The impact of the decline of high street retail has been highlighted by the reopening of shops this week. One response to this trend is for the Government to use it as an opportunity to address housing shortages, permitting the conversion of former retail premises into residential developments. Recent use class changes have been introduced to accommodate this. 

New legislation

Following the introduction of the new 'Class E' in September 2020, the Government has extended permitted development ('PD') rights again, allowing the change from Class E (meaning 'everything' and applying to most town centre uses) to Class C3 (dwellings) amid plans to regenerate England's high streets. The new regulations, introducing a new Class MA, will come into force on 1 August 2021.

Whereas previously, PD rights were limited to a small number of commercial premises such as offices and shops, the proposed legislation will apply to all 'Class E' uses (including in Conservation Areas). Councils cannot refuse shop conversions under these new rights on the basis that they will affect retail viability. The Government's nationally described space standards will apply.  Prior approval requirements will still include flooding, transport, contamination, noise, natural light, fire safety, and 'agent of change' issues relating to general or heavy industry, waste management, storage and distribution uses.

Limits

The rights will be subject to a three month vacancy requirement and threshold tests requiring that use for the preceding two years was a 'Class E' equivalent, and a maximum area of 1,500 square metres (which will spell the end for conversion of large office blocks).

The new permitted development rights do not cover external works so new windows/shopfronts etc. may require planning permission. There will be more rigorous conditions in Conservation Areas if it relates to changing a ground floor use and there are protections in place for health centres and nurseries. The new regulations will not apply to listed buildings, scheduled monuments, national parks or areas of outstanding beauty. Finally, Article 4 directions restricting office-to-residential (Class O) changes will continue to apply until July 2022, which will give authorities the chance to put non-immediate directions in place if needed.

Concerns

There are concerns that removing planning restrictions when converting commercial premises into residential homes could risk poorer quality housing coming to the market, and long-term disruption of uses on the high street.

This raises a wider question of development control, in that local planning authorities will have lost an element of control over new development in commercial areas. It will remain to be seen if local planning authorities consider the extent of licencing powers to restrict uses or impose more onerous planning conditions.