Reviving high streets through planning reform

January 14, 2019

Changes to the planning system can make it easier for high streets to adapt to prevailing trends in how we live, work and shop.

The Government is currently looking for ideas to revive high streets. Squeezed incomes, the rise of online shopping and the growth of out-of-town retail parks are all factors which have changed the nature, and indeed the point, of high streets. This is a problem across the Western world – one of the first policy programmes of the Macron Government was Action Coeur de Ville: a €5 billion plan to regenerate over 200 town and city centres across France, with new opportunities for retail, work and housing – but there also some national characteristics to our high street malaise.

One of these factors is the restrictions that are placed on how certain buildings on a street can be used. Planning use classes divide England’s land and buildings – planning is a devolved matter so Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems – into certain uses (e.g. shops, offices, residential) that can generally only be changed when planning permission has been granted.

There are many good reasons for the planning use class system. No one would want their next door neighbour to have the automatic right to turn their home into something like a chemical treatment plant. But it is also the case that the system has been a brake on the ability of high streets to adapt to prevailing trends in how we live, work and shop. This is because planning applications take a lot of time and they are unpredictable and expensive. There is also a question of whether a local planning department can say with accuracy why a certain building should be one use instead of another (i.e. is there greater need for an office or a shop?).

Just as exemptions on business rates give charity shops an economic advantage, so does the planning use class system protect certain types of buildings from being used another way. If we want high streets to have relevance to the 21st century, it is right to look again at how parts of the system work. In other words, what sorts of high street premises should be protected, if any at all?

This is a central question of the Government’s consultation on how planning reform can support the high street to adapt and diversify. As well as asking about issues such as whether planning permission should be needed for an existing buildings to be extended upwards if that delivers new homes, they are considering whether it should be easier to change typical high street premises to other uses such as leisure, office or residential. In particular, the Government is asking whether hot food takeaways should be allowed to change to residential use without needing planning permission. This follows from the introduction of permitted development rights – which give the right to change use between certain classes without requiring planning permission – for residential conversions from uses such as offices and shops several years ago.

In Policy Exchange’s response to Government’s consultation, as reported in the Mail on Sunday, we have supported this proposal. It would provide greater flexibility on high streets as they respond to trends in retail and the economy, also delivering more homes in town and city centres where lots of people like to live, while supporting a revival of the sort of mixed-use high streets people love and want. It would also make it easier for hot food takeaways in residential areas to be converted into homes – which are often unpopular with local residents for their smell and noise, and which often stay open late into the night.

Yet, as we write in our response to Government’s consultation, there is an issue that should be met when this policy is implemented and that is build quality. As the creation of the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (inspired by Policy Exchange research) indicates, too much new development is ugly and takes away from the value of an area. It is essential that hot food takeaway premises converted into homes do not follow this same process.

When a premise is converted into a home, this will naturally bring private investment. The owner will spend money on fixtures and fittings and the new home will need to meet expectations of prospective renters or buyers. The premise will also have to meet full building regulations as other new homes must. But there are more safeguards that Government should introduce.

First, proposed developments should have to give regard to nationally described space standards as part of tests for prior approval. Currently homes built via the permitted development route do not need to meet these standards. They have been able to do this because size is not a matter for building regulations, and nor is it one of the tests that local authorities are allowed to consider when a developer applies for prior approval. Critics of the permitted development policy have claimed that this means the whole system should be abolished. But rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the obvious answer to a loophole is to close it.

Secondly, the Government should consider whether matters of design and style should also be tests for prior approval. Rightly there is a concern over the look of homes and streets. One way to raise design quality would be by asking that due regard is given to guidance on the quality of street frontage. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission could make recommendations to this end. The aim must be making it as easy and certain as possible to improve the beauty of the built environment via the permitted development route. Doing that, and providing new homes in mixed-use high streets, will help to make more pleasant places to live, work and shop across the country.

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