Plans to allow commercial units to switch to residential usage without planning permission are quietly being introduced today.
The relative lack of publicity from government perhaps highlight problems that could arise from the move. Under the guise of “freedom”, building owners can convert shops and commercial units into housing without a formal application needing approval.
The obvious danger is that a building owner may decide to convert units which then affect the viability of a town centre. Others follow. Over time the High Street or shopping parade dies off – and what could be the heart of a town becomes hollowed out. A post office may survive with 10 other shops in an area, but convert half to housing and viability suffers. Many converted shop units will only see minimal new homes – so may do little for the overall housing shortage nor provide much additional footfall to support other units.
It could also see shops converted in a short term rush, which then hampers moves to redevelop higher quality plans. A few scruffy buildings hastily converted hampers a high quality development down the line.
The move for conversion without planning approval also highlights the centralised nature of politics in this country. The move may work in some areas but be disastrous in others. A dictate from central government to all areas, rather than local decisions on where it may be suitable, is a risk.
A major factor in High Street problems – high rents and rates – is not addressed by this move.
One positive aspect is that at least new homes now must provide adequate natural light and meet space standards. Until recently, other permitted right conversions could include no windows and no minimum legal space standard. It seems crazy in 2021 that is seen a win, which shows how far standards have fallen.
A way to avoid blanket conversions without thought for wider ramifications will be to adopt an area as a conservation zone, which we may see a lot more of. Woolwich recently saw a conservation area that does not affect new builds being proposed – though did offer a layer of protection against plans for development facing General Gordon Square at a planning inquiry. Of course that doesn’t help areas that may not possess the status yet are still viable.
What will bring a lot more footfall to High Streets is new housing in and around town centres – and a lot less developers sitting on land for many years. In addition to new development, converted homes on upper floors above shops provide additional custom to retail rather than converting the ground floor alone. This is something seen quite a lot in recent years in Bexleyheath, Woolwich and east Greenwich.
In terms of attempts to prevent building owners kicking out existing business, government state:
“The right also includes a vacancy requirement that will ensure the building changing use has been vacant for 3 months before the date of the application to protect successful businesses in these premises. A size limit will also be included of 1,500 square metres of floorspace being able to change use under the right to focus the right on medium sized high street sites which are more likely to be suitable for conversion.
To prevent gaming, the building must have been in Commercial Business and Service use for two years before benefiting from the right. The right will apply in Conservation Areas, but not in other protected land listed in Article 2(3) of the GPDO (General Permitted Development (Order)) which includes national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).”
Whether that is sufficient remains to be seen.
For all the talk of retail being dead I don’t agree. People want to meet. The nature of what shops and commercial spaces can be evolves, but people are social creatures and the past year has made that all too clear. Meeting friends and family for a coffee or food is desirable, yet it needs to be affordable – to business owners and customers. High rents and rates are major problem pushing up costs – which then impacts custom. That needs addressing.
Of course in some areas the new rules will be ok, but owners could already make changes to housing and often do. It’s not hard to see, and even with the formal planning process many have been done on the cheap and are an eyesore. Today’s measures may make that worse.
In terms of impacting the housing crises, it’s hard to see today’s move doing very much at all. The vast majority of shop units alone couldn’t accommodate many homes. Upper floors could, but not single level shops. It’s more tinkering at the edges rather than substantial action.
Today’s announcement does also include a number of welcome changes. Well, some may be more than others depending on who you speak to, but a lot looks good:
- £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns
- Relaxation of planning rules to allow pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways.
- Planning freedoms to allow outdoor markets, marquees, pop-up summer fairs without the need of a planning application.
- Longer opening hours for retail to give shoppers more flexibility and ease transport pressures
- Extension of provisions for temporary pavement licences to facilitate alfresco dining
A great example of this has been seen in Eltham:
Pound Place, Eltham is now a Streaterie with loads of outdoor tables for an enjoyable coffee, cake, sandwich al fresco. Big thank you to @Royal_Greenwich officers for delivering following our request. pic.twitter.com/UbkLnWdvgs
— Matt Clare (@MattCElthamSth) July 31, 2020
I’ll be keeping an eye out in future to see if shops, restaurants and pubs are in line for conversion – and what impact that may have.