“The most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War,

making it easier to build better homes where people want to live.”

This is what the UK government claimed when, earlier this month, it announced details of its proposed changes to Britain’s seven-decades old planning system.

The changes, which are due to come into effect by September, are broadly a relaxation of the current need for planning permission across a number of different development scenarios. They seem particularly designed to make it easier for brownfield land and empty commercial buildings (including newly vacant shops) to be converted quickly into new homes without the need for planning consent.

In case you missed it, here are the key changes at a glance:

  • More types of commercial premises having total flexibility to be repurposed through reform of the Use Classes Order. A building used for retail, for instance, would be able to be permanently used as a café or office without requiring a planning application and local authority approval. Pubs, libraries, village shops and other types of uses essential to the lifeblood of communities will not be covered by these flexibilities.
  • A wider range of commercial buildings will be allowed to change to residential use without the need for a planning application.
  • Builders will no longer need a normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes.
  • Property owners will be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.

The announcement has sparked a debate about whether these changes will be good or bad – and understandably there are arguments to support both sides.

On the one hand, we’ve seen how lots of High Streets have been struggling for years (with many now reaching total breaking point due to the current pandemic). Alongside that we’ve also seen the UK’s housing crisis deepen and many companies in the construction industry are in need of a boost to speed up rebuilding. Looking at all of these problems together, perhaps repurposing High Street properties into homes will offer a better solution?

Another positive might be that, by making brownfield development easier, these changes will reduce pressure on green field land and therefore have environmental benefits.

On the other side of the story, however, is the possibility of some High Street landlords deliberately kicking out existing tenants to grab the opportunity for a development sale. And, while the government claim that the relaxation of planning rules will not allow planning standards to go down the hill, studies of similar commercial to residential conversions that were allowed through the permitted development scheme between 2015 – 2018 found conflicting evidence.

Research (led by a team of academics from University College London and the University of Liverpool) identified that only 22% of these type of dwellings met the nationally standards on space requirements, the homes were eight times more likely to be located in the middle of a business park or industrial estate, and only 3.5% had access to any outdoor space.

The upshot

Will these changes result in revitalised High Streets, a kick start for the construction sector and increased/ better housing stock for those who need it? Or are some of our town centres about to become a chaotic mix of poorly thought-out housing mixed in with run-down retail outlets? Or perhaps there is another option no-one has thought of yet?

Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Main image source: Shutterstock