As part of Project Speed, the government’s post-pandemic recovery agenda, a new Use Class E – Commercial, Business and Service classification was introduced to reduce red tape and planning bureaucracy for minor and incidental change of use planning applications.
As a recap, the new Class E covers retail, professional services, restaurants, offices, light industry, gyms, medical/health services and nurseries and was introduced on 1st September 2020.
There was little doubt amongst planning professionals that the ability for movement between the wide range of uses within Class E, which does not constitute development, provides greater flexibility into the planning system. However, as ever with planning, the devil is in the detail.
Quite often there may well be historic planning conditions or legal agreement restrictions (such as section 106) that limit the use of the premises. More than a few clients have thanked us for this “eye for detail”, as potential new premises were indeed subject to historic restrictive planning use conditions and their flexibility was therefore limited, despite what an agent’s particulars stated!
In April the Government announced that they were making provisions to enable an easier change from Use Class E to residential use through Permitted Development Rights (PDR) to come into effect today (August 2, 2021). As always there has been a groundswell of vociferous opposition to releasing greenbelt for housing development from Middle England, most evident in the mid-June defeat of the Conservatives in the Chesham & Amersham by-election to the Liberal Democrats, on an anti-HS2 agenda and objections to accommodating new homes on former greenbelt land. The timing of the practical introduction of this new liberation from planning restraint, is interesting.
Practical planning sense
Invariably, the conversion to residential use of former retail or other commercial premises that have been vacant, underused or blighted, in sustainable and well connected urban locations makes practical planning sense overall. There are significant tranches of secondary retail provision, too long protected for retail or associated commercial uses by policy planners and local politicians alike, with a misty-eyed view that somehow retail will return. We have all seen these city fringe locations being redeveloped for future residential use, and in some places returning premises back to the use for which they were originally built, it makes eminent sense and can also provide a useful top up to the local housing supply.
However, the Class E to residential conversion requires Prior Approval by the local authority and comes with distinct caveats, which anyone considering embarking upon this form of development should be aware of, including:
• A maximum floorspace of 1,500m sq
• Single-family residential use only and not Houses of Multiple Occupation
• Premises must be vacant for three months preceding the application
• It must have been in one of the Class E uses for two years preceding the application
• Not applicable in Areas of Natural Beauty, Site of Special Scientific Interest, national parks, World Heritage Sites or listed buildings.
Running the risk of a damp squib
In the lead up to today there have been murmurings of Article 4 Directions being prepared by local authorities to restrict the Class E to residential flexibility, which could result in this new PDR becoming a damp squib. Also the Mayor of London has produced strategic evidence to support councils in introducing Article 4 Directions to protect the sustainability of Central Activity Zones (CAZ) and business clusters, the aim being to protect the 600 high streets of London. This has resulted recently in the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick MP setting out measures to ensure that the Article 4 Directions are only used in a targeted way. A new paragraph 53 in the National Planning Policy Framework sets out the specific criteria and instances of when it will be acceptable to introduce an Article 4 Direction. For example to protect the historic core of a thriving high street, with a brief that it should only apply to the smallest geographical area possible.
Overall, the sentiment and planning objectives in repurposing vacant retail or secondary stock to residential is unquestionably sensible. However, as highlighted by the Mayor of London and the swift response by the Secretary of State outlined in recent days, there may not be the full flexibility anticipated or achieved for every town, village or high street. Overall it’s unlikely that there’s going to be a significant boom in conversions to residential housing which will reduce the pressure for development at the edges of our towns and cities. As ever, planning professionals will need to keep their eyes wide open for any of the pitfalls that could be lying in wait for ill prepared proposals to go from Class E to residential. It may be tougher than many anticipate.Property Week on 29 July 2021.
About the author:
Anthony is Head of Planning at Colliers, he as been providing advice for clients since 1994 on a wide variety of projects throughout the UK, from mixed-use proposals to industrial, leisure as well as residential-led schemes. He has also appeared as an expert witness for Government select committees.
To contact Anthony, email Anthony.Aitken@colliers.com