A farewell to the high street?
Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling
IT seems as if I have spent a lot of time this year writing about saving the High Street. It has not just been under attack from the internet and covid, but also through the de-regulation of the planning system. This has been happening in stages, which I have also reported on to endeavour to keep you up to date in how the public is being squeezed out of the planning system. Now it looks like everything is coming together in a cunning plan – or should that be a Cummings plan? I apologise if the following is all a bit technical.
Let's start with a recap. The Use Classes were changed at the start of September in the name of simplification, flexibility and 'building back better'. At a stroke, this placed most of the uses that you find in town centres into a new, widespread Class E. This means that a closed-down travel agent, say, can re-open into anything within a range of commercial, business and services, without having to apply for planning permission. The result will be the market, rather than local authorities or the public, being allowed to determine which uses will be around in town centres on the other side of covid. It also made a swathe of carefully considered local planning policies designed to protect local centres redundant, but that was a side effect in a process of time-saving and expediency.
More cynical minds than my own were anticipating a further proposal, and it turns out that that is what the government is now consulting on, up to the end of January. Following years of de-regulation to allow the conversion of barns, offices, launderettes, amusement centres and many other uses into houses without requiring a planning application, now they propose to include everything that has been thrown into Class E, as long as it was in operation within this Use Class on September 1, 2020. This time, even conservation areas would be included in this liberalisation, subject to an assessment of the loss of the ground floor use.
Excuse the deja vu, but detail is scant at the moment. The consultation is on general terms. Significantly no size limit has been put forward, so it could include a whole shop or even supermarket or just part of it. In just about every case, the value in rent or sale of a conversion to residential will be higher than maintaining the existing use. The premises do not have to be redundant to qualify, although surviving lockdown version 1 appears to be a prerequisite. The main proviso put forward is that the residential units created conform to the national space standards. Flooding impact, land contamination, transport impact, noise impact and failing to provide natural light for habitable rooms are all fair game for a refusal of the prior approval process that would be required, along with the new factor of fire safety. This suggests that if (when) these changes are brought in, such a prior approval application will require a raft of technical documentation in order to demonstrate that it stays on the right side of those controls. In the absence of those, refusals are likely to be arbitrary and lead to appeals. Of course, if the alternative is that a planning application would be refused on policy grounds (the policies protecting town centres and shops will not just disappear in the short term) the option that avoids a planning application becomes the only logical course. This will also throw up making a case based on the permitted development 'fallback' position that the government will have kindly provided.
For me, all of this has nothing to do with real planning – ensuring that the right development happens in the right place and building a public/private consensus for that. The profession appears to be about to be undermined again, along with public involvement.
The response to this among planners is growing. Planners are going to have to prove their worth, along with the system within which we operate. Otherwise we will continue to be sidelined, along with public participation. For too long, planning has been taken as part of the problem rather than part of the solution and blamed for many of the ills that it has not caused and cannot influence. Now that is something that you could ponder while searching for somewhere that still sells your daily essentials.
Despite the high likelihood that this or something very much like it will come to pass, I hope that 2021 will prove a better year for you than the last one was, with less covid and less cynical and ill-thought out political input.