The planning system has seen numerous changes in recent months. Some are driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and others by the “Build, Build, Build” agenda announced by Boris Johnson in June which promised the most “radical shake-up“ of the planning system since the Second World War. The government has identified permitted development rights (PDRs) as a key tool for loosening planning controls and delivering development without the need for planning permission. PDRs present opportunities to enhance property values in areas where redevelopment opportunities have been restricted.

Overhauling the high street

On 3 December 2020, the Government announced a consultation on a further relaxation of planning controls to accelerate the pace of change in our high streets, this time by allowing the conversion of new Class E uses to Class C3 residential use without the need for planning permission. This PDR is in addition to the permitted changes of use within the now much broader Class E use class which subsumes the previous Class A1 (Shops), Class A2 (Financial and professional services), Class A3 (Restaurants and cafes), Class B1 (Business) and some D1 (Non-residential institutional) and D2 (Assembly and leisure) uses, which came into effect on 1 September.

As the COVID pandemic has hammered the last nail into the coffin of many household retail names, the number of vacant retail units is set to rise across the country. This latest proposal will provide greater flexibility to allow high street uses including shops, restaurants and cafes, banks, estate agents, nail bars, doctors’ surgeries, crèches and gyms to be converted into residential units without the need for planning permission. A prior approval process will still be required but this will be limited to an assessment of flooding, transport, contamination, impacts of noise from existing premises, adequate light, fire safety and that the residential use is in an appropriate location. Importantly, the proposals do not limit the size of the building that can changed.

This will have major implications for the character of our high streets in the future and reflects the change in shopping habits in recent years which have been reinforced with devastating effect by the pandemic.

However, the proposals also create exciting opportunities for re-using existing buildings and potentially increasing the value of distressed property assets. When dealing with a portfolio of Class E properties, it is therefore important to understand the scope of what can be done under the proposed permitted development rights and what still needs planning permission.

The only way is up (by two storeys)

Regulations came into force on 1 August 2020 to introduce a PDR to allow up to two additional storeys to be constructed on the top floor of existing purpose-built blocks of flats to create new homes subject to prior approval and exclusions and conditions on operation. In addition, the Regulations amend existing PDRs to ensure that the new homes permitted provide adequate natural light for the occupants.

A further PDR came into force on 31 August 2020 to allow existing houses to be extended to provide more living space by constructing additional storeys. It also introduces PDRs to allow the construction of additional storeys on free standing blocks and on buildings in a terrace that are houses or in certain commercial uses, and in mixed uses with an element of housing, to create additional self-contained homes. The new PDRs are subject to prior approval and exclusions and conditions on operation.

So again, there are real opportunities to enhance the value of property assets through the development of additional storeys on top of existing blocks and terraces without the need for planning permission. But be mindful of material planning considerations and property issues. These include issues relating to airspace ownership, rights of light, breach of covenants in existing leases, alterations to common parts, changes to service charge and the right of first refusal and collective enfranchisement pursuant to the Landlord and Tenant Act 1987.

Knock down and rebuild bigger

Also on 31 August 2020 a PDR introduced a new Class ZA into the GDPO 2015 to allow for the demolition of a free standing purpose built block of flats or a single detached building that was used for office, research and development or industrial processes, in either case in existence on 12 March 2020; and its replacement by an individual detached block of flats or a single detached dwelling house within the footprint of the old building.

The PDR is subject to a number of conditions. The old building must have a footprint no larger than 1,000 square metres and be no higher than 18 metres and must have been built before 1990 and have been vacant for at least six months before the date of the application for prior approval. The right provides permission for works for the construction of a new building that can again be up to two storeys higher (in this case than the old building) with a maximum overall height of 18 metres. The PDR is subject to prior approval.

There is more to come…

While the above measures provide immediate changes and opportunities, the Government is also proposing a radical overhaul of the planning system in the consultation papers, Planning for the Future and Changes to the Current Planning System which closed in October. Many of these changes are controversial and may be reviewed again before detailed measures come forward. This is unlikely to be before the summer of 2021.