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Expert Insights

07 December 2020

Will housing replace the high street?

Even discounting the publication of the Planning White Paper, it has been a busy year in the world of planning. From 31 August 2020, a raft of new permitted development rights were introduced – including the rights to add storeys to your home, to construct dwellings on top of purpose built flats, demolish certain buildings and construct new dwellings in their place and to construct flats on top of commercial/ mixed use or residential terraces (read about the details and numerous restriction on these rights here).

At the same time, from 1 September 2020 the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 was amended. This included the introduction of a new, Class E - Commercial, Business and Service. Class E combines the former use classes A1 (retail), A2 (financial and professional services), A3 (restaurants and cafes), B1 (business) and some D1 and D2 uses (see further details on the changes to the Use Class Order here).

The government is now consulting on a proposal for a new permitted development right in England to allow for a change from Commercial, Business and Service (Class E) use to residential (Class C3). If this were to be introduced, it would mean that any change of use from a property falling within Class E to a flat/home would not require the submission of a formal planning application. (There would, however, be a prior approval process – see below.)

It is no secret that the high street has been struggling in the past year. The consultation paper notes that there has been a net reduction of 5,350 units in town centres in England from June 2019 to June 2020 – and that trend looks set to continue (the news of Debenhams going into administration being just one recent example). In addition to the introduction to Use Class E, the government hopes that this right would help to “support our town centres and high streets in adapting to these changes to become thriving, vibrant hubs where people live, shop, use services and spend leisure time”.

The current proposals:

  • The proposed right would permit a change from Use Class E to residential use (C3) and would replace the existing right permitting a change from office to residential.
  • Currently, there is no intention to limit the size of the building that could benefit from this right (to allow for the conversion of a full vacant building for example).
  • Similar to other existing rights, there would be exceptions for sites where development is more carefully controlled, for example sites of special scientific interest, listed buildings, areas of outstanding natural beauty etc. Interestingly, conservation areas may still benefit from the right – the consultation paper notes that conservation areas protect architectural/ historical value, but that allowing a more diverse range of uses may make these areas more sustainable.
  • The prior approval process would involve consideration of factors such as flooding, transport and contamination as well as factors ensuring living conditions are suitable (for example, noise from existing commercial premises, provision of adequate natural light, fire safety).
  • The prior approval fee is proposed to be £96 per dwelling with a maximum fee for 50 homes.

Such a right could be good news for developers looking to convert existing building to residential and has the potential to increase the supply of housing at a time when suitable housing is in short supply. The government envisages that this right will help address the surplus of retail floorspace and that “quality residential development will help diversify and support the high street”. It is a difficult balance: nobody wants a high street filled with empty stores, but people do still want some kind of high street. There is a risk that the rapid expansion of permitted development rights will mean that by definition councils will be unable to control piecemeal development – high streets may in the worst case disappear altogether and be replaced with housing. The proposals will therefore be controversial.

The consultation on this right is open now until 28 January 2021 - read more here.


This article was written by Sophie Willis. For more information, please contact Sophie on +44 (0)20 7438 2117 or at sophie.willlis@crsblaw.com.

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