New planning regulations that will enable unused commercial buildings to be changed into homes risk tearing at the fabric of local communities and jeopardising the vibrancy of high streets, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) made an announcement this week about how the new permitted development right (PDR) would allow change of use from commercial, business and service uses (class E) to residential use (C3) in England from 1 August 2021.
But the RTPI said it "couldn’t fathom" how the government thinks this move will reactivate our high streets.
The institute also expressed grave concern that the announcement had been ‘sneaked out” by the press during recess and before responses to the Planning for the Future white paper, or the consultation on the new regulations themselves, have been published.
Chief executive of the RTPI, Victoria Hills, said: “I fear that these new regulations will be a golden gift for unscrupulous landlords and developers who will be falling over themselves to make a quick buck on residential conversions.
“It will do nothing for our high streets if all ground-floor commercial units are turned into homes. Since the pandemic, our high streets have become much more of a focus for local communities so I am deeply concerned that essential local services such as convenience stores, crèches, pharmacies, solicitors and post offices could be wiped out for good, impacting those who can least afford to travel and reducing local employment.
“Whilst we welcome flexibility for uses such as cafés, restaurants and flexible innovative office space, I cannot fathom how the government thinks turning ground-floor shops into homes is in any way a good idea.”
Hills also pointed out the irony of how just weeks after the government launched a national design code guidance, that these homes will not be subject to local design codes. This could lead to a huge increase in poor-quality homes for the poorest in society, she added.
The RTPI also questions the possible impact on physical activity with gyms, swimming pools and sports and leisure facilities also included in class E.
Previously, the RTPI has set out a series of additional prior approval matters that must be considered if the proposals go ahead. These include the impact on the provision of essential services, access to amenities such as parks for outdoor fitness and exercise, the provision of fresh air through ventilation and the quality of design.
The RTPI also sets out two ‘red lines’ to prevent the creation of large areas of residential development in existing warehousing and supermarkets in highly unsuitable locations. These stipulate that there must be a size limit of 250 square metres on such change of use and the land must have been in retail or office use in December 2020. This is to prevent the exploitation of a loophole that could see warehouses and supermarkets ending up in residential use.
The RTPI supports extensions of hospitals and other premises which provide health services to the public during the Covid-19 crisis.