I have taken care over the heading of this piece about the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development etc.) (England) (Amendment) Order 2021, laid before Parliament on 31 March 2021, which introduces a new class MA into the GPDO, granting deemed planning permission for change of use from commercial and business use (class E) to residential (class C3) from 1 August 2021.
I have taken care because so much of the noise this week was about how the Government hasn’t listened to the responses it received to its 3 December 2020 consultation paper, whereas for me the news is that it has listened to much of the criticism it received. The final form of the regime is significantly constrained compared to the consultation version. Give credit where credit’s due!
I summarised the initial proposal in my 4 December 2020 blog post, E = C3, expressing a number of concerns. Responses to the consultation from all quarters expressed equivalent concerns – some of course going further, in questioning more fundamentally the role of the permitted development rights process.
Aside from the Order itself which saw the light of day later on that day, we have the 31 March 2021 press statement (at the now traditional one minute past midnight) and the Government’s response to the consultation process.
The RTPI and others were tweeting their reactions before the Order had even been published on line (although to be fair the headlines were in the press statement). A joint letter was sent yesterday, 1 April 2021, to the prime minister by the RTPI, RIBA, RICS and CIOB. I acknowledge that many have “in principle” concerns about the availability of fast-track permitted development rights procedures but isn’t the letter somewhat of an over-reaction? What do members of those organisations think? Call me a defeatist pragmatist, but the proposals could have been so much worse!
These were the Government’s objectives, as they were stated in the December consultation document:
“In his ‘Build, Build, Build’ statement of 30 June 2020 the Prime Minister said that we would provide for a wider range of commercial buildings to be allowed to change to residential use without the need for a planning application. To meet this aim, support housing delivery and bring more residential use into our high streets and town centres, boosting footfall and creating additional demand, we propose to introduce a new national permitted development right for the change of use from the new Commercial, Business and Service use class to residential use. The new right would help support economic recovery, housing delivery and the regeneration of our high streets and town centres.”
The proposals were always intended to be introduced much more quickly than the proposals in last year’s planning white paper – after all existing permitted development rights expire on 31 July 2021 in relation to changes of use from the classes that went to form the new class E:
“While Planning for the future sets out our longer-term ambitions, we want at the same time to continue to explore more immediate changes to the planning system to provide greater planning certainty and flexibility to ensure that it can effectively contribute to some of the immediate challenges facing the country.”
It is also worth remembering that the rights which expire on 31 July already include rights to convert offices (no floorspace limit), light industrial (500 sq m floorspace limit) and retail (150 sq m floorspace limit). The rules to be introduced from 1 August allow greater flexibility in a number of respects but are also significantly tighter than the existing rights in various ways.
My colleague Tom Brooks has prepared a detailed client summary in relation to all of the PD changes within the Order (this blog post is only dealing with class MA rather than the other excitements within). If you message or email me I will send it to you next week, but for the purposes of this blog post I set out below the Government’s summary of the proposed changes:
“We will introduce a new national permitted development right to create new homes through the change of use from Commercial Business and Service uses. The right will:
• have effect from 1 August 2021
• be subject to a size limit of 1,500 sq m of floorspace changing use
• apply to buildings that have been in Commercial, Business and Service uses for two years, including time in former uses now within that class
• apply to buildings that have been vacant for at least three continuous months
• apply in conservation areas, but not in other article 2 (3) land such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
• be subject to prior approval by the local planning authority on specific planning matters
• attract a fee of £100 per dwellinghouse.”
The consultation proposals had:
• no size limit (and this size limit cuts back on what can already be achieved via the existing office to resi PD right)
• no requirement that the relevant building should have been in commercial , business and service uses (i.e. any of the uses that now make up class E) for the two years leading up to the date of the application for prior approval (for offices to residential, the cut off point in the existing rules is 29 May 2013).
• no requirement that the building must have been vacant for the three months leading up to the date of the application for prior approval (a requirement which has not existed in relation to existing PD rights).
There is also now an express carry-forward to 1 August 2022 of existing article 4 directions that restrict office to residential permitted development rights – addressing what would have been a significant loophole (see e.g. my 7 February 2021 blog post Art 4 Life).
Prior approval requirements will still include transport, contamination, flooding, noise, and adequate natural light. As trailed in the consultation proposals, prior approval will be required, where relevant, as to the impact on the character or sustainability of a conservation area caused by the change of ground floor use of a building within a conservation area. Where relevant, prior approval will also be required as to the impact on the intended residential occupiers if the area is considered important for “general or heavy industry, waste management, storage and distribution, or a mix of such uses” and as to the impact on local provision if there is a loss of services provided by a registered nursery or health centre.
Prior approval applications will need to include a floor plan indicating “the total floor space in square metres of each dwellinghouse” (and remember that the Government’s nationally described minimum space standard applies to any schemes which are the subject of a prior approval application from 6 April 2021 in any event).
For the first time, notices will need to be served on on any adjoining owner or occupier and, where the proposed development relates to part of a building, on any owner or occupier of the other part or parts of the building.
Remember that there is no exemption from CIL for permitted development, the usual rules apply – although most commonly the in-use buildings exemption will apply if at least part of the building has occupied for a use which is lawful for at least six months continuously in the last three years.
Mitigation cannot be secured as to matters that are not the subject of the prior approval process, so PD residential development is still free from affordable housing and other social infrastructure commitments (e.g. contributions to the cost of education facilities), but remember that the scale of development now permitted, with the 1,500 square metres cap, is far lower than the scale of conversions of office buildings that we have previously seen. The horse has bolted on that one.
The new rights do not limit in any way the need for planning permission for external works to the building that materially affect its external appearance, so finger-pointing as against the Government’s “beauty” aspirations is misdirected in my view.
What concerns are we left with? Yes, the new rules will allow residential development in potentially unsustainable locations. Yes, the new rules will allow commercial frontages in high streets to be converted to residential use in a way which may harm the traditional function of town centres (although subject to the need for a separate planning permission for the external treatment of the building). Yes, the new rules do limit in practice the role of the local planning authority in determining what are appropriate uses for a particular area. Yes, there will still be room for uncertainty and “gaming” of the system, particularly around the vacancy requirement. Set against these concerns, are the Government’s objectives in terms of enabling more homes to be delivered quickly and in finding new uses for redundant commercial floorspace and is the need for us all to acknowledge the various protections that are now (at last) in place, seeking to ensure that accommodation is to be delivered to at least a minimum standard (e.g. size of homes, light) and seeking to reduce the potential for the new rights to lead to unintended outcomes (e.g the floorspace cap, vacancy requirement).
Where does the balance lie? Are there now sufficient checks and balances? Are we going to see a final rush to make prior approval applications under the existing rules? Join a number of us on Clubhouse for a discussion on this very subject – from 6pm on Tuesday 6 April.
Simon Ricketts, 2 April 2021
Personal views, et cetera