In the last year, the Government has made significant changes to permitted development rights (PDRs) and the use class system. Of these changes, the two most notable are the creation of new use class E, which brings together most uses commonly found on the high street, and a new class MA right for change of use from use class E to residential. Since change of use within the same use class is not considered development, the new use class means more premises can now change their use without the developer needing planning permission. The new class MA right is the latest in a series of PDRs for change of use to residential. The objective of the changes is to revitalise high streets and boost housing delivery by making it easier for landlords and developers to change the use of buildings and respond more flexibly to changing demand.
Whilst we understand the intention behind the recent changes, we have concerns about their impact, including on local planning authorities (LPAs) and the critical role they play in place-making. The ability of LPAs to control permitted development is limited to certain prescribed matters, principally those set out in the prior approval process. We support the use of prior approval and other conditions to control the quality of permitted development, but we heard the regime had become so complicated it was now little different from the full planning system. Furthermore, the Government has not explained how its approach to PDR fits with its proposed reforms in the planning White Paper. In particular, the recent changes appear to contradict the increased focus in the White Paper on plan-led development and local democratic involvement.
For these reasons, we recommend the Government pause any further extensions of permitted development rights for change of use to residential, including the new class MA right, which is due to take effect on 1 August, and conduct a review of their role within the wider planning system. As part of that review, we recommend it set out its long-term vision for permitted development for change of use to residential and explain how it plans to retain the benefits of these PDRs whilst not also sacrificing the ability of LPAs to shape their communities.
Besides prior approval, the main way LPAs can control permitted development is by imposing an Article 4 direction to disapply certain PDRs in a specified area, such as a commercial or town centre. The Government recently proposed changing the regime to restrict the circumstances in which LPAs could impose a direction, although following a consultation it amended its proposal to specify that directions could be used to prevent the loss of the essential core of a primary shopping area. We welcome this amendment, as an improvement on the original proposal, but it is too early to say if it goes far enough. It is also not clear why the Government feel it necessary to amend the current wording or what problem it is trying to fix.
We broadly welcome the new use class E, as we can see the advantages of greater flexibility, but we are concerned it allows out-of-town premises, such as office blocks, to convert to retail without having first gone through the sequential test. The purpose of the test is to ensure that wherever possible main town centre uses are located in town centres. We recommend the Government consider amending the use class regime to prevent such development from bypassing the sequential test.
The Government says the new class MA right will boost footfall, by increasing the number of people living in town centres, and so revitalise local economies. We acknowledge there may be merit in converting upper floors, but we are concerned about the potential loss of ground-floor retail premises. As currently drafted, the new right will apply to all use class E premises that have been vacant for three months. We fear this is not long enough to prevent viable business from being evicted by landlords seeking a profit from residential conversions and that this resulting loss of businesses could instead have a negative impact on footfall.
We recommend the Government either extend the vacancy period or devise a test that can be applied to properties to make sure they are not still viable as commercial premises. We also recommend it amend the prior approval process for the class MA right so that councils, in deciding whether to approve development, can consider the impact of a loss of ground-floor commercial, business and service uses on the sustainability of a town centre or high street. Currently, this protection only applies in conservation areas.
As well as revitalising town centres, the Government says its recent changes will boost housing delivery. We conclude that previous PDRs have contributed to the supply of new homes but that the precise number is difficult to calculate given the likelihood that some of them would have been built anyway. Given the acute housing shortage, we welcome any additional housing, but although we have been told of examples of good quality conversions, we are seriously concerned that some of the homes are of poor quality and situated in unsuitable places, such as business and industrial parks, and that some of the people living in them do not have the option of living elsewhere. PDRs also tend to produce too many studio and one-bedroom flats and not enough family homes.
We welcome the Government’s amendment to permitted development requiring that all new homes delivered through PDRs comply with nationally described space standards. We recommend, however, that it also amend the prior approval process to enable councils to better control the quality and location of housing delivered under PDR. In particular, we recommend that local authorities be able to prevent the siting of homes in inappropriate locations, such as business and industrial parks. Among other amendments to prior approval, we suggest the Government consider requiring the installation of windows (rather than just skylights) as part of the requirement for adequate natural light; requiring the provision of outdoor private or communal amenity space; and enabling local authorities to require that overall the housing delivered through PDRs contributes a mix of housing types that fits with their own assessment of housing need in their area.