Government presses ahead with shops to homes conversions

The Government is pressing ahead with its plans to make it easy for owners of ‘commercial, business and service’ premises, including shops, to convert them into homes without the need for planning permission. However, following the overwhelming criticism that the draft proposals received when they were first floated last December, this new permitted development right, which will come into effect on 1st August, will now come with some strings attached, and the ‘prior approval’ of a number of matters will be required from the local authority before the right can be exercised.

To discourage landlords from ‘gaming’ the system, an application for prior approval can only be made if the premises can be shown to have been in a commercial, business or service use for at least two years and to have been vacant for at least three months (a Covid-related closure does not count). In addition, only buildings under 1500 square metres in area can qualify for this right, so these limitations will restrict the right to smaller or medium sized premises rather than to shopping centres for example. 

Within conservation areas the local authority can resist the loss of ground floor shops to residential use if adverse implications can be shown to the ‘character and sustainability’ of the conservation area. The permitted development right will also not apply to listed buildings. 

As the new ‘commercial, business and service’ use class embraces nurseries, creches and local health facilities such as doctors’ surgeries or dentists, the local authority can also oppose the change of use if a negative impact on the provision of these local services can be shown. 

The new homes will need to meet ‘nationally described space standards’ and will also need to benefit from ‘adequate daylighting’.  Any physical changes to the outside of the building will require planning permission in the normal way and are not covered by the new permitted development right. A few more technical issues will also need ‘prior approval’ including matters relating to flooding, transport, contamination and noise.

So what will this change mean for the future of our high streets? On the plus side, the new right will generate more much-needed housing in town centres, and any homes created by this new regime will need to be of good quality. As this new permitted development right will supersede the existing right of office blocks to change to residential use, the 1500 square metre size limit will mean that the conversion of large office blocks will in future need to go through the normal planning system. External design changes will also require planning permission in the normal way, so design quality is to some extent protected, and the added limitation in conservation areas will provide local communities with some grounds to resist unsympathetic changes in sensitive areas. 

But on the downside, many local high streets will inevitably become pepper potted with random residential conversions and will lose their cohesion over time. Local authorities will lose control of how they plan for the future of their town centres and local high streets, just at a time when other Government programmes are encouraging proactive thinking supported by the Future High Streets fund. It is further evidence that the Government puts more faith in the market to address market failure than in the judgement and inventiveness of local communities, so can be seen as yet another blow to local democracy.