The government’s new planning rules that allow unused commercial buildings to be more easily converted into homes have now come into effect.
The expansion to permitted development rights (PDRs) will allow new homes to be delivered more quickly via a simpler “prior approval” process with developers no longer needing to make a full planning application.
Public buildings such as schools, colleges, hospitals and prisons have also been given access to a fast-track process which will allow them to make larger extensions of up to 250 square metres or 25% of their existing footprint.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) says the new rules will help high streets and town centres recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, as it hailed the new system as “the most small business friendly planning system in the world”.
The housing secretary Robert Jenrick MP said: “By diversifying our town and city centres and encouraging the conversion of unused shops into cafes, restaurants or even new homes, we can help the high street to adapt and thrive for the future.
“The public also want improvements to public services as quickly as possible and so these changes will also help schools and hospitals to adapt quickly to changing needs with a new fast track for extending public service buildings. This will help deliver more classrooms and hospital space by helping them extend further and faster.”
The new right to convert commercial buildings into homes will be brought forward in legislation from 1 August this year. This will be subject to considerations by local planning authorities such as the impact of noise from commercial premises and the sufficient provision of natural light.
The right also requires that buildings be vacant for at least three months prior to any application and is limited to buildings with 1,500 square metres of floorplace or less, in a bid to focus its use on medium-sized high street sites.
The introduction of the new regulations comes as MHCLG responded to a consultation on short-term changes it plans to make to the planning system to facilitate the more sweeping package of reforms it first announced last year.
The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has expressed fears that the new regulations could be “a golden gift for unscrupulous landlords and developers” keen to make a “quick buck” from residential conversions.
Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI, said: “It will do nothing for our high streets if all ground floor commercial units are turned into homes. Since the pandemic our high streets have become much more of a focus for local communities so I am deeply concerned that essential local services such as convenience stores, crèches, pharmacies, solicitors and post offices could be wiped out for good, impacting those who can least afford to travel and reducing local employment.
“Whilst we welcome flexibility for uses such as cafes, restaurants and flexible innovative office space, I cannot fathom how the government thinks turning ground floor shops into homes is in any way a good idea.”
The RTPI added that it is “highly ironic” that the new homes permitted by the right will not be subject to local design codes, just weeks after the government announced a new national design code.
Cllr David Renard, housing and planning spokesperson for the Local Government Association, stressed that councils must stay involved in the planning process.
Renard commented: “Local government shares the collective ambition to build more homes in the right locations, genuinely affordable for local people to either rent or buy, of high quality and the right type.
“For that to happen, councils and local communities need to have a voice in the planning process and be able to oversee all local developments. This is crucial so they can shape the area they live in, ensure homes are well designed, built to a high quality, with the necessary infrastructure in place and affordable housing provided.”