surrounding conversions under PD rights, and that it has taken into account the issues that came to light in the consultation earlier this year.

Some complexities remain, however. Where specific Local Planning Authorities previously put in place Article 4 directions to prevent change of use from offices (Under Class O) to residential, these directions will remain in place.

With the new Class E including not only offices but also shops, office buildings, research and development facilities, clinics, health centres, creches, day nurseries, day centres, gyms and most indoor recreations, it will be interesting to see whether Local Planning Authorities continue to use Article 4 with the aim of protecting their high streets, or whether the new criteria is deemed sufficient to capture and protect the essence of the high street, while also creating suitable residential development.

Another possible area of concern is compatibility with adjoining uses.

Whilst noise is a consideration as part of the prior approval application, we notice that the impact of odour has not been included. This may pose a concern when a unit adjacent to a hot food takeaway is converted to a home and raises the question of whether planning applications for hot food takeaways elsewhere will be subject to less scrutiny by means of impact on amenity given the fall-back position of these new PD rights.

A further potential complication is the timing of this announcement. We find it somewhat perplexing that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee launched an inquiry into the approach to permitted development rights eight days before the Government announced these new PD changes, with submissions open until 30 April. Will the outcome of this inquiry result in amendments to the PD rights published last week or will this act as a future roadmap? Given that these rights will come into play from 1 August there won’t be much scope for making changes as a result of the ongoing inquiry.

The ability to change the use of vacant commercial units can substantially benefit struggling high streets across England. But as ever, its success will depend on the smooth implementation of the legislation and the willingness of Local Planning Authorities to adapt to the change. It will also be necessary to keep under careful review how these PD rights operate so that over time the vitality and viability of town centres is optimised.

Photo credit – Sven Mieke

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