The recent raft of planning changes announced by the government could give the impression that the system is broken and in need of a major overhaul. This is not the case, although some adjustment is needed.
At the time of going to print, a newly announced class E, which amalgamates commercial, business and retail and leisure, effectively allows for the change of use between shops, restaurants, offices and light industrial without the need for planning permission – a fundamental change that may have unintended consequences.
The question is, will this tinkering help speed up the delivery of new homes, or will these initiatives leave us with ailing town centres and an ever-worsening housing crisis? Moreover, who will actually benefit?
On the one hand, providing greater flexibility is a good thing. Giving town centre stakeholders the ability to adapt, react and change is essential. PDRs in town centres will be of most benefit in places suffering from high vacancy rates, and will help to stimulate investment and show the town is ‘open for business’.
That said, planning alone cannot save the high street; changes to the fabric of the town need to be made in a strategic and sensitive way that benefits the community. Town centres are more than just shops, but introducing swathes of unplanned residential may dilute the wider commercial and community offer.
Long-term viability is also worth considering. Reintroducing residential provision in town centres where it is not properly planned for will fail to deliver places people actually want to live. On the other hand, if there is not a sufficient return on investment to entice developers, fewer homes will be delivered where they are most needed.
There are still questions about how local planning authorities will effectively manage the cumulative impact of PDRs and how the requirements will be resourced. There is a risk that what was intended to be a fast-track approach will become ever more complex and bureaucratic. It is true that with more complexities come delays – but my hope is that we find a way to implement these new opportunities in a way that is fast, effective and fair.
Nick Diment is a planning partner at Knight Frank