The development industry is continuously evolving with changes in society and therefore the planning system needs to keep up. With the extent of change moving at such a pace, we have entered into a new age of challenges and opportunities, particularly in town centres and the residential market…
Those who welcome the property revolution and have adapted their strategies to meet emerging trends and demands stand to profit the most from its benefits. The planning system is also adapting to this new era by introducing more flexibility for the use of buildings and the increased reach of permitted development rights.
Shopping centres are a focus for local communities and are critical to deliver key services whilst providing a cultural hub for people to meet and spend their leisure time. The High Street has been facing an uncertain future with many having empty shop units and difficulties filling them. It is hard to know where the negative impact originated, but it is fair to say that a combination of changing shopping habits, leisure activities, travel patterns, property factors and the effects of the pandemic have all contributed. Whilst this has tended to disproportionately hit poorer communities, more affluent areas have not escaped these impacts. As a result, primary retail areas need to adapt to survive as a viable entity.
Planning policies had traditionally sought to protect primary shopping frontages, whilst other uses, such as financial and professional services, cafes, restaurants and pubs were considered detrimental to the vitality and viability of town centres. This approach has not succeeded in reducing vacancies and so the planning system has had to change in response to changing demands. Reforms to the Use Class Order, which sets the rules for how buildings can be used and the process for switching between uses, were introduced in 2020 to help increase the footfall and flexibility of town centres for them to survive and thrive.
The new ‘E’ commercial use class merged most of the town centre uses into a single use class. As a result, landlords can now use commercial buildings in entirely new ways and switch between uses without needing to go through the planning process. For many, this has taken away the uncertainties that come with the need to apply for planning permission.
It is now the case that most commercial property in town centres now fall within the same ‘E’ commercial use class, opening opportunities that did not previously exist. While service and experience trends change with the times, the basic demand for entertainment and leisure stays constant. With a more supportive planning system, savvy commercial property owners can more readily step in to meet these demands.
High streets and town centres across the country are becoming hubs for new experiences. Where traditional shops once flourished, health and beauty services and entertainment facilities are taking town centres by storm.
An increasingly flexible workforce has resulted in a decreased demand for traditional office space but has brought about an increased demand for cafes and coworking spaces that can accommodate the needs of remote workers and entrepreneurs.
Outside of Class E, consumers turning to online retailers means a boom for supply chain management and other distribution-related industries. These emerging businesses require storage and distribution floorspace as well as collection and drop off points in shops and in freestanding facilities.
In addition to changes to the Use Class Order, the Government also introduced additional permitted development rights that allow for changes of use to residential to take place in certain circumstances without the need for a planning application.
These are not as straight forward as shifting from one E class commercial use to another, as a prior approval application is required before implementing the change of use from retail to residential use, even when utilising permitted development rights, and so there are still certain criteria that need to be met before such a change can occur.
Having people living in the high street, supporting the economy and enabling sustainable travel will be a positive result and contribute towards the rejuvenation of these central areas. Whilst Class MA is a step in the right direction, there is still a way to go in terms of Councils supporting opportunities for mixed use spaces. Additional flexibility on parking and residential amenity standards would help to ensure that our communities are served by a varied offering meeting their demands.
In some instances, the Council may also impose an article 4 direction which removes permitted development rights where they feel that they may be detrimental. Although these should only be imposed where it can be demonstrated that the permitted development rights will cause demonstrable harm, based on robust evidence. Such directions should also be limited to the smallest geographical area possible.
The combination of these changes will happen at different paces in different locations but this simplified planning system is less burdensome and opens up opportunities that did not previously exist. It may still be a little too early to tell but the changes do seem to gradually be attracting new and innovative businesses which we hope, in turn, will encourage customers back into town centres.
Bell Cornwell prides itself on keeping up with the latest legislative framework to help your business adapt to and overcome the challenges that are presented and make the most of the opportunities. Get in touch for an initial, no-obligation discussion.
Jonathan Jarman, Associate