As part of Project Speed, the government’s post-pandemic recovery agenda, a new Commercial, Business and Service classification, Use Class E was introduced to reduce red tape and planning bureaucracy for minor and incidental change of use planning applications.

Anthony Aitken

Anthony Aitken

Then in April, the government announced that they were making provisions to enable an easier change from Use Class E to residential through Permitted Development Rights (PDR). This is to come into effect on August 2nd.

Invariably, the conversion of former retail or other commercial premises that have been vacant, underused or blighted, in sustainable and well-connected urban locations to residential use makes practical planning sense overall. There are significant tranches of secondary retail provision, too long protected for retail or associated commercial uses by policy planners and local politicians alike, with a misty-eyed view that somehow retail will return.

However, the Class E to residential conversion requires prior approval by the local authority and comes with distinct caveats, which anyone considering embarking upon this form of development should be aware of, including that the premises must have a maximum floorspace of 1,500m sq, should be for single-family residential use only and not houses of multiple occupation, and must have been in one of the Class E uses for two years preceding the application. Premises must also have been vacant for three months preceding the application. Properties in areas of natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest, national parks, World Heritage Sites or listed buildings cannot be converted.

There have been murmurings of Article 4 Directions being prepared by local authorities to restrict the Class E to residential flexibility, which could result in this new PDR becoming a damp squib. Also, the Mayor of London has produced strategic evidence to support councils introducing these Directions to protect Central Activity Zones (CAZ) and business clusters, the aim being to protect London’s 600 high streets. This has resulted recently in the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick MP setting out measures to ensure that Directions are only used in a targeted way. A new paragraph 53 in the National Planning Policy Framework sets out specific criteria of when it will be acceptable to introduce an Article 4 Direction. For example, to protect the historic core of a thriving high street, with a brief that it should only apply to the smallest geographical area possible.

Overall, the sentiment and planning objectives in repurposing vacant retail or secondary stock to residential is sensible. However, as highlighted by the Mayor of London and the swift response by government, there may not be the full flexibility anticipated or achieved for every town, village or high street. Overall, it’s unlikely there will going to be a significant boom in conversions to residential housing to reduce the pressure for development at the edges of our towns and cities. As ever, planning professionals will need to keep their eyes wide open for any of the pitfalls that could be lying in wait for ill prepared proposals. It may be tougher than many anticipate.

Anthony Aitken is head of planning at Colliers.