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[Spotlight] Nick Stafford on property, planning and the changes you need to know

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  • Huda Ahmed

Many of our clients and contacts will be interested when there are property planning announcements in the press and potential changes in policy on the horizon. But unpicking these and understanding whether their assets will benefit can be tricky at times. We have been speaking with Nick Stafford, at Tetra Tech Planning, to understand one particular area of planning, and an opportunity appearing on the horizon to convert a wide range of existing commercial uses to housing, without needing to navigate the full planning system.

The Context

Included in the Queens’ Speech earlier this year was the following reference to planning:

Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward”.

No further detail is known just yet, a forthcoming Planning Bill will provide this, but words such as ‘simplifying’ or ‘streamlining’ the planning system are regularly mentioned, in an effort to deliver more housing.

Whilst we await the detail on that, there are known recent changes to some aspects of planning legislation which have looked to deliver additional housing through the ability to convert some commercial premises to houses, without the need for planning permission. It is an area of planning that commercial property owners, landlords and investors should all be aware of, given the potential additional options that may result, in a sometimes tricky and unfavourable market.

Firstly, the technical bit. In September 2020, a new use class took effect. It wrapped up all uses previously within A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional), A3 (restaurants and cafes), B1 (offices/research and development / industrial processes), and health / medical centres, creches, and nurseries (previously part of D1) and indoor sport/recreation (previously part of D2) within a single-use class.  So, Class E (commercial, business and service) was born.

Some of these classes now part of Class E have benefitted from legislation in the past.  For example, the highest-profile of these being office to residential permitted development that has been in place since 2013.
The Change

However, the existing opportunities are set to be widened. Shortly after Class E was introduced, the Government consulted on the potential expansion of permitted development rights.  And earlier this year it was announced that in August 2021 there will be a change to legislation to bring in a new right called Class MA that will allow the change of use of Class E to Class C3, being residential use, and will not require planning permission.

This will mean a significantly wider range of specific uses will soon have the potential to be converted.  Under-utilised property or property sitting vacant may have a valuable alternative use, and won’t need to jump through the hoops of previous planning applications. It will cover all of the specific Class E uses listed above.

The Prior Approval Process

Though a full planning application won’t be required, it will be necessary to submit an application for prior approval.

This will be assessed by the Local Authority against the following considerations:

  • Transport & highways
  • Contamination
  • Flood risk
  • Noise from surrounding commercial units affecting potential residents
  • Natural light to habitable rooms

If the building is in an area of designated for business use (e.g. a business park or industrial park designated for those uses in a Local Plan), an assessment looking at the impact of the loss of the building will be required. Similarly, if the existing use is a registered nursery or health centre, then an impact assessment is also understandably and quite rightly required.

The Local Authority has 56 days to consider a Prior Approval application.

The Conditions 

There are a few limitations and exclusions:

  • Buildings over 1,500 sq m are excluded
  • Listed buildings are excluded – the rights will apply in conservation areas, although this will limit the potential at ground floor level
  • Does not apply in AONBs, National Parks, and some other similar land use designated areas
  • The space must have been vacant for at least three months prior to application for conversion
  • The space must have been in a Class E use for two years prior to the application

Unlike the previous office to residential rights, new residential units will need to comply with national internal space standards. Community Infrastructure Levy would be payable (where relevant), but development would not incur s106 requirements.

The Next Steps

The changes to permitted development rights are expected to come into force on 1 August 2021 and would be effective immediately. Tetra Tech Planning have offices across the country and are well placed to provide advice on the potential of your existing or potential assets, including on whether you would benefit from these changes. Colleagues would be delighted to assist you.

Nick Stafford is GB Operations Director at Tetra Tech Planning and can be contacted at nick.stafford@tetratech.com or connect on LinkedIn with him here.

Author: Huda Ahmed