Planning for our future high street

17 Jan 2019

Policy area: Planning

With the closing of MHCLG’s latest planning consultation, our policy officer, Sam Bensted sets out the BPF’s views on the government’s latest proposals to change planning policy to better support high streets.   

For the past 10 months, hardly a week has gone by without a national newspaper headline on high street casualties – but successive governments and policy makers have grappled with the question of how we can revitalise Britain’s high streets over decades. Indeed, the growing challenge is undoubtedly a symptom of this ongoing failure.

Since the 2011 Portas Review, much of the focus has been on facilities management, for instance, by dealing with ‘crime and grime’ on the high street or through the implementation of the many Business Improvement Districts. It has also been an active area for MHCLG in more recent times with a fresh government report on high streets summarising the findings of the High Streets Expert Panel before Christmas as well as further details on the £675 million Future High Streets Fund, originally announced in the Budget. Aside from these efforts, with the revised NPPF now in place, MHCLG have turned their immediate attention to how planning policy can better support Britain’s highstreets with a fresh consultation.

Whilst the consultation is varied in scope, the majority of the proposals flow from the first section which include a range of proposed changes to Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) and the A Class of the Use Classes Order. The inclusion of proposals to further expand PDR is topical with the rights receiving considerable attention within the planning policy sphere in recent times. Its detractors – most recently in the form of the Raynsford Review of Planning - have long made the case that these rights lead to poorer quality development. However, its proponents maintain that PDRs are a necessary tool and that they emerged out of the pressing need to boost housing supply as quickly and effectively as possible pursuant to Ministers’ observations of long-vacant office buildings.

In short, the consultation proposes/ explores:

  • A new PDR to allow existing premises in typical high street uses to change to a wider range of uses
  • Scope for a new use class that would blend A1/2/3 into one use class
  • A new PDR to allow certain buildings to extend upwards
  • The feasibility of a new PDR to allow for the demolition of existing commercial buildings and their redevelopment as residential

From our perspective, MHCLG’s suite of proposals in the consultation are a mixed bag. The new blended use class has the potential to bring great benefit as it gives tenants more flexibility in moving between uses without any planning considerations.

We are also supportive of MHCLG’s ambition on their new proposed PDR to allow for greater change of use between typical high street uses with the exception of the new right to allow hot food takeaway to change to residential use as there is a fundamental question over the quality of development that would be achieved. We also believe that these new rights would be much better facilitated at the local level rather than the one size fits all approach as currently proposed. This is to say a better approach would be to allow Local Authorities (LAs) to elect locally whether to implement a new PDR (as opposed to the current system whereby LAs have to opt out via Article 4 Directions which takes time and resource). Such an approach would allow for flexibility to take into account local circumstances and retail trends and to come to a view on whether the PDR would be beneficial for that particular area.

Finally, it is safe to say that the new proposed PDRs for upward extensions and office demolitions were the proposals within the consultation that were met with the most scepticism. Both rights, in practice, are very complex, and both new PDRs would undoubtedly require an extremely complicated prior approval system. In reality, the process may simply resemble a planning application in all but name.

So, all in all - this latest consultation has prompted a mixed response, it will be interesting to see what the outcome is. Timing could be an interesting consideration in the short term at least – as with other government departments, MHCLG are underway making the necessary departmental arrangements as Britain prepares to leave the EU. Lack of government bandwidth may dictate that we could be waiting many months to see where we go next.