New planning rules could diminish high streets, planners warn

New changes to permitted development rights could lead to essential services in local communities being "wiped out", the RTPI has warned.
High Street, Worcester, England.

Expanding permitted development rights (PDRs) could cause serious damage to local communities, planners have warned as the new rules came into force in England over the weekend.

The new changes to PDRs, trailed earlier this year, allow commercial buildings such as offices, restaurants and shops to be more easily converted into new homes, subject to considerations such as size, noise and the provision of natural light.

The Royal Town Planning Institute, the UK’s largest professional body for town planners, has reiterated its concerns that the changes could lead to the “wiping out” of essential services in local communities.

The government believes that expanding PDRs will help it achieve its target of producing 300,000 new homes a year, saying that the method has accounted for over 60,000 new homes over the last four years.

However, the RTPI has warned that an increase in housing supply must not come at the expense of local communities, having previously warned that the changes could be a “golden gift for unscrupulous landlords and developers”.

Victoria Hills, chief executive of RTPI, said: “The RTPI remains deeply concerned about the further roll out of PDRs. Offering landlords the opportunity to convert commercial units into places to live could diminish the vibrancy of our high streets, the importance of which has become apparent during the pandemic.

“Without a place-based planned approach, we also fear that essential local services such as convenience stores, crèches, pharmacies, solicitors and post offices could be wiped out permanently as landlords race to recoup losses accrued during the pandemic in return for higher residential values, impacting those who can least afford to travel and leaving a legacy of unsustainable travel behaviour.

“The RTPI will be closely watching the impacts that come as a result of these changes. We remain clear that a planning policy and a carefully curated place-based strategy is the best way to support a green recovery of high streets and town centres.”

Under the new PDR rules, new homes can be delivered 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 will also be able to fast-track larger extensions of up to 250 square metres or 25% of their existing footprint.

The government stressed last September that all new homes developed through PDRs must meet the Nationally Described Space Standard, which requires a minimum of 37m² of floorspace for a new one bed flat with a shower room.

Hills said that increasing the use of PDRs with proposals to introduce rigorous design standards “seems confused” and risks creating a two-tier system.

The RTPI has also questioned the changes’ possible impact on physical activity with gyms, swimming pools and sports and leisure facilities falling into the category of buildings for commercial, business and service use.

The institute has set out a series of additional prior approval matters that should be considered before change-of-use proposals go ahead, including the provision of essential services, access to amenities such as parks and access to fresh air.

It has also warned against the creation of new homes in unsuitable locations with warehouses and supermarkets now having the potential to end up in residential use.

The RTPI’s intervention comes after the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee expressed similar concerns about the recent changes to PDRs last week.

The committee warned that the changes appear to “fatally undermine” the role of local authorities in shaping their communities, despite the government’s promise of greater local involvement as part of its wider reforms to the planning system.

An Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “Our High Street Homes permitted development right is helping create thriving town centres by making it easier to turn empty buildings into much-needed new homes, with residential offerings sitting alongside well-loved local shops and cafes.

“Encouraging more people to live near high streets will help cement our them in their rightful place at the heart of communities.”

Image: High Street, Worcester, England. Credit: Rept0n1x/CC BY-SA 3.0.

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