The impact of Covid-19 on the planning system cannot be underestimated and in recent months there have been numerous changes as a direct result of this.
However, the planning system is high on the Government’s agenda for change in any case and recently there have been a number of radical reforms introduced by the Government in an attempt to both increase housing delivery, and introduce greater flexibility on the High Street in order to breathe new life in to it.
Here, Suzanne Tucker of FBC Manby Bowdler’s specialist Planning Department, explains what these changes involve, the likely impact that they’ll have, and the concerns associated with them.
Arguably the most radical of the recent changes come in the form of amendments to the Use Classes Order, which separates different uses of land into various classes. The changes came into effect on 1 September 2020, and see several existing classes abolished and grouped into a new, more general ‘Commercial, Business and Service’ class (called ‘Class E’).
Class E will include retail, financial services, professional services, cafes and restaurants (but not pubs, bars or hot food takeaways), offices, research and development, light industry suitable for a residential area, crèche and day nurseries, indoor sport, recreation or fitness, and medical or health services.
The importance of this change is that no planning permission will be required to change from one Class E use to another.
This means increased flexibility that will allow premises to change use more easily and is the Government’s way of protecting the High Street, with a view to reducing red tape and encouraging the occupation of vacant premises.
It doesn’t, however, come without its critics who have suggested that the changes will result in reduced control over the sorts of businesses which might occupy town centres and the mix of the offering. This could potentially lead to an increase in non-retail units and a dilution of the retail offering, thus reducing High Street foot fall.
There is also concern that the absence of Local Authority involvement at the point of a change of use will prevent them from imposing conditions such as existing opening hours. This could give rise to conflict between users and residential occupiers and will mean that Councils will not be able to consider the implications of certain types of development, for example, whether the local infrastructure can cater for it.
These changes do not just apply to High Streets and will have implications for out of town locations too.
Whilst it remains to be seen whether those concerns will bear out, it is considered that occupation of a unit one way or another is better than none at all with the aim of rejuvenating failing High Streets.
In other changes, the Government has expanded permitted development rights (PDR) so that planning permission will not be required to replace a block of flats or certain detached commercial buildings with a block of flats or a detached house. There are a wide range of exceptions to the general rule, including that the building to be demolished must have been built prior to 31 December 1989, it must have floorspace of less than 1,000 sq m, and it must have been vacant for at least six months.
If all of the PDR requirements are met, then before any works commence the Council’s approval must be sought on a range of matters, including design and external appearance, the provision of adequate natural light into all habitable rooms, and impact in terms of overlooking and privacy. If the Council’s approval is given, the development must be then completed within three years.
Planning permission will also no longer be required to add up to two additional storeys of new residential accommodation on top of existing buildings, to either enlarge an existing dwelling or create additional dwellings in the form of flats. The rules apply both to houses and commercial buildings, whether or not they are detached, semi-detached or terraced.
Again, there are a raft of limitations, including the date of construction of the building. For example, where a dwelling is being enlarged, it must have been constructed between 1 July 1948 and 28 October 2018. Again, the Council’s prior approval must also be sought on a range of matters.
Whilst the changes have the potential to make a major contribution to the delivery of new housing, the list of requirements which must be met is very long, and local authorities still retain a large element of control over the process. It is, however, encouraging to see the Government coming up with innovative ways to try and tackle the growing housing crisis.
And it’s unlikely that the changes will stop there. The Government is currently consulting on further reforms of the planning system so it’s very much a case of ‘watch this space’.