New planning regulations enabling unused commercial buildings to be converted into homes risk damaging the ‘fabric’ of local communities and threatening the prosperity of high streets, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) warns.
The new rules, announced by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick on Wednesday, will support the creation of residential accommodation and give developers the opportunity to find new uses for unused buildings and fully utilise brownfield land. The package also introduces a new fast track for extending public service buildings. New rules permit larger extensions to public facilities such as schools, colleges, universities and hospitals.
The new homes will be delivered through a simpler ‘prior approval’ process instead of a full planning application and will be subject to high standards, to ensure they provide adequate natural light and meet space standards.
In response to the announcement by the the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on Wednesday that the new Permitted Development (PD) right would permit change of use from commercial, business and service uses (Class E) to residential use (C3) in England from 1 August 2021, the RTPI said it could not ‘fathom’ how the Government thinks this change will rejuvenate our high streets.
The Institute also voiced concern that the announcement had been leaked to the press during the parliamentary recess, ahead of publication of the responses to the white paper Planning for the Future and the consultation on the new regulations.
RTPI fears loss of local amenities
Victoria Hills, CEO of the RTPI, fears that the new regulations will be a magnet for unscrupulous landlords and developers who will waste no time in making a ‘quick buck’ from residential conversions. Furthermore, she believes converting a majority of ground floor commercial units into homes will do nothing to improve our high streets.
As high streets have become much more of a focal point for local communities during the pandemic, she is concerned that vital services such as convenience stores, pharmacies and post offices could disappear, reducing local employment and adversely affecting those who can least afford to travel.
While welcoming the flexibility to convert unused space into cafes, restaurants and innovative forms of office space, Hills does not understand why the Government thinks changing ground floor shops into homes is a good idea. In her opinion, it is ironic that the new homes will not be subject to local design codes, just weeks after the Government launched a national design code guidance. This could lead to a vast increase in poor quality homes for the poorest in society, in effect, the next generation of slums.
The RTPI also questions the wisdom of the possible closure of gyms, swimming pools and sports and leisure facilities, also included in Class E, and the consequent effect on people’s physical and mental well-being.
Limitations on size and location of new housing
The RTPI has laid down a series of additional prior approval matters which must be considered if the proposals are implemented. These include: the impact on the provision of essential services; access to amenities such as parks for exercise and outdoor fitness; the provision of fresh air by means of ventilation; and the quality of design.
The Institute has also set out two ‘red lines’ to prevent the creation of large areas of housing converted from warehousing and supermarkets in unsuitable locations such as business and industrial parks. The conditions stipulate that there must be a maximum size limit of 250 sq.m. on such a change of use and the land must have been in retail or office use in December 2020. This is to close a loophole which could result in warehouses and supermarkets being converted to residential use.
Nonetheless, the RTPI supports extensions to hospitals and other healthcare premises which provide services to the public during the Covid pandemic.