Press release

New planning rules will breathe life into rural communities and town centres

Extension of permitted development rights will ensure better use is made of existing buildings.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
A busy high street

New “town centre first” planning rules will cut red tape and make it easier to bring empty and underused buildings back to life, revitalising our high streets and rural towns, Planning Minister Nick Boles announced today.

The recommendations being published for consultation allow local people to transform agricultural buildings or empty premises, which are not in prime retail locations, into much-needed homes, nurseries and free schools.

The proposals reflect the advice of the Portas Review, which recommended more flexibility for change of use, and would help the high street, rural communities and local retailers by increasing footfall and spending.

Removing unnecessary planning burdens and regulations will cut red tape for owners wishing to unlock the potential of empty properties which do not currently have a viable future in their current use. It will also encourage them to revitalise their properties and reduce the chance of less suitable development.

Planning Minister Nick Boles said:

Thousands of empty and underused buildings, often on the edge of town centres, are going to waste because people do not want the hassle and uncertainty of submitting a planning application.

Removing this barrier will bring more people closer to their town centres, providing a much needed boost to local shops and ensuring we make the most of buildings that are already there for new homes, nurseries and schools this country needs.

Extending these permitted development rights on brownfield land will benefit all communities - whether in towns or the countryside.

The new rules would allow conversions from:

  • retail to residential: providing new homes and ensuring better use is made of commercial properties that are no longer economically viable
  • retail to banks and building societies: more branches in the high street and more choice for consumers
  • agricultural to residential: rural communities could benefit from more affordable homes by making better use of barns and other agricultural buildings
  • commercial to nurseries: allowing offices and hotels to convert to become nurseries will help meet the strong demand for more childcare provision to support working parents
  • agricultural to new schools and nurseries: supporting working parents in rural communities by allowing for the provision of new schools and nurseries, meaning families can continue to live in their rural community, and protect the countryside by ensuring previously developed land is used first.

Today’s proposals are part of wide ranging reforms to the planning system, which ministers believe are vital to support economic growth and sustainable development.

Extending permitted development rights will mean a quicker and more responsive planning system and using empty buildings and previously developed land will help boost economic growth while ensuring that green spaces and the countryside are protected.

Further information

The proposals in this consultation strongly support government priorities for making better use of existing buildings, supporting the high street and rural communities; providing new housing; developing more free schools and contributing to the provision of child care for working families. The proposals continue the momentum of our reforms and it is our intention to bring forward the changes, subject to this consultation, for April 2014.

The package covers permitted development rights to allow shops and existing buildings used for agricultural purposes of up to 150 square metres to change to residential use. It proposes a permitted development right to allow retail uses to change to banks and building societies only. It also enables premises used as offices, hotels, residential and non-residential institutions, and leisure and assembly to be able to change use to nurseries providing childcare; and a building used for agricultural purposes of up to 500 square metres to be used as a new state funded school or a nursery providing childcare.

Therefore it is proposed to introduce a national permitted development right for change of use and physical works. This recognises the Portas Review support for more flexibility for change of use on the high street. The scope of the permitted development will be sufficient to provide for the conversion such as new frontage, windows and doors. There will be prior approval in respect of design, the potential impact of the loss of the retail unit on the economic health of the town centre, the need to maintain an adequate provision of essential local services such as post offices, and the potential impact of the change of use on the character of the local area. This will allow the local authority to have regard to their local plan policies for the area. All local authorities are working to put in place an up to date local plan, if they have not already done so. Those local authorities still developing and consulting on plans will need to set out in their plan the primary retail areas and wider retail hierarchy, as required by the National Planning Policy Framework. This will inform an authority’s decision making when subsequently considering a prior-approval application.

While it is our objective that the prior approval criteria should provide local authorities with some discretion, and give a sufficiently robust protection for the main town centre, it should also allow for change of use to proceed in the more marginal locations. As with all prior approvals it will be subject to appeal and can be tested if local authorities are found to be using it unreasonably to prevent change of use. The department established the Future High Streets Task Force to offer advice on how to deliver the high street offer of the future, and we will work with them as part of our consultation exercise on this proposal.

Specifically in framing a new permitted development right for a retail building to change to residential use (C3), with the associated physical development to allow conversion, it is proposed that the right would:

  • apply to A1 (shops) and A2 (financial and professional services)
  • have an upper threshold of 150 square metres
  • allow conversion to a single dwelling house or a maximum of four flats, but not a small House in Multiple Occupation (HMO)
  • enable the external modifications sufficient to allow for the conversion to residential use
  • not apply in article 1(5) land as set out in the General Permitted Development Order (i.e. conservation areas, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Broads and World Heritage sites)
  • be subject to a prior approval for design to ensure that physical development complies with local plan policies on design, material types and outlook
  • be subject to a prior approval allowing account to be taken of the potential impact of its loss on the economic health of the town centre, the need to maintain an adequate provision of essential local services such as post offices, and the potential impact of the change of use on the local character of the area. In order to ensure the policy delivers maximum benefits, we wish this to be a tightly defined prior approval, and would welcome suggestions about specific wording which would achieve that.

We believe local plans that are currently being adopted across the country following the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework will provide appropriate retail and town centre policies against which any prior approval application for a permitted development can be judged in terms of its impact and any necessary mitigation. The proposal also recognises that more substantial conversions will merit consideration of a full planning application.

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Published 6 August 2013