Last week, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced the introduction of new legislation in England to allow Class E (Commercial, Business and Service) uses to be converted to housing without the need to submit a planning application. Government hopes that these new permitted development (“PD”) rights will invigorate the high street following the pandemic, giving life to vacant buildings. We consider some of the key changes proposed and their implications.

The new rights, which come into force from 1 August 2021, will allow any of the uses in Class E to be converted to residential use (Class C3) without the need for planning permission. Instead, this type of change will only require prior approval. Prior approval involves limited consideration by the local planning authority who will take into account (among other things), the noise impact of nearby commercial premises on the potential new residential units, whether all habitable rooms will have adequate natural light, and the impact on the provision of local services of the potential loss of amenities.

Proposals will also be subject to certain requirements. For example, the building in question must have been vacant for three months before the date of the application and cannot contain more than 1,500 square metres of floorspace. The right also only applies to buildings which have been used for at least two years as Class E uses (or its predecessor).

The right will apply in Conservation Areas but not in national parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Any existing Article 4 directions (as at 31 July 2021) which prohibit the change of use of offices to residential without the need for planning permission will remain in place until 31 July 2022.

Extending public service buildings

The announcement also introduced a new “fast track” for extending, erecting or altering public service buildings without the need for planning permission. This right will allow schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and prisons to increase by “up to 25% of the existing footprint of the cumulative buildings on the site or 250 square metres, whichever is greater”. The rationale behind the public service fast track is to enable hospitals and classrooms to quickly expand and adapt to changing needs.

Invigorated high streets? 

Given that Class E has only been in existence itself since 1 September 2020, it is hard to tell how popular these new rights will be. Indeed, many are still grappling with the creation of this new class and what it means for permitted development. In fact, the proposals have already been met with hesitation, with many commentators questioning whether allowing homes into high streets is going to optimise either use. It remains to be seen whether office buildings or gymnasiums can be turned into high quality housing, particularly as there is no requirement to follow local design codes or enter into section 106 agreements to secure essential infrastructure. There is also a fear that town centres, while gaining residential space, will lose key local services like pharmacies and banks. Ultimately, we will have to wait and see whether these new rights will successfully improve vacant premises or lead to a mismatch of sub-standard spaces.