New planning rules will help high streets “bounce back”

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Planning Law on Thursday, May 6th, 2021

A relaxation of planning laws will “revitalise England’s cherished high streets and town centres”, the government has said.

Conversion of commercial premises

The new rules, introduced on 31 March and effected on 21 April 2021, will allow commercial premises to be converted into residential properties through an expansion of permitted development rights (PDR). Formerly, these applied only to commercial office spaces, but the law will now allow conversions of the majority of disused commercial spaces to go ahead without full planning permission. Instead, there will be a much easier ‘prior approval’ process, according to which local authorities will have the power to consider a restricted number of matters relating to the development. Homes built through this process will be subject to certain standards, to ensure they provide adequate natural light and space.

A new ‘fast track’ for extending public service buildings

Also part of the new package of measures are rules facilitating larger extensions to public service buildings. Prior to the change, public buildings (such as hospitals, universities, schools and colleges) were only permitted small extensions without a full planning application. Now, public buildings can be extended by up to 25% of the existing footprint of the cumulative buildings on the site, or 250 square metres – whichever is greater.

A post-pandemic necessity?

The impact of the pandemic on the economy, education and public health has been enormous; the measures are therefore intended to help businesses and public services react quickly and adapt in order to better function in a post-pandemic world. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “We are creating the most small business friendly planning system in the world to provide the flexibility needed for high streets to bounce back from the pandemic.” The public also want to see rapid changes to public services, he said, following the difficulties schools and hospitals had in confronting the coronavirus crisis.

The reaction

As with most announcements relating to permitted development extensions, the changes have been met with mixed reactions. The Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) have welcomed the new rules, describing them as “laying the foundations for a post-pandemic future.” ACE chief executive Hannah Vickers did qualify this statement, however, adding: “we should not lose sight of the ‘better’ aspect of ‘build back better’ and ensure that speed is not driven at the expense of quality nor delivering a sense of place and community.” President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Alan Jones, went further. Denouncing the government’s “ongoing obsession” with extending permitted development rights, he stated: “These new freedoms are dangerously relaxed and lack critical safeguards to prevent further damage to suffering high streets by turning essential community amenities into, all too often, substandard homes.”

Necessary or harmful?

While the news is doubtlessly positive for those who wish to give disused commercial units a new lease of life, it is equally clear that a balance must be struck. While new homes are much-needed, care must be taken to ensure they are of a high standard and suitable for families to live in. Likewise, it should also be ensured that town centres remain a place in which businesses can thrive and continue to be active in a post-pandemic world.

At Attwaters Jameson Hill, our industry-renowned planning team can help developers, architects, planning consultants and other professionals to interpret and navigate what has become a complex and fast-changing system – especially in the wake of the pandemic, with pressure on the government to get construction and infrastructure moving once more as we emerge from lockdown. To find out how our Town and Country Planning team can assist you, please contact Salvatore Amico direct on 0203 871 0039 or email salvatore.amico@attwaters.co.uk.

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