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New Permitted Development Rights (PDR) are problematic
1 April 2021
Yesterday, the Government published its new rules on permitted development rights (PDRs). Earlier this year, we outlined the limitations of the approach it planned to take and the risk it poses to the sustainable futures of our high streets and towns. There is a careful balance to be struck between creating more housing, on the one hand, and not undermining the high street at a critical moment in the capital’s recovery on the other: these proposals stray too far into the latter.
Disappointingly, the Government has pressed ahead nonetheless. Even with the two new tests that will apply on vacancy (whether the unit is empty) and size (1,500 square metres maximum) we remain of the view that this new PDR is problematic. Vacancy rates in centres have risen as a result of the pandemic and where there is genuinely surplus commercial space, especially retail and potentially office, that should be re-purposed. However, this should be planned for through the local plan process, not left to individual landlords. Allowing the market to pepper-pot housing on an ad hoc basis in high streets and town centres that are already struggling risks further diluting their vibrancy and commercial success. It also removes the opportunity to look in a holistic way at what is needed to reboot each area and deliver this accordingly.
There is one positive in the announcement though, and that’s confirmation from MHCLG that any existing Article 4Directions preventing the change of use from offices to residential can continue to have effect until July 2022. This gives local authorities some time to bring in new Directions covering Class E (commercial, business and service uses) where it is deemed necessary. Of course, there is risk to this, if the NPPF changes recently consulted upon are brought in as proposed as they seek to reduce the scope and use of Article 4 Directions. However, as things stand at present, the continuation of existing Directions for twelve months is welcomed.
On the requirement for three months vacancy before a prior approval application can be submitted, our consultation response highlighted that there was significant risk to sustainable businesses who were occupying these units in locations with high residential land values, so we are pleased to hear this test has been introduced. Of course, there remains a real risk that in high value areas there may be nothing to stop landlords forcing tenants to vacate, but hopefully the impact on viable businesses will be reduced to some extent at least.
On the 1,500 square metres maximum size limit, it is right that a size threshold has been introduced, but we would have liked this to have been lower. In our view, the PDR should only apply to conversions that generate nine dwellings or less so that affordable housing and other planning gain obligations can be captured on all major schemes of ten dwellings or more. The Government could have updated the National Planning Policy Framework to provide positive policy support for full applications for change of use from Class E to housing but at least affordable housing and other obligations could be captured.
Whilst last year’s planning white paper included a proposal for PDR schemes to be charged the Infrastructure Levy and for this to also include delivery of affordable housing, there is no certainty on whether this will actually be brought forward or when. It should also be noted that developers’ planning obligations and infrastructure provision more widely (including affordable housing) are fundamental to generating community support for development and, without them, this can have a negative impact on public trust.
Last but not least, we are disappointed that conservation areas have been swept up in this. In our view, and as expressed in our consultation response, they should have been excluded so that planning applications for change of use can have proper regard for their character and heritage interests. We urge the Government to carefully monitor the impact of the proposals announced today and we shall be submitting evidence this month to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in connection with their new inquiry to examine the Government’s approach to PDRs.
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