Back in the Thatcher years of the 1980s, the explosion of out-of-town shopping centres arguably presented the biggest threat to our traditional town centres.

This led to efforts being made to address the most harmful impacts and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres. Most notably in policy terms the incoming Labour government introduced Planning Policy Guidance Note 6 (PPG6). Through a plan-led approach that focused on retail and leisure uses in town centres, PPG6 introduced the need for proposals to pass the sequential test to site selection, demonstrate a need for the development and undertake an impact assessment.

Wind forwards another decade and the impacts of online shopping were beginning to be noticed with traditional retailers like C&A, BHS and even Woolworths disappearing from our high streets. A great deal more has happened since Woolworths went into administration in 2009 and was officially dissolved in 2015. At the time we all wondered how we could possibly cope without our local Woolies! Since then, changing shopping habits have quickened apace and over the last 18 months the impacts of the pandemic on retail and other traditional town centre uses have further accelerated this direction of travel. It seems that barely a week goes by without yet another high street name (GAP being the latest) announcing it’s making significant store closures, moving totally online or worse still going to the wall.

So, what is the current government’s thinking? And more importantly what does it intend doing about these structural changes and transitional impacts that all of our town centres, large and small, are facing? The Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee recently cross-examined housing minister Christopher Pincher as part of its ongoing inquiry into the impact of permitted development (PD) rights. This follows the introduction of the new residential PD rights last year which allow upwards extensions of up to two storeys to existing residential and commercial properties. They also introduce a new Use Class E which offers more flexibility in use, without prior need to obtain planning permission, for a broad range of retail, office, restaurant, financial and professional services. Now the government has announced it is going even further by introducing a new class MA PD right which will come into effect at the start of August, This will allow a range of existing town centre retail and commercial uses to convert to residential use without needing a planning application. This latest government PD change, limited to a 1,500 square metre size restriction and including a requirement to demonstrate a minimum three-month vacancy, is likely to be particularly controversial.

Until recently just about any local plan would include depictions of primary and secondary shopping frontages, together with policies stipulating the locations for new - and restricting the change of use of existing - retail units. Understandably, many local authorities are nervous about how these new freedoms are likely to impact on their ability to plan for their town centres through local plans.

Seeking no doubt to allay some of these fears and concerns, the Minister told the HCLG committee that permitted development was part of a suite of options for driving growth on the high street. He said; “By putting in place PD right opportunities with prior approval safeguards it is possible to revitalise for example high street brownfield sites that otherwise might not have come forward for development.” He argued that having residential communities in places where shops or commercial properties are “no longer viable” is “more environmentally friendly” because it reduces the need for transport to and from the services they will use. Also, increased footfall will be generated in the area to use shops and commercial services that have been “adversely affected” by the “triple whammy” of the Covid-19 pandemic, the “Amazon effect” and “the out-of-town shopping effect.”

This type of brownfield development will reduce the pressure to build on greenfield sites and make more optimal use of what is often under-utilised or empty space above the ground floor level. However, retaining active street frontages is key and there is a real danger that in future this might become increasingly lost as traditional parades of retail, service and commercial uses are no longer able to compete in terms of land values commanded by residential. If they are effectively priced out of their traditional town centre locations, it could lead to the loss of identified core areas, and with it, loss of identity, as the remaining active frontages in centres are punctuated by residential uses and as a consequence become more strung out. This will lead to a downwards spiral, where those least advantageously situated, perhaps at either end, are less likely to attract and benefit from passing trade.

In addition to the PD revisions, changes have also been made that restrict the ability of local planning authorities (LPAs) to impose Article 4 (A4) directions, which in effect enable them to exempt specific areas from PD rights to stop unwanted development. The government’s stated desire is to restrict the use of this power to the smallest possible geographical area. In a written ministerial statement issued on 1st July the MHCLG Secretary of State announced the government would be restricting the specific circumstances LPAs could make an A4 direction. Accordingly, ahead of the publication of a revised version of the NPPF (issued on 20th July) the ministerial statement provides the wording of the revised policy for A4s which LPAs should follow when considering new A4 directions. LPAs are required to notify the Secretary of State of all new A4 directions and Robert Jenrick’s statement warns that MHCLG officials have been instructed “to look closely at all new Article 4 directions to check that they comply with the new policy, and I will consider exercising my power to intervene if they do not.”

There seems little doubt that the future ability for LPAs to proactively plan for their town centres has been affected by the change in planning related powers. Time will, of course, tell what the longer-term impacts of the pandemic, our increasing reliance on delivery drivers and these changes to PD rights and use of A4 will be. Whilst the government committed to producing a broad impact assessment on the effects of new PD rights last year, as yet there isn’t a timeframe for this. 

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, in a report published on 22nd July, reviews the significant changes to permitted development rights and the use class system. The report recognises that the objective of the changes is to revitalise high streets and boost housing delivery by making it easier for landlords and developers to change the use of buildings and respond more flexibly to changing demand. However, in their report, the select committee - comprising a cross party group of MPs - recommends that the Government pauses any further extensions of permitted development rights for change of use to residential, including the new class MA right, due to take effect on 1 August, and first conducts a review of their role within the wider planning system.

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Written by

Ken Bean

Ken Bean

Associate Director Planning Policy, Capita

Ken is our national lead for planning policy. Working at regional and local authority levels for over 30 years on strategic planning, development plans and planning casework, Ken has extensive experience of the English planning system. From 1987 until 2010 as a Civil Servant on pan-London issues, then at Enfield Council and Epping Forest District Council.

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