02 Feb 2021 | Planning | Residential

A one-size-fits-all approach will not save our highstreets.

With the government’s latest planning consultation now closed, our Senior Policy Officer, Sam Bensted, reflects on the latest government proposals to reform the existing planning system. The most well documented and controversial proposal included is undoubtedly the brand-new permitted development right (PDR) to enable uses falling into the recently introduced commercial, business and service (class E) use class to be converted into residential without planning permission.

The right has been positioned by government as supporting new housing delivery and allowing high streets in decline (partly owing to the Covid-19 pandemic) to renew and adapt. However, BPF members have significant concerns about this particular right’s introduction. It is more far reaching than many of the existing PDRs and would significantly broaden the scope for residential conversions in unsuitable locations to the long-term detriment of our town centres.

The fear is that this PDR could lead to swathes of poor-quality residential development which will erode trust in the development process, making the delivery of well planned, high quality development more difficult.

A number of our main concerns are set out below. Please read our consultation response for a comprehensive view:

The commercial business and service (class E) needs more time to take effect before further reform is pursued:

It should be remembered that Class E was only introduced in September 2020 and hence the impact of this new blended use class for town centres is yet to be seen. It therefore feels too soon for government to be pursuing further reform in this sphere and should wait until the true impacts of the new use class can be assessed.

There is also a fundamental contradiction in adding this new PDR to the Class E use class. On the one hand, the policy intent is to support town centres through the introduction of a more flexible use class. On the other hand, through this new PDR, landlords are being given the ability to ‘flip’ vacant commercial units to residential before other (perhaps more compatible) high street uses are considered.

The risk of poor outcomes is far greater when a town centre is in fragmented ownership:

BPF members recognise that there are less risks of this PDR leading to poor quality development when a town centre or urban area is in single institutional ownership. For example, it seems unlikely that in a location such as King’s Cross, the owner/developer would wish to make use of this new PDR – any poor-quality conversion would ultimately be to the detriment of the wider ‘place’ they are trying to curate.

In contrast, it follows that the risks of unintended consequences for this PDR are greatest where a particular location is in fragmented ownership without a large landlord/developer being in a position to take a holistic view. The result, BPF members fear is that these locations will overtime evolve into incoherent and poorly planned places without the relevant Local Planning Authority able to intervene in any meaningful way. If this PDR is introduced, the negative impact could also be very swift with many landlords tempted to pursue a quick return through a residential conversion owing to the impact of Covid-19 on the high street and the ongoing restrictions to the economy.  

Developments brought forward under this new PDR would not contribute adequately to the provision of local infrastructure:

As currently proposed, the new PDR would have no size limit and hence it follows that residential conversions could be of a significant scale without any associated developer contributions to mitigate the local impact. This is an issue that government are actively considering (through their Planning White Paper reforms). However, in the short to medium term, it seems contradictory that schemes brought forward through this new PDR route would be exempt from developer contributions.

In a world where government’s stated aim is to raise more and to ensure development ‘pays its fair share’, it feels contradictory that developments brought forward through this PDR route will be given a free ride. If the government want to provide incentives to the market to aid Covid-19 economic recovery, then far better to aim that at development schemes supporting wider policy objectives.

What are the alternative policy responses? - Focus on what drives vitality in a town centre context through positive planning locally.

We all accept the nub of the issue government is grappling with – how to breathe new life into existing town centres. The starting point for reforms should therefore be on what drives vitality locally. It is accepted that obsolescence and vacancy is a drag on the town centre however we would argue that poorly planned and poor-quality PDR development would be even more damaging.

The government also knows what makes a good town centre. It is well-planned places, with a diversity of uses and a good mix of independent and national retailers.  A local, policy led response, drawing on a range of interventions would prove a more effective alternative starting point for breathing fresh life into our town centres. One option could be for government to introduce greater incentives for Local Authorities to adopt Local Development Orders to enable greater flexibility on the high street.

A further alternative approach, which arguably does not run the same risks as this sweeping PDR, would be to amend the NPPF, creating a strong presumption in favour of different changes of use. Combined with a properly resourced Planning Inspectorate, this could prove a more effective method for achieving the government’s policy objectives without running the risks of a fragmented and disjointed town centre because of this proposed PDR.

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Sam Bensted Senior Policy Officer