The list is endless: Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, House and Fraser and HMV are all retail units which had a strong prevalence on the UK’s retail high street but in recent months have announced a raft of store closures. In response to a declining retail high street, the government has proposed to relax and change the planning system to extend permitted development rights and allow a change of use from a retail to a residential unit and enable new homes to be built in high street locations without the need for formal planning applications. The ‘new permitted development rights’ would, in theory, make it easier to change the use of the high street premises and enable the high street to adapt to the changing consumer landscape.

Permitted Development Rights 

Permitted Development rights under the General Permitted Development (England) (Order) 2015 can provide the way out of difficult negotiations with local authority planning officers and development without the need for formal planning consent. Permitted Development rights derive from a general planning permission granted by Parliament, rather than from permission granted by the local planning authority. As such, they offer relief by providing an alternative planning route for development, albeit under certain circumstances. Where permitted development rights arise, planning permission is deemed to have been granted without the need to submit a planning application or for the Council to undertake the formal decision making process (which requires development in accordance with development policies unless material circumstances provide otherwise). Introducing new permitted development rights in relation to retain units therefore, offers developers a much simpler approach to regenerate and change high street premises.

Permitted Development rights are however, subject to exclusions and limitations. Conservation Areas, Areas of Outstanding Beauty, National Parks and World Heritage Sites are known as protected areas and are excluded from Permitted Development Rights. Local planning authorities can also issue a direction (known as an Article 4 Direction) to remove all or certain permitted development rights in a certain area.

New proposals for the UK high street

The Government released paper “Planning reform: Supporting the high street and increasing the delivery of new homes” published in October 2018 proposes the following changes to permitted development rights in relation to the UK’s high street:

  • A new permitted development right to allow existing premises in typical high street uses to change to a wider range of uses, allowing more leisure and community uses such as gyms, libraries, health care and office use as well as homes
  • A new permitted development right to extend certain buildings upwards to a maximum building height of five storeys to provide additional, well designed, new homes to meet local housing need – this is supported by national planning policy which requires that previously developed land and buildings is used effectively to support housing development.
  • Permitted development rights to change the use of retail premises including Class A1 (shops), A2 (financial services) and A5 (takeaways) to B1 (offices)
  • A new permitted development right for the demolition of commercial buildings and redevelopment as residential units (unless redevelopment requires an Environmental Impact Assessment)

These proposals have now been confirmed by Housing Secretary James Brokenshire in a ministerial statement following the Spring Statement on 14 March 2019.

Like the Chancellor Phillip Hammond, James Brokenshire says in his statement that the permitted development right for upwards extensions on buildings will go ahead, but the existing streetscape must be respected. “We would want any right to deliver new homes to respect the design of the existing streetscape, while ensuring that the amenity of neighbours is considered. We will also make permanent the time-limited right to build larger single storey rear extensions to dwelling houses and to introduce a proportionate fee.”

Additionally, the housing secretary intends to review permitted development rights for the conversion of buildings to residential use in respect of the quality standard of homes delivered. "We will continue to consider the design of a permitted development right to allow commercial buildings to be demolished and replaced with homes," he says.

Success? 

At this stage, it is hard to predict whether or not the new permitted development rights will achieve the initial aim of changing the face of the UK’s high street and/ or will be beneficial.

Consultation on the Government Planning Reform Paper ran from 29 October 2018 to 14 January 2019 and received mixed feedback; the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) believe the proposals to be short term measures which would “neither help declining highstreets nor deliver quality, affordable housing”. The institute maintains that permitted development rights are designed for simple or minor changes, not new developments on this scale, which should be subject to full local planning scrutiny.

 From James Brokenshire’s quotes, it is also clear that there are raised concerns regarding the design and quality of the homes which would be permitted and the resulting streetscape. If this is the case, then formal planning permission is more appropriate so that plans / landscaping can be assessed adequately.  

Moreover, permitted development rights for a change of use would still be subject to the prior approval process by the local planning authority. Although prior approval tends to be a less arduous and time-consuming process than obtaining full planning consent, prior approval does involve liaison with, and approval from, the local planning authority and thus it is not an automatic permission as the principle of permitted development suggests.   

However, enabling development upwards will play an important role in delivering new homes both in town centres and elsewhere. This will support the much-needed delivery of housing and will assist in changing the dynamics of the UK high street which given the current decline in high street retail units is clearly needed.

This article has been produced by Felicity Wimbush, a member of the Planning and Environmental Team at Brabners.