On 1 September 2020 extensive changes to the Use Classes Order came into force.

The Use Classes Order specifies various classes of use for planning purposes. Generally speaking, a change of use within a single class will not need planning permission whereas a change of use between different classes will.

Changes to what is included within each class will therefore have implications for the range of purposes for which a particular property can lawfully be used, with a potential knock-on effect on that property's valuation. These changes will be of potential relevance to any charity or social business which currently owns or rents property, or plans to do so in the future.

Increased flexibility for commercial uses

Perhaps the most significant change is the creation of a new Class E for commercial, business and services uses. This includes (amongst other things) shops, cafés and offices, each of which previously fell within a separate use class.

This provides much-needed flexibility during what is a challenging economic climate for high street businesses because the use of a property can be changed within the scope of Class E without the need for planning permission. A property which already has planning consent for, say, A1 (shop) use under the old regime, will now automatically benefit from this broader range of permitted uses. However, this is still subject to any limitations already contained within the planning permission, for instance a planning condition which restricts the property to a particular use.

Charities can take advantage of this new flexibility in a number of ways. For example, if you have a charity shop which is not doing too well but you need more office space, you may now have the option to use that shop as an office. On the other hand, if you are looking to dispose of excess office space, the fact that the property could potentially be used as a restaurant could assist you with finding a buyer and increase the value of the property.

Please note that the position will be slightly more complicated for charities which rent their property, as discussed further below.

'Learning' and 'community' uses

Two further new use classes have been introduced; Class F1 for 'learning and non-residential institutions' (which includes places of worship as well as museums and libraries); and Class F2 for 'local community use'.

Local community use specifically includes: a hall or meeting place for the principal use of the local community; a swimming pool, skating rink or place for outdoor sport or recreation (not involving motorised vehicles or firearms); and a shop selling mostly essential goods with a maximum floor area of 280 metres square and provided that there is no other such facility within a 1000 metre radius of the shop's location.

This is the first time that small local shops have been separated from general retail use, reflecting a perceived need to protect community assets such as these.

Most community centres are likely to fall within the new Class F2; these previously fell within Class D2 which also contained cinemas, concert halls, bingo halls and dance halls. Since those uses are now 'sui generis' (meaning they fall into a class of their own and require planning permission to move to any other use) and have not been included within Class F2, there is arguably less risk of a community centre being converted into (say) a cinema and thereby lost as a community asset.

Other considerations to bear in mind

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of other factors which need to be considered if you are thinking about changing the use of your charity's property. Some of the most important ones are:

  • What does your lease say?

Leases will generally specify a 'permitted use' for the property and the wording of that definition is key. If, for instance, your office lease specifies that the property may only be used 'as offices within Use Class B1' then under the new legislation this will still be limited to office use within Use Class E, meaning there will be no change to what you can do.

  • Are physical alterations required?

In practice many changes of use would necessitate external alterations to a property which would trigger a requirement for planning permission in relation to the works themselves. This should therefore still be factored into your planned timescale and budget.

  • Does the change support your charitable objectives?

It is important to check that any proposed change to your activities is consistent with your charitable objectives, and is generally in the best interests of the charity.