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Government moots retail-to-resi conversions

The government is considering a further extension of permitted development rights which could see empty shops transformed into homes

The proposed planning shake-up, which has just gone out to public consultation, would allow owners of existing shops and agricultural buildings less than 150m² to be converted to residential use without the requirement for planning permission.

The new rules would allow for conversion from:

  • Retail to residential
  • Retail to banks and building societies
  • Agricultural to residential
  • Commercial to nurseries
  • Agricultural to schools and nurseries

The ‘town centre first’ planning rules would apply to buildings not in prime retail locations and the proposed development would have to comply with the council’s local plan for the area.

The proposals contained in a consultation which launched yesterday (6 August), reflect the advice contained within the Portas Review, which recommended more flexibility for change of use to help declining high streets.

Planning Minister Nick Boles said: ‘Thousands of empty and underused buildings, often on the edge of town centres, are going to waste because people do not want the hassle and uncertainty of submitting a planning application.

Removing this barrier will bring more people closer to their town centres

‘Removing this barrier will bring more people closer to their town centres, providing a much needed boost to local shops and ensuring we make the most of buildings that are already there for new homes, nurseries and schools this country needs.

‘Extending these permitted development rights on brownfield land will benefit all communities - whether in towns or the countryside.’

Paula Ridley, chair of Civic Voice rejected the idea that removing planning requirements would be better for the community or the economy: ‘We accept that the high street is a lot more than simply a retail experience and as a nation we sometimes get bogged down into thinking that our high streets are only about retail. They are much more than this. They need to be about place – not just profit. However, introducing this change will remove the right of the community to decide what is best for their area. We are not against the policy per se, but we are against the fact that the voice of the community will be removed.

She added: ‘We agree with the government that finding a solution to the housing crisis is essential, but this proposal is tinkering around the edge of the problem. The barrier to house building arises from borrowing restrictions and economic uncertainty, not planning. Investors need certainty and introducing uncertainty through sudden changes to planning has negative consequences. If the government wants to solve the housing crisis, they should look at bringing back into use the 920,000 empty homes across the UK, 330,00 of which are long term empty.’

Government must look back at the defunct office-to-resi proposals and ensure the same mistakes are not repeated

Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation said: ‘Retail to residential conversions could be an important step in breathing life into our high streets, and we would very much encourage a flexible approach, particularly in areas with increasingly obsolescent retail stock outside the retail core that is unlikely to be brought back into retail use.

‘We’re particularly pleased that government has listened to industry concerns and confirmed it will be up to local authorities to define their core retail areas, rather than a nationally set red line approach, and that there will be exemptions for conservation areas and national parks.

‘However, the government must look back at the largely defunct office to residential proposals and ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. It must not be so easy for local authorities to effectively ignore these proposals at a time of such acute housing need.’

RIBA head of external affairs, Anna Scott-Marshall commented: ‘We would support moves to make the planning system more responsive, flexible and proportionate and this would include more flexible approach to use classes on the high street.

‘But do we really want our high streets to be taken over for housing right across the country?

‘We worry that a measure to allow the odd change here and there could be open to speculative buyers for housing in unsuitable areas. And whether this prior approval process would be robust enough to allow for local decision-making and to uphold local planning policy. It has the potential to be fundamentally anti localist.

‘There are tools currently in place via Local Development Orders and Neighbourhood Development Orders to allow for these changes in a strategic way so we might question why they aren’t being used.’

Controversial development rights allowing offices to be converted into residential came into force in May.

The changes, which were first announced as part of the budget, are due to be introduced in April 2014.

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